Ukhurhẹ – ancestors, archives, interventions

Ukhure carvings commissioned by Northcote Thomas in University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
A selection of ukhurhẹ ancestral staffs collected by Northcote Thomas in the care of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Photograph by George Agbo.

The painstaking archival and collections-based research made possible through the Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements project enables us to make novel connections between objects, images, texts and sounds, and opens up new avenues of understanding. Working with the material legacies of Northcote Thomas‘s anthropological surveys in West Africa provides insight into cultural practices of the past, challenges assumptions about colonial collecting, and presents possibilities for creativity and collaboration in the present.

When we first examined a remarkable assemblage of 39 carved wooden ukhurhẹ staffs in the Northcote Thomas Collection at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in 2018, we were immediately struck by the freshness of their appearance. As far as we know, they have never been on public display and they had the appearance of coming straight from the carver’s workshop – despite being at least 110 years old.

Brian Heyer provides a succinct summary of such ‘rattle-staffs’ in Kathy Curnow’s book Iyare! Splendor & Tension in Benin’s Palace Theatre. He writes,

When an Ẹdo man dies it is his eldest son’s duty to commission an ukhurhẹ in his honor. He then places it on the family altar as the only essential ritual object there. An ukhurhẹ consists of a wooden staff divided into segments designed to resemble the ukhurhẹ-oho, a bamboo-like plant that grows wild near Benin City. Each segment represents a single lifespan, and linked they are a visual symbol of ancestry and continuity. Their mass numbers on altars stress the importance of the group over the individual.

The top segment of the ukhurhẹ is hollowed by slits, a wooden piece remaining within. This acts as a rattle when the staff is stamped on the ground, a sound said to call the ancestors.

Ukhurhẹ topped by heads are standard for commoners and chiefs. Royal family members’ examples end in hands or hands holding mudfish. Only the Oba’s ukhurhẹ can be made from brass or ivory, though even most of the royal staffs are usually wooden, made by the members of the Igbesanmwan royal carving guild.

Northcote Thomas encountered these ukhurhẹ staffs during his 1909-10 anthropological survey of the Edo people of Southern Nigeria. They were – and, indeed, still are – an important part of the ancestral altars located in chiefly families’ palaces and compounds. Thomas photographed a number of such altars in Benin City itself and in the wider region. In Uzebba, for instance, Thomas noted that ukhurhẹ (which he spelled uxure or uchure) were known as ikuta, but fulfilled a similar memorial function – presencing the ancestors.

Northcote Thomas photographs of ukhure on ancestral altars, Benin City, 1909
Left: Ikuta at ancestral shrine in Uzebba, 1909 (NWT 546, RAI 400.15687); Right: Ukhurhẹ propped against the back wall of Chief Ezomo’s ancestral altar, Benin City, 1909 (NWT 160, RAI 400.17962). Photographs by Northcote Thomas, courtesy Royal Anthropological Institute.

In his Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, published in 1910, Thomas explains that these staves – also widely known as rattle-staffs – represent particular male ancestors. They are placed on the family altar after the death of the family head, once he has transitioned into the status of an ancestor. The ukhurhẹ is a manifestation of the ancestor’s spirit, and the family make sacrifices to the ukhurhẹ to honour and seek the intercession of their departed kin. Over the generations the staffs accumulate, alongside other altar objects such as ivory tusks, memorial heads, bells and stone celts.

Excerpt from Northcote Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Southern Nigeria, 1910
Excerpt from Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria (London, 1910), describing the uchure (ukhurhẹ).

In unpublished notes, Thomas describes the practices surround the ukhure in greater detail. He describes, for example, Chief Ero‘s yearly sacrifice to his ancestors in which the blood of sacrificed cows, goats and fowl was smeared on the staffs. He describes how the ukhurhẹ propped against the wall at the ‘shrine of the father’ in Chief Ezomo‘s compound were stained dark brown due to these ‘repeated outpourings of blood’. He also reports that Ero could only give the names of two of the ancestors represented by the staffs, suggesting that the massed staffs come to represent the ancestors in a more collective sense.

In addition to the rattle-staffs found on ancestral altars, Thomas also documents the use of larger, more elaborately carved ukhurhẹ of community cults associated with various divinities. In October 1909, Thomas spent several days observing the festival of the Ovia cult in the town of Iyowa, a few miles north of Benin City. He documented the ceremonies, songs and dances in great detail. (This will be the subject of a future article). The ukhurhẹ of Ovia plays a central part in the festival as a manifestation of the deity itself. The figure on the top of the ukhurhẹ has the same form as the Ovia masquerade, which carries it.

Northcote Thomas's photographs of Ovia Festival, Iyowa, 1909
Left: Ovia masquerade holding the ukhurhẹ (NWT 1276, MAA P.29433); Middle: boys holding Ovia ukhurhẹ staffs for Thomas to photographs, note that the carved figure at the top of each staff has the form of the Ovia masquerade (NWT 1253, RAI 400.18358); Right: Cowries are offered to Ovia on the second day of the festival (NWT 1267, RAI 400.18370). Photographs by Northcote Thomas, courtesy Royal Anthropological Institute and University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology.
Northcote Thomas's typescript notes on the Ovia Festival, Iyowa, 1909
Pages from Northcote Thomas’s unpublished typescript notes about the Ovia Festival, including description of the use of ukhurhẹ. Click image to enlarge.

Forty-four years after Northcote Thomas documented the Ovia Festival at Iyowa, another anthropologist – R. E. Bradbury – made a study of the same festival at Ehor, another village on the northern outskirts of Benin City. Bradbury writes that the ukhurhẹ ‘are the real symbols of Ovia’; ‘they are about four and a half feet high, carved with representations of the Ovia masquerades. They, more than anything else, are identified with Ovia herself who is sometimes said to enter them when she is called upon by the priests’.

Representations of Ovia on ukhure
Left: Detail of two of the Ovia ukhurhẹ photographed by Northcote Thomas in Iyowa (NWT 1253, RAI 400.18358); Right: Detail of Ovia ukhurhẹ collected by Northcote Thomas in Benin City in 1909 (NWT 296, MAA Z 20328). The carved figure has the same form as the Ovia masquerade, with its network headdress surmounted with parrot feather plumes, and crossed sticks beaten during the Ovia dances.

In The Art of Benin, art historian Paula Girschick Ben-Amos explains that the ukhurhẹ of these ‘hero deities’ are ‘different from the more commonly seen ancestral staffs, as they are much thicker and have the figure of a priest or other objects specific to the cult as a finial’. ‘The rattle staff,’ she writes, ‘is both a means of communication with the spirit world, achieved when the staff is struck upon the ground, and a staff of authority, to be wielded only by properly designated persons’.

It is interesting to note that Thomas did not collect any ukhurhẹ that had actually been used in rituals either on ancestral altars or in cult ceremonies. And this brings us back to our initial impressions of the assemblage of ukhurhẹ we encountered in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores in 2018.

Ukhure carvings commissioned by Northcote Thomas in University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
A selection of ukhure ancestral staffs collected by Northcote Thomas in the care of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Photograph by Paul Basu.

Prior to our examination of the staves we had found an intriguing exchange of letters between Northcote Thomas and Charles Hercules Read, who, in 1909, was Keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography at the British Museum. The letters show that Thomas was under the impression that Read had agreed to acquire the collections he had been gathering during his survey, reimbursing his initial outlay in purchasing them. It is clear, however, that Read was not interested in the kinds of ‘ethnographical specimens’ that Thomas was collecting. Writing from Benin City in July 1909, Thomas explained, for example, that ‘I have ordered all the “jujus” of Benin City to be carved, probable cost £25’. Read replied in August that ‘I am by no means sure that I want these modern things made to order as it were, unless they serve some definite and immediate purpose’.

Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and C. H. Read of the British Museum, 1909
Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and C. H. Read of the British Museum, 14 July 1909 and 20 August 1909. British Museum original correspondence. Click image to enlarge.

Given the freshness of the carvings, we suspected that the carved ‘jujus’ Thomas refers to in this letter were the ukhurhẹ staffs, each surmounted with a figure representing a different deity or ebo. Confirmation of this came, by chance, a couple of years later, when we found a further reference to the carvings in correspondence between Thomas and the German anthropologist Bernhard Struck, curator at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Dresden. Thomas and Struck maintained a professional correspondence over many years and, in a 1924 letter sent from his home near Oswestry, Thomas provides detailed corrections and comments on an scholarly article Struck was evidently working on. In a digression, Thomas notes that ‘There are 30-40 ebo; I have commissioned [herstellen lassen] the uxure from Eholo nigbesawa. They are in Cambridge’.

Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and Bernhard Struck
Excerpts from a letter from Northcote Thomas to Bernhard Struck, 6 August 1924. Thomas was a fluent German speaker/writer. In the letter Thomas comments on the manuscript of an article Struck is writing; this seems to correspond with Struck’s essay ‘Chronologie der Benin-Altertümer’ [Chronology of Benin Antiquities], but this was published in the journal Zeitschrift für Ethnologie in 1923.

Elsewhere in the same letter, Thomas explains that ‘Eholo nigbesawa’ means Eholo the woodworker [Holzarbeiter]. In fact, however, Eholo is the title given to the head of the wood and ivory carvers’ guild, the Igbesanmwan – and the name/title should be Eholo N’Igbesamwan. It seems, therefore, that Thomas commissioned the ukhurhẹ from Eholo N’Igbesamwan and they were either carved by him personally or by other members of the guild. According to the Historical UK inflation rate calculator, the estimated cost of £25 corresponds to approximately £2850 today, so this would have been a significant and lucrative commission.

The story of how the ukhurhẹ were obtained is important, not least since it challenges stereotypical assumptions that colonial-era collectors such as Thomas either looted objects from sacred sites or else exploited local craftspeople by paying paltry sums for their work.

Whereas Read saw little value or purpose in these ‘modern things made to order’, it appears that, for Thomas, this was an opportunity to assemble what he perceived as a complete set of representations of Edo deities in a traditional form. While many of these deities are associated with identifiable symbols or regalia, such as that of Ovia, Thomas may have been projecting his own assumptions about the distinct visual representation of each ebo when he commissioned them to be carved in this way. Perhaps the carvers even encouraged him in this belief! In the labels attached to each ukhurhẹ and in the corresponding catalogue of collections, each is given its name.

Excerpt from catalogue of objects collected by Northcote Thomas in Southern Nigeria, 1909-10
Above: Pages from the collections catalogue from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 tour, listing the names of the various ebo represented on the ukhurhẹ staffs; Below: Carved figures on the tops of the ukhurhẹ commissioned by Thomas, corresponding to the list above. Click images to enlarge.

Carvers still produce ukhurhẹ in Benin City today, and many families still maintain traditional ancestral altars in their compounds.

Ukhure for sale in carvers' shops in Benin City
Ukhurhẹ for sale in carvers’ shops in Benin City today. Left, the shop of William Edosomwan, Igun Street; Right, Emma O. Carving Depot, Igbesanmwan Street. Photographs by Paul Basu.
Ukhure on ancestral altar at Ezomo's Palace, Benin City
Chief Ezomo, James Okponmwense, shows us the ancestral shrine at his Palace. None of the ukhurhẹ are of particular antiquity. He explained that most of the shrine objects were sold or stolen in the 1980s. Photograph by Paul Basu.

As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we commissioned an ukhurhẹ to be made as a memorial to Northcote Thomas himself. We worked with traditional carver Felix Ekhator, who has a workshop on Sokponba Road, Benin City, just opposite the famous Igun Street. Felix’s first calling was as a professional wrestler, but in the late 1970s he followed in his father’s footsteps and focused on woodworking as a career. He made our ukhurhẹ in the traditional way from the wood of a kola tree, which is hard and durable. At its top Felix carved the figure of Northcote Thomas, copying his posture and clothing from a photograph taken on his 1909-10 tour.

Felix Ekhator carving new commission of ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Above and below: Felix Ekhator working on the Northcote Thomas ukhurhẹ in his workshop off Sokponba Road, Benin City. Photographs by George Agbo.
Felix Ekhator carving new commission of ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Felix Ekhator and the finished ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Felix Ekhator with the finished Northcote Thomas ukhurhẹ. Photograph by Paul Basu.

