Northcote Thomas used a number of different cameras during his four anthropological surveys in West Africa between 1909 and 1915. During his first tour, in Edo-speaking areas of Nigeria, his equipment list included a Hunter & Sands Tropical camera and a Goerz camera. On his three subsequent tours, in Igbo-speaking areas of Nigeria and in Sierra Leone, however, his photographic kit included three cameras: an Adams Videx camera, a Stereoscopic camera, and a Kodak Panoram camera. The majority of Thomas’s photographs were taken on quarter plate glass negatives on the Videx, but it is clear that Thomas experimented with both stereoscopic photography, also using quarter plates, and panoramic shots using the Kodak Panoram, which used 105 format roll film.
Through the [Re:]Entanglements project, we have been systematically digitising all of N. W. Thomas’s photographic negatives and prints with our partners at the Royal Anthropological Institute and University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Until recently, we believed that only Thomas’s quarter plate glass negatives and corresponding prints had survived. However, we were excited to discover quite a number of his panoramic prints in the collections in the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. On a recent research visit to the National Museum in Lagos, Nigeria, we were also delighted to find a number of these panoramic prints mounted in one of the photograph albums produced during Thomas’s surveys.
The Kodak No.1 Panoram camera, which Thomas used, was manufactured between 1900 and 1926. The camera had a swinging lens, which took 3.5 x 12 inch exposures across a 112 degree arc on 105 film stock. An advertisement of the time asserts that ‘The pictures taken by these instruments have a breadth and beauty not attainable with the ordinary camera. The wide scope of view makes the Panoram excellent for taking landscapes, as it can cover a wide area without the distortion incident to the use of wide angle lenses’. There is an excellent article on the Kodak No.1 Panoram at Mike Eckman Dot Com.
The more we explore Northcote Thomas’s fieldwork photography, the more we learn how innovative he was for the time. For example, during his 1910-11 tour in what was then Awka District, he experimented with using two cameras simultaneously to photograph a scene from different angles. This technique would, of course, become an important technique in cinematography. (The earliest known example of a two-camera set up in cinema was the 1911 Russian film Defence of Sevastopol.) In the example here, we can see that Thomas and his assistants simultaneously photographed what is described as the Ogugu ceremony at Agulu, south of Awka, using both the Adams Videx and Kodak Panoram cameras.
In the resultant sequences of photographs there is a further intrigue, which speaks of the ‘excess’ of the photographic image, and particularly the peripheral presences that creep into the frame without the photographer’s awareness. Of over 7,000 photographs in the archive, there are perhaps only three or four that intentionally show something of the process of Thomas’s anthropological survey work. It is only through this photographic excess that we catch glimpses of the endeavor.
To date, then, the only photographs we have seen in which we glimpse Northcote Thomas behind the camera are the reverse shots of the Ogugu ceremony at Agulu taken by one of his assistants on the Kodak Panoram. In the background of the panoramic shot we see Thomas stood behind the tripod mopping his brow together with three of his assistants and items of his kit strewn around. A rare insight into the anthropologist-photographer at work.
Autograph started in Brixton in the 1980s as the Association of Black Photographers. They are now based in a fantastic gallery and archive space in Shoreditch. Autograph’s mission is to enable to public to explore issues around identity, representation and social justice through work produced by artists who use photography and film. It has a remarkable photographic collection dating from the 1860s to the present day.
One of the big questions
that inevitably surfaces whilst working with anthropological archives is the issue
of representation. Since their first encounter with the Northcote Thomas archive,
the Art Assassins have been debating this issue and thinking about how it informs
their response to the materials. This has led them to devise a manifesto to
problems we encounter via the archive should be reflected in our work
will document our understanding of the archive as it changes over time
consider our individual relationship to the archive given our different
will avoid replicating the problematic methodologies associated with the
will question what the value of the archive is for young people today
To explore this further the group have participated in two workshops with Ali Eisa, Public Programme Manager at Autograph, which looked at how people and communities are represented in contemporary photographic archives. We asked Art Assassin, Jordan Minga, and Ali Eisa to talk a bit more about what we got up to in the workshops.
Can you give some background to Autograph as an organisation and the archive that it has collected?
Ali: Autograph shares the work of artists who use photography and film to highlight issues of identity, representation, human rights and social justice. Since its foundation in 1988, Autograph has collected photographic material, which reflects our mission: to use photography to explore questions of cultural identity, race, representation, human rights and social justice. The Archive constitutes Autograph’s permanent collection of photography, and covers key periods in the formation of culturally diverse communities in Britain, including the post-war Windrush generation and Victorian era. It contains photographic works made by renowned fine artists, social documentary and high street studio photographers, plus personal family albums and vernacular imagery.
What did you do with Ali in the first session at Autograph?
Jordan: The first thing we did at Autograph was explore the current exhibition of work by the British-Liberian artist Lina Iris Viktor. After that we had the pleasure of getting to look at three portfolios of photographs in the Autograph collection. We discussed the compositions and the intentions of the photographers.
What was the intention of introducing the Art Assassins to the different collections that Autograph has collected in its own archive?
Ali: The intention was to introduce the Art
Assassins to a contemporary photographic archive that can give them a critical
perspective on issues of representation, race, identity, human rights. This was
seen as important in the project because the young people are responding to a
colonial era archive, which from a contemporary perspective is highly
problematic in its representation of the black subject. So, we were interested
in generating a critical conversation with the young people around issues of
representation, history, memory and identity with the intention of developing
how they look at the colonial archive, and what kinds of questions they might
ask of it.
At the first session you said that you’d never really looked into the lives of young black people in London in the past. What did you find interesting about seeing those photographs?
Jordan: I have always had an interest in the history of the area I live in. We looked at a series of works entitled Lovers’ Rock by John Goto. It was interesting to learn that the subjects of the photographs were young people from a Youth Centre in South London. It helped me discover the fashion of young people around my age in that time period. I can now imagine myself in the 1970s!
In the second workshop the Art Assassins made collages that combined the imagery from the Autograph archives and the Northcote Thomas archive. How did the collage exercise try and address the difficulties of representation in the images?
Ali: The collage exercise was really great
because you are forced in the making of the work to put different images into
conversation. It also allows you to layer images on top of one another, to give
them new ways of relating and new contexts to look at them. It was an activity
that allowed the young people to tell their own story about these images and
how they think we might start to view them. What was really interesting was how
easy it was to start mistaking the Northcote Thomas images from the Autograph
ones, once they had been creatively collaged. It showed how important a
creative response is to telling new stories and thinking forward in the
project, how this group of young people can rethink and reframe the Thomas
archive to say something about our contemporary world.
Jordan, how did the collage exercise change the way you thought about the photos from the different archives?
Jordan: The collaging exercise showed me a lot about he the contrast between the contents of the archives. Through college, I got to play with the images. Changing the symbolism of the photography was fun as we gave them new meanings.
During our fieldwork retracing the journeys made by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone, it is a real privilege when we are able to identify the descendants of people that Thomas photographed. Photographs of individuals taken in the context of a colonial project are set free from the archive and become transformed into something magical, able to bring people face-to-face with their ancestors for the first time. People often remark with wonder how, after over a hundred years, through the [Re:]Entanglements project, the photographs have made their way back to the communities where they were taken.
When we visited Samaya, in Tambakha chiefdom, Sierra Leone, the power of photography and material culture to transport us in time and space was brought together. When Northcote Thomas visited Samaya in 1914, he made a number of photographs of Chief Almami Suri Kandeh. Suri Kandeh was a powerful paramount chief, reputed to have had 75 wives! The present paramount chief, Kandeh Sori Kakanday III, is a direct descendant of Suri Kandeh and was overjoyed to see the photograph of his illustrious ancestor.
Thomas photographed Chief Suri Kandeh wearing his regalia of office, including a silver medal known locally as the kingbatankeh – the ‘king’s chain’. We were thrilled to hear that the medal still formed part of the paramount chief’s regalia. The kingbatankeh is not normally seen other than on special occasions, and it is normally only worn by a paramount chief once he has passed through kantha, a period of ritual seclusion, traditionally part of a chief’s coronation in northern Sierra Leone. Due to the exceptional circumstances of our visit, however, a ceremony was performed and we were able to see the kingbatankeh and photograph Kandeh Sori Kakanday III wearing it, even though he had yet to pass through kantha.
Actually, there are two kingbatankeh in Samaya, and this is something of a mystery. Thomas’s photographs of Chief Suri Kandeh show him wearing a medal with a suspension mount by which it is attached to a chain. According to an article in Sierra Leone Studies written by Robert de Zouche Hall, Governor of Sierra Leone between 1952 and 1956, this silver medal had been given to Samaya’s chief by Governor Sir Frederic Cardew in the late 1890s. This was around the time of the anti-colonial Hut Tax War in Northern Sierra Leone, suggesting that Samaya had been loyal to the British during the uprising. The medal, of a type struck in 1883, is still in the possession of the chiefdom, and bears the head of Queen Victoria.
We do not know the exact year that Suri Kandeh was crowned as paramount chief, so it is uncertain whether it was he himself who was awarded the medal by Cardew or his predecessor in office, Kandeh Satanlai. We do know, however, that Chief Suri Kandeh was held in high esteem by the British colonial authorities. In a colonial intelligence report on Sierra Leone’s protectorate chiefs, dating to 1912, it is stated that Alimami Suri ‘rules his country very well, and is highly respected by his subjects. A strict Mohomedan, and a true friend to the Government’.
The second kingbatankeh in Samaya is larger, does not have a suspension mount, bears the head of King George III and is dated 1814. These medals were known to have been distributed to ‘friendly chiefs’ in Sierra Leone in the 1820s and 30s. ‘Friendly chiefs’ were those who were willing to sign treaties and align their interests with the British. Such treaty-making exploited enmities between local polities and was an insidious form of colonial expansion, eventually giving rise to the declaration of Sierra Leone as a British protectorate in 1896. The circumstances and date at which this larger medal came to Samaya are, however, not known to us.
In his 1959 Sierra Leone Studies article, Hall notes that one of the 1814 medals was in the possession of Paramount Chief Bai Samura of Sanda Loko chiefdom. According to Hall’s source (a colonial district officer), the medal was presented to Samura Renjia, a Loko chief based at Kamalo. Northcote Thomas’s tour took him to Kamalo in Sanda Loko after Samaya, and although Thomas made a photograph of the reigning paramount chief – also named Samura – this unfortunately appears to have been lost. When we visited Kamalo, we were, however, shown a photograph of Paramount Chief Samura Bangura, who reigned between 1942 and 1972, by his grandson Simeon F Bangura.
This photograph shows his grandfather wearing what is known in Kamalo as the kingdollar – the medal with George III’s head clearly visible. This was also part of the chiefly regalia. Interestingly, even though the medal is known as the king’s dollar, the story is that it was presented by Queen Victoria. It might be noted that a treaty was signed between Sanda Loko and the British government in 1837, the year that Victoria came to the throne – it was on such occasions that the medals were presented (indeed, they are sometimes called ‘treaty medals’). It is not known what happened to the kingdollar.
These medals have an interesting history. As Hall notes, the 1814 medal was originally struck as a reward to North American Indian Chiefs who had supported Britain during the so-called War of 1812 with the United States of America. Similar medals had been used as ‘tokens of friendship’ since the eighteenth century, often on the signing of treaties – a practice sometimes referred to as ‘peace medal diplomacy’.
The practice of presenting medals to ‘friendly chiefs’ was subsequently introduced in West Africa. Hall discusses the various issues of medals used in Sierra Leone, including the two types we encountered in Samaya. Other types can be found on display at the Sierra Leone National Museum, including a much poorer quality pewter version of the 1814 medal introduced by Governor Arthur Kennedy in 1853. These were evidently of such inferior quality that chiefs were ashamed to wear them.
When Governor Arthur Havelock revived the practice of medal giving in the 1880s (a time of extensive British colonial expansion and treaty-making in Sierra Leone), it was with the new, high quality, solid silver issue bearing the head of Queen Victoria – just like the one that Chief Suri Kandeh wears around his neck in Northcote Thomas’s photographs.
As we have been pursuing this research, we have encountered various other photographs of the Northcote Thomas collections. Indeed, we have discovered that some objects in the collections have been photographed many times since they were collected – starting in 1909 with Northcote Thomas’s own field photographs. In this article, we bring some of these photographs together as a kind of visual history of the photographic documentation of the collections.
The relationship between photography, ethnographic objects and ethnographic display has been the subject of much academic discussion. The manner in which objects have been photographed has shaped how such objects have been perceived, often within a strong Western modernist aesthetic, constituting them as ‘art objects’. Walker Evans‘ photographic documentation of African masks and sculptures displayed at the ‘African Negro Art‘ exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1935 is a famous case and has been the subject of an exhibition and catalogue in its own right – Perfect Documents. As well as lighting and framing, a key part of this aesthetic is the separation of an object from its context, accentuating the object’s formal qualities, while disembedding it from the cultural context that often gives an object its original meaning and significance. This practice was evident in Northcote Thomas’s own use of a blank photographic background sheet, and it is there, too, in our own photographic documentation of the objects. It has been difficult to escape these dominant photographic tropes, although we have also tried to experiment with other approaches in our creative collaborations with local artists.
Northcote Thomas, 1909-15
Northcote Thomas made extensive use of photography during his anthropological surveys as we have discussed in many other project blog posts. While much of his photographic documentation was focused on people and their cultural practices, he also devoted considerable energy to photographing local material culture, including everyday utensils, tools and technologies, as well as ‘decorative art’ and objects associated with ceremonies, rituals and ‘secret societies’. Much of this material culture was photographed in situ in its cultural as well as physical context. Very occasionally it appears that Thomas acquired objects that he had first photographed in their original context, such as this ikenga-like figure that Thomas collected in Fugar in the north of present-day Edo State, Nigeria.
In addition to photographing objects in situ, Thomas also photographed objects isolated from their cultural context. This is evident, for example, in these photographs of masks collected by Thomas during his first and second tours respectively. Thomas photographed many masquerade performances, showing how masks were just a part of a much more elaborate performative display that included full costumes, music, dance, other ceremonial objects and audience interaction. On occasion, he was able to collect entire masquerade costumes, but, as with other collectors, he also collected head pieces alone. While we do not know the circumstances in which he collected these for sure, we do know that at least some of the objects he collected were specially commissioned from artists – this may have been the case with these masks from Fugar and Agukwu. Note the physical arrangement of the masks from Fugar on the left, and the use of backdrop and a book as an improvised mount in the photograph on the right.
During Thomas’s second tour, which focused on the Igbo-speaking peoples of what was then Awka District (present-day Anambra State, Nigeria), Thomas started lining up the objects he had collected to photograph them prior to having them shipped to the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (then known as the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology). This example shows a series of items with Thomas’s original object numbers (352 to 372), collected in Awgbu and Enugu Ukwu. One can get a good sense of Thomas’s photographic backcloth here, supported on bamboo canes, which were in turn supported by two assistants, whose hands can be seen on either side! These photographs have been extremely useful in identifying Thomas’s collections in the Museum’s stores today, since many objects have since become separated from their labels. We have not, however, been able to locate all these objects.
Arts of West Africa, 1935
To date, the earliest photographs we have discovered of Thomas collections after they had entered the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge were published in 1935, 20 years after Thomas returned from his final tour. These are two photographs of the same Aule mask collected by Thomas in Agenebode, North Edo, in 1909. They were published in a book entitled Arts of West Africa, which was commissioned by the UK’s Colonial Office following the recommendation of its Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies. In the acknowledgements it is stated that the book’s plates were produced by the ‘expert photographers’ of the Empire Marketing Board, under the supervision of John Grierson, pioneer of the British Documentary Film Movement. It is also noted that ‘the British Museum afforded special facilities for the photography of [the] objects’, including those lent by other museums. It is likely, therefore, that the Aule mask was sent to the British Museum to be photographed.
It is interesting that the editors of the book considered it worthwhile to illustrate the mask with two different views (it is the only example in the book). In the description of the mask in the text, reference is made to photographs taken by Thomas of Igbo hair designs similar to those carved on the mask published in Peoples of All Nations in c.1920. The photographs show how lighting and camera angle can be used to dramatize the appearance of the mask.
British Museum, dates unknown
We have recently chanced upon a series of photographs of Northcote Thomas collections in the British Museum. Only one of these had a catalogue note mentioning the name of Thomas, but we were able to identify others and the British Museum catalogue will be updated accordingly. It is not clear whether the photographs were all taken at the same time, or if they were photographed at the British Museum or supplied to the Museum by Cambridge. Nor do we have any information about the year in which they were taken. It is possible that they were also photographed for the Arts of West Africa book, but not included – we don’t know.
Below we provide three examples, juxtaposed with our own photographs of the same objects. These highlight another value of historical photographs of objects, insofar as we are able to compare them with the objects as we encounter them today. The first photograph is of the same Aule mask collected by Thomas in Agenebode and published in Arts of West Africa. As can be seen in the recent photograph on the right, the mask has been fitted onto a wooden display mount. These mounts are also evident in some of the Len Morley photographs taken in the late 1940s. This mount is not present in the British Museum photograph of the same mask on the left, suggesting that the photograph was indeed taken earlier – perhaps in the 1930s.
Comparing historical and contemporary photographs also allows us to gather information about the changing condition of objects. The foot of this ngene shrine figure from Awgbu, for example, has clearly been damaged since the British Museum photograph on the left was made. Actually, during our collections-based research, we have located the missing part of the foot and this figure will be repaired prior to being displayed at the [Re:]Entanglements project exhibition in London in 2020.
In the example below, we can see that a piece of patterned cloth was originally attached to the mask when it was collected and has subsequently been lost. In fact, on closer inspection, we see that this is the same Obo mask collected in Fugar that Morley photographed (see below). The negative of Morley’s photograph has been printed back to front, such that the large crack that appears on the left side of the helmet can be see on the opposite side. The fact that the mask is attached to a wooden mount in Morley’s photograph of 1949, but is no longer attached to the cloth, also suggests that the British Museum photographs are earlier. Today, both the cloth and the wooden mount are missing.
Len Morley, 1949-51
In 1947, a faculty photographer was appointed to work in the Anthropology and Archaeology sections of Cambridge University, including at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology – his name was Len Morley. He continued working at the Museum until 1974. To date we have been able to identify around 15 objects from the Thomas collections photographed by Morley between 1949 and 1951. The objects are taken against a plain background and include a small scale. Two of the masks in the examples below have been fitted with wooden mounts similar to that discussed above, giving an indication of how they would have been exhibited in the Museum at the time.
Some masks are difficult to photograph without expensive purpose-designed mounts due to their shape and weight-distribution. In one remarkable photograph taken by Len Morley, we can see how he addressed this problem by getting an assistant, or perhaps a member of the Museum’s curatorial staff, to wear the mask. The area around the mask has then been painted out on the print making it suitable for publication purposes.
African art publications, 1960s-80s
A number of objects from the Northcote Thomas collections have featured as plates in more recent popular reference works on African art. In African Sculpture by William Fagg and Margaret Plass, first published in 1964, the authors use explicitly European art historical vocabularies to discuss African objects. At the time the book was published, Fagg was Deputy Keeper of Ethnography at the British Museum. Margaret and Webster Plass were American collectors of African art; Margaret donated their collection to the British Museum after her husband Webster’s death in 1952.
Fagg and Plass use the example of a mask Thomas identifies as agbazi, which was collected in Fugar in 1909 to illustrate what they refer to as an ‘African Gothic’ style (‘the strong tendency towards a ‘Gothic‘ verticality in African woodcarving’, p.101). The mask, which also appears in the photographs at the top of this post, appears to have been photographed lying on the floor of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge.
Like William Fagg, Frank Willett was a leading Africanist anthropologist and archaeologist. Having spent a number of years working in the antiquities department in Nigeria in the 1950s, at the time he published his classic survey of African art in 1971 he was Professor of African Art and Archaeology at Northwestern University in the USA. African Art has remained in print ever since, and was revised in 2002. Willett used a photograph of a carved wooden figure Thomas collected in Sabongida, in the so-called Ora country, north of Benin City in his introductory chapter, discussing the development of the study of African art.
Willett refers to the ‘cubist qualities’ reflected in the artistic traditions of the Edo-speaking peoples. He also notes how little known these artistic traditions are when compared to the ‘better known art of the Benin court’. Thomas’s label and catalogue entry describe the figure merely as a doll. A piece of string is tied around its neck, attached to which are two cowrie shells.
A photograph of the Isi abogefi mask collected by Thomas in Agukwu, discussed above, was published by G. I. Jones in his monograph, The Art of Eastern Nigeria, published in 1984. Gwilym Iwan Jones was a colonial administrator in Igbo-speaking Eastern Nigeria between 1926 and 1946. During his time in the Colonial Service he undertook anthropological training at Oxford. In 1946, he left the Colonial Service and became a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Cambridge, specializing in Igbo art. Jones made extensive collections himself, now in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and he was also an expert photographer – his photographs of Igbo masquerade performances are especially well-known. In the 1930s and 40s, he worked in many of the same areas that Thomas visited during his second and third tours (1910-13), and he makes frequent reference to Thomas’s collections in the book.
Jones uses the mask as a particularly fine example of a ‘maiden spirit’ helmet mask. The marked-up, camera-ready artwork used in the production of Jones’ book can be found in the archives of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, among Jones’ papers.
Jean Borgatti, 1969
In 1969, the art historian Jean Borgatti conducted the first comprehensive research on Northcote Thomas’s collections, focusing on the material he collected in North Edo sixty years previously. This research would form an important part of Borgatti’s MA dissertation, ‘The Northern Edo of Southern Nigeria: An Art Historical Geography of Akoko-Edo, Ivbiosakon, Etsako and Ishan’, submitted to the University of California, Los Angeles in 1971. Her decision to concentrate on this area was a response to William Fagg’s observation that ‘the arts of the Northern Edo and Ishan have remained “a universe … practically unknown to the outside world, but which is extremely rich in new forms”‘ (Borgatti 1971: 2). Building on her MA work, she would go on to conduct PhD research in the same region and, indeed, devote much of her career to studying the arts and masquerade of North Edo (see, for example, her guest blogs for the [Re:]Entanglements project).
Borgatti made extensive use of photography in her research on the Thomas collections at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, using formal analysis to categorize the artworks according to a series of ‘style provinces’. She focused especially on carved figures and mask types. As well as presenting the photographs in the appendix of her MA thesis, she used these in her PhD fieldwork, during which she would rephotograph many of the same masquerade types, providing a remarkable analysis of how they have changed and developed over several decades.
Roger Blench and Mark Alexander, 1983-90
Prior to the [Re:]Entanglements project, the most sustained attempt to document Northcote Thomas’s collections was carried out by Roger Blench and Mark Alexander in the 1980s. Blench and Alexander were graduate students in the Anthropology Department at Cambridge. Together they set about cataloguing Thomas’s papers, sound recordings, photographs and material culture collections across various institutions. Blench presented an overview of the results of this survey in an article, ‘The Work of N. W. Thomas as Government Anthropologist in Nigeria’, published in The Nigerian Field in 1995. They also published a bibliography of Thomas’s written works, while Alexander used Thomas as one of a number of case studies in his MPhil dissertation, ‘Colonialism and the Political Context of Collection: A Case Study of Nigerian Collections in the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’, submitted in 1982.
As part of this work, Blench and Alexander created a computerized database of the Thomas collections and photographs in Cambridge, and photographed as many of the objects as they could locate. Blench notes that many seemed to be missing. In the early 1990s, Blench and Alexander pursued other interests and passed on their catalogue and photographs to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Their photographs are pinned to the reverse of the Thomas object index cards in the Museum’s original card index catalogue system. While we have made many discoveries since, Blench and Alexander’s work with Thomas’s collections may certainly be regarded as laying the foundations of the [Re:]Entanglements project.
In the context of historical
ethnographic collections, of course, the absence of a named individual artist
or maker is the norm, rather than the exception. We’ll return to this issue,
but first let us take a look at the two artworks/artefacts collected by Thomas
that feature in the exhibition.
Z 14207: Lamellophone(ibweze)
According to Thomas’s label, this lamellophone or thumb piano was collected in 1911 in Enugu-ukwu, south-west of Awka, in present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. It is one of a number of lamellophones collected by Thomas. The Igbo word for a lamellophone is ubọ-aka, and it is thus curious why Thomas gives this particular instrument the name ibweze. According to Dr Ikenna Onwuegbuna, a lecturer in the Music Department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and native of Awka, ibweze – which should actually be spelt ibhe-eze – means simply ‘the thing belonging to the king’, or ‘the king’s thing’, and is not the name of an instrument at all. Onwuegbuna speculates that this ubo-aka was made for the Eze (king) or a musician in his court.
Judging from the lamellophones collected by Thomas, they were a medium for displaying the virtuosity of those who made them as well as the musicians who played them. However, the ibweze is particularly remarkable given the elaborate superstructure (indeed, a lamellophone fit for a king!). The finger-board, which has six cane tongues, is mounted onto a wooden block. Above the finger-board, this has been carved with two human faces, one facing front, one facing back, as well as two antelope heads facing left and right. Surmounted on the antelopes’ horns is a cat-like creature – probably a leopard given its spots. The leopard is also a symbol of kingship.
The elaborate carving makes the instrument heavy and poorly balanced. One would imagine that it is impossible to play, but Thomas also took a series of photographs of the ibweze being played along with a drum, which Thomas also acquired. In his register book, Thomas describes the photograph series simply as ‘Young men’s dance’. A further photograph shows both the thumb piano and the drum (Z 14200) lined up before a backcloth with other objects that he had collected in Enugu-ukwu.
We know that Thomas purchased objects for his collections and he also commissioned artists and craftspeople to make things for him. We do not know, however, whether the ibweze was a specially commissioned piece. If it was, we might speculate that the ibweze-maker used the opportunity to show off his skills as an artist, perhaps aware that his work would travel to a distant land, carrying his reputation and fame with it. Did he imagine that 108 years later, his masterpiece would be displayed in a fine art gallery in Cambridge?! If Thomas did commission the ibweze, it is possible that he was aware of the artist’s name – what a shame that he appears not to have recorded it.
Z 25889: Carved and painted
The second object from the Thomas collections featuring in the ‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition is much more enigmatic. The label is of a kind that was attached to Thomas’s collections when they were originally accessioned at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It reads simply ‘Head, one side painted white, the other with white spots, straw round neck’. There is no surviving record of where it was collected or what its original purpose or function was, let alone who created it.
Unlike the ibweze, Thomas
took no photographs showing the carving in situ prior to being collected. There
are, however, some formal similarities with some shrine figures photographed by
Thomas in December 1909 in Aja-Eyube (spelled Ajeyube by Thomas), which is now
a suburb of Agbarho in Delta State, Nigeria. This is, however, inconclusive.
The division of the body using paint – in this case white on the right side, and spotted on the left – has cosmological significance and is found on both carved figures and human bodies. The Anglican missionary, George Basden, published a photograph of a man with his left side painted white in his book Niger Ibos [sic] (1938), which he stated represented the dualism of ‘body’ and ‘spirit’.
More than many of the objects that Thomas collected, this carved wooden head perhaps most closely resembles an ‘art object’, the primary function of which is aesthetic.
In a podcast accompanying the ‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition, Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Nicholas Thomas (no relation to Northcote!) reflects on historical distinctions between art museums and ethnographic museums. In the following excerpt he discusses a Fijian painted barkcloth from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology that also appears in the ‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition, but the broader points apply equally to the Nigerian objects.
Whereas (Western) art objects are
often valued because of their association with individual artists, (non-Western)
ethnographic objects were historically valued as ‘specimens’ of the material
culture of particular societies and cultural groups. Although they recognized
and appreciated the skills and artistry of individual makers, anthropological
collectors such as Northcote Thomas were primarily interested in what material
culture could tell them about a given ‘people’. Thus, Thomas conceptualised his
collections in terms of ‘technologies’, or their function in relation to religion
and ritual. He was also interested in documenting ‘decorative arts’, both in
architecture and artefacts. This was, however, principally of interest insofar
as distinctive styles and techniques were perceived to delineate cultural
boundaries and influences. Thomas used art(efacts) much as he used language and
physical type photography as a tool in cultural mapping.
It was only in the 1980s that the
distinction between art objects and ethnographic objects began to be questioned
critically. This period also saw the rebranding of many ethnographic collections
as ‘World Art’. Today, acknowledging the individuality of the artists and
craftspeople responsible for making these works is part of a decolonisation agenda.
The reduction of singular works such as the ibweze or carved head
collected by Thomas to representative specimens, with the corresponding erasure
of the identities of their individual makers, is part of the epistemic violence
of colonialism. But, at the same time, we might also question whether the
highly-commoditised global art system, with its obsession with the named celebrity
artist, represents another form of coloniality, obscuring other possible artworlds
in which creativity is not necessarily the property and outcome of individual
As part of our exploration of the contemporary value of the colonial-era collections and archives assembled by the Government Anthropologist, Northcote Thomas, in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915, we are working with various young artists in the areas in which Thomas worked. To facilitate this, we have held a series of workshops in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, at Nosona Studios in Benin City, and at the Sierra Leone National Museum in Freetown. We have also been developing collaborations with more established artists, for instance with Kelani Abass, Mike Omoighe and Ndidi Dike in Nigeria, and with Charlie Haffner in Sierra Leone.
At the workshops we have been introducing artists to the Northcote Thomas archives and collections, and discussing the context of the colonial anthropological surveys through which they were assembled. We have then looked at other examples of how contemporary artists have engaged with the colonial archive in their work – often as a way of interrogating or critiquing colonialism and its legacies. Participants then discuss their initial ideas for how they might respond specifically to the Northcote Thomas collections through their art practice. After the initial workshops we have held follow-up sessions and been in close contact with the artists as they have developed their initial ideas and begun producing their works. We report here on just a few of these works-in-progress.
Contemporary artworks resulting from these collaborations will be exhibited at a series of exhibitions over the coming months and years. The first will open at Nosona Studios, Benin City, in July 2019, to coincide with a meeting of the Benin Dialogue Group (a forum to discuss the future of antiquities looted from Benin during the 1897 Punitive Expedition). Then exhibitions will be taking place at the National Museum, Lagos and Sierra Leone National Museum in October 2019, followed by an exhibition at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. A selection of the works will then be redisplayed in the large [Re:]Entanglements exhibition that will be taking place at the Brunei Gallery in London between October and December 2020.
Further updates and individual profiles of the artists and their works will be posted to the blog in due course.
Although there were many early experiments with colour photography from the 1850s, it was not until the mid-1930s, with the introduction of Kodachrome film, that it became widely used. All of Northcote Thomas’s photographs made during his anthropological surveys of Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915 were monochrome. Since the beginning of photography, however, various techniques have been used to hand-colour monochrome prints. Hand-colouring photographic prints using a fine brush with different kinds of dyes, watercolours and oils was a highly-skilled task. Demand for hand-coloured photographs reached its peak in the early twentieth century.
