Identities overlap and intersect: no one is defined solely by their race, gender, class or nationality, but rather by a combination of complex factors. This is illustrated to fascinating, wide-ranging effect in Structures of Identity, on show at Foam, Amsterdam, from 29 June. Taking a selection of pieces from the vast archives of the German-American philanthropist and collector Artur Walther (b. 1948), the exhibition explores social expression through portraiture.
A broad cultural approach encompasses images on an expansive chronological and geographical scale. This reflects the scope of the collection itself, the largest of its kind, which holds over 1,400 works and has a particular focus on contemporary Asian and African photography. The present exhibition explores commonalities as well as differences, with threads running throughout relating to the distinction between self-representation and societal views. Drawing on devices used in the genre’s earliest days, such as the depiction of typologies, it explores occasions in which identities both fit into and transgress neat categorisation. Series by August Sander (1876-1964), Richard Avedon (1923-2004) and Accra Shepp (b. 1962) each follow this approach, investigating the multifaceted layers that make up any sort of communal coherence. In so doing they provide a framework through which to begin to question notions of normativity.
The viewer is also encouraged to question particular markers of self-expression, and to interrogate the link between tradition and the individual self. J. D. Ojeikere (1930-2014), for example, documented unique Nigerian hairstyles. The surface-level intricacy and geometry is staggering in itself, but the symbolism of these images, and the complex history embedded in such personal choices, runs much deeper. Elsewhere, sexuality comes under the lens through the visual activism of Zanele Muholi (b. 1972), whose subversive accounts of African myths and realities are rapidly gaining global recognition.
Structures of Identity runs at Foam, Amsterdam, 29 June – 28 August. Find out more here.
1. From Structures of Identity courtesy of www.foam.org.