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May 24 2011

Ulli Beier obituary

Academic, editor and energetic promoter of African culture

The first Conference of Black Artists and Writers in Paris in 1956 proved an epiphany for Ulli Beier, who has died aged 88, igniting his desire to promote the world of black culture. He returned to his university post in Ibadan, Nigeria's third city, and with another German-born scholar, Janheinz Jahn, started the magazine Black Orpheus, based on Jean-Paul Sartre's 1948 manifesto of that name. It became a significant force in the golden cultural decade that followed in Ibadan, and Ulli moved from the study of phonetics to the more adventurous extramural department.

Ulli became one of a team of free-operating teachers who moved out into the countryside. Lalage Bown, who worked there in the early 1960s, says the department was "giving people a chance to develop their own cultural identity".

Ulli and his Austrian-born wife Susanne Wenger went to live first in Ede, and then, in 1960, Oshogbo, about 50 miles north-east of Ibadan. It was a typical Yoruba town attractive to both of them. The Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka wrote: "An assignment roulette in Europe brought them to Nigeria and both promptly 'went native', Susanne not just culturally, but viscerally and spiritually, holding nothing back in herself, and was inducted into the priesthood of the goddess of the Osun river."

Ibadan's burgeoning cultural life gave Ulli full rein to develop his skills as a cultural entrepreneur – his real genius – although he was also a prolific writer and over the course of 50 years produced a plethora of material on African art and literature, including The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry (1963). He was one of the initiators of the Oshogbo school of artists, although Susanne played a key role, and he encouraged a number of artists such as Muraina Oyelami and Twins Seven-Seven. He was also instrumental in bringing to wider attention the Oshogbo theatre troupe of Duro Ladipo, whose work Oba Koso was performed at the Commonwealth arts festival in London in 1965.

The aluminium panel-beater Ashiru, whose works have become treasured collectors' pieces, was discovered by Susanne who, walking one day in the dusty streets of Oshogbo, said a former colleague, "in her high heels, accidentally kicked a little copper lion in the dust, and immediately insisted on finding the creator, who turned out to be a local blacksmith." But if Susanne identified, Ulli promoted.

What struck me when interviewing Ulli was his single-mindedness and his imaginative energy, seen in the way he helped found the Mbari club in Ibadan. Mbari is Igbo for "open space", in this case a venue where new writers and artists could meet and perform their work. Many celebrated names helped launch their careers there. Ulli was not its only founder (as is sometimes claimed), but his entrepreneurial skills helped make it tick. A similar club, Mbari Mbayo – a Yoruba expression for happiness – was formed in Oshogbo.

It may be that Ulli, restlessly questing for the authentic, felt that Oshogbo, now an undoubted success, no longer needed him. He developed a new fascination with the artist who went under the pseudonym of "Middle Art", one of the highly original Igbo sign-painters across the Niger, whose work he collected, representing a deeper authenticity than the Oshogbo school. He also looked to the creativity of the Nsukka school of mainly Igbo artists, based at Nsukka University, to the east.

Thus the arrival of the civil war in 1966-67 was a shattering blow, and although he left before the war, the 1966 massacres and the retreat of the Igbo to their heartland was traumatic for him. He had by now divorced Susanne and married Georgina, an artist who had been in Nigeria since 1959, first of all at the art school in Zaria, to the north, but gravitating in 1963 to join Ulli in Oshogbo, which she described as the beginning of their lifelong partnership.

In 1967 they went together to Papua New Guinea, where there was new territory to conquer. They stayed for four years and began to sow seeds of artistic development in a country whose native genius was more culturally unformed than Nigeria. The jury is still out on how much influence they were able to wield, but there was no doubt that in PNG their contribution to cultural life was greatly appreciated.

But it was never quite Nigeria, and from 1971 to 1974 they went back to the University of Ife, working with Soyinka. Ulli's creative universality and complexity – yearning for both diversity and fusion – caused the critic Keith Botsford to comment: "I've known no other man like him. No single country really deserves him; there is no traditional culture that does not need him."

