Paris, passion and curiosity

The annual Paris Photo Fair was held over four days in the French capital last week. Housed in the historic Grand Palais des Champs-Elysées, the 15th edition of the event included 117 galleries from 24 ­countries, ­featuring the best of 19th-century, modern and contemporary ­photography.

This year the spotlight fell on ­African photographers, celebrated by the inclusion of the impressive Walther Collection and a showcase of 12 emerging African photographers curated by the artistic ­directors of the Mali photographic biennale, Rencontres de Bamako.

The Walther Collection, which was presented under the fair’s private-collection exhibition banner, paid homage to the passion and curiosity of its German patron, the 63-year-old Artur Walther. The collection is arguably one of the most significant bodies of African photo and video artwork in the world. A former Goldman Sachs partner who became a collector, patron and photo ­authority, Walther believes that “[African photography and video] is underlooked, under-researched, underdiscussed, undershown and underappreciated in the context of all other photography”.

After retiring from his career on Wall Street, Walther built the ­foundations of his collection with Chinese photographic work. Then he discovered what he calls the “convincing work” of African ­photographers with the help of ­curator Okwui Enwezor.

Taxonomy and seriality are large themes in Walther’s collection: take, for example, Nigerian JD Okhai Ojeikere’s untitled collection of African braids (1974) or the portrait work of Malian photographer Seydou Keïta (1952-1955).

History and memory
With an informed perspective on territory and identity Walther ­created a body of work now housed in a museum in his birthplace of Neu-Ulm in Germany and the Walther Collection Project Space in New York. The most recent ­exhibition opened on June 16. Titled Appropriated Landscapes, the show deals with the effects of war, ­memory, energy, architecture and migration on the landscapes of Southern Africa.

Walther’s collection features works by Jo Ractliffe, Santu Mofokeng, Zanele Muholi, Berni Searle, Malick Sidibé, Guy Tillim, Hentie van der Merwe, Nontsikelelo Veleko and others.

Walther’s presence at the fair magnified the organisers’ intentions behind an African spotlight. ­

During a presentation at Paris ­Platform, the fair’s space for ­creating ­dialogue about photography, Walther said: “There are regions we have either never looked at or looked at in a very strange way, or are now only ­starting to look at … We are looking away from geography and we are ­looking at contexts. And we are putting these [African] artists in a different ­context.”

Walther suggested an important tipping point for African photography outside of its regional context and the frequent mentioning of African photographers’ names at the fair supported the idea, if only anecdotally. Marked by their absence, there were no African galleries at Paris Photo apart from the four major South African exhibitors.

The Bamako showcase, which featured South Africans Hussain and Hasan Essop and the often-referenced Muholi, was sadly hamstrung by an underwhelming presentation and positioning at the fair.

The four South African ­galleries included Bailey Seippel, which ­featured the works of Cedric Nunn (FNB art prize-winner at the Joburg Art Fair) Bob Gosani, Ranjith Kally, GR Naidoo, Sam Nzima, some unknown Drum photographers and Paul ­Weinberg.

Gallery Momo from Johannesburg highlighted the work of Ayana V Jackson alongside Sammy Baloji, Patricia Driscoll, Alf Kumalo, ­Rodney Place, Mary Sibande and Andrew Tshabangu.

The Goodman Gallery showed the entire In Boksburg series by David Goldblatt as well as work from Mikhael Subotsky, Jodi Bieber and Nontsikelelo Veleko, and the Stevenson Gallery dominated the entrance traffic to the fair, showing Pieter Hugo’s Permanent Error series alongside work by Viviane Sassen.

The current fixation on archives took shape across the fair, most notably at the Daniel Blau exhibit featuring a collection titled One Giant Leap: Rare Nasa photographs, 1965-1981.
This sublime photo collection included, among others, the first photo of Earth seen from the lunar orbit (1966) and at a distance of 362?000km (1967).

Pictures by the book
Although Paris Photo is already a massive event just with the gallery component, this year it also included a book exhibition space for ­publishers and specialist booksellers. Here book signings were held alongside rare and limited-edition book sales and a book exhibition of Ed van der Elsken’s 1956 title, Love on the Left Bank.

Chantal Pontbriand, former head of exhibition research and development at the Tate Modern and a prominent art critic and ­curator, edited the official Paris Photo book, Mutations: Perspectives on ­Photography. In it Pontbriand crafts a ­notable ­compendium of text and photo essays from well-known ­sociologists, collectors and critics. Under the themes of geography, technology, society-media and the body, she navigates the concept of mutations in modern photography.

In this context she acknowledges the influence of the internet, computer science and even artificial intelligence on the art form. What Pontbriand calls “the new reality of the image” was reflected ­throughout Paris Photo — it suggested the changing conventions of photography. She hints at a transformation point and new horizons for ­photography where the “phenomena of production and reception are mixed, turned upside down, even inverted”.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Review: ‘Ikhaya Likamoya’ by Sethembiso Zulu — Ties that bind us all

Multimedia journalist and healer Sethembiso Zulu’s debut solo show embraces a fierce, raw and broken timelessness that encapsulates what it means to be human

Extractive histories and a waste-laden present: On Sammy Baloji’s Essay on Urban Planning

Congolese photographer Sammy Baloji’s Essay on Urban Planning interrogates the links between colonialism, extractive practices and environmental catastrophes in Urban Africa

George Hallett: Nomad, raconteur and photographer who ‘became the camera’

The renowned South African photographer understood how to look for the tucked-away spaces that were the sources of both light and dark

The Portfolio: Puleng Mongale

The artist is drawn to collage because it allows her to be as complex and layered as she wants to be

Why we need a South African jazz photography archive

We need more books about South African jazz, focusing on both the verbal and the visual, to fully capture and appreciate the unique ‘river of culture we’ve been bequeathed’

The Portfolio: ByLwansta

Hip-hop artist ByLwansta adopts a multidisciplinary approach to story-telling by making use of visual cues to reinforce the ideas that he puts forward sonically

Shongweni stink: EnviroServ bosses back in court

Managers charged over landfill emissions want charges set aside

Jailed journalist a symbol of a disillusioned Zimbabwe

Hopewell Chin’ono backed President Emmerson Mnangagwa when he succeeded Robert Mugabe. Now he’s in jail

Covid-19 a ‘catalyst for closing the pay gap’

Executive directors earn 66 times the national minimum wage and are overwhelmingly white, a report by assurance, advisory and tax services company PwC has found

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday