This black and white photograph depicts a dry, vegetated, mountainous landscape and a cloudy sky above. Just below the centre of the photograph a large ring made out of pieces of scorched, black cactus can be seen on the ground. Beneath the photograph, on the off-white mount, the title ‘A CIRCLE IN AFRICA’ is handwritten in red pencil, and beneath this is the location and date of the piece – ‘MULANJE MOUNTAIN MALAWI 1978’ – handwritten in graphite pencil.
Long often makes his outdoor sculptures out of stone or wood, yet for this piece he used cacti. He has explained how he came to make the work using this material:
I was going to make a circle of stones on a high mountain in Malawi and then, when I got there, I couldn’t find any stones because there was no ice and snow to break the rock up. So I kept the idea of a circle and changed the material to burnt cacti which were lying around, that had been burnt in lightning storms. That is just to show how I can keep one half of the idea and then change the other half because of the circumstances of the place. I am an opportunist; I just take advantage of the places and situations I find myself in.
(Long 1991, p.250.)
The making of Circle in Africa indicates how working directly in a landscape can be affected by conditions beyond the artist’s control. By using blackened cacti, Long not only reflected the materials of the landscape but also the climatic conditions of the area, namely the lightening storm. The blackness of the cactus pieces makes them stand out against the sandy earth, creating a stark image when photographed in black and white.
After graduating from St Martin’s School of Art in London in 1968, one of the first trips Long made abroad was to Africa, when he made a sculpture on the summit of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. He has since travelled to Africa several times, producing works in and about the continent, such as Africa Footprints 1986 (Tate P77189) and Sahara Circle 1988 (Tate T12036).
The circle is one of the most common geometric forms in Long’s work. When working in particular landscapes the artist uses materials found naturally in the immediate vicinity, a practice that has produced circles made from a range of materials, from stone, such as A Circle in Ireland 1975 (Tate AL00203), wood, including A Circle in Alaska 1977 (Tate AL00212), and cacti, as in Circle in Africa. He has also used the circle as a shape around which to construct a walk, such as in Concentric Days 1996 (Tate AR00213). Long has explained why the circle is such an important motif in his work:
If you put a circle down in any place in the world, that circle would take up the shape of that place. In other words, every place gives a different shape to a circle. The circle becomes like a thumbprint. It is absolutely unique. It is that place and no place is like another place. So a circle fixes a place in a very classical way.
(Cited in Tufnell 2007, p.86.)
Richard Long (ed.), Richard Long: Walking in Circles, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1991, p.250, reproduced p. 81.
Ben Tufnell (ed.), Richard Long: Selected Statements & Interviews, London 2007, p.59.
Clarrie Wallis, Richard Long: Heaven and Earth, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2009, reproduced on the cover.
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