Archive: Issue No. 66, February 2003

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Africa at Home

Africa at Home

Courtesy Peter Weiss Collection

Postcards from home
by Sean O'Toole

The use of archival photographic images (especially postcards) in redefining lens-based interpretations of Africa has proven to be remarkably popular with curators. Recently, in 'The Field's Edge: Africa, Diaspora, Lens' (hosted at the USF Contemporary Art Museum in Tampa, Florida), curators Amanda Carlson and Rory Bester presented a selection of historical postcards to complement their exploration of contemporary uses of the camera lens inscribed by, and responding to, the legacy of colonial and ethnographic photography.

'Africa at Home: European Postcards 1890-1950', an exhibition of colonial era ethnographic postcards in the United States is another show to follow this route. Curated by Fatima El-Tayeb, a Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Tennessee, 'Africa at Home' draws from the extensive archive of the Peter Weiss Collection. Consisting of more than 10 000 postcards, published between 1890 and 1950, the Weiss collection is one of the largest collections of its kind.

"Weiss is a private collector, who has gathered thousands of (mostly) European postcards depicting blacks and/or Africa, but has in no way systematised or analysed them," explains El-Tayeb. A group of German (art) historians, including El-Tayeb, are currently digitising and contextualising the roughly 8000 postcards and 2000 additional images (photographs, book covers etc.) in the Weiss collection, in order to make them freely available on the internet.

Asked why she was drawn to the project, El-Tayeb points to the fascination postcards hold as objects of daily use. "Their producers had a broad public in mind, be it in order to influence public opinion, as for example with the propaganda cards printed in Germany during the colonial war against the Herero and Nama in Namibia (1904-1907), or in order to create popular advertising images (the connection of blacks and both chocolate and soap proved very successful all over Europe)," elaborates El-Tayeb.

"Additionally though, the postcards were used by the individuals who bought them. Most of the postcards in the collection are 'used' - they have been written on and sent away. Many texts comment on the images depicted on the cards, allowing a very rare insight into ordinary, early 20th century (usually male) European attitudes towards such issues as colonial wars, the Italian attack on Ethiopia, Jazz, interracial relationships, 'primitive' art, or black Europeans."

The exhibition at the Black Cultural Center in Knoxville showcases a small excerpt of the Weiss Collection, about 60 images, each in two versions: the original postcard and a poster-blow up. The exhibit focuses largely on German postcards produced between 1890 and 1930 (Germany was the world largest producer of postcards in the early 20th century). The images are thematically grouped, each section providing background information both regarding the historical context of the cards' production and (where available) on the artist who created them.

These section groupings include: Selling Blackness (images of Africans in German advertising, 1900-1914); Of The Dumb, Dumb, Negro (what caricatures and 'joke-cards' reveal); These So Called Bearers of Culture (German propaganda against black allied soldiers during WW I); Black Masculinity (ambivalent attitudes towards the sexualised black male body); and Only the Artist Can Understand the Savage (German and French expressionist artists' designs for Jazz concerts, art exhibits, and films).

'Africa at Home' forms part of the Spring 2003 Africa Semester at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. (SEE LISTINGS)

For further information contact Fatima El-Tayeb at

February 1 - April 30

'Africa at Home': European Postcards 1890-1950
The Black Cultural Center Gallery
1800 Melrose Place, Knoxville, Tennessee TN 37996-4200, USA
Tel: 865. 974 7098
Hours: Mon - Thurs, 8 a.m - 7 p.m., Friday 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.