26 October 2012 - 10 March 2013, Villa Ciani - Lugano
The mysterious life of a great Swiss photographer who died before his time is recounted through his work and travels in the mythical Saharan desert.
100 years after his birth, Switzerland rediscovers Peter W. Häberlin.
The exhibition entitled SAHARA is dedicated to the Swiss photographer WERNER HÄBERLIN (1912 - 1953) and is the seventh project of the “Esovisioni” exhibition cycle. This cycle is a long-term project of the Museo delle Culture in Lugano and has the objective to define a sort of “map” describing how the West has viewed (and judged) the Others. During their research, the museum staff unearthed the traces of Häberlin’s life through the diaries and accounts of his friends, travelling companions and remaining relatives. It was a fascinating and adventurous project which now allows the visitor to discover the work of one of the greatest Swiss photographers of the past century. After two years of intense collaboration with the Swiss Foundation of Photography in Winterthur, the exhibition presents a rich selection of first prints, which were developed from the negatives conserved at the aforementioned Foundation.
His passion for the African continent might be seen as his own personal reaction to the dramatic war years, and as a yearning for an uncontaminated place which was not yet traumatised by conflict. A continent with the possibility of an ideal society; where man maintains an authentic relationship with nature. His photographs portray the African people in a sort of timeless dimension, and the documentary intention is replaced by observation and contemplation. His ethnographic subjects are projected into a philosophical and symbolic environment, and the photographer’s search for beauty reveals his own inner spiritual quest. Häberlin travelled between 1949 and 1952. These were slow journeys, without any haste. A sort of personal exploration of the world, in which real facts are eclipsed by a poetical disenchantment. His photographs are exposed to such direct light, that the portraits resemble carvings that leave no room for shadows. Some of his photographs were published posthumously in 1956 in the book Yallah, with a foreword by the American author Paul Bowles. One of the most famous American weekly magazines, The New Yorker, reported that it was the work “of one of the great photographers of our times, capable of showing, as only art can, what would otherwise have remained hidden”. The book was completed by Häberlin’s father with the help of Paul Bowles, and Häberlin’s photographs seem to be the photographic evidence of the descriptions in Bowles own masterpiece, The Sheltering Sky, which was made into a film by Bernardo Bertolucci. However, most of Häberlin’s photographs have remained unpublished to this present day, and this explains our desire to rediscover his work a centenary after his birth.
The Museo delle Culture presents 128 photographs that are displayed according to the various characteristics that portray Häberlin’s view of the world. They are displayed for the first time to a general public and were specifically developed for this exhibition from the negatives which are conserved by the Swiss Foundation of Photography in Winterthur. The exhibition is enriched by a selection of exhibits from the Tuareg material culture, on loan from the collections of the Museo nazionale di antropologia ed etnologia dell'Università degli studi di Firenze. The exhibition itself is a “journey within a journey”, following the same steps that Häberlin took over sixty years ago. Each of the exhibition sections - «Il viaggio», «L’assoluto», «Geometrie», «Il villaggio», «Le forme del quotidiano», «La memoria»; «Il mondo interiore» - are introduced by an extract from the letters that Peter W. Häberlin wrote to his wife during his first Saharan journey in 1949.
Häberlin made his trans-Saharan reportage between 1949 and 1952: a vast series of photographs from four journeys, where he followed the ancient caravan routes from Algiers, crossing the Saharan desert until he reached the North of Cameroon. Shortly after returning from his last trip, Häberlin died in a tragic accident in 1953, in the midst of his preparations for a new voyage to Mexico. Häberlin’s biography still remains a mystery today. Although challenging, it was very exciting to retrace his existential and professional steps in order to outline his travels, acquaintances and worldviews. He was born in 1912 in the rural village of Oberaach in Switzerland (canton of Thurgau) and his wanderlust was undeniable from the very beginning. He seemed to have used photography to accompany his slow travels, always respecting his own time rather than that of our fast-paced world.