Sacred stone axes on Benin altars

Detail of ancestral shrine at Chief Ezomo’s palace, Benin City, showing stone axe head. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1909. NWT 160, RAI 400.17962.

During his anthropological survey of the Edo-speaking people of Nigeria in 1909-10, Northcote Thomas spent several months working in Benin City itself. His photographs of the City’s prominent chiefs, its architecture, shrines and markets provide an important record of the capital of the Benin Empire just 12 years after its fall at the hands of the British Punitive Expedition. Although accounts of the sacking of Benin City in 1897 suggest that little was left of Benin’s centuries-old civilization, it is clear from Thomas’s photographs that much escaped destruction and not everything was looted.

Ozomo shrine, Benin City, 1909
Ancestral shrine at Chief Ezomo’s palace, Benin City. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1909. NWT 160, RAI 400.17962.

Thomas documented a number of Benin shrines in considerable detail. His photographs of the ancestral altar at Chief Ezomo‘s palace, for example, shows many of the classic Benin shrine objects such as rattle staffs (ukhurhẹ), memorial heads (uhunmwun) and altar bells (eroro). Of these ritual objects, Thomas seems to have been particularly intrigued by the presence of polished stone axes or celts in these assemblages.

Polished stone axe, Ozomo shrine, Benin City, 1909
Close up of stone axe head from the ancestral shrine at Chief Ezomo’s palace, Benin City. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1909. Note that the axe head has been propped up against Thomas’s pith helmet to take the photograph. NWT 157, RAI 400.17960.

Thomas’s anthropological reports and other publications contain no information about these stone axes. Indeed, it is important to note that the vast majority of Thomas’s fieldwork findings remained unpublished. In a letter written in 1923 to his friend and colleague Bernhard Struck, Curator of the Museum für Völkerkunde in Dresden, he notes that he published only 10 per cent of his material from his Edo tour – that deemed to be of relevance to members of the colonial service. Among the fragments of unpublished fieldnotes and manuscripts that survive, however, there are a few pages in which he discusses the celts.

Northcote Thomas, Edo manuscript, stone celts
Unpublished handwritten manuscript notes on ‘stone implements’ from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 Edo tour. The hand-writing on these pages is not Thomas’s – possibly that of an assistant or his wife. University of Cambridge Library.

Thomas writes that ‘Aro [i.e. Chief Ero] told me that they were used with Osun [a deity] or put in the ancestral shrines to represent their fathers, and were also used in foretelling’. They could also be used as objects to swear by or curse: ‘Chief Ine of Edo said that when they have to reprove a wife or child or anyone, they take a stone implement and lick it and curse them. If a man is before them whom they wish to curse, they take a stone and an uxure [ukhurhẹ]. They knock the uxure on the ground, lick the stone and blow the spittle over the man and wish that he may not prosper’.

Northcote Thomas, Edo manuscript, stone celts
Unpublished handwritten manuscript notes on ‘stone implements’ from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 Edo tour. The hand-writing on these pages is Thomas’s. University of Cambridge Library.

It was not only in Benin City that Thomas encountered these stone implements. He also records examples in Irrua, Okpe, Otua and other locations in what is today Edo State. At Okpe he was shown a stone called ‘esax evalalox umu‘ [?] that was said to have fallen from the sky. Elsewhere he was told that ‘a stone axe is a “steward” of lightning’, and in Otua he explains that they are placed in the Osun shrine, and if they are given palm oil (as a sacrifice), then lightning will not strike the house.

The association between these axe heads and lightning is widespread, not only throughout West Africa, but also in Europe and elsewhere, where they are regarded as ‘thunderbolts’ or ‘thunderstones‘ – weapons wielded by gods of thunder, hurled to earth, and not of human manufacture. In 1903, Henry Balfour, Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, had written about such ‘”Thunderbolt” Celts from Benin’ in the anthropological journal Man, which was then edited by Thomas. In a later article in Folklore, in which he surveyed the phenomenon of thunderbolts throughout the world, Balfour also discussed a number of small bronze pendants in the Pitt Rivers Museum collection made in the form of miniature stone axes, which had also been acquired in Benin City

Pitt Rivers Museum, bronze amulet representation of thunder stone
Left: excerpt and figures from Henry Balfour’s article ‘Concerning Thunderbolts’, originally read to the Folklore Society in 1929. Here Balfour describes and illustrates the miniature bronze reproductions of stone axes from Benin in the Pitt Rivers Museum collection. Right: a more recent photograph of one of these bronze pendants (Figure 11 in the 1929 article), PRM 1909.61.1.