A native of Glowitz in Mecklenburg, in the old Prussian heartland of Germany, Beier was the son of a doctor with a fine appreciation of the arts. The family were non-practising Jews, and in the mid-1930s they moved to British-ruled Palestine to escape Nazi rule. Although they were interned for a period during the second world war, young Ulli satisfied his thirst for education by pursuing an external degree at London University. After the war he moved to London for a second degree, in phonetics.

Visiting Paris in 1949 he met, was captivated by and married the eccentric Susanne. He had already obtained a teaching position at the newly formed University of Ibadan, where the two of them went in October 1950.

His book In a Colonial University (1993) recounts how he went to Nigeria simply foreseeing "an interesting adventure", as a refugee who had "experienced three different cultures" but had no congenial home. "I did not know who I was, what I wanted from life," but after two years in Nigeria he had begun to find an identity. Reacting negatively to the "colonial posing" he found at the university, he becoming more and more involved in the Yoruba environment around him.

In 1974, Ulli and Georgina returned to the Pacific, living mainly in Australia, although from 1989 to 1997 Ulli was invited by the University of Bayreuth to set up a cultural centre devoted to African art and its global fusion, called Iwalewa Haus (iwalewa being Yoruba for "character is beauty"). The idea of having an African shop-window in the town that is a shrine to Richard Wagner may well have appealed to Ulli's sense of cultural juxtaposition.

Despite his many passionate admirers, he was not without critics in Nigeria, which may have accounted for the refusal of authorities in 2000 to permit him to return to spend his declining years there. This generated a furious debate in Nigerian newspapers, and some of the issues came up at the 80th birthday colloquium held at Iwalewa Haus in 2002, Ulli Beier – a Passion for Difference, a title that epitomised his extraordinary career.

He is survived by Georgina and their sons, Sebastian and Tunji.

• Horst Ulrich Beier, writer and cultural entrepreneur, born 31 May 1922; died 3 April 2011


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June 11 2010

Just a moment

The world's greatest photographer liked to claim that the camera did the work

Of all the inventions of the 20th century, the small, hand-held camera was one of the most important, since it turned photographers into reporters, ready to capture everything else that was new, and, with the corresponding popularity of magazines, made pictures into a form of global communication long before television. From the mid-1920s, when the Leica – the small German camera with a precision lens and roll film that could be gripped in one hand – came on to the market, photographers took up the energetic pursuit of events like dancers swapping the waltz for the jitterbug. When Henri Cartier-Bresson, at 24, bought his first Leica in Marseilles in 1932, he found the instrument that served him for the next 70 years.

The small camera made it easy to capture subjects on the move, but just as crucially, it made it easy for the photographer to adjust his point of view. Anybody who has seen film of Cartier-Bresson at work will understand how important movement was to the making of his pictures. Truman Capote, who went on an assignment with him in 1946, described him as "dancing along the pavement like an agitated dragonfly, three Leicas swinging from straps around his neck, a fourth one hugged to his eye: click-click-click (the camera seems a part of his own body) clicking away with joyous intensity . . . "

Cartier-Bresson's pictures were governed by a feeling for structure and balance that was honed by his early training as a painter. If you watch him talking about his photographs on film, he makes a frequent gesture with the palm of one hand, a down-stroke bisected by a horizontal stroke like a priest making the sign of the cross, to describe the geometry of a perfect shot.

It was a description of what photography meant to him that saddled him with a concept he hadn't chosen, but ever afterwards would have to defend. "The Decisive Moment" was the title of the American edition of his first book, Images à la sauvette (Pictures on the Run), published in 1952. It was a quote from the 17th-century Cardinal de Retz, "Il n'y a rien dans ce monde qui n'ait un moment decisif" ("There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment"). But coupled with the following, it was turned into a creed: "To me," Cartier-Bresson wrote, "photography is the simultaneous recognition, in the fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give the event its proper expression." That didn't mean that he created the moment: just that he happened to be in the right place – where he might have been for some time, with the shot lined up, having taken several frames that didn't work – when it happened.

