Seen from other eyes – colonialism and art from Werner Forman Archive

Werner Forman Archive press release – London – 31 March, 2017.

During the period from the sixteenth century to the twentieth, European powers spread out all over the world, taking control and establishing settlements in the Americas, Australia, and parts of Africa and Asia. This was a very controversial process, still argued about to this day, which included exploitation of goods and resources, slavery, and brutal wars of conquest. Some commentators believe that the input of Western religion, education, technology and political practice was on the whole beneficial, but this is disputed.

The famous Scottish poet Robert Burns once wished we had the power to “see ourselves as others see us!”.

How did the people on the receiving end of colonialism view the sudden appearance of “White Men” in their lands?

Many of the cultures were oral, so we do not have written records. However, depictions of the Westerners was plentiful in art. During his world travels, over eight decades, Werner Forman became fascinated by this interaction, and made a point of recording in his photography the impact Westerners had on societies.

The first wave of modern colonialism came from the Spanish and Portuguese who took Catholicism to South America and returned with gold and silver. Shortly afterwards the French, Dutch and English went outward, the latter two bringing along Protestantism as their creed. Propelled by improving technologies in ships, navigation and map-making, as well as weapons, the Westerners were able to overawe or subdue peoples they met. The objective was to bring home valuable trade goods, like ceramics – china from China, spices from Southeast Asia, resources like cotton, tobacco and gold from the Americas. This led to the “Triangular Trade” – slaves from Africa to America, cotton, sugar and tobacco back to Europe, and manufactured goods exported to Africa, to purchase more slaves…clearly slavery was a terrible tragedy, resulting in the deaths of many human beings, who regrettably were seen as an inferior species, a commodity akin to cattle.

The huge resources of India were a great opportunity for various powers. The British East India Company, depicted above, was virtually a state in itself, with its own army, navy and bureaucracy. The British cleverly exploited divisions between the various kingdoms and local empires that made up India and were able gradually to bring all of it under their dominion.

Later on, other nations as well including Germany and Belgium were involved in the undignified “Scramble for Africa” as they tried to carve out their own colonial empires.

Although China, Japan and other Eastern nations were not outside this process, their distance and culture made them perhaps able to keep the worst at a distance.

Barbara Heller, Director, Werner Forman Archive, says, “These images are fascinating and show how other cultures viewed the Westerners they interacted with. We have many unusual and striking pictures on this subject from all over the world.

You can see a gallery of more pictures here. 

Werner Forman Archive will be at fotofringe in Central London on 27th April

Fotofringe, an important one-day visual media trade fair when picture editors, researchers and authors can visit many photo libraries in one location, will take place on 27th April 2017 at Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9AG from 9.00-17.30. Entry is free.

Please come by to visit the Werner Forman archive at table 24 in the Battlebridge room.

The photos look terrific. It has been a pleasure working with the Werner Forman Archive…” Wheaton Education, USA.

 ©Werner Forman Archive