An art enthusiast standing next to a photograph taken by Ghanaian artist James Barnor

Collecting photography: Why the lens plays such an essential role

In collecting terms, we often talk about art collections in general. At an event hosted by YourLuxury Africa and Private Clients by Old Mutual Wealth, YourLuxury Africa editor Ntokozo Maseko moderated a fireside chat centred on the medium of photography. Participants in the chat were curator and founder of Under the Aegis Anelisa Mangcu, photographer Ruth Motau and Capital Art founder Karabo Morule, who makes the case for collecting photography.

A serene scene entitled Bar Beach Victoria Island, Lagos
1999 by Nigerian photographer Akindode Akinbiyi located in Stellenbosch as part of the exhibition curated by Anelisa Mangcu

Inspiration for the conversation

As part of the Stellenbosch Triennale, Anelisa Mangcu was commissioned to curate the Stellenbosch Outdoor Photography Exhibition. The exhibition is shown from June 2023 until March 2024. “Freedom, I Dream up for Myself and Others” features eight large-scale photographs scattered at various locations in Stellebosch and the main arterial road into the town. The featured photographers are Berni Searle (South Africa), Malick Sidibe (Mali), Akinbode Akinbiyi (Nigeria), David Goldblatt (South Africa), James Barnor (Ghana), Calvin Dondo (Zimbabwe), Roger Ballen (South Africa) and Obie Oberholzer (South Africa). 

“The works selected in this exhibition are intended to be more mindful of the subtleties of our dreams and how we view the world. The works are intended to resonate with us all, and with the medium of photography, it does so in its purest form, it does not distort,” says Mangcu in her curatorial statement. 

An iconic image entitled Nuit de Noël (Happy Club), 1963, by Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, located in Stellenbosch as part of the exhibition curated by Anelisa Mangcu

Considerations for curators of photographic works

Mangcu covered her relationship with photography as a medium. She highlighted the immense privilege and trust that a curator has with the artist or the copyright owners when dealing with photography. She emphasised the responsibility we all have as it relates to the care of artworks in this medium, especially when they are reproduced at the size that they were for this particular exhibition to maximise the enjoyment of the works by the audience. 

Mangcu outlined each image, their context and some tidbits about each item’s journey into the exhibition. The curatorial statement expands on this: “This exhibition explores the Masters of Photography who draw inspiration from the African continent. It encourages the audience to foster meaningful dialogue in investigating the archive. The artists have pushed boundaries within the medium of photography and created works that have stood the test of time. Archives are not just windows into the past; they are the authentic creations of individual people who lived before us and still live among us. They are the archaeology that was never buried.”

An art enthusiast standing next to a photograph taken by Ghanaian artist James Barnor and contemplates collecting photography
A collector in front of an image by Ghanaian photographer James Barnor at ART X Lagos 2022, pondering collecting this magnificent photographic work

An artist’s perspective

Next up on the dais was photographer Ruth Motau. Motau’s photography focuses on social documentary influenced by photojournalism and the marginalisation of black people and communities. She was also the first woman to be a photo editor at a South African newspaper.

Motau shared interesting anecdotes about her career as a photographer and photo editor. She deliberates in conceiving the story that the images she captures will tell.

Motau echoed the sentiments shared by Mangcu about the trust entailed in sharing one’s work. She indicated how, sadly, copies shared, especially now in the digital age, can sometimes end up in areas where they are not approved to be.

Motau’s photographs show bravery in her focus to capture moments. She reflected on how she sometimes looks at images she took, especially those in the men’s hostels in the 1980s. Motau remarked how she is often surprised that she would go there. She didn’t think of her safety when seeking to capture the images.

The wisdom shared, and the care Motau displays for her subjects underscores why she is not only a national treasure, but also a collector’s collection dream. She had a myriad of stories, with great depth and complexity, regarding the images she has produced.

Collecting photography

Last to join the discussion was Morule, in her role as a collector and art-entrepreneur.

Morule elaborated on her first exposure to photography – her father taking photographs on his Canon SLR camera as part of a passion but also for his profession. A period of living in London expanded Morule’s exposure to photography, with its access to visual arts museums. Attending a particular exhibition of South African artist Robin Rhode’s work was a pivotal moment. Rhode is known for his multi-panel works that combine photography, performance, wall painting or street art, and drawing.

Morule also highlighted how 24% of her art collection is in photography, a statistic she could only advise of with the benefit of being a Capital Art user. She started collecting photography somewhat accidentally as part of her first foray as a patron with a contribution to the audiovisual work “We Live in Silence” by Kudzanai Chiurai. Morule spoke of the joy of seeing one of the works in a contemporary African photography exhibition at the Tate Modern entitled “A World in Common in October 2023. The ability to record that exhibition as a reference for the artwork as part of her collection management was underscored.

Collecting photography as a patron

On the topic of patronage, Morule shared that she attended a book launch in Lagos during Art Week 2023 of the book “A King’s Passion.” The book covers parts of the collection of the Obi of Onitsha. Onitsha is a city area in south-eastern Nigeria. The current Obi is Stanford-educated and was a corporate executive before His Majesty’s current role. At the book launch, various speakers elaborated on how His Majesty would support artists through residencies and sponsoring their Master’s degrees in Fine Art at various iconic institutions. It makes for a great aspiration regarding the extent to which one’s patronage can go.

Book with title "A King's Passion: A 21st-Century Patron of Africa Art"on a table
The book “A King’s Passion” covers the patronage of His Majesty the Obi of Onitsha in Nigeria. It is an inspiration for any art collector who aspires to be a patron

Morule underscored the importance of collectors performing collection management to support the preservation of the memory of the artists and their work. “It is easy to have your collection expand from 1 work to 10 works to 50 works and have forgotten key details about the first work in the collection, such as from where it was acquired, where the invoice is to record that and also any exhibition material that contextualises the work and provides information on the artist as well,” Morule highlighted.  

Collecting photography for investment

Morule went on to advise of the performance of photography as a medium relative to the global art market. Referencing the Artprice indices, the international art market in Q3 2023 was down 8% for the quarter, contemporary art was down 11% , and photography was up 6% . And for the 1-year performance, the global art market and the medium of photography were down only 1%, while contemporary art was down 27%. All figures are based on USD-denominated indices.

Collecting photography can play an essential role in diversifying a collection by the medium.

“Photography is a tool that never warps or ages.” – Mangcu

All the speakers and the moderator had a real passion for photography and its ability to capture a moment. Photography captures a moment in time, and can be a testimony for future generations. 

Collecting photography – where to start

For readers wanting to start collecting photography, several photographers to check out, aside from those already mentioned in this post, include Seydou Keita, Alf Kumalo, Aida Muluneh, Mohau Modisakeng, Lindokuhle Sobekwa, Laila Adjovi, Mukhail Subotsky, Mario Macilau, Jamal Nxedlana, Jenevieve Aken, Mimi Cherono Ng’ok, Zohra Opoku, Trevor Stuurman and Kelani Abass to name a few. Let us know if you are following any others in the comments.

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