His life fell four years short of a century. He was born in 1908, the year before Blériot's first flight across the Channel, and died in 2005, by which time air travel had become a chore rather than a miracle. He lived through two world wars, and during the second spent three years as a PoW in German labour camps, from which he escaped in 1943 at his third attempt. He lived through the rise and fall of communism in the Soviet Union, and was the first western photographer allowed into Russia in 1954, after the thaw in relations that followed Stalin's death.

Twenty years later, he went back again, to a place that only looks bleaker and poorer. He was in India in 1948, after partition, and had tea with Gandhi only an hour before he was assassinated: his coverage of the funeral would be one of his first major picture stories. He was in China in 1948-49 as it fell to Mao Zedong, in Cuba in 1963, and on the streets of Paris in 1968. He witnessed the atomic age, the space race, the rise of nuclear weapons and the invention of television. He photographed artists, writers, politicians, actors, from Matisse and Picasso to Marilyn Monroe; John F Kennedy to Che Guevara; Sartre, Bellow and Pound. Yet many of his photographs have nothing to do with famous people or world events. His gift was to find in everyday situations – a child throwing a ball, a man jumping a puddle – serendipitous visual connections that came together to express something of the experience of being alive.

In 1987, Peter Galassi, a young photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, organised an exhibition of Cartier-Bresson's early works. These were the pictures made between 1931 and 1935, in France, Spain and Mexico, when he was under the influence of surrealism and free to travel and photograph whatever he pleased. Now Galassi is chief curator of photography at the museum, and he has organised another, far more comprehensive exhibition, with this large book attached. The emphasis here is on the photographs Cartier-Bresson made after the second world war, when for the next 30 years he travelled back and forth across Europe, the Soviet Union, China, India, Indonesia and to the United States – a country (excluding New York) that he conspicuously disliked – selling his pictures to magazines through Magnum Photos, the agency of which he was a co-founder.

"I became a professional photographer in 1946," he said in an interview in 1979. "Before, I was doing photography but I didn't know what I was going to be doing." Famously, it was his friend Robert Capa who set him straight. He told Cartier-Bresson: "Watch out for labels. They are reassuring. But they're going to stick you with one you won't get rid of: that of a little surrealist photographer. You're going to be lost, you'll become precious and mannered . . . Take the label of photojournalist instead and keep the rest tucked away in your little heart."

As a result of this decision he amassed, without really planning it, an archive of pictures that records an unprecedented period of social, political and technological change. The pictures here are drawn in part from MoMA's collection, but principally from the holdings of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris, which was set up in 2002, three years before his death.

They include familiar classics – the 1945 picture of the woman in the Dessau transit camp denouncing the woman who had betrayed her to the Gestapo; or the famous pastoral of the French working-class family enjoying a riverbank picnic in 1938 – the first year that workers in France were awarded a paid annual holiday – as well as some new images rescued later from his files. But in all the wealth of pictures, I still found myself turning back to his work from the early 30s, which distils the essence of his aesthetic beliefs: the street in Salerno divided by sunshine and shadow; the bullring in Valencia with its echoes of the circle and the bull's eye; the small boy in the street searching the sky for his ball (not in the picture), against a scrubbed wall that looks as if his ecstasy has been etched across it.

As if to underscore the shift, Galassi has chosen a very different kind of picture to open the postwar section of the book. It is a straightforward shot of a woman in Dessau in 1945. She is half-lying across piles of stone and rubble that had once been a street. One arm is drawn up, partially covering her face. The other is held across her body with a bare hand touching the stones. She is weeping, her mouth pulled back in a grimace of despair as she finally loses control of her grief. It's impossible to know whether she was aware of the photographer as he observes her private tragedy. But the picture takes on a much more public role. It is a picture of everything that war takes away: home, city, country, family, self.