The finished ukhurhẹ will be displayed alongside a selection of those commissioned by Thomas 110 years previously in Benin City at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition scheduled to open at SOAS’s Brunei Gallery in January 2021. In the exhibition, which will transfer to the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in April 2021, our intention is to use contemporary artworks, such as Felix Ekhator’s ukhurhẹ, as interventions, disrupting conventional expectations of what an ‘ethnographic’ or ‘historical’ display should be, and provoking further questions. Should, for example, we honour Northcote Thomas, the colonial-era anthropologist, as an ancestor? Should we introduce his presence, his agency, alongside the cultural artefacts that he caused to be produced?

Mock up of [Re:]Entanglements exhibition display of ukhure collected by Northcote Thomas
Initial mock-up of the planned display of ukhurhẹ at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition. Felix Ekhator’s contemporary ukhure disrupts our reading of the historical ‘specimens’ commissioned by Thomas. Visualisation by Paul Basu.

We gratefully acknowledge a small grant from the Crowther-Beynon Fund that enabled us to commission the new ukhurhẹ from Felix Ekhator.

Art, appropriation, activism

Rosa Johan Uddoh, South London Gallery
Photographs of Benin objects from the Northcote Thomas collection. Artist Rosa-Johan Uddoh preparing for a workshop with the Art Assassins 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 collections and archives assembled by the colonial anthropologist, Northcote Thomas, in Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the early 20th century, and consider their 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 second artist to collaborate with the group is Rosa-Johan Uddoh. Rosa is an interdisciplinary artist inspired by black feminist practice and writing. Using performance, ceramics and sound, she explores a seeming infatuation with places, objects and celebrities in British popular culture, and the effects of these on self-formation. Rosa originally studied architecture at university, and she continues to draw upon this background, rooting stories in specific spaces and materials. 

Rosa Johan Uddoh, The Serve, 2007
Blurring reality and fiction, Rosa-Johan Uddoh’s performance art, The Serve, 2017-19. Photograph by Sam Nightingale.

For her project with the Art Assassins, Rosa is working with the group to create a performance piece inspired by the material culture collections made by Thomas, now in the care of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Linking back to her own practice, Rosa is challenging the group to consider what these objects can tell us about colonial legacies in contemporary British society. Confronted with the huge number of items within the collection, the Art Assassins and Rosa have chosen to focus on materials Thomas collected from Benin City, in present day Edo State, Nigeria. Benin and Britain both possessed empires – a fact that has provided a starting point for the Art Assassins’ performance.

Art Assassins workshop with Rosa Johan Uddoh, South London Gallery
Rosa and the Art Assassins working on their collages at the South London Gallery.

In her first workshop with the Art Assassins, Rosa asked the group to explore the possible dialogues between the Benin City objects and contemporary British culture. Presenting the group with a stack of free newspapers, Rosa asked the Art Assassins to produce collaborative collages that juxtaposed the objects with images of celebrities, current affairs headlines and advertisements. When sharing back their finished collages, the group discussed whether notions of empire were still prevalent in the UK today and how pop culture can address serious subjects.

Rosa Johan Uddoh, Benin collage
Examples of the Art Assassin’s collaborative collages – appropriating the archive, juxtaposing historical collections from Benin with newspaper images, headlines and adverts.
Art Assassins, Benin collages

In the next workshop the Art Assassins started to plan more specifically which objects they would focus on for their performance. By looking into the biographies of objects in more detail, via the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Cambridge’s online catalogue, the group found out about their origins. Rosa then asked the group to ‘cast’ these objects into a TV show format of their choice. By combining the object biographies with a TV show structure the group then formed possible narratives for the performance. These played out the complex relationship between anthropology and its subjects and objects.

Art Assassins workshop with Rosa Johan Uddoh, South London Gallery
Rosa and the Art Assassins discussing TV show narratives inspired by the object biographies of material culture collections assembled by Northcote Thomas in Benin City.

In recent workshops the Art Assassins have been working on ideas for the costume in their performance. As research the group have been looking at how archival objects and images have been appropriated in design for activism and protest. The group explored examples such as Black Lives Matter in the USA, Sisters Uncut in the UK and the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eight Amendment in Ireland. These have all used strategies of appropriation, scaling and performance to convey a message.

Black Lives Matter, Eric Garner eyes
Examples of the appropriation of images and objects in activism. Above, Black Lives Matter protesters march behind a large banner featuring a photograph of the eyes of Eric Garner, New York City, 2014 (Photograph JR-ART.net); Below, Rachel Fallon’s ‘Aprons of Power‘, part of the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eight Amendment, Limerick, 2018. (Photographs by Darren Ryan and Alison Laredo.)

Over the next months the Art Assassins will continue to work with Rosa to develop the narrative, costumes and staging for their performance. They will also participate in museum conservation training at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology to learn more about uncovering the stories that objects in the Thomas collection can tell.

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 Mia and Phaedra reflect on the workshops run by Rosa.

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.

Traditional Nigerian Folktales

Pages from Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria; Part IV: Proverbs, Stories, Tones in Ibo (London, 1914). Click here to open in a new browser window.

In the early 20th century, the disciplines of anthropology and folklore studies were very close. Prior to his appointment as Government Anthropologist in 1909, Northcote Thomas was a member of the Councils of both the Royal Anthropological Institute and the Folklore Society. Folklorists, in particular, documented traditional stories and songs, and Thomas had edited a number of such collections.

During his anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone, Thomas recorded many stories on wax cylinder phonographs. He transcribed and published many of these in his Anthropological Reports and in articles in the journal Man. Other than regarding these as specimens of ‘native texts’ (though, of course, they were not ‘texts’ but oral traditions), he provided little explanation or commentary. Given that his surveys were intended to be of practical value to the colonial governments that were funding them, neither did he attempt to explain the utility of collecting the stories from a governmental perspective. As with so many aspects of Thomas’s surveys, while the value of the research at the time was unclear, the significance of the recordings as historical documents is now considerable.

The recordings are, however, challenging to listen to and the transcriptions and translations Thomas provided have many errors and inconsistencies. The potential for future research is immense. To illustrate this the [Re:]Entanglements project has worked with Yvonne Mbanefo of the Igbo Studies Initiative and Ugonna Umeike of the Department of Fine and Applied Art, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to bring some of the stories to life. Yvonne has rendered some of the stories into contemporary Standard Igbo, re-recorded and translated them, while Ugonna has illustrated the stories, drawing upon Northcote Thomas’s photographs for visual reference. Here is one of the stories Thomas recorded in Asaba in 1913…

Akuko onye isi, onye ngwuro, ogbenye na Eze

(The Story of the Blind Man, the Cripple, the Poor Man, the Thief and the King)

Above: Ugonna Umeike’s illustration of the story; below: some of Northcote Thomas’s photographs used as visual references informing the illustration.
Northcote Thomas’s original 1913 recording of the story. NWT 613. (British Library C51/2930.)
Re-recording of the story in Standard Igbo. Transcription/translation by Yvonne Mbanefo; voiced by Oba Kosi Nwoba.