In addition to the examples he photographed at Chief Ezomo’s palace, Thomas also photographed an assemblage of stone axes from an ancestral shrine at Chief Ogiame’s palace in Benin City, and another set at a shrine dedicated to the deity Oxwahe at Eviakoi, in the north-west outskirts of Benin City. Thomas also appears to have collected a number of examples, including one evidently dug up during forestry operations, although we have been unable to trace any of them during our research at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores.

Stone implements from Ogiame shrine, Benin City,1909
Stone axe heads from an ancestral shrine at Chief Ogiame’s palace, Benin City. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1909. Clockwise from top left: NWT 80, RAI 400.17889; NWT 83, RAI 400.17893; NWT 82, RAI 400.17893; NWT 81b, RAI 400.17891.
Face of Ochwaihe, Eviakoi, Benin City, 1909
Oxwahe shrine, Eviakoi, Benin City. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1909. In addition to the stone celts placed on the altar, the assemblage in the recess includes lozenge-shaped shaped blocks of kaolin clay/chalk (orhue), also a ritual substance. On the envelope in which the negative was stored, Thomas has written ‘Face of Ochwaihe [Oxwahe]’. NWT 1206. RAI 400.18311.
Stone implements from Ochwaihe, Benin City,1909
Stone axe heads/implements from the Oxwahe shrine, Eviakoi, Benin City. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1909. Clockwise from top left: NWT 1208, RAI 400.18313; NWT 1209, RAI 400.18313; NWT 1210b, RAI 400.18316; NWT 1210, RAI 400.18315.

It was not until Graham Connah‘s Polished Stone Axes in Benin, published in Nigeria in 1964, that a more substantial study of these stones became available. A British archaeologist, Connah had been appointed by the Federal Department of Antiquities to conduct a programme of archaeological excavation in Benin City in 1961. Connah was interested in these prehistoric stone axes since they represented the earliest evidence of ‘human industry’ in the region. During his research, Connah was able to consult authorities such as the well-known historian and curator of the Benin Museum, Chief Jacob Egharevba, as well as the Oba of Benin, Akenzua II, himself.

Connah, Polished Stone Axes in Benin
Front cover and illustration from Graham Connah’s Polished Stone Axes in Benin publication. The photograph (top right) is a detail of a brass altar group thought to depict Oba Ohen at the Agwe festival, holding a stone axe head in his left hand. The line drawing is of an axe head obtained from Chief Osuabor of Benin City. Both were/are in the collection of the National Museum, Benin.

Connah provided a review of the existing, though scant, literature on the celts and drew attention to the depiction of such axes in some of the famous Benin bronze artworks. With Egharevba, he also acquired over 20 examples for the Benin Museum, the close examination of which formed the focus of his publication. It is evident that Connah had no knowledge of Northcote Thomas’s unpublished photographs and notes, which would have otherwise made an important contribution to his study.

Connah, Polished Stone Axes in Benin
Plate 5 from Graham Connah’s Polished Stone Axes in Benin. ‘Group of polished stone axes etc. on Oba Akenzua II’s shrine to Eweka II. (Note matchbox positioned for scale.)

In the present context, perhaps the most interesting section of Connah’s publication is that on ‘Bini beliefs about stone axes’. Connah notes that the Bini call the axes ughavan, a contraction of ughamwan (axe) prefixed to avan (thunder), and meaning ‘thunder-axe’ or ‘thunderbolt’. In the early 1960s they were evidently not uncommonly found on household shrines throughout Benin City, and Connah states that they could be seen on Oba Akenzua II’s shrines to his predecessors, Eweka II, Overamwen and Adolo. In historical bronzes, obas are sometimes depicted holding an ughavan in their left hand. Here, its function is ‘to increase the potency of a cursing or blessing’.

