Project Background

This project explores the sojourn in Agadez and Tintellust, Niger, West Africa, of the 19th century German explorer Heinrich Barth and records the myths surrounding his stay on film and video in the form of an interactive web archive and photographic exhibition. It draws on anthropological and historical research and records of Barth’s journey. Barth had travelled under contract for “Her Majesty’s Government” and the British Foreign Office.

While studying anthropology at the INALCO in Paris in 1988, Julia Winckler by chance came across Barth’s seminal opus “Travels and Discoveries through North and Central Africa in the years 1849-1855”.

Impressed by the considerable openness this 19th century man displayed towards African culture Julia read on.

Barth had recognized the importance of recording people’s everyday experiences and kept detailed journals documenting the cost of goods at local markets as well as oral traditions and local histories. Familiar with Arabic and several West African languages Barth was also a keen geologist and geographer. Moreover he was prepared to openly criticise the impact European colonial powers were exerting on Africa and documented his growing concerns about the African slave trade in regular letters to the British government.

Intrigued by his fascinating travel account (he crossed the Saharan desert, the Air mountains, and right into the Sahel, where he visited old trading posts) for the following 17 years place names such as Timbuktu and Agadez held Julia’s imagination. 

An opportunity to continue her “encounter” with Barth suddenly arose in 2004. A friend, sociologist Thomas Knoll had been working for the DED Niger (German Development Organisation) since 2003. He told Julia about his visit to a so-called “Barth room” in Agadez.  This privately run “museum”, part of a family compound, is dedicated to the memory of Barth. The old caretaker had told Thomas that all of the displayed objects had been left behind by Barth in October 1850 and had been carefully looked after for all of these years. 

The claim that personal belongings left behind in the house Barth had stayed in while in Agadez had mysteriously survived for the past 155 years was very exciting and Julia decided she had to pursue this story herself and to artistically revisit Barth’s travel accounts and contemporary myths.

In the summer of 2005 she boarded an Air France plane in Paris and arrived less than five hours later in Niamey. It had taken Barth nearly a year to travel the same distance in 1850. 

Once in Niger, Julia learned that according to the Human Development Index of the United Nations, this country currently is the poorest in the world. The country’s illiteracy rate is about 80-85%. This explains the importance of oral traditions and story telling, but also indicates how difficult it is to record the history of the country in reliable ways.  Often stories get passed down from generation to generation with details becoming embellished or lost.

While in Agadez that summer, Julia also worked with 8 local community participants to generate a contemporary African, photographic response to Barth’s legacy and “everyday life” in Agadez.

All images © Julia Winckler 2006