To date, we have come across only one historical example of a photograph taken by Thomas that has been hand-coloured. This was published in the serialised pictorial encyclopaedia, Peoples of All Nations, around 1920. In the section entitled ‘British Empire in Africa’ Thomas contributed around 23 photographs, many of which have been touched-up for publication, among these is the colour plate disparagingly entitled ‘Gewgaws of Primitive Society’. The photograph shows two young girls, which Thomas elsewhere describes as ‘onye ebuci’, adorned with bracelets of hippo ivory, anklets and garters of cowries, and necklaces and headdresses of long red beads. In addition to colouring the photograph, a vaguely ‘tropical’ background has been painted in place of Thomas’s calico photographic backdrop.
Today, with digital tools such as Adobe Photoshop, new possibilities for colourising historical monochrome photographs present themselves, though the process is no less skilled. Artist and Ukpuru blogger, Chiadikōbi Nwaubani has long been interested in historical visual representations of Nigeria and has been digitally colourising some of the Northcote Thomas photographic archive.
I’ve started colouring some of the photographs from the Northcote collection and I’m focusing mainly on the photos of his tours of the Igbo area. Since the colouring is partly based on guess work, some knowledge about the culture helps in deciding what is coloured what, such as the indigo cloth in the picture of the Eze Nri. Resist-dyed indigo cloth like that is still popularly used and I could notice the depth of the grey and the patterns and guess that it was one of the indigo cloths.
I started colouring some of these pictures a few years ago from digital scans of the printed Anthropological Report volumes. I was looking at other areas of the past, and at the time I used the Northcote Thomas images to practice colouring photos. I think the impact of the original black and white photos was less than these coloured versions because of the quality, but there was another sense of familiarity that was added to the pictures after they were coloured, partly because the age and the surroundings had already made the images quite distant.
One of the reactions to Northcote’s pictures I’ve heard is that ‘they don’t look like Igbo people’ (by some Igbo people referring to the pictures he took of Igbo people), and I think this was partly because of the lack of reference for anything in the pictures that they can relate to today, which may also be related to the ambiguity that black and white gives some objects, in this case cultural ones. The colourisation adds another sense of life to the photos, which also includes the colouring of material culture.
On 19-20 September 2018, the first of three workshops that we are organizing as part of the Museum Affordances project took place at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge. The workshops seek to bridge the worlds of museum and archives scholarship and practice, and critically explore the concept of ‘affordance’ in relation to different spheres of museum and archive work. The first workshop focused on collections; subsequent workshops – to be held in Berlin and Leiden respectively – will focus on museum interventions and museum exhibitions. One of the objectives of the workshop series is to contextualize our work with the N. W. Thomas collections and archives in relation to other innovative museum and archive projects currently taking place.
One of the participants, Cécile Bründlmayer of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, kindly agreed to write a guest blog summarizing some of the presentations and discussions that took place.
I was recently fortunate to attend a two-day workshop with the title ‘Museum Affordances’ at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. The venue served as an excellent background to kick off a series of three workshops over the span of three years which are loosely based around three broad dimensions of museum work, starting with the topic of collections and then continuing with the topics of interventions and exhibitions. The workshops are part of a research project funded by the UK’s Art and Humanities Research Council which is engaging with a multifaceted ethnographic archive assembled by the colonial anthropologist, Northcote W. Thomas, in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915.
Within that context, the first workshop on collections served as a means to ask how the concept of affordances might help in order to address current questions concerning ethnographic museum practice. Applying the concept to specific case examples served as an interesting tool for experimental brainstorming which raised a lot of thought provoking questions.
Introduction: The affordance concept and its application to ethnographic museum practice
The workshop started with an introduction to the Museum Affordances project by Paul Basu (SOAS University of London, UK). He started by positioning the project within a broader context of questioning the continued relevance of ethnographic museums and their collections today, particularly confronting the colonial entanglements of these institutions and what these entanglements mean in a postcolonial or decolonizing world.
He presented the concept of ‘affordances‘ which was developed in the 1970s by the American psychologist James Gibson who described the term in the following way: ‘The affordance of anything is a specific combination of (its) properties in light of what it offers, provides, or furnishes for the animal that perceives it’ (Gibson 1977). So while properties are objective phenomena with an existence independent of values and meanings, they serve as affordances only in particular combinations and relative to particular actors. Based on this concept, the following questions where discussed throughout the workshop: What do museums afford? What do they make possible?
Panel 1: Changing contexts, changing perceptions
Chaired by Nicholas Thomas, Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Cambridge (UK)
The first panel dealt with examples of how the changing of time and context affects the perception of particular affordances. Dan Gilfoyle from The National Archives (UK) opened the panel with a talk about the archive of the Colonial Office which was responsible for the overall administration of the British Empire. The Colonial Office gathered an enormous amount of documentation about the Empires’ administration, from correspondence letters to maps and photographs. From the 1870s on the Colonial Office appointed scientific specialists to work in and for the colonies: one of them was the anthropologist, N. W. Thomas. Despite some small achievements in language teaching for colonial officers, his work wasn’t considered a success during his time and the results of his project have remained hidden in the archives for over 100 years. The affordances that Thomas’ collections might offer are therefore latent and unused. While Thomas’ work didn’t afford much in the eyes of his past employers, what might it afford today?
Chris Wingfield, senior lecturer at the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania & the Americas (UK), then shifted the focus to the London Missionary Society, its history and questions of affordance and affordability. Based on the collecting history of the London Missionary Society, he reflected on the tension between affordances and affordability. If affordances are unlimited, he asked, how is it possible that only some of them are activated and others are not? How are the affordances of collections affected by institutional considerations, including judgments of value and cost? How do people negotiate affordability? As he showed with the example of the London Missionary Society, the perception of affordability of collecting or of an existing collection changes throughout time. The same collection can be considered useless in one context and useful in another.
Michael Aird from the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Queensland (Australia) then continued to reflect upon his exhibition ‘Transforming Tindale’, which was shown at the state library of Queensland in 2010. In that exhibition, he displayed a collection of photographs taken in 1938 by the prominent scientist Norman Tindale, an Australian anthropologist who documented about 5,000 Aboriginal people for the government. As part of the exhibition, Michael Aird reunited the photographs with their depicted subjects or their descendants. As most of the people that have been photographed by Tindale were on governmental reserves and had no chance to refuse to be photographed, Aird’s presentation prompted a long debate about the ethics of exhibiting photographs that where taken under forced conditions.
