Papers of Dr Johanna Agthe

Scope and Content

The archive of Johanna Agthe comprises 24 files, containing some 640 items, resonant with Agthe's research and its development into numerous publications and exhibitions concerning contemporary African visual culture. The papers includes her press and journal clippings with highlights in two portfolios (assembled hastily when she was critically ill); an assortment of her publications, copies of several serial publications and ephemera. The majority of the documents originate in Kenya and Germany, while the geographical scope includes eastern Africa, the rest of Africa and some northern countries. The papers are primarily in English and German, with some Swahili, and one French document.

Administrative / Biographical History

Dr Johanna M. C. Agthe (1940-2005) was a German anthropologist, museum curator and innovator. She was born in Berlin, Germany, during the turmoil of World War II, of bookish parents who had been refugees from Latvia; her family moved several times before settling in Hamburg. This background imbued Johanna with astute sensitivity toward outsiders of all kinds. She studied history and then social anthropology at Georg August University, Göttingen, which led to her dissertation about the images in travel books of Oceania as a source for ethnography, 16thc. - 18thc. In 1966-67, she worked at that University, then in 1968, moved to the Berlin Museum of Ethnology (SMPK). There she was Director of their progressive Junior Museum and curator of several innovative thematic exhibitions such as African power objects: figurines and amulets.

Between 1971-2003, Dr Agthe worked in the Frankfurt Museum of Ethnology (für Völkerkunde), starting as a 'custodian' or curator and leaving as assistant director. From the start, she promoted a definition of visual culture that was inclusive of differing kinds of art works and art worlds, in particular of modern art. She insisted " did not seem justifiable to exhibit only classical and colonial art, and then leave a vacuum and to act as if is was nothing." (1998. Trans. In Contemporary African Art at the Museum of Ethnology. '34th International Forum Africa' Vol. 3, pp. 277-280). To showcase modern art at the Museum, Agthe worked with her director Josef Franz Thiel and curatorial colleagues to plan and realise Galerie 37. "With the Galerie 37 project, she [they] already set the gold standard by which curatorial innovation in large ethnology museums can be measured." (S Kasfir, 'African Arts' Autumn 2005, p. 84).

During her art visits to east Africa over thirty years, she assembled a regional art collection, comprised mostly of paintings, many of which are featured in her vast compendium 'Wegzeichen_SIGNS Kunst aus Ostafika 1974-89'. She wrote, sometimes jointly, over 40 publications to support the collection, her exhibitions and methodology. Agthe described her selection process as "anthropological" in that she favoured figurative imagery that represented daily living and connections between art and society. She opined abstract imagery was "disconnected" from traditions (unpublished interview, H. Ernst, 1996). Her primary research method was the artist's interview, to give voice to the maker, which was rarely heard in the early years of her research. Her most extensive studies are for Joel Oswaggo (1991) and Jak Katirakawe (2001).


The archive of Johanna Agthe is arranged into four series. Series 01 (Files 01-05) contains an introduction, her publications and exhibitions in Galerie 37 and two dense portfolios on the discourse of African art and artists in Africa (specific artists are listed on the Inventory List, Files 04 & 05); Series 02, 03 and 04 follow her 'Catchwords'. Series 02 (Files 06-12) consists primarily of clippings and papers in German about exhibitions of African art that took place in Germany; File 12 is a catchall for documents that originate in places other than Germany or Africa. Series 03 (Files 13-19) pertains to documents from Kenya about culture, art and artists in Kenya; includes issues of 'New Age' and 'Msanii'. Series 04 (Files 20-24) consists of clippings, documents from Tanzania (File 20), from Uganda (File 21), from southern Africa: Namibia, Zambia, South Africa (File 23), from Zimbabwe (File 24). File 22 contains four issues of the art journal 'Bambolse' published and edited by Atta Kwami, in Kumasi, Ghana.

Access Information


Acquisition Information

Donated to SOAS Library by Johanna Agthe in 2004. Elsbeth Court (Subject Lecturer in African Art, SOAS, University of London) made a small number of additions in 2015.


"Johanna Agthe had longstanding links with Bloomsbury institutions such as the British Museum and SOAS, University of London. These links became stronger in the 1990s with London's increased attention to African art, especially modern art in Africa such as the season Africa'95 and, indeed, became personal because of our professional collaboration to realize her retrospective project for the pioneer, east African painter Jak Katirakawe (2001). Such activities were the basis for the location of her purposive selection of papers and ephemera in Archives & Speical Collections, SOAS Library", Elsbeth Court (Subject Lecturer in African Art, SOAS, University of London), May 2015.

Conditions Governing Use

Private study only. For publication or broadcast please refer to Archivist.

Copyright held by various


Elsbeth Court intends to donate her correspondence with Johanna Agthe and subsequent documents regarding the Katarikawe project.

Related Material

London - SOAS (1) Special Collection Archive for Africa'95 (50 boxes) [Ref: AF95]; (2) SOAS Archive - Centre of African Studies Conference 'African Artists: School. Studio and Society' held during Africa'95 (note Johanna Agthe attended and gathered some of the documents herein) [Ref: SOAS/Centre of African Studies/Conference Files/Box 10/SOAS/CAS/1/40]; (3) Margaret Trowell Archive, Dept of Art & Archaeology (Trowell was founder of the School of Art, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda).

Frankfurt - Museum der Weltkulturen (1) the art collection assembled by J Agthe is arguably the largest for east Africa; (2) Archive of her interviews with artists are yet to be inventoried (19.02.15); contact Dr Y Mutumba, research curator at MWK.

Bayreuth University - Iwalewa Haus; research site:

Nairobi National Museum displays modern/contemporary in its main venue (Creativity Gallery) and the Nairobi Gallery.

Kampala: Makerere Art Gallery/Makerere Institute of Heritage, Conservation and Heritage, Kampala, Uganda.

Under negotiation: the bequest of Johanna Agthe' photographs to the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford.