Africa's Top Models
Foto: Paul Schimweg/Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg

Sat 7. November 2015 – Sun 6. November 2016

Africa’s Top Models

‘Beauty’ – Not a Simple Subject!
Beauty is a subject that engages all people, regardless of age, skin colour, or gender. But what is ‘beautiful’? Many people deplore the ‘beauty tyranny’ of international fashion and cosmetic companies. Indeed, the European ideal, which originated in the aristocracy, has defined the dominant image of physical beauty in many parts of the world for over a century. Especially during the colonial period, Europeans supressed the people of Africa under the appellation ‘blacks’, a term which generally went hand in hand with their characterization and depiction as ‘ugly’. In contrast, particularly in East Africa, certain ethnic groups that approached the European beauty ideal were promoted. ‘Black’ has in the meantime come to be perceived as beautiful in Europe, too, and black models are no longer a rarity on the world’s catwalks. Yet there are independent African beauty ideals, both traditional and modern, that we still know little about. Also, we view the masks and sculptures that reflect these ideals primarily through a Western, colonially conditioned lens. This exhibition seeks to open up an unobstructed view of Africa and its people, from an African vantage point.

The diversity of African cultures reveals itself in the varied notions of beauty that are found on this giant continent. Every region and each of the more than 2,000 ethnic groups holds its own ideals, which are reflected in hairstyles, the adornment or painting of the body, a special gait, and the forms of certain parts of the body – e.g., eyes, mouth, neck, belly, and buttocks. Although Africa has long been part of the international fashion and beauty industry, beauty ideals native to the continent persist alongside this. With the aid of traditional masks and sculptures, these can often be traced back over centuries.
Some of these ideals, such as the special emphasis on the buttocks and the use of clothing to accentuate them, are asserting themselves more and more as ‘beautiful’ in Western society, too (think Kim Kardashian), as are the fascinating variety of African hairstyles. Even the filing of the front teeth to a point, decorative scars, or certain tattoos – rather outlandish beauty features in our eyes – are now being copied in various subcultures.

Exil Presse 150c
Foto: Antoine Wagner
Rheinquelle # 3, 2013

until 7 | 2 | 2016
Exile. Photographs by Antoine Wagner

Mountain landscapes. Barren, rugged, inhospitable. Shrouded in mist and clouds that reveal only fragmentary views. They were photographed by Antoine Wagner during his wanderings in the footsteps of his great-great-grandfather, Richard Wagner, who often explored these mountains during his period of exile in Switzerland from 1849 to 1858.

A stream in its rocky bed, black crags with white veins of snow. An intimation of arduous journeys. Open expanses remain a promise unfulfilled, the view into the promised land barred. Only rarely does hazily hopeful light penetrate the clouds. White swans drift by on the water. Soul-birds – heralds of light, purity, perfection.

Face-landscapes. Portraits of artists who experience the condition of exile, far away from their homelands, either by choice or compelled by threat. Images that show the seismographic sensitivity that resides in every artist. Wagner’s subjects look into the camera as if into a mirror. Undissembling faces, earnest, in a moment introspection, cognizant of many uncertainties. Direct gazes posing uncomfortable questions.

Landscapes and faces. Wagner places them adjacently in pairs. The large panoramas are cut out of nature, reduced, framed, made comprehensible. Next to them, the life-sized faces of the expatriates, who in their quest for new happiness in life have to conquer mountain ranges in their own minds and souls. Faces of people between cultures. Cast loose from their homelands, they have become vulnerable. Yet also strong, for they have set out on the journey.

Those who go into exile lose something – and gain something as well. “In the best case,” says Antoine Wagner, “this gives rise to a force that creates something new in both cultures.”

Exhibition management and general ethnology

Dr. Carl Triesch
phone: 040. 428 879 674
c.triesch@mvhamburg.de