Panel 2: Engaging with collections, perceiving affordances
Chaired by Haidy Geismar, Department of Anthropology, University College London (UK)
George Agbo, a postdoctoral researcher on the Museum Affordances project based Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Cambridge (UK) opened the second panel by asking what digital photography affords when working with collections, taking his own work with the N. W. Thomas collection as an example. He pointed towards the ability of digital photography to get closer to the objects and to be able to reunite objects that were originally collected together but which have become separated in the museum stores. He also stressed the affordance of digital photography to put the collection online and circulate it. What happens when you do that? He provided examples of discussions from the project’s own Facebook Group, which has a growing number of Nigerian and Sierra Leonean members. Finally, he discussed different methods of photographing the objects and the specific qualities of a photographed object. How to capture the integrity of an object? What happens when you manipulate the background of the object? Is the environment not part of the object? And what are the things that photography cannot afford, such as the smell, sound or touch of an object?
Philipp Schorch from the Staatliche Ethnographische Sammlungen Sachsen (Germany) then continued with a presentation about an experiment he undertook together with his students and the German art historian/philosopher Bruno Haas. Based on the example of a Tatanua mask from Papua New Guinea, he started with the following questions: What can a mask tell us? How can we see the mask for what it is and not for what it supposes to represent through a typical anthropological or art historical lens? By referring to Bruno Haas’ recent work, ‘Die ikonischen Situationen’, he tried to come closer to the structures that show themselves in the singular piece, starting with the specific formal qualities of the object, and ignoring preconceived notions such as ritual or ethnic group, in order to approach the mask in all its individuality.
Finally, Dean Sully, from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London (UK) took us through the everyday life of a conservator and revealed the tools, techniques and thought processes that come together in contemporary museum conservation practice. He presented heritage conservation as a broader analysis of the past which affords an understanding of the world from the traces left behind by people. The analytical process of conservation reveals how museum objects may have been used in the past, how they transmitted agency to the present and how they impact the lives of people now and in the future. Through the enduring presence of heritage places and objects cultural practices can be rethought, reimagined and revitalised continuously.
Panel 3: Whose affordances? Connections and communities
The second day of the workshop started with a panel focusing on questions of affordances related to collaborative work. Rita Ouedraogo from the Research Centre for Material Culture at the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (The Netherlands) started by presenting a project she conducted within the context of the 60-year celebration of Ghana’s independence. For the project she invited people who feel a connection to Ghana to look at the Ghanaian objects in the collections of the Tropenmuseum and choose objects that related to them. After several months of talks, meetings and depot visits, one person became intrigued by a Fanti canoe, which became the centre of a series of discussions. What does the canoe represent or make possible for the differently-positioned participants of the project? What does the object afford to whom? Do all such affordances co-exist harmoniously?
Maria-Katharina Lang from the Institut für Sozialanthropologie, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften (Austria) then continued to present her work with a collection from Mongolia, which was gathered by the Austrian natural scientist Hans Leder during the second half of the 19th century. Shortly after the objects arrived in Europe, Buddhism was forcefully eliminated in Mongolia, monasteries were closed or even destroyed. With her project, which was called called ‘Nomadic Artefacts‘, Maria-Katharina Lang tried to reassemble the dispersed collection, which got distributed among different museums. She then linked the objects with specific regions and people and conducted interviews with monks, herders and museum workers in Mongolia about the collection and its meanings. The results of the project were presented in an innovative exhibition and website.
Chris Morton from the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford (UK), then continued with a presentation about a collection of physical anthropology photographs from Botswana, discussing its original context and his recent work with the community. The collection comprises photographs of the San people in Botswana taken by the anthropologist Joseph Weiner in the 1950s. Weiner was part of an expedition into the central Kalahari, where he led one of the physical anthropology sub-sections. The latter focused his work on taking blood and hair samples, measuring skin color, genitalia, muscle strength, weight measure and photographs, based on a systematized method to document physique. Despite the huge effort, the work was not successful and the methods fell into disrepute – an example of ‘false affordances’, in which the project failed to deliver what it promised. Chris Morton asked what the photographs might afford the communities in which they were taken today and presented some preliminary findings in which the photographs were perceived very differently. While the photographs represent an anthropological ‘dead end’, how might they be useful for the future? Who decides what the future of such a collection is?
Chaired by Wayne Modest, Research Centre for Material Culture at the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (The Netherlands)
Michael Barrett, curator at the Varldkultur Museerna, Stockholm (Sweden) opened the panel with a presentation of a project he started in 2017, a long term public engagement in collaboration with people of African descent in Sweden whose purpose is to adopt new perspectives in order to make the museum more relevant for a broader and more engaged audience. In the course of a workshop series called ‘Encountering the collection’ he tried to ease out previously unacknowledged affordances of the collections together with the participants. His case study showed that ethnographic collections may afford some aspects of a utopian ‘Afropean’ museum, which includes highlighting and questioning cultural and social identities. The project also afforded uncovering entangled histories between Sweden and Ethiopia which allowed a reflection on the historical development of African identities in Europe/Sweden.
Annette Schmidt from the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (The Netherlands) then shed light on the hidden affordances of so-called ‘tourist art’ from the Museum’s Lower Congo collection in order to unpack the local perspective on life in the region during the period 1850 to 1908, covering a time frame in which power relations between the local rulers and the European traders changed dramatically. Annette Schmidt emphasized the potential of tourist art as representatives of the local Congolese view of Europeans. Can it provide a new perspective on the history that for so long has been told from the perspective of the colonisers?
Sharon Macdonald and Tal Adler from the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH) at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin (Germany) concluded the panel with a talk about the project ‘TRACES’ (Transmitting Contentious Cultural Heritages with the Arts, From Intervention to Co-Production) which allowed artists, researchers and museum staff to engage on a long term basis with ethically problematic collections. Tal Adler presented his work on a collection of human skulls and photographs from the Natural History Museum in Vienna and showed clips of a film that resulted from his work.
Panel 5: Focus on sound
Chaired by Ikenna Onwuegbuna, Department of Music, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (Nigeria)
Finally, the last panel focused on sound archives. Janet Topp Fargion from the British Library (UK) presented her work at the British Library Sound Archive and the challenges of making its large collection available (online and offline) to all kinds of communities. She emphasized the importance of recirculating the collections in order to keep languages and cultural traditions alive. She provided examples of the connections with communities being made through the sound elicitation work being done as part of the Museum Affordances project.