The final section of the book is the sort that is becoming de rigueur in such comprehensive surveys of a photographer's work: a forensically researched collection of background material – timelines, magazine layouts showing how the pictures were used, maps of where and when he travelled. As well as reminding us that there was once such a thing as a documentary photo essay that ran uninterrupted for 12 pages, it's a surprise to see Cartier-Bresson's photographs in colour. Sometimes, though, in his listing of picture commissions, Galassi seems almost too keen to give the impression that Cartier-Bresson went scurrying across half the world at the behest of magazines such as Life, Harper's Bazaar, Mademoiselle and Holiday.

For many people, Cartier-Bresson is still the world's most famous photographer, and his kind of picture, the intuitive, formally balanced snapshot that celebrates a moment in life, is the kind that they understand and enjoy. Cartier-Bresson loved to deflate other people's ideas about his genius. So it is with obvious delight that, in one of several films made about him, he tells an interviewer that what is probably his most famous picture – of the man jumping the puddle at the Gare Saint-Lazare in 1932 – was taken by his camera, and not by him, since he could only fit the lens through a gap in the wooden fence, and even if he'd looked through the viewfinder, he couldn't have seen a thing.

Liz Jobey's books include A Photographic History of the 20th Century (Picador). The Cartier-Bresson exhibition at MoMA continues until 28 June.


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May 05 2010

History repeating

This Irish artist recasts history in video installations that draw on everything from Sartre to Playboy – and question our present-day beliefs too

Gerard Byrne's art is riddled with cracks. In his video installations reconstructing events from the recent past, the gaps widen vertiginously between what we see in front of us and what we remember. He starts off with a written document – a story from a top-shelf magazine, a car ad or even a piece of art criticism – anything that dates quickly. Then he restages it with actors, a film crew and a clutch of Brechtian distancing techniques.

Playboy has provided the artist with some juicy material. New Sexual Lifestyles (2002) takes a roundtable interview from 1979, featuring Deep Throat's Linda Lovelace, Screw magazine's editor Al Goldstein and feminist Betty Dodson, and restages it with an Irish cast in contemporary smart/casual office wear. Nonetheless their talk – touching on "the establishment", "swingers" and "leather bars" – clearly dates from another age. Another film, 1984 and Beyond, included in Byrne's Irish pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale, was based on an article where the likes of Arthur C Clarke and Ray Bradbury discussed their vision for the future, from orgasm pills to cheap moon travel. These are comedies of temporal and cultural collisions that work in both directions: are our own present-day assumptions any less volatile than the debates of the free love era?

Born in 1969, Byrne grew up in Dublin at a time when the social changes shaking up the rest of the world were filtered through the Catholic church. He has since become one of Ireland's most celebrated artists, renowned for his kaleidoscopic take on how information is translated and understood. The artistic and intellectual revolutions of earlier generations frequently unravel in Byrne's work. His most recent multiple-screen installation, A thing is a hole in a thing it is not, quotes artist Carl Andre and tackles minimalism's relationship to time. He has also recast the radical work of Beckett and Sartre, cutting them adrift from their historical moment. Rather than lament the good old days, Byrne suggests that things never are how we think about them in the first place.

Why we like him: Byrne's series of photographs begun in 2006, A Country Road. A Tree. Evening., takes its title from the famed stage direction from Waiting For Godot. The dramatic stage-lit images show windswept, blasted trees in the Irish and French countryside – the fruits of his absurd quest to find a real life point-of-origin for an act of imagination.

Doublespeak: Byrne says that he was first switched on to the power of political messages when watching the politician Gerry Adams on the news – at the order of the British government, his voice was controversially dubbed by an actor.

Where can I see him? Gerard Byrne has solo exhibitions at Lismore Castle Arts, Ireland until 30 September and at the Common Guild, Glasgow, until 26 June.


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