Altar pieces Benin from Plankensteiner, Benin Kings and Rituals
Two 18th-century altar groups depicting obas holding thunder-axes in their left hands. Left: Oba Akenzua I (ascended throne c. 1711-15); right: Oba Ewuakpe (ascended throne c.1685-1700), both in the collection of the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin. Reproduced from Benin Kings and Rituals exhibition catalogue, ed. Barbara Plankensteiner.

Connah further notes that there was no realisation in Benin that these prehistoric stone tools had a functional origin. ‘To the Bini’, he writes, ‘they are “thunderbolts”, and “thunderbolts” they remain. Any suggestion that they could be stone tools made at a time before the availability of iron in West Africa is met by polite misbelief’. He also doubts that they have been made in more recent centuries for ‘cult purposes’, having recorded stories about how they were found during farming or embedded in trees that have been struck by lightning.

In her recent book, Iyare! Splendor and Tension in Benin’s Palace Theatre, Kathy Curnow provides a succinct summary of these fascinating objects:

Prehistoric stone axe heads antedate metal tools. Easily damaged, they were tossed away and replaced, and readily turn up today when land is farmed. In Benin, as in many other parts of the world, they are not always recognized as man-made objects. Instead, they are considered thunderstones (ughavan), the product of lightning strikes. The Edo believe Ogiuwu, the god of death, hurls them to the ground as manifestations of his power and anger. The Oba likewise has the right to kill, and gripped thunderstones or celts to magnify his curses. Still kept on altars, they call the ancestors into service as witnesses and supporters.

References

  • Balfour, H. 1903. ‘”Thunderbolt” Celts from Benin’, Man, vol.3, pp.182-3.
  • Balfour, H. 1929. ‘Concerning Thunderbolts’, Folklore, vol.40, pp.37-49, 168-173.
  • Connah, G. 1964. Polished Stone Axes in Benin. Nigerian National Press.
  • Curnow, K. 2016. Iyare! Splendor and Tension in Benin’s Palace Theatre. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
  • Plankensteiner, B. (ed.) 2007. Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria. Snoeck Publishers, Ghent.

All Northcote Thomas photographs reproduced here have been scanned from the glass plate negatives in the collection of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and are reproduced courtesy of the Institute.

Conservation notes: ‘Akosi’ figure from Fugar

‘Akosi’ shrine figure collected by Northcote Thomas in Fugar in present-day Edo State, Nigeria, in 1909.

In her latest blog post from UCL’s Conservation Lab, Carmen Vida discusses how Northcote Thomas’s historical field photographs inform the work of reassembling ‘composite’ objects from the collection and help conservators’ make decisions about appropriate conservation treatments.

It often comes as a bit of a surprise to people when they first get to know about museum conservation to learn that conservators do not necessarily always do everything that can be done to an object, or try to make it complete, new, or ‘like it was’. Out of many possibilities, conservators decide on what is an appropriate treatment for each object in dialogue with experts, curators and other stakeholders. As a conservator, I am very aware that every conservation intervention is a new event in the life of an object, an event that can be ‘life-changing’ – though, hopefully, a change for the better by extending the object’s life and making it more meaningful to others. It is the conservator’s job to ensure that the conservation intervention always fits with and helps reveal what the ‘life’ of the object was and is, and that it never obscures its significance, values and stories, but rather helps to reveal them.

For conservators, damage is not always bad. It can, rather, be an interesting thing: it can, for example, tell us about the way an object was used, help us to understand its ‘biography’, inform us about the conditions in which it has be stored, and so forth. For this reason, conservation always starts with research and investigation. We seek to get to know an object as closely as possible through documentation, through comparison with similar or related objects, and through the signs left on the object by its previous history. This helps us to design conservation treatments that fit with the object’s past history as well as its present and future use. In a way, conservation is a bit of a time machine, moving between the object’s past, present and future!  

