Circle in Africa is a large, framed, black and white photograph depicting a circle made of burnt cactus branches on a rocky outcrop. Under the photograph the title, hand-written in red capital letters, is accompanied by the location and date ‘Mulanje Mountain/ Malawi 1978’, in black. Long has explained the development of Circle in Africa:
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.
(Quoted in Richard Long 1991, p.250.)
Long’s work is based on walking outdoors in nature, often in remote locations. The documentation of his walks, which takes a variety of different forms, constitutes the visible manifestation of the artwork, which for Long exists in the making of it as much as in its product. His first ‘walk’ was performed when he was a student at Central St Martin’s School of Art, London (1966-8). For A Line Made by Walking, England 1967 (Tate P07149), Long repeatedly trod a path in a field, wearing down the grass in a line which he then photographed. This work anticipated two fundamental themes in Long’s work: the action of the walk (as an archetypal symbol of human movement) and its residue (the artist’s intervention on the landscape). Since A Line... photography has provided one of the principal means (maps and text providing others) for the documentation of Long’s actions in and upon the natural landscape. The act of collecting such elements as twigs and stones and arranging them in geometric configurations in gallery and museum spaces provides another means of recording the artist’s encounter with nature. For Circle of Sticks 1973 (Tate T01783), Long collected sticks from Leigh Woods, Bristol (where he lived) and laid them end to end in a circle on the gallery floor. In later works, such as Slate Circle 1979 (Tate T03027) and Norfolk Flint Circle 1990 (Tate T06483), stone was acquired from quarries for large circles installed on the floor. When the ‘sculpture’ is made out of doors, as in Circle in Africa, it is temporary, subject to the effects of the elements. In this instance, Long has chosen photography to document the events of his walking on the African mountain and constructing the circle of cactus.
Long believes that his actions, connecting simple geometric structures such as circles with organic elements, may reach across cultural and generational boundaries. He has said: ‘I think circles have belonged in some way or other to all people at all times. They are universal and timeless, like the image of a human hand. For me, that is part of their emotional power, although there is nothing symbolic or mystical in my work.’ (Quoted in Friis-Hansen, p30.)
Africa Footprints 1986 (Tate P77189) is another work by Long related to Africa.
R.H. Fuchs, Richard Long, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1986, p.101, reproduced p.122
Richard R. Brettell, Dana Friis-Hansen, Richard Long: Circles Cycles Mud Stones, exhibition catalogue, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston 1996
Richard Long: Walking in Circles, exhibition catalogue, South Bank Centre, London 1991, reproduced p.81
November 2000/October 2001