Otu nwoke onye isi nọ n’obodo ọ maara ọfuma oge oke ụganị dakwasara ya.
A blind man was in a town that he knew very well when a great famine befell him.
Ọ gara na be Eze obodo ahụ, wee yọọ ya nri.
He went to the king of that town, and asked him for food.
Eze nyere ya ji na anụ, ọ wee were obi aṅụrị pụọ.
The king gave him yams and meat, and he walked away rejoicing.
Mana tupuu ọ pụọ, Eze nyere ya ndụmọdụ, gwa ya ka ọ ghara ịgwa onye ọbụla na e nyere ya nri.
But before he went the king advised him not to tell anyone that he was given the food items.
Ọ pụwara, wee hụ onye ngwụrọ bụ onye oke agụụ ji,
He walked  away and  met the cripple who was very hungry
Wee gwa ya ka ọ gaa na nke Eze ka ọ nata ya ihe oriri.
And he told him to go to the king to receive things to eat from him.
Onye ngwụrọ gakwuuru Eze wee yọọ ya nri.
The cripple went to the king and asked him for food.
Eze jụrụ ya onye gwara ya na ọ nwere nri.
The king asked him who told him he had food.
O kwuru na ọ bụ onye isi gwara ya.
He said it was the blind man that told him.
Eze weere ji na anụ nye ya, ka o si nye onye isi.
The king took yams and meat and gave to him as he gave to the blind man.
Ọ nyekwara ya otu ndụmọdụ ahụ.
He gave him the same advice.
Ozugbo nje, onye ngwụrọ wee jiri nwayọọ wee laa.
Immediately the cripple went quietly.
Ọ gatụrụ n’ụzọ, wee hụ ogbenye, malite kwuwe n’olu ike
He went a little way, then met a poor man and began saying in a loud voice,
“Gakwuru Eze maka oke nke gị; ọ na-eyere ndị nwere nsogbu.”
“Go to the king for your share; he is aiding the helpless.”
Ogbenye gakwuuru Eze wee yọọ ya oke nke ya.
The poor man went to the king and at once asked for his own share.
Eze jụrụ ya onye gwara ya na ọ na-enye ndị mmadụ nri.
The king asked him who told him he was giving food to people.
O kwuru na ọ bụ onye ngwụrọ.
He said it was the cripple.
Eze nyere ya ihe ka o sị nye Onye ngwụrọ, wee gwakwa ya ihe ọ gwara ya (onye ngwụrọ).
The king gave to him as he gave to the cripple, and told him the same word he told him (the cripple).
Ogbenye pụwara, wee hụ onye ohi.
The poor man went away and saw a thief.
Onye ohi yọrọ ya gwa ya ebe ọ nwetara ji na anụ mana ogbenye ekweghịị.
The thief begged him to tell him where he got yams and meat but the poor man refused.  
Onye ohi gakwuuru Eze ka ọ yọọ ya nri.
The thief went to the king to ask for food.
Eze jụrụ ya onye ọ hụrụ n’ụzọ.
The king asked him whom he met on the road.
Ọ gwara ya na ọ bụ onye ngwụrọ.
He said it was the cripple.
Eze jụrụ ya ma ọ nwere ihe ọ gwara ya, ọ wee sị mba.
The king asked him whether he told him anything and he said no.
Ọ gwara ya gaa n’ụlọ onye isi na onye ngwụrọ, zuo ihe ha nwere.
He said go to the house of the blind man and cripple and steal what they have.
Eze gwakwara ya hapụ ogbenye, ka a ghara ikpe ya n’aka Eze.
The king told him to leave the poor man alone so that he does not get reported to the king.
Onye ohi zuuru ihe onye isi, ma onye isi ahụghị ya, zuo ihe onye ngwụrọ ma onye ngwụrọ enweghi ike iso ya.
The thief robbed the blind man who didn’t see him, he robbed the cripple who couldn’t chase after him.
Ọ bụrụ na o zuuru ihe ogbenye, Ogbenye ga- ekpe ya n’aka Eze.
If he had robbed the poor man, the poor man would have reported him to the king.


Many thanks Yvonne, Kosi and Ugonna for bringing this story to life for us!

[Re:]Entangled Traditions exhibition, Nsukka

Re-entangled Traditions exhibition, University of Nigeria, Nsukka
‘Red cap chiefs’ appreciating Chijioke Onuora’s large scale batik portrait of Ezeana Odigbo.

For 10 days in February 2020, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka hosted the third [Re:]Entanglements project exhibition to take place in Nigeria. The exhibition, ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions: Nsukka Experiments with an Anthropological Archive’, was the culmination of a collaboration between the project and eleven artists associated with the famous ‘Nsukka Art School‘, as well as colleagues from the departments of Music and Linguistics.

Nsukka’s Department of Fine and Applied Arts was established in 1961 by Ben Enwonwu and was one of the earliest departments of the University of Nigeria. The Department became famous in the years following the Biafran War (1967-70) when luminaries such as Uche Okeke, Chike Aniakor and Obiora Udechukwu began turning away from Western art traditions and finding inspiration in indigenous art, culture and philosophy. In particular a number of artists began rediscovering and experimenting with Igbo uli body and wall art traditions. Northcote Thomas‘s photographs are some of the earliest and most comprehensive visual documentations of uli wall paintings. This represents an important new reservoir of traditional uli work and, not surprisingly, a number of the participating artists drew upon these photographs in their contemporary works in different media.

Re-entangled Traditions exhibition, University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Visitors at the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

As with earlier exhibitions in Benin City and Lagos, the objective of the collaboration was to explore the ‘creative affordances‘ of the photographs, sound recordings and artefact collections produced during Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys in Nigeria between 1909 and 1913. As the leading university in the Igbo-speaking region of Nigeria, the Nsukka collaboration focused on materials assembled by Thomas during his second and third tours – those focusing on areas of what are now Anambra and Delta states.