As discussed in a previous post, Giving Objects a Voice, many objects appear to be ‘mute’. That is, they have no accompanying information, and conservators must rely entirely on what they can discover from their analysis of the object itself. But working with the collections assembled by Northcote Thomas is providing me with a unique opportunity because the archive itself is so rich and varied: not only objects, but written records, sound recordings and, very importantly for the conservator, historic photographs. These different elements in the archive can sometimes be brought together to shed light on each other. So just as the historic photographs of people have been affording their descendants in West Africa the possibility of reconnecting with their ancestors (see for instance the blog Ancestral Reconnections), the historic photographs of the objects are affording conservators the possibility of reconnecting with the earlier life of some of the objects we are treating. This information is vital to guide our conservation treatment choices because it allows us to compare two different moments in the life of the object, and it helps us decide what the treatment should achieve and how. It ultimately helps us make ethical treatment decisions.

Elements of the figure prior to conservation. NWT 2659. MAA Z 12292, Z 12293, Z 12294.

Some of the objects we have been working with in the UCL Conservation Lab illustrate this well. I have recently been revisiting the treatment of a figure that Thomas collected in Fugar in present-day Edo State, Nigeria, in 1909, which was conserved by one of our students last summer. In Thomas’s catalogue, the figure is labelled with the single word ‘akosi’, with no further information. The object is a ‘composite’ insofar as it consists of several elements and materials: (1) a carved wooden figurine with a feather, (2) a red glass bead ‘necklace’ or ‘bracelet’, and (3) a ‘headdress’ consisting of strings of cowrie shells threaded though cane and plant material. At the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, these three elements have been accessioned and stored separately. Bringing together the [Re:]Entanglements project’s archival research, collections-based research and fieldwork, it has, however, been possible to re-associate the elements that make up this assemblage with reference to a photograph that Thomas made of the figure at the time of collection. This, we assume, shows the assemblage as Thomas initially encountered it in its original context.

Northcote Thomas's photograph of 'akosi' figure, taken in Fugar in 1909.
Northcote Thomas’s field photograph of the ‘akosi’ shrine figure, taken in Fugar, present-day Edo State, Nigeria, in 1909. NWT 1095. MAA P.29204.
Fieldwork in Fugar, examining Thomas's photograph of the 'akosi'.
Discussing Northcote Thomas’s photograph of the ‘akosi’ figure during fieldwork in Fugar, March 2020. Paul Basu notes that ‘Those we spoke with in Fugar did not recognise the type of figure or the word”akosi” recorded by Thomas. In some dialects of the Edo language, however, “akosie” refers to shrine figures moulded from mud. The Fugar carving resembles an “ikenga” or “okega” figure more typically found in Igbo- and Igala-speaking areas of Nigeria, where they are a form of ‘alusi’ (deity). Igala and Igbo influence can be discerned in masquerades and material culture in the area around Fugar. An example of an “okega” from Igala in the Smithsonian collection shares some features with that collected by Thomas in Fugar’. Photograph by Paul Basu.

This ‘akosi’ figure will form part of the forthcoming exhibitions at the SOAS Brunei Gallery and University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. As such, one of the conservation treatment aims was to ensure that, after 111 years, all three elements could once again be put back together for display.

'Akosi' assemblage collected by Northcote Thomas in Fugar in 1909.
Elements of the figure prior to conservation annotated to highlight areas of damage (see notes below).

An initial condition assessment of the object revealed several instances of damage:

  1. The wooden figure was covered in surface dirt and dust, and debris from insect activity.
  2. There was a through crack in the left wrist that severed it completely from the rest of the arm.
  3. The left foot had suffered extensive insect damage and was largely missing.
  4. The feather had also suffered extensive insect damage and was dirty, broken and misshapen. There is a corresponding hole on the right side of the figure where presumably a second feather used to be, but this is totally missing now.
  5. The cane and plant fibres in the cowrie shell headdress had become brittle, inflexible and unable to support the weight of the cowries. The headdress was made up of five tendrils. Of these, one was very short and another slightly shorter than the other three. There were also loose cowries bagged separately, indicating that perhaps originally there were only four strands and that when one had broken, the broken end had been reattached at the top.

