Diesel and Dust photographic exhibition: Walkabout with Obie Oberholzer

A couple of days ago, a friend forwarded me an invitation she had received from the Friends of the South African National Gallery to attend a walkabout with Obie Oberholzer at his exhibition Diesel and Dust. She wasn’t able to attend, but she urged me to go.

I didn’t know anything about him, so I read up a little:

“Oberholzer is an avid storyteller, fond of dispensing profound statements and dazzling images of his colourful journeys all across Africa. He is the Wyatt Earp of the photographic world, always traveling alone, always taking with him a stirring collection of vibrant memories of the unknown, remote places that we usually don’t ever get to see.

His latest solo exhibition, Diesel & Dust, curated by Heidi Erdmann and Karen Grunwald, is long awaited and also signals the end of analogue. After several decades of hand-printing all his photographs, Oberholzer has finally dismantled his darkroom at the beginning of 2009.” (Quote from Represent.co.za)

So, before 11am on Thursday, 4 June, I headed to The Photographers Gallery at 63 Shortmarket Street. The ground floor of the gallery, central pillars holding up a mezzanine level above us, was the main exhibition space. Large photographs had been arranged all along the walls of the lower level. I strolled around, pausing in front of each photograph to let the impressions sink into me.

Honestly, I was in awe.

How had he managed to persuade all these people to pose for him? Did he wait for their expressions to be just right for the story he wanted to tell? How did he capture those extraordinary colours – or did he create them afterwards? How long had he waited to get the light just right? How long had it taken him to assemble just the right elements in those landscapes? And how on earth did he know what would work? I’d read that he didn’t use a digital camera but a film camera – how many thousands of rolls of film did he discard if his experiments hadn’t quite worked out? How many shots did he have to take of the ‘same’ scene before he got it right?

As I strolled around, visitors continued to arrive. It was already after 11h00, and people were still coming in through the door (yes, Africa time – but how rude, in the presence of such an artist).



Finally, Obie, introduced briefly by Heidi Erdmann, began his talk. He started off by saying that he had never, in all his years of exhibiting both in South Africa and overseas, done a walkabout of his photographs. Clearly, it was a real privilege to be here and to listen to him talk about his photos.

He told us that he always travelled on his own, just him and his double-cab bakkie, which he had converted so that it had a bed for him to sleep, and a fridge (to keep the films – and the beers – cool). He said that he didn’t sleep in camping sites, but in fact often slept in graveyards, because it was safer there and because they were spiritual places. He told us the alarming story of how he had once slept in an open grave because the wind was so strong that it was the only shelter he could find. With the hyenas yipping and calling nearby, and the wind howling through the trees, it had been a very restless night.

He revealed to us the secrets of how he had taken some of his photos (I got them from here).

The photo below was a perfect example, he said, of how he manipulated reality to create a stunning image. Silvia isn’t really carrying a baby – those are two pillows stuffed into a blanket, which she’s tied around her waist. There’s a whole lot of lights set up out of the frame on the right. They had piled a huge amount of stuff into the yellow plastic basin that she carried on her head. He’d persuaded Basil the farmer to move his obliging ox into position, and it took some time to get the ox to look in the right direction at the right moment.

Basil's tame ox watching Silvia

Basil's tame ox watching Silvia

When he arrived in a new place, he would walk into the nearest bar, slam down his fist on the bar counter, and say, mimicking the cowboys in the old Westerns, “A whiskey for me, and fresh horses for my men.” It usually got a laugh and made him the centre of attention. Then he’d strike up a conversation with whoever happened to be in the bar at the time, and have a couple of beers, and ‘shoot the breeze’ until everyone was relaxed and friendly. Meanwhile, he’d be taking in his surroundings, and finally he’d whip out his camera and say, “Hey, do you mind if I take a photo of you?” In this case, the barman was German, and because Obie spoke fluent German too, they got on really well.

German barman with St Bernard

German barman with St Bernard

He was travelling through the Kaokoland of northern Namibia, when he saw this bottle store. Two Himba women were sitting on the ground, doing nothing, surrounded by crates of beer. And the one guy standing had drunk one bottle after another, and he was just standing there, swaying backwards and forwards, very drunk. He said the story he wanted to tell with this photograph was how alcoholism was busy destroying the lives and traditions of the Himba, who are a proud and independent people in Namibia.

Himba in bottlestore

Himba in bottlestore

While he was at Lake Malawi, he found himself two young assistants, who wanted to earn a bit of money, so he got them to shlep all his equipment around – tripod, lights, bags, etc. He set up the boats and the net, and then told the two boys where to stand and they had a great time posing for him.

Pink - boys and boats

Pink - boys and boats

On his travels through Tanzania, he often came across these tearooms in the middle of nowhere. This couple in Tanzania didn’t have anything, little money, not much food, but they waited all day for travellers to come by and to stop for a cup of tea and to talk to them and to tell them where they’d been and what they’d seen along the way.

