Wilfred Thesiger in Africa: A Centenary Exhibition4 June 2010 – 5 June 2011, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (United Kingdom)
Probably the greatest traveller of the twentieth century, and one of its greatest explorers, Sir Wilfred Thesiger (1910–2003) is most famous for his journeys in Arabia and his sojourns among the Marsh Arabs in Iraq. Yet fifty of Thesiger’s seventy years travelling, exploring and living in remote places were spent in East and North Africa. Born in Addis Ababa, where his father served as British Minister in charge of the Legation, he lived there until 1919, when his family returned to England. Longing to return to Ethiopia, in 1930 Thesiger received a personal invitation to Ras Tafari’s coronation as Emperor Haile Selassie, and his life of travel and adventure had begun.
This exhibition is the first to explore Thesiger’s lifelong relationship with Africa. He undertook river explorations, wartime service and travels in Ethiopia, political service in the Sudan, travels in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, and numerous journeys on foot in Kenya and Tanzania. From 1978 Thesiger lived for nine months of each year in Maralal, Kenya, before retiring permanently to England in 1994. Wilfred Thesiger took over 17,000 photographs in Africa, around two-fifths of his entire photographic output, all of which he donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Spanning fifty years, the photographs exhibited here document his development as a photographer, in particular as a portraitist. ‘Ever since my time in Northern Darfur,’ Thesiger wrote, ‘it has been people, not places, not hunting, not even exploration, that have mattered to me most.’ Although also known for his romantic landscape images, Thesiger saw these as secondary, ‘a setting for my portraits of the inhabitants’.This exhibition is also a celebration of the people Thesiger photographed and the diverse cultures they represent. From the Afar (Danakil), Konso and Boran of Ethiopia, the Nuer and Dinka of Sudan, the Berbers of Morocco, and the Samburu and Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, this exhibition offers historical glimpses of some of the most fascinating cultures and places on the African continent.