We had to decide what level of treatment would be appropriate for each of these issues, and we were able to do so thanks to the possibility of referring to the historic photograph.

Annotated photograph of 'akosi' figure, taken in Fugar in 1909.
Annotations on Northcote Thomas’s 1909 photograph of the figure showing existing condition and damage at the time of collection (see notes below).

Close examination of the photograph revealed:

  1. That the surface dirt present was most likely museum dirt, although there were areas of dirt in the original figure the ghost of which could still be seen in the object. For this reason, it was decided to sensitively clean the wooden elements with only dry cleaning methods and to avoid the use of any solvent which may have removed more than simple surface dirt. In this way we could guarantee the cleaning of recent dirt but leave behind any deposits that may be related to the use or beliefs associated with the figure.
  2. The through crack on the wrist can already be seen in the historic photograph. Wood is anisotropic and moves in different directions in reaction to changes in humidity and temperature. Cracks of this type often occur through movement tensions in green wood that has not been properly allowed to dry before being carved. That the crack can already be seen in the historic photograph suggests that the object may have already been in existence for some time before Thomas acquired it. This information clarified that it would be totally inappropriate to fill that crack because it has been there for over 100 years and allowed the wood to move in response to environmental changes without further stresses, but also because a fill would have obscured important information about the object history.
  3. The insect damage caused to the left foot can also be seen in the historic photograph, although perhaps it was not as extensive then. Because of this, only minimal intervention fills were done to support any areas at risk. The fills were done with long fibre Japanese tissue paper (a very thin but strong paper) and a cellulose based adhesive that was sympathetic to the nature of wood. Watercolours were used to tint the Japanese tissue paper to blend the fills with the surrounding wood. The insect damage visible in the historic photograph again seems to indicate that the object was not new when it was acquired by Thomas.
  4. Two feathers are visible in the historic photo, one on either side. The remaining feather was repaired with fills done in the vane to strengthen it and realign it back to its original shape. The feather was also dry surface cleaned and also cleaned with solvents to restore its shape as much as possible.
  5. It was clear from the historic photos that only four strands of similar length were originally present as part of the cowries headdress, confirming that the two shorter strands were originally one and that the loose cowries were probably part of this broken strand. That information, together with the need to strengthen the cane so that it would be able to support the weight, allowed us to take quite an interventive approach: the fourth strand was lengthened with the lose cowries, and all the strands were stabilized by threading them with nylon fishing wire, to support the weight instead of the fragile cane threading. Tinted epoxy buttons were made matching the colour of the cowries to serve as stoppers for each of the cowrie strands. Three nylon lengths were braided to create a stronger wire that was used at the top of the object to connect the nylon fishing wire used on the cowrie strands, and to allow the headdress to sit again on top of the figure during exhibition.
Cowrie 'headdress', part of Aksoi assemblage photographed and collected by Northcote Thomas in Fugar, 1909.
The cowrie ‘headdress’ after conservation treatment. The nylon thread is nearly invisible, but can just be made out, particularly at the top.

The conservation treatment given to this object is a good illustration of the decision making processes we conservators go through as part of our work. Ethical treatment decisions were made in this case because we were seeking to stabilise the object and bring it to the condition that best reflected its values and affordances. This meant different approaches to different areas of the object:  minimal intervention was adopted for most elements whereas the headdress required a far more interventive solution to allow the object to be displayed back together and have its integrity restored.

Listening to images, troubling the archive

Art Assassins, South London Gallery, Government Anthropologist
Photograph of Northcote Thomas and assistants at a meeting of chiefs in Neni to discuss a land dispute, 1911. Annotated by one of the Art Assassins as part of Emmanuelle Andrews’ free-writing workshop at the South London Gallery.

