The themes explored in Retracing Heinrich Barth (supported by two grants from the Arts Council England, South East and the University of Brighton) and Stories from Agadez connect to my first degree in Anthropology and African Studies. My starting point was to “excavate” anecdotes relating to 19th century explorer Heinrich Barth, which have been presented in the form of an interactive web archive and exhibitions. An online version of Retracing Heinrich Barth and a major solo exhibition in the Brunei Gallery from April to June 2008 at SOAS/University of London, Russell Square explored Barth’s seminal 1857 opus Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa.
Part of the Brunei gallery exhibition featured Heinrich Barth's residence in Agadez in 1850, and his forgotten archive; as well as my journey to the Air Mountains in Northern Niger to visit village elders and record anecdotes relating to Barth's prolonged stay in the Tuareg village of Tintellust. The second part of the exhibition featured a contemporary African community response to Barth's legacy in the form of 8 African, Agadez based non-professional photographers aged 9-60. Niger is at present the second poorest country in the world and has again been in the media due to political tensions related to uranium plants in Northern Niger and a military coup in early 2010. However, the project focuses on achievements and (whilst not ignoring poverty and hardship) hopes to emphasise the strength, resilience and pride of the local population.
I guest-curated this exhibition, which also featured artefacts on loan from the Royal Geographical Society, SOAS special collections, the State archives Hamburg and other private lenders; a speakers series; three weekend art workshops; an extensive education program including an inset session for teachers followed by six education workshops with London-based schools including Connaught School for Girls; Maria Fidelis and St. Paul’s school, and a public conversation with Professor Adrienne Chambon (University of Toronto), all at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS between April and June. An exhibition catalogue and educational materials were designed by Luce Choules.
Retracing Heinrich Barth, retraces the six-year African journey of Nineteenth century explorer Heinrich Barth and records the anecdotes surrounding his prolonged stay in West Africa through film and video in the form of an interactive web archive and photographic exhibition. Anecdotes have been excavated and are presented through photographs, text panes and an interactive DVD archive. An artistic and ethnographic approach has been entwined.
This interactive website follows the German nineteenth century explorer Heinrich Barth’s journey from North to Central Africa and his stay in Agadez in 1850. Central to the site are multiple stories, Barth’s own writings and local community voices, which all explore interpretations of Barth’s influence on present day life in the region. The site addresses cross cultural and postcolonial issues and one of the central questions raised is the tension between reality and fiction: for example, what role do the stories and the existence of the Barth room play in the consciousness of the local population of Agadez? What is the symbolic significance of having this room in a town that he wrote about extensively and got to know so well?
The themes investigated in Retracing Heinrich Barth blur cultural, social and historical boundaries and fit into the overall canon of my own artistic work. They are a development of work previously made on archives and memory and also connect to my first degree in Anthropology and African Studies. Much of my work explores the role of the artist/academic as an archivist of personal, cultural and collective memories about to be lost. One of the second year projects I teach on the Photography BA(Hons) course is entitled: “Experimental Archaeology: within and beyond the archive”. I also run a 'Photographic Journeys' project on the Media Studies BA course.
Barth was a rather exceptional European explorer and was vehemently opposed to the slave trade. Upon his return to London in 1856 he brought with him two travel companions, James Henry Dorugu and Frederick Buxton Abbega (both freed slaves), and possibly the first young men from Northern Niger ever to travel to England. Dorugu stayed for 7 years in Kent before returning to Africa, where he recorded his autobiography, which includes fascinating insights into life as a slave in pre-colonial Africa; the Barth expedition; and his observations on British 19th Century life. I have recently published an essay on Dorugu’s own 19th century travel account for Journeys: the International Journal for Travel and Travel Writing entitled: 'Regards Croisés: James Henry Dorugu’s 19th Century European Travel Account' (Berghahn Journals: Volume 10, Number 2, Winter 2009) pp. 1-30.
Exhibition review by Paul Ryan in Journeys: the International Journal for Travel and Travel Writing, Vol. 10, No. 2, Winter 2009, pp 119-122 Extract:
"In 1850, German explorer, Heinrich Barth, visited the city of Agadez, the largest city in the northern region of Niger. Atypically, Barth was highly critical of the impact of colonialism in the region, particularly in terms of the slave trade. Indeed, his writings demonstrate that it was the experience of ordinary people, ordinary lives, which mattered to him. The people of Agadez and its environs clearly had an impact on Barth; his affection was reciprocated. Since his departure nearly 160 years ago, the room in which he stayed whilst there, as well as his personal artefacts, have been preserved by the local people.
"Artist/photographer Julia Winckler’s project, 'Retracing Heinrich Barth,' attempts to rediscover Barth and his journey. It does this not by simply replicating Barth’s visit, but by recapturing the spirit of Barth’s original journey: to record the everyday experiences of the people of Agadez in the Twenty-first century.
"This is no ordinary photographic exhibition, however. Retracing Heinrich Barth invites the visitor to make their own journey, as the map-like exhibition guide makes clear.
"Walking into the exhibition space, one is confronted by the striking, almost painterly image of His Excellency, the Sultan of Agadez. The Sultan looks impassively to the right, looking beyond the viewer, giving the impression that even if aware of your presence, he would be unlikely to acknowledge it. His white robes lend an ethereal, quality to the image, somewhat at odds with his mundane location; an enclosed, dimly-lit courtyard. He sits on a small, wooden chair, which seems unlikely to support his status, let alone his weight. To his right lies a pile of seemingly random debris: a tied sack, an old cardboard box, pieces of wood, broken machinery. A Sultan without a throne, without a palace and yet undiminished by the lack of such superficial indications of power.
"As with so many travellers arriving in a new location, one now faces a choice; a fork in the road. Do I turn right? Do I turn left? A glance to the Sultan suggests that it would be disrespectful to cross the line of his gaze. Turn left it is, then.