Yvonne Mbanefo from the Igbo Studies Initiative (UK), then gave a talk about the possibilities of historical sound recordings and what can be done with it. Alarmed by the language and culture decline in Nigeria, she started to record oral histories in her native language Igbo which triggered strong interest in many different groups. With the example of two audio files from the N. W. Thomas collection, she demonstrated the creative possibilities inherent in these recordings. She demonstrated how one of Thomas’s recordings of a traditional folktale could be transcribed, translated and re-recorded, forming the basis for a Igbo language training resource for children. From linguistic information to the creation of text-based T-Shirts in the Igbo language or inspiration for rap-songs and new choreographies, Yvonne Mbanefo argued that the possibilities to create something new out of old sound recordings are endless. The more museums involve the community the more ideas can be found.
Throughout the workshop, questions and discussions opened up a variety of different topics concerning the usability of the concept of affordances for museum practice. All presentations made clear that affordances change over time and that while the possibilities they enable are seemingly endless, they are still limited by certain restraints which are connected to certain institutional, academic or historical contexts as well as to ethical or political views. It became clear that museum affordances are made up of latent relations between things, people and intentions, which are interdependent, changeable and in constant mutual exchange and can be (re)activated within different contexts.
Haidy Geismar stressed the tension between the ecological definition of affordance by James Gibson which is about understanding the entangled nature of things and their environment and the idea of a pure and unmediated engagement with an object. How can we stick with the ecological complexity? And what does engaging with the object really mean?
An important topic circulated around questions of how to find ways to apply the concept of affordances within museum practices and what ethical and political questions emerge while doing that. When opening up a collection and making all affordances accessible, isn’t there also a danger of losing control over misuse and misapplication? How to deal with this tension of wanting to make the collection and its affordances accessible while having to consider ethical and political issues at the same time?
With reference to Michael Aird’s ‘Transforming Tindale’ exhibition, Sharon Macdonald asked about the limits of aesthetization, which prompted a long discussion about the aesthetization of potentially discriminating photographs. How far does one affordance play off against others? How do you decide if a photograph can be shown or not? Does the strength of the people looking into the camera transcend their status as victims, as Michael Aird suggested? Nicholas Thomas argued that it is not constructive to stick to a rigid methodology in order to judge if some photographs are appropriate and others are not. Deciding whether or not photographs are potentially hurtful is a social process and always depends on the specific objects or photographs and what people are doing with them or how they respond to them. The discussion then turned towards the question of the responsibility of the curator concerning the openness of contentious collections. Who should be allowed to use them and for what? And what role does the institutional context play? What is the difference in storing or exhibiting problematic collections in ethnographic museums, art galleries or natural history museums?
The presentations of collaborative projects then prompted discussion on how these projects serve to rethink the ethnographic archive and push beyond their original intentions. Can the ethnographic museum be reframed not as a problematic site, but as a more hopeful place for discussing identity in a novel way?
Finally, with regard to the last two presentations, Wayne Modest asked about the affordance of sound in relation to the visual. Does it afford something different? By pointing to the large amount of research that has been done on the nature of sound, Janet Topp Fargion stressed the immersive quality of sound which has the ability to trigger strong emotional reactions. When seeking to reveal the hidden affordances of museum collections, audio recordings have as much potential for collaborative projects as material objects or photographs do.
Cécile Bründlmayer studied Social and Cultural Anthropology and Fine Arts in Vienna and currently works as research associate and curator at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. Prior to this she worked at the Weltmuseum Wien (former Museum of Ethnology, Vienna) during the process of re-establishing and reconceptualising the entire new permanent exhibition.
To date, we have found just one photograph that shows Thomas’s phonograph in use in the field. This photograph was taken in Agila (then spelled ‘Agala’), in present-day Benue State, and is captioned in Thomas’s photo register merely as ‘dancing’. Thomas made only a few sound recordings in Agila, all on 4th June 1913, including this one of a female vocal group (British Library C51/3222).
Northcote Thomas’s recording ‘ident’ can be heard at the beginning of the track, ‘Agala, June the 4th, 1913’, followed by the womens’ song. It is likely this was recorded as part of the session captured on the photograph in front of a large group of local spectators (including lots of children), who were no doubt intrigued by the strange presence of the ‘Government Anthropologist’ in their town.
Although Thomas’s third anthropological survey, which took place in 1912-13, was intended to focus on Igbo-speaking communities in what was then Asaba District, west of the Niger River, he also spent three months travelling to towns in eastern Igbo areas, including Owerri, Aba, Ikot Ekpene, Afikpo, Obubra, Ikom, Agila and Nkalagu.
Along with the sound archives and collections of artefacts, the photographic legacy of N. W. Thomas’s anthropological surveys in West Africa provide a remarkable record of life in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the early twentieth century. As part of a ‘scientific’ endeavour, they were intended primarily as a form of ethnographic documentation and also constituted ‘data’ in themselves – particularly with regard to physical type photography. As part of a government-sponsored project, their entanglement in colonial power relations and racial representation/categorisation is unavoidable. This political context must be the primary lens through which we approach these images and practices.
Working through this vast archive of photographs, however, one is also struck occasionally by the aesthetic qualities of the images. This extends to both portraiture – which, in many cases, complicates our reading of these as ‘physical type’ photographs (this will be the subject of a future blog) – and what we might call ‘still life’ photographs. Indeed, as the examples included here show, Thomas’s photographs of material culture or architectural details are sometimes strongly redolent of the early still-life photography of Fox Talbot or Daguerre . This includes photographs of what appear to be ‘found scenes’ as well as compositions in which objects have been arranged purposefully for the camera. (Compare, for example, with Fox Talbot’s ‘The Open Door‘ and Daguerre’s ‘Fossils and Shells‘.)
This reminds us of a dual characteristic of photography that has been present throughout the history of the medium – that photography has been regarded as both a medium for the objective documentation of reality, independent of the photographer’s ‘artistry’, and as a medium of subjective artistic expression akin to painting or drawing. In the context of Thomas’s anthropological survey photography, a further question is raised regarding whether we may appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the photographs, while being mindful (and critical) of the racial/colonial politics in which they are entangled?