Tearoom in Tanzania

Tearoom in Tanzania

He’d been approached by Tanzanian Breweries to shoot photos for their advertising campaign. Their slogan was that they would deliver their beer to everywhere and anywhere in the country, even to the most isolated and lonely homesteads in the most inhospitable terrain. The best part of this exhausting photoshoot, he admitted, was the free beer. Lots of it! Everytime they got a good photo, they’d celebrate. 🙂

Tanzanian Brewery advertising campaign

Tanzanian Brewery advertising campaign

He was driving through Lesotho, when he looked up towards the mountains, and saw these two men on horseback transporting two coffins. He stopped them and asked where they were going. They explained that they were taking the coffins to their village, because two young men had died of AIDS. Apparently, many young men in the villages were dying of AIDS.

Coffins in Lesotho

Coffins in Lesotho

After Nelson Mandela was freed and at the time of the first democratic elections in South Africa, Obie pinched one of the election posters with Madiba’s face on it. He took it with him on his trip from Cape Town to Cairo, which he wrote about in Beyond Bagamoyo (1996), and when he finally reached Cairo, he let the poster float away on the Mediterranean. He said that Nelson had brought him luck along the long and sometimes very difficult road.

Thabo Mbeki's election poster

Thabo Mbeki's election poster

In 2001, he pinched another election poster, this time of Thabo Mbeki, and it travelled all over South Africa with him, sometimes on the front seat next to him, so that Thabo could also enjoy the view. One day, he hung the poster up against this wall, and said, “Hey Thabo, you still have much to do. No stairs to heaven yet.”

“My photos are a record of my life journeying trough Africa. I travel not to get somewhere in specific; instead I meander and drive for the mere love of moving through slowly changing people and landscapes. I love getting involved in the happy and sad essence of the vast South African lands. There is a haphazard unpredictability that runs through all these different areas. My stories are about the somewhat strange, the odd, the trivial and the funny.” (Quote from Amstel Gallery)

And that is exactly what came out so strongly in both his photos and his walkabout. He was full of stories.


Biographical stuff

Some biographical facts (from Wikipedia and SA History):

Obie Oberholzer’s full names are Petrus Cornelius Jacobus Oberholzer. He was born on a farm near Pretoria in 1947. After finishing his schooling at Clapham High School in Pretoria, he studied graphic design at Stellenbosch University (late 1960s), where he otained a Diploma in Graphic Design. Thereafter, he spent a few years in Munich, Germany, at the Bavarian State Institute of Photography, where he obtained a German National Diploma in Photography in 1972. This Institute was Germany’s first photographic school, having been established in 1900. He received his Masters in Photography in Germany in 1979. He worked for the Deutsche Condor Film as a commercial photographer, and as a lecturer at the Natal Technikon from 1975 to 1983. He took up a teaching position in 1984 in the Fine Art Department, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, where he eventually became Professor of Photography. He retired in 2002. He has held 25 solo exhibitions in South Africa and four international solo exhibitions abroad. His work has been published both locally and overseas.


His books

He has travelled all over Africa with his camera, and publishing his photographs and stories in numerous coffee table books. They include (Google Books Search):

  • Ariesfontein to Zuurfontein : A Pictorial Journey (1988)
  • Southern Circle : Another Pictorial Journey (1989)
  • To Hell n Gone (1991)
  • Neapel, Capri, Ischia (1993)
  • Beyond Bagamoyo: A Journey from Cape to Cairo (1996) (Google Books limited preview)
  • The Hotazel Years (2002) (Google Books limited preview) (and you can read the introduction by Denis Beckett)
  • Raconteur Road: Shots into Africa (2000) (Google Books limited preview)
  • Round the Bend: Travels Around Southern Africa (2006) (Google Books limited preview)
  • Long Ago Way: In the Footsteps of Alphons Hustinx (2008)


Video clip

I came across this online video clip of Obie, dating back to 2008. Many of the points he makes in that video clip are the things he also spoke about on his walkabout.


Report on Carte Blanche

In August 2008, Carte Blanche on MNET did a piece about his most recent book (Long Ago Way: In the Footsteps of Alphons Hustinx). I’m going to quote the transcript here in full, in case it disappears off MNET’s site:

“This is a story about two men, on one journey, 72 years apart.

The first man is Alphons Hustinx. He was a Dutch photojournalist who set sail for southern Africa in 1934: A journey that took nearly 3 weeks in those days. He arrived in Cape Town armed with a 35mm film camera and a love of travel.

Obie Oberholzer (Photographer): “He was really quite a famous photojournalist. He travelled the world, including his Africa trip. This guy just looked exactly like Tin Tin; the socks and pith helmet.”

The second man is Obie Oberholzer, one of South Africa’s best photographers who is not only well known for his eccentricity, but also his immense visual artistry.

Obie: “The first picture I took is when my mother, an avid traveller, took me to Pisa. And I looked through this camera, and I put the tower of Pisa straight, and all the other buildings falling over…that’s when I knew there is something.”

Hustinx spent seven months on the continent. In black and white film, he captured unique historical photos and moving footage of southern African places, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Victoria Falls. His 2-hour travel documentary called the “Seven Wonders of southern Africa” was shown extensively in the Netherlands during the Second World War till 1944. Hustinx then had to hide from the Germans for several months. By that stage the film had gradually fallen to pieces, due to wear and tear, and was discarded in the attic of his home for over 60 years.