[Re:]Entanglements is collaborating with the Art Assassins, the young people’s forum of the South London Gallery in Peckham. As part of the project, the Art Assassins are working with a number of London-based artists and researchers with connections to West Africa. The idea is for each artist or researcher to use their creative practice to help the Art Assassins explore the Northcote Thomas collections and archives, and consider its relevance for young people in South London today. The Art Assassins’ work will culminate in an exhibition at the South London Gallery, which they will curate themselves.

The first researcher-in-residence to collaborate with the group is Emmanuelle Andrews. Emmanuelle is a researcher and social justice advocate, specialising in the human rights of LGBTI+ people across the Commonwealth, where the criminalisation of same-sex intimacy exists predominantly as a result of colonial-era laws. Domestically, Emmanuelle focuses on racial justice and community resilience, researching issues such as the 2011 London Riots and the Notting Hill Carnival as well as exploring solidarity-making across histories of black radical movements, as in her film Coming to Love.

Since October Emmanuelle has been guiding the Art Assassins through provocative encounters with Northcote Thomas’ work and its legacy. Through discussion and creative exercises she has challenged the group to confront the archive as a method for reflecting on their own entanglements with colonialism. In this guest blog post Emmanuelle looks back on her experience working with the Art Assassins.

Northcote Thomas photograph, Oshodi's brothers, Benin City, 1909
The ‘anthropological gaze’ returned. Photograph of ‘Oshodi’s brothers’, Benin City, taken by Northcote Thomas, 1909. NWT 310. RAI 400.15461.

Confronting the disciplines

In my first encounter with the Art Assassins I began with sharing a personal reflection on a visit to the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) with Paul Basu, leader of the [Re:]Entanglements project and Professor of Anthropology at SOAS University of London. Having studied Anthropology and Law for my undergraduate degree, before studying a Masters in Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice, this experience was a (re)visit to my disciplinary ‘home’: Anthropology. What I wanted to encapsulate to the Art Assassins was the feeling of lacking belonging here and the field of Anthropology as one that invites, for a black women like myself, a visceral combustion of self and other, as I reflected on my position as being a recipient of the colonial anthropological gaze, as well as potentially an instigator of it. Sitting in the RAI, I considered the historical reality that I was never meant to be there in this form – valued (at least originally) as the ‘viewed’ and not the ‘viewer.’ I hoped to bring to the forefront for the Art Assassins the fact that any dabbling in Northcote Thomas’ work will always be personal, as our very beings refract through the colonial archive.

During my visit to the RAI, I also looked at the collection of Thomas’ plate glass negatives, and handled some of his photographic registers, in which he categorised and annotated the images. Afterwards, I joined the Art Assassins at the British Library Sound Archive where we explored its collection of Thomas’s and other historical ethnographic and ethnomusicological wax cylinder recordings. You can read more about our visit here.

SLG Art Assassins, Emmanuelle Andrew's screening of Faces|Voices film
The Art Assassins viewing Faces|Voices, directed by Paul Basu and Chris Allen, during Emmanuelle Andrews’s first workshop at the South London Gallery.

Listening to images

The visit to RAI and the British Library Sound Archive inspired me to begin my first workshop with the Art Assassins at the intersection of sound and image. I invited the group on a journey through the archive by other means: through a privileging of the senses that confront Western ontology’s desires to judge knowledge through the rationale of scientific certainty.

Watching the beautiful and award-winning film, Faces|Voices, produced as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, and featuring the film’s participants voicing their responses to Northcote Thomas’ photographic archive, I moved the group to consider whether Thomas’s images were necessarily ‘silent’ in the first place. (In what ways are these images silent? For whom? In what languages?)

Drawing the link between Anthropology’s motivation of filling supposed gaps about distant others and the related violence of Western knowledge-making, I used the film as a starting point to complicate questions of who, in the colonial anthropological project, had voice and who were silenced. I wanted to push the Art Assassins away from a simple reading of Northcote Thomas as the powerful agent of colonialism and his subjects as agentless victims. While we cannot, and should not, ignore the colonial context of Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys, it became clear that we can achieve this without reproducing its grammars of violence.