The collaboration began in 2018 with an open workshop to introduce prospective participants to the [Re:]Entanglements project and Thomas’s archival materials. Following a call to submit proposals, projects were given the go-ahead and provided with a budget to cover materials and expenses. A follow-up workshop took place in 2019 in which participants presented their works-in-progress.

The exhibition was opened by HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu, the Omu Anioma, a well known female chief from Delta State. The Omu has been a close friend of the [Re:]Entanglements project since our visit to Okpanam. In a very moving speech Obi Martha Dunkwu told the story of how Northcote Thomas’s 1912 photograph of the Omu of Okpanam settled a dispute in which the Omu’s right to wear the red cap of chiefly office had been contested. The story illustrated powerfully how these colonial era archives could intervene in contemporary issues. The Omu explained that this was no small matter.

Re-entangled Traditions exhibition, University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Scenes from the opening event with special guest HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu, the Omu Anioma.

There was a lively and well-attended opening ceremony in which each of the artists presented their work to the Omu and her entourage. The event was accompanied by a traditional music ensemble made up of students of the Department of Music under the direction of Ikenna Onwuegbuna, Head of the Department of Music. The music included versions of songs originally recorded by Northcote Thomas himself.

Re-entangled Traditions exhibition, University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Artist Chinyere Odinukwe introducing her work to HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu and other guests at the exhibition opening.

In ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’, each of the artists took on a particular Igbo cultural ‘tradition’ – uli body and wall painting, ichi scarification, hair-styles, clothing, wrestling – that featured in Northcote Thomas’s photographic archive. These visual references formed the basis of their experiments. In the following sections we present each of the participating artists’ works juxtaposed with some of the Northcote Thomas photographs that inspired them. The musicological and linguistic contributions to the exhibition are the subject of separate blog posts (see Revisiting some Awka folksongs).

Chijioke Onuora, Ezeana Obidigbo

Chijioke Onuora, Ezeana Obidigbo
Chijioke Onuora, Ezeana Obidigbo, 2019, batik, 396x207cm
Chijioke Onuora, Ezeana Obidigbo - Northcote Thomas reference
Listen to Chijioke Onuora discussing his training at the ‘Nsukka Art School’, his contribution to the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition and the significance of the N. W. Thomas archives.

Chijioke Onuora is Head of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He initially trained at Nsukka as a sculptor in the early 1980s and was taught and influenced by many of the leading figures of the ‘Nsukka School’. Through this training he came to appreciate the traditional Igbo art that was fast disappearing in his village in the Awka area and made studies of shrine carvings. For his PhD in Art History, Onuora made an extensive study of ikolo drums, including their sculptural, musical and socio-cultural dimensions.

Onuora works across many different media, though he regards drawing – the line – as fundamental to all these. For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ collaboration, he was particularly interested in re-engaging with Igbo ichi scarification, with its linear markings. As a child, Onuora encountered men – and, indeed, one woman – bearing these marks. Now he believes there is just one elderly man in his village who has still has the marks.

When he was introduced to the Northcote Thomas archives as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, he was struck by the large number of photographs of men of all ages with ichi scarification. This has inspired him to focus on ichi in his ongoing work.

Onuora produced two monumental batik works for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition. The first is a portrait of Ezeana Obidigbo of Neni, originally photographed by Thomas in 1911. Onuora’s village was close to Neni and his grandparents walked every week to the Oye market there – the scene of some of Thomas’s most memorable photographs. The Umudioka community of Neni were specialist surgeons who travelled throughout the region making the ichi marks.

Chijioke Onuora, Nze na Nwunye ya
Chijioke Onuora, Nze na Nwunye ya, 2019, batik, 376x220cm.

Onuora’s second batik, ‘Nze na Nwunye ya’, is based on a photograph taken by Thomas in Agulu of a mud relief sculpture of a male and female figure, and marks a return to Onuora’s earlier work on shrine figures. The male figure again wears the ichi scarification marks. In both ‘Ezeana Obidigbo’ and ‘Nze na Nwunye ya’, the central panel is flanked by two panels evoking traditional wood carving – symbols of prestige and status – also photographed by Thomas during his 1910-11 survey of what was then Awka District.

Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi, Playing with Time and Memory

Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi, Playing with Time and Memory
Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi, Playing with Time and Memory, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 4x 101x101cm.
Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi, Playing with Time and Memory - Northcote Thomas references
Listen to Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi discussing the history of uli at the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, including his own engagement with the uli tradition.

Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi is a painter and Associate Professor in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at Nsukka. He joined the Department as an undergraduate in 1987 and, like many students of his generation, was influenced by Uche Okeke and others who had rediscovered the uli painting tradition as a demonstration of Igbo cultural resilience, first as an indigenous response to European colonialism and subsequently in the wake of the traumatic defeat of the Nigerian Civil War. Ikwuemesi was encouraged to continue the work Okeke’s generation had begun and to conduct research with the last generation of women who created uli wall paintings in the traditional setting of the village.

Although much of Ikwuemesi’s work is more overt in its political engagement, providing commentary on the violence and corruption of contemporary Nigeria, alongside this, he continues to draw upon uli explicitly in his paintings. This he sees as a form of cultural activism. In particular, Ikwuemesi is keen to promote the popularisation of uli design, so that it reaches beyond elite art audiences and collectors, and returns as a popular form.

For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Ikwuemesi drew upon Northcote Thomas’s photographs of uli wall paintings, merging motifs and linear forms from different locations, to produce a series of four acrylic paintings on canvas. The title of the series, ‘Playing with Time and Memory’, reflects both the long history of uli painting among Igbo-speaking people and his own part in that history.

Exploring Thomas’s photographs of uli wall painting, Ikwuemesi was struck by the continuities and changes in the art form. Despite the ruptures of colonialism and war, he celebrates the resilience of cultural traditions, how people continue ‘to do old things in new ways’. ‘Colonialisation’, he argues, ‘did not take away the soul of the people or the soul of their culture’.

RitaDoris Edumchieke Ubah, Igbo Kwenu

RitaDoris Ubah, Igbo Kwenu
RitaDoris Edumchieke Ubah, Igbo Kwenu, 2019, appliqué, 305x144cm.
RitaDoris Ubah, IgboKwenu - Northcote Thomas references
Listen to RitaDoris Edumchieke Ubah discussing her translation of uli mural designs into textile art and her incorporation of N. W. Thomas archives into her teaching.