"The next image is of Agadez itself. A wide shot from the vantage point of the central mosque. The city stretches before you, to the horizon and the Sahara beyond. Long shadows and the red hue confirm the splendour of an evening sun. Whilst the Martian colour palette seems strangely monochromatic, Agadez is familiar; not unlike a shrunken, two-storey Manhattan. A few figures in miniature can be seen on the thoroughfares, but too far to be recognisable. It pricks one’s interest and in moments, one finds oneself planning a route through the dusty roads of the city below.
"Moving on from this image, glass-fronted exhibition cases containing Barth’s own diaries and artefacts from his journey. The value and fragility of these objects requires them to be exhibited behind glass, which given the immediacy of the rest of the exhibition, is a shame but understandable. In an ideal world, these exhibits might have been better dispersed, giving more of the sense of Barth’s presence throughout the exhibition. It is at this point of the journey, that one gradually becomes aware of tribal music playing quietly in the background. The effect is of strolling through a quiet district of Agadez, the promise of daily life just around the next corner.
"And around the next corner is the entrance to a room located in the centre of the exhibition space. A room within a room. It is marked by an image taken from inside Barth’s own room in Agadez; a crumbling wooden shutter struggling to contain the force of highly energised light straining through the gaps and imperfections in the wood. This is a 21st century representation of Barth’s room. Interactive software allows the visitor to explore Winckler’s journey and its inspiration in detail. Audio and video footage combine with a range of photographic images to augment the experience as Winckler’s personal narration of her 2005 journey unfolds (available online at www.retracingheinrichbarth.co.uk).
Leaving Barth’s room, and a series of images of his artefacts, the journey takes us away from Agadez itself to the village of Tintellust in the Air mountains, where Barth is rumoured to have buried a treasure chest. Six photographs arranged in two rows of three convey the shift from Agadez. It is quieter here; the sounds of the city fade. The upper row of photographs feature three individual portraits of the village elders. Each sits on the same rock, holding the viewer’s gaze. Around them trees and shrubs emerge out of the familiar reddish earth. Beneath the elders are three photographs of local trees. It is difficult to convey the sense of place that the grouping of these images invokes. Those trees on either side stand alone, and struggle for life; the ravages of wind and drought all too apparent. The central image, however, is of a group of three trees, their separate trunks reaching up to a feathery, singular canopy, providing respite and shelter to anything (or anyone) beneath from this hostile environment for those who wish to shelter; and a symbol of the protection offered to the village by the three elders.
"Stepping back to appreciate the scale of these images, a seventh image appears in the periphery of one’s vision, from the wall behind. Turning to take in this new addition, the wall of the exhibition space fades and in its place, under the benevolent gaze of the village elders, a lone shepherd shelters beneath the canopy of some trees, his goats sheltering nearby.
"Returning to Agadez and the conclusion of the exhibition, one is greeted by a selection of photographs taken by the people of Agadez themselves, part of a community project organised by Winckler. The quality of these photographs vary enormously, but it is refreshing to be offered an authentic, insider’s view of life in the city. These images offer a series of personal, local perspectives on life in Agadez, providing a sense of the ordinary in a way that Winckler’s photographs cannot – and perhaps should not.
"Each of Winckler’s visually arresting photographs is clearly worthy of individual attention. But it is the way in which relationships between these images are established that sets this exhibition apart. Winckler has a very clear understanding of the notion of journey a fact underlined by the way she utilises the exhibition space to emphasise such lucid geographic relationships between her images, invoking a very real sense of place. Part photographic exhibition, part art installation and staged with considerable skill, Retracing Heinrich Barth is an invitation to embark on a journey filled with the sights, the sounds, the smells of Niger.
"And with the cloying Saharan dust still in one’s mouth, the time has finally come to cross the gaze of The Sultan of AgadezFurther coverage includes reviews in various London papers the 24-hour museum (online website); Channel Magazine (March - April 2007, cover and in focus pp 10-11 University of Brighton magazine); Heinrich Barth Kurier, April 2006 “Auf den Spuren von Heinrich Barth in Niger” (pp.22-26).
An exhibition catalogue published for the exhibition with essays by writer Dea Birkett and Prof Adrienne Chambon (University of Toronto).
"Retracing Heinrich Barth is a stunning travelling and virtual exhibition (recently on display at the Brunei Gallery at SOAS) seeking to connect and bridge the citizens of present day Agadez, the historical figure of Heinrich Barth, and Sahelien immigrant communities living in the UK. I highly recommend visiting their site."
"This impressive-looking website aims to detail the life, journeys and explorations of Heinrich Barth. Barth travelled extensively, during the nineteenth-century, in Agadez and Tintellust, Niger, West Africa, on behalf of the British Government and British Foreign Office. Perhaps Barth's greatest contributions to history were his understanding of the impact of European powers on African society, and the pressing need to document day-to-day African culture, and oral and traditional African histories. This website makes use of a recent discovery of a Barth 'museum' in Africa, located in Barth's house in Agadez and containing many of his original possessions. The major section of the website is a flash presentation of the findings at Barth's museum: there is a large collection of photographs, and some films, of life in Agadez, Barth's house and his possessions. The website is very well put together and documents a vital part of African culture, heritage and history."
(Arts & Humanities 5 August 2008)
"An artist and lecturer in photography has launched a new website that investigates the travels of 19th century German explorer Heinrich Barth. Winckler has worked to create an artistic response to Barth’s trip through North and Central Africa in the 1850s alongside an archive exploring his stories and anecdotes. As part of her research she repeated one of Barths’ dramatic expeditions, recording parts of it on film and video."
(Katie Millies 28 February 2007 24-hour museum)