Tina M Campt, Listening to Images book
Tina M. Campt’s inspirational book, Listening to Images (Duke University Press, 2017).

To ground this reading, I introduced the group to Tina M. Campt’s concept of ‘listening to images’, which she describes as both…

a description and a method … [It] opens up the radical interpretive possibilities of images …. To ‘listen to’ rather than simply ‘look at’ images is a conscious decision to challenge the equation of vision with knowledge by engaging photography through a sensory register that is critical to Black Atlantic cultural formations: sound.

Resisting the practice, then, of allowing the eyes to ‘read’ silence in Northcote Thomas’ ‘voiceless’ photographic archive, we instead privileged alternative frequencies by listening closely to the images and expressing our discoveries in a free-writing exercise. Rather than finding misery in the archive, the Art Assassins wrote of joy, talent, romance and longing. It is here that the ‘low hum’of resistance to the colonial project might be found.

Art Assassins, South London Gallery, Free-writing exercise
Free-writing workshop with the Art Assassins, South London Gallery.
Art Assassins, South London Gallery, Free-writing with Northcote Thomas archive
Examples of the Art Assassins’ free-writing engagements with Northcote Thomas’s photographic archive. Click on the thumbnails below to enlarge.
The Art Assassins are making a film about their explorations of the Northcote Thomas archive. At each of their meetings, they take it in turn to make video diaries recording their experiences. Here Fatima reflects on the free-writing exercise.

Confronting Northcote Thomas

Since the Art Assassins’ experience of Northcote Thomas had hitherto been exclusively through the archives of his anthropological surveys, I felt it was important to separate Thomas, the man, from his professional role as Government Anthropologist. Drawing on Paul Basu’s article ‘N. W. Thomas and Colonial Anthropology in British West Africa’, I attempted to take the Art Assassins on a journey that simultaneously elucidated what anthropological methodology looked like in practice, and lead the Art Assassins to reflect on whether we might potentially decolonize the anthropological tradition through making Northcote Thomas the object of inquiry.

SLG Art Assassins, Emmanuelle Andrew's presentation Uncovering Northcote Thomas
Complicating our understanding of the Government Anthropologist. Emmanuelle Andrews making a presentation about Northcote Thomas to the Art Assassins at the South London Gallery.

Looking into his controversial legacy as illustrated by the comments made by Thomas’ peers as well as contemporary anthropologists, we considered how we might learn about Thomas and the period he was working in through various lenses, such as medical anthropology, or critical race theory.

Considering tales spread by his dissenters that he was ‘a recognised maniac in many ways’ (what might this tell us about the stigma of mental health in the 19th/20th century?) and the accusation that he brought ‘a certain amount of discredit upon the white man’s prestige’ (how might this complicate our understanding of Northcote Thomas as a puppet of the colonial state?), we were confronted with the possibility that we might in fact sympathise with Thomas, or at least consider him in a new light, particularly given the fact that he was sometimes a nuisance to the colonial project.

I encouraged us all to sit with the discomfort of these findings, whilst at the same time question what was at stake with any attempt to view him as a human being with the flaws and quirks of any other.

The unfolding discussion was rich, with the Art Assassins demonstrating yet again their interest in, and talent for, dealing with theoretically difficult concepts and disciplinary interrogations, such as whether anthropology was really the appropriate discipline to confront some of the challenges we were facing.

SLG Art Assassins, notes
Notes from the session with Emmanuelle Andrews made by the Art Assassins.

We all left the session buzzing with questions. Northcote Thomas had gone to Nigeria and Sierra Leone to find answers and provide solutions, and we realised that in order to ethically embark on this project, we had to part with the ideal of knowledge as a signifier of value. Surprising a lesson it may be, coming from someone who embodies the role of researcher-in-residence, we nonetheless learned that it is our ability to sit with uncomfortable questions that can provide the most intellectual and creative freedom and, hopefully, culminate in a practice that truly is decolonial.

Art Assassins, Ivo and Nathan, reflect on how their understanding of the colonial archive and how it can be decolonized have changed through the workshops.