Bongani Bingwa (Carte Blanche presenter): “It was a Dutch publisher who unearthed the film that Hustinx had made on the ‘Seven Wonders of southern Africa’ and approached Oberholzer to retrace his footsteps over 70 years later.”

The publisher spliced the film together again and it was all digitally remastered. The footage reveals a very different South Africa.

Obie: “72 years later does not sound a lot, but 72 years in South Africa is a long time because a lot has happened from the ’30s to the 21st century.”

No stranger to dusty roads and isolated stretches of veld, Obie set off alone in his bakkie for a two month journey, to match Hustinx’s photographs with contemporary counterparts.

When Hustinx arrived in the Cape, the country was in the midst of a crippling depression and racial tension was escalating.

Used to travelling wherever the wind or a whim took him, Obie had to adjust to following Hustinx’ prescribed journey.

Bongani: “There are obvious differences between their visual styles. Hustinx shot in black and white and Obie is renowned for his vibrant colours. But there is a synergy between the two, both decided to follow the road less travelled.

Bongani: “What was it about him that appealed to you?”

Obie: “I think that he was fascinated by this Africa. He photographed from the window, these swarms of locusts. To him it must have been fascinating that the sky darkened – to see these locusts. Or the Zimbabwe ruins. One can’t understand. We understand Zimbabwe ruins, but for a European to see these ancient buildings, the size measurement – it’s fascinating. He was in awe of his surroundings – its greatness, its vastness. I still cannot photograph the Victoria Falls. How do you photograph the Victoria Falls? It’s just too big, too vast. He was interested in reflecting people in places, where the landscapes still reflect in people’s faces. That would interest me, and I think it was the same for him.”

Although Alphons Hustinx died over 50 years ago, Obie often chatted to the spirit of “Al”, as he called him, while driving around the country… and updating him on the changes that have happened in South Africa.

Obie: “Freedom is coming to a T-junction and stopping and say, ‘Hmmm…well, I think I’ll go left’.”

Hustinx was a traditionalist and as a foreigner, largely interested in the tourist spots, Obie on the other hand revels in the humour and unpredictability of our country. He loves ‘real’ people like the whites who are farmers in the Eastern Cape. Their isolated Georgian House, which was built in about 1840 as a testimony to all that is British, stands miles and miles from any city in wide open scrub land.

Obie: “You would struggle to do the same in the USA or in Germany – you get blocked. And here it is still so free.”

Bongani: “For 32 years, Obie Oberholzer has travelled the dusty roads of Africa. He has published eight books of his travels with humorous titles like, ‘To Hell and Gone,’ and ‘Round the Bend’. It was perhaps his first book cover with Ouma Roos Cloete that made his pictures recognisable across South Africa.”

Ouma Roos Cloete with her “pienk kappie,” lived far off the beaten track in Namaqualand. Her captivating photograph was the front cover of Obie’s first book.

Obie: “And one day I find myself into Eksteenfontein again, and there she was, sitting on her stoep. The same kappie – that’s three, four years later. And I said, ‘Hallo Ouma,’ and she said, ‘Here’s coffee.’ And we chatted about life in Eksteenfontein, and I took another picture of her holding the book.”

Obie used her expressive face on three of his book covers. He recently went back to give her the last photograph. But she was not sitting on her stoep in the “pienk kappie”, when he pulled into town.

Obie: “The last time, after 12 years, I drove back with a print of her holding these many books, and I got this feeling that she was passed on. [They told me that] she’s in the graveyard. And then I went to the graveyard and I found her grave amongst the plastic flowers in those round, funny things that sort of crack. And I left her the picture there, on her grave and I said, ‘Rest in peace Ouma Roos Cloete’.”

Through Obie’s offbeat pictorial journey, the contrasts are apparent – changes in transport, technology, industrialisation and urbanisation. But for him the most apparent and profound difference is democracy.

Obie: “But I think that change, when Nelson came down from heaven via Robben Island, and called us all rainbows, that was the biggest shift for me.”

The book “Long Ago Way” is a culmination of Obie’s journey with Hustinx. He believes that we so often want to see the sights overseas without ever exploring the richness and texture within our own borders.

Obie: “They haven’t travelled to the Richtersveld or to Hot as Hell or Grootswartwitpensbokfonteinberg.”

Obie [Toasts to the moon]: “Cheers Alfons.”

Obie: “I try make people aware of how beautiful and how different and how contrasting our country is.”

And that last sentence encapsulates perfectly what all his photographs convey. What an extraordinary photographer! If you have an opportunity to go to this exhibition, go!!

3 thoughts on “Diesel and Dust photographic exhibition: Walkabout with Obie Oberholzer

  1. What a well written post! I enjoyed reading every word 🙂 Thank you.

    The photo from Malawi of the boys with the boats and pink fish nets is my favorite. His photos seem like a starting point for creating a rich dialogue about people. What an amazing place Africa must be.

    • Aw, you’re very welcome! I also loved that picture, perhaps because of the eye-catching pink!

      And yes, Africa IS an amazing place… Sadly, I have only seen a tiny fraction of it so far.

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