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Contemporary Reconfigurations is the second part of curator Tamar Garb‘s exhibition Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive. The show brings together African and African American artists whose work is engaged with the sometimes beautiful, often haunting ethnographic photographs which are the visual remnants of Europe’s colonial enterprise (see Tumblr and National Geographic for examples).

Some of Pieter Hugo‘s controversial portraits (famously ripped off by Beyonce) are exhibited alongside photographer and activist Zanele Muholi‘s work (above).  Many of these works will be familiar to followers of (that contested category) ‘African art’, but the aim of the exhibition is to  foreground the different ways they unravel, rework, assimilate or poke fun at the tropes of colonial photography.

A number of these works engage with the archive by questioning knowledge derived from the visual, and the medium of photography itself.  Carrie Mae Weems supplements ethnographic photographs with evocative snippets of text  – a gesture that undermines the idea of the photograph as a complete and factual record. Berni Searle‘s video piece Snow White (2001) suggests the inadequacy of  racial categories which, by relying on appearances, efface more complex realities (Searle’s many ethnic and cultural heritages are erased by the blanket term ‘coloured’).

Given the curatorial project, the absence of work by South African photographer Cedric Nunn and artist Wangechi Mutu (the latter cuts up and collages ethnographic National Geographic images) is felt. However the exhibition promises to provide space for a loud, dissonant and exciting conversation among diverse artists.

Click through for more images from the show, which opens Friday, 30th November at the Walther Collection Project Space (528 W 26t Street, Suite 718and runs until March 9th 2013.

Pieter Hugo, Pieter Hugo, Cape Town, from “There’s a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends,” 2011 Courtesy of The Walther Collection

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