RitaDoris Ubah is a Lecturer in Textile Art. She completed her BA, MFA and PhD all at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Ubah’s aunt was herself a traditional uli artist. When Ubah started teaching at Nsukka, she realised that while uli traditions had been incorporated into other forms of contemporary art practice, including painting, ceramics and other graphic arts, they had not been explored in textiles. Thus Ubah was keen to bring uli into the curriculum, whether through weaving, embroidery, knitting or appliqué.

Ubah was particularly excited to discover the rich historical documentation of uli in Northcote Thomas’s photographs. As well as inspiring her own work, she has introduced her students to the archive and it now the subject of various class assignments. She describes the photographs as a ‘landmark resource’ and explains that every student passing through Nsukka is taught about it.

RitaDoris Ubah, Oje Mba Enwe Ilo
Some of RitaDoris Edumchieke Ubah’s fashion collection inspired by N. W. Thomas’s documentation of traditional uli designs.

For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Ubah produced several works, including a large appliqué panel entitled ‘Igbo Kwenu’, a second appliqué of a masquerade figure photographed by Thomas, and fashion collection featuring uli motifs from Thomas’s photographs. Ubah is particularly interested in the history of uli as a women’s art form, originally painted on the body. (The word uli comes from the plant from which the dye is made.) Ubah’s fashion collection, which was worn by models at the exhibition opening, represents an interesting return of uli to ‘clothing’ the body.

Chinyere Odinukwe, Akwamkosa Achalugonwayi

Chinyere Odinukwe, Akwamkosa Achalugonwayi
Chinyere Odinukwe, Akwamkosa Achalugonwayi, 2019, oil on canvas, 2x 61x76cm.
Chinyere Odinukwe, Akwamkosa Achalugonwayi - Northcote Thomas references
Listen to Chinyere Odinukwe discussing her work for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition.

Chinyere Odinukwe took her BA and MA in the Department of Fine and Applied Art, Nsukka. She works mainly with acrylic paint on canvas, but also incorporates other materials in her work, notably salvaged plastics and metal foils.

For her [Re:]Entanglements project, Odinukwe wanted to juxtapose the historical and the contemporary by transforming the appearance of a woman named Nwambeke, photographed by Thomas in Nibo in 1911. (Odinukwe’s maternal home town is Nibo.) In order to do this, Odinukwe subtly altered the Nwambeke’s dress and jewellery – adding earrings, make-up and bra-top, for instance. In particular, she transformed her wrapper from a locally-made plain cotton garment (akwamkosa) into a dazzling contemporary fabric.

Odinukwe replaces Thomas’s plain photographic backdrop with a background inspired by one of Thomas’s photographs of uli wall painting.

Chinyere Odinukwe, Ulomdi
Chinyere Odinukwe, Ulomdi, 2019, oil on canvas, 76x61cm.

In re-imagining Nwambeke as a modern Nigerian woman, albeit one framed by her indigenous culture, Odinukwe draws attention to the transformed place of women in Nigerian society today. Odinukwe says that she has given this woman her freedom. She observes that, even today, some people are enslaved in their different ways of life, whether religiously, politically or pyschologically. Odinukwe argues that we should not be chained by our traditions.

Chikaogwu Kanu, Isi Mgbe Ochie

Chika Kanu, Isi Mgbe Ochie
Chikaogwu Kanu, Isi Mgbe Ochie, 2019, photography, 178x114cm.
Chika Kanu, Isi Mgbe Ochie - Northcote Thomas references

Chikaowu Kanu trained at Nsukka as a sculptor. He is now pursuing a PhD in Art History, while continuing to develop his skills as a photographer, videographer and graphic designer. Familiar with the Nsukka School’s long-standing engagement with traditional uli art, Kanu was impressed by another form of body art that was very evident in Northcote Thomas’s photographs – hair dressing.

In his project for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Kanu sought to recreate some of the hairstyles that Thomas photographed. This proved to be a challenging task. It was not easy, for example, to find models willing to have their hair dressed in such remarkable styles. Others – barbers and models alike – assumed that Kanu would make lots of money from the photographs he was taking and thus demanded high fees that Kanu could not pay. Eventually, however, Kanu succeeded in collaborating with barbers and models, and displayed the results as a photo-montage in the exhibition. Kanu’s display drew a great deal of interest from visitors.

Ngozi Omeje, Eriri ji obele

Ngozi Omeye, The String That Holds the Pot
Ngozi Omeje, Eriri ji obele, 2020, clay, nylon thread, steel.
Ngozi Omeye, The String That Holds the Pot - Northcote Thomas references
Listen to Ngozi Omeje discussing her work for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition.

There is a long tradition in ceramics and installation art at the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at University of Nigeria, Nsukka, associated with artists such as El Anatsui and Ozioma Onuzulike. Ngozi Omeje is foremost in the younger generation of ceramicists at Nsukka. In 2018, when the [Re:]Entanglements project collaboration with Nsukka began, she was in the middle of producing work for her highly successful exhibition, ‘Connecting Deep’, at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos.

Omeje creates sculptures by suspending small clay pieces – miniature cups, leaves, rings, balls, etc. – on nylon threads. Often her works are of monumental proportions. For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Omeje echoed the form of an elaborated decorated clay pot photographed by Northcote Thomas by suspending miniature leaves made from clay. On the one hand, her use of leaves fashioned from clay allowed her to follow the form of the linear patterns on the pot; on the other hand they are expressive of the temporality of the archive – the play of ephemerality and permanence.

The title of Omeje’s piece, Eriri ji obele, refers to an Igbo aphorism – ‘the string that holds the pot’ (or, more correctly, ‘the string that holds the calabash’). Our lives are in God’s hands.

Chukwunonso Uzoagba, Ogu Mnwere Onwe

Chukwunonso Uzoagba, Ogu Mnwere Onwe
Chukwunonso Uzoagba, Ogu Mnwere Onwe (Struggle for Freedom), 2019, acrylic on canvas, 130x97cm.
Chukwunonso Uzoagba, Ogu Mnwere Onwe - Northcote Thomas references
Listen to Chukwunonso Uzoagba discussing his work for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition.

Chukwunonso Uzoagba in a Lecturer in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at Nsukka, specialising in graphics and art education. He has a particular research interest in Igbo rites of passage and ritual practice – aspects of traditional life that were thoroughly documented by Northcote Thomas.

When Uzoagba encountered the Northcote Thomas archives as part of the [Re:]Entanglements workshop at Nsukka, he was immediately drawn to Thomas’s photographs of wrestling matches. Wrestling was very much a traditional art form and part of festivals marking coming of age ceremonies. Combining various elements from different photographs, including a portrait of Thomas himself, Uzoagba wanted to use the wrestling match as a metaphor for the struggle of Igbo people with the forces of colonialism. The title ‘Ogo Mnwere Onwe’ translates into English as the ‘Struggle for Freedom’.

Chukwuemeka Nwigwe, Nibo Lady Fashionista, The Last Sacrifice, Eze Nri

Chukwuemeka Nwigwe, Nibo Lady Fashionista, The Last Sacrifice and Eze Nri
Chukwuemeka Nwigwe, left to right: Nibo Lady Fashionista, 2019, 87x117cm; The Last Sacrifice, 2019, 95x171cm; Eze Nri, 2019, 93x120cm; all poly material, wire gauze and acrylic.
Chukwuemeka Nwigwe, Nibo Lady Fashionista, The Last Sacrifice and Eze Nri - Northcote Thomas references
Listen to Chukwuemeka Nwigwe discussing his work for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition.

Chukwuemeka Nwigwe teaches art history, textiles and fashion at Nsukka. He has a particular interest in the history of Igbo dress and had already drawn upon the work of Northcote Thomas and other colonial-era publications in his PhD research. While Nwigwe made use of the small selection of photographs published in Thomas’s Anthropological Report of the Igbo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, through the [Re:]Entanglements project he was able to access a vast archive of thousands of images relevant to his research. He was able to utilise these in a recent postdoctoral fellowship.

For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Nwigwe produced three mixed media works, experimenting with weaving techniques inspired by the nest-building techniques of the village weaverbird to create silhouetted figures of characters from the Thomas archive. He used silhouettes to reflect the mystery surrounding these characters, which can only be seen imperfectly in Thomas’s monochrome images.

The backgrounds of each panel are made from discarded poly materials – especially brightly-coloured polythene strips used to wrap motorbike tyres. Nwigwe explains how he collected these from roadside mechanics’ shops.

Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko, The Beauty Within

Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko, The Beauty Within
Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko, The Beauty Within, 2019, tapestry weaving, embroidery, 3x 150x61cm.
Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko, The Beauty Within - Northcote Thomas references

Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko graduated from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 2018 just before the collaboration with the [Re:]Entanglements project began. She specialises in textile design. As part of her undergraduate studies, she conducted research with traditional Igbo weavers in Delta State.

When Okpoko started exploring the Northcote Thomas archives after the initial [Re:]Entanglements collaboration workshop, she was excited to see photographs of uli murals from her hometown, Agulu, in Anambra State. She chose to feature one of these in her work for the exhibition.

Her piece, entitled The Beauty Within, comprises three large panels, each reproducing the uli mural using different textile materials and techniques. The first uses tapestry weaving using a limited palette of earth colours, similar to the colours that are likely to have been used in the original wall paintings. The second panel has a tiled form, in which vibrant colours are used in the tapestry woven squares, juxtaposed with the earth colours in the other sections. The third panel is mixed media using tapestry weaving and embroidery techniques to recreate the mural in bright contemporary colours.

Ugonna Umeike, Renewal

Ugonna Umeike, Renewal
Ugonna Umeike, Renewal, 2019, digital painting.
Ugonna Umeike, Renewal - Northcote Thomas reference

Ugonna Umeike majored in sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, but he has a wide range of interests including illustration, painting and digital art. Umeike was particularly interested in Northcote Thomas’s artefact collections and field photographs of traditional material culture. These he brought to life in a series of digital illustrations that were exhibited in the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ show.

Umeike also exhibited an illustration of one of the stories that Northcote Thomas recorded and transcribed – ‘The Blind Man, the Cripple, the Poor Man, the Thief and the King’ – which will be the subject of a separate blog post. Finally. he is working on a comic strip of another story recorded by Thomas.

Ugonna Umeike, Open;y covered
Left: Ugonna Umeike, Openly Covered, 2019, digital painting; right: charm collected by N. W. Thomas, used to keep owner from getting wet when raining.

Livinus Kenechi Ngwu, Mask with ichi

Livinus Kenechi Ngwu, Mask with ichi
Left: mask featuring ichi scarifications collected by N. W. Thomas in Ugwoba; right: Livinus Kenechi Ngwu holding his freshly carved response to the mask in the N. W. Thomas collection.

Livinus Kenechi Ngwu is a Lecturer in Sculpture at Nsukka. He works in various materials. For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition Ngwu carved a wooden mask using traditional tools and techniques inspired by one of the masks collected by Northcote Thomas in 1911.

The original mask, which was collected in Ugwoba in present-day Anambra State, is described by Thomas as ‘isi maun apipi’. On its forehead are representations of the ichi scarification marks.


‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions: Nsukka Experiments with an Anthropological Archive’ was curated by George Agbo and Paul Basu. We would like to thank all the artists who participated in the collaboration. Especial thanks to Chijioke Onuora and Krydz Ikwuemesi for championing the project within the Department of Fine and Applied Arts; to Chika Kanu for designing the exhibition catalogue; to Glory Onwuasoanya Kanu for coordinating catering at the exhibition launch; to HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu for travelling from Okpanam to open the exhibition; to Emmanuel Ifoegbuike for his invaluable assistance; and to Charles Igwe, Vice Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka for supporting the initiative.

See also the following posts on other contributors to the exhibition:

  • Samson Uchenna Eze
  • Ikenna Onwuegbuna (coming soon!)
  • Gloria Okeke and Ogechukwu Miracle Uzoagba (coming soon!)

Colonial Indexicality

Kelani Abass, Stamping History series, National Museum, Lagos
Four of Kelani Abass’s ‘stamping history’ works, which form part of his Colonial Indexicality series, for the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition at the National Museum, Lagos.

On 21 September 2019, the [Re:]Entanglements: Contemporary Art & Colonial Archives exhibition opened at the National Museum, Lagos. The opening event was attended by an estimated 300 people, including many from Nigeria’s vibrant arts scene. Following on from our successful exhibition in Benin City, this collaboration between the [Re:]Entanglements project, the National Museum, and the Lagos-based artist Kelani Abass continues our exploration of artistic engagements with the archival traces of Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys.

Scenes from opening of [Re:]Entanglements exhibition, National Museum, Lagos
Scenes from the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition opening, National Museum, Lagos, 21 September 2019. Photographs by Paul Basu and Nnaemezie Asogwa.

Unlike the Benin exhibition, this initiative focused specifically on the photograph albums from Thomas’s three Nigerian surveys, which we have discovered in the National Museum library and archive collections. Indeed, these albums, dating from 1909 to 1913, appear to be the only substantial archival traces of Thomas’s anthropological surveys to have survived in Nigeria. The initiative is also different insofar as it features the work of a single artist rather than a collective.

Pages from one of the photograph albums from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 survey of Edo-speaking peoples. Note the index panel at the bottom right of each page. National Museum, Lagos.

Over the course of a year, Kelani Abass has produced two series of works for the exhibition under the common title of Colonial Indexicality. These both employ techniques developed in earlier works by Abass, including his Calendar and Stamping History series, first exhibited at exhibitions at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos in 2013 and 2016 respectively. In both of these series, Abass explored a more personal history through sifting through the archives of his parent’s printing business in Abeokuta, incorporating both the technologies of hand-operated letter-press printing and the accumulated materials – photographs, leaflets, design motifs – deposited at the press by customers. The Colonial Indexicality series produced for the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition connects this family history with a broader cultural history as refracted through Northcote Thomas’s colonial anthropological lens.

Indexicality in its most literal sense. Northcote Thomas took over 8,000 photographs during his four anthropological surveys. Each was individually numbered and entered in a pre-numbered photograph register book. We know that negative No.649 is of a boy named Ike, and that this was one of 122 photographs Thomas made in Okpe.

The pervasiveness of numbering systems and indexes are, of course, characteristics of all archives, and the archives of Thomas’s anthropological tours are no exception. Thomas numbered each of his photographic negatives, for example, and he made notes about each negative in a series of pre-numbered photographic register books. Most literally, the negative number acts as an index in relation to corresponding prints, but also indexes other information, for instance, the identity of the person photographed, where the photograph was taken, and places the particular photograph in relation to a sequence. We know, for example, that Thomas’s negative number 649 is of a boy named Ike, and is one of a series of 122 photographs that Thomas made in Okpe in present-day Edo North in 1909. There is a further note in the corresponding photographic register – ‘meas.’ – short-hand for ‘measurement’, recording that Thomas also recorded Ike’s anthropometric measurements, indexing how this young man entered other forms of colonial scientific calculation.

It is no surprise, then, that the theme of numbers and numbering emerges prominently in Abass’s artistic responses to the albums in the National Museum. Indeed, each work in the Colonial Indexicality series bears a simple number as its title – the number of the particular photograph the work itself indexes.

[Re:]Entanglements exhibition view, National Museum, Lagos
Installation view. Room 1 of the [Re:]Entanglements: Contemporary Art & Colonial Archives exhibition, National Museum, Lagos. Note the juxtaposition of Thomas’s original photograph albums, the large-scale digital prints and Kelani Abass’s paintings. Photograph by Paul Basu.

The principle of indexicality is also evident in the very grammar of the exhibition. In the first room of the exhibition, we brought three elements into relation: examples of the original photograph albums from Thomas’s 1909-10 Edo tour; enlarged digital prints of a selection of pages from these albums; and a series of 12 mixed media paintings by Abass that respond to the particular qualities of these albums.

Kelani Abass, Colonial Indexicality series, National Museum, Lagos
A page from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 Edo album alongside one of Kelani Abass’s Colonial Indexicality paintings (No.256). The index panel on the album page provides the inspiration for Abass’s background, while Thomas’s neg.256 (top left) is the source for the foreground figures.

The pages of the Edo albums are arranged in a uniform manner, with five photographs in a grid with a paper index panel cut to the same size as the prints and pasted in the grid. For each of the 55×68 cm paintings, created in acrylic and oil on canvas, mounted onto board, Abass reproduces these index panels as his backgrounds. He captures the ‘texture’ of the yellowed parchment-like paper panels, complete with Thomas’s handwriting and various other ticks, annotations and crossings-out that have been added in different coloured inks. He then selects one of the photographs from the same album page, which he paints in tones which evoke the photographic originals. The number of the photograph is used as a title for the work, which is also inset into the painting either using letterpress types or components of a numbering machine.

Kelani Abass, Colonial Indexicality series, National Museum, Lagos
Six of Kelani Abass’s Colonial Indexicality portraits, clockwise from top left, No.130, No.237A, No.239, No.248, No.245 and No.243. Acrylic, oil on canvas mounted on board with either letterpress type or numbering machine inserts.

In the second room of the exhibition, the juxtaposition of original archives, digital prints and Abass’s contemporary artworks continues. Additional themes of disintegration and dissolution are invoked here, pointing to the fragility of the archive and the impermanence of memory. In one 105×127 cm digital print of an album page from Thomas’s 1912-13 tour of Igbo-speaking peoples, for example, the faces in Thomas’s physical type photographs have faded to little more than ghostly impressions. Indeed, one objective of the exhibition was to draw attention to the urgent need for better storage and conservation of the National Museum’s important archival collections.

[Re:]Entanglements exhibition view, National Museum, Lagos
Installation view. Room 2 of the exhibition. Enlarged, ghost-like images from the Northcote Thomas albums are juxtaposed with addition examples of the historical albums themselves and with the second part of Kelani Abass’s Colonial Indexicality series. This room also featured enlarged digital prints of some of Thomas’s remarkable panoramic photoagraphs. Photograph by Paul Basu.
Broken pages from one of the albums from Northcote Thomas’s 1910-11 tour of Igbo-speaking peoples. Some of the albums in the National Museum are in extremely poor condition and in urgent need of conservation.

Abass refers to the second series of works in Colonial Indexicality as a continuation of a ‘performative oeuvre’ that ‘calls attention to the interplay of manual and mechanical processes involved in the production of printed works, photographs and drawings’. This work comprises of five interlinked 126×90 cm ‘drawings’ of Northcote Thomas photographs, which have been laboriously made using a hand numbering machine.

Kelani Abass’s hand numbering machines. He used such stamping machