New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 21 May 14 to 20, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Colonial Perspectives

Distance and Desire Encounters with the African Archive Part III: Poetics and Politics
Christopher Stromee

Photo by Smart & Copley . Source:
Smart & Copley, "Portrait of King Khama III".

Subtly altering or contradicting my preconceptions about relations between native residents and European imperialists (first the Dutch then the British) this archival show of black South African portraits at the Walther Collection was a welcome surprise. Interesting both aesthetically and sociologically as a record of late Victorian times, (the lighting, composition and overall framing generally quite skillful) its subjects, almost always looking directly at the camera, are depicted respectfully, with dignity, intelligence, and poise. In fact, some of the photographs were actually commissioned by the subjects themselves. Still, the main purpose of most of these postcard-sized images, almost all albumin prints, was to present in pseudo-anthropological fashion, non-European cultural types.

While there is a smattering of work from Zimbabwe and its neighbors, most are from South Africa. Wall texts document the photographer or studio, often known, and the periods and countries in which they were active. The viewer gleans much about the historical context, such as the presence of an urban black society with an emergent black middle class, and that many black residents routinely alternated tribal and western attire.

Photo by Unidentified Photographer . Source:
Unidentified Photographer, "A Bushman said to be a hundred years old" Late 1800’s.

A photograph inscribed “A bushman said to be a hundred years old” exemplifies the aesthetic and documentary qualities of so many of these images. A man in uniform holds a rifle across his body, muzzle pointed up to the left at a diagonal. A strap falls across his shoulder at the same angle. The jutting muzzle and hat partially seen on the table below are balanced by the jutting elbow and mass of the butt to the right. The man’s expression is focused but relaxed. A whitish background turning darker at the top guides the eye towards the subject.

Photo by A. James Gribble . Source:
A. James Gribble, "Inscribed: Kaffer woman" c. 1880.

Kaffer Woman”, a bust portrait that was probably commissioned, shows the subject in a high-necked striped dress. Here the ambiguous textured background sets off the figure in a flattering way, artfully mixing light and dark. As in most of the images of individuals, the forehead, cheekbone and nose are highlighted on one side and left in shade on the other, except for the reflecting white in her eye, thus revealing the natural curvature of the face. A similar lighting treatment is given to the bare-armed “Korunna Girl S. Africa”. She stands at a three quarter angle to the camera, with a slightly petulant expression, this time against a darkened ground.

Photo by Unidentified Photographer . Source:
Unidentified Photographer, "Bushwoman 100 Years old" late 1800’s.
Each image is interesting in its own way. In “Bushwoman 100 Years Old”, an aged woman completely covered in a blouse and skirt sits calmly with legs crossed and arms on her lap against a backdrop of painted hills. The seated figure in “Native Police” looks pensively to the left. He holds a thin policeman’s club upward across his chest. The horizontal wooden strips of the bench’s seat and back, which read as white, are juxtaposed with the darker blurred vertical elements above, behind the figure.

With such a variety of subjects and poses, backgrounds and lighting, as well as thoughtful wall texts to absorb, I spent longer than planned at the Walther to explore these images of an unexpectedly complex colonial society.

Distance and Desire Encounters with the African Archive Part III: Poetics and Politics

The Walther Collection Project Space NY
526 W 26th St. 7th Fl
Chelsea         Map

212 352 0683

Friday, March 22 to
Saturday, May 18, 2013
Hours: Thurs-Sat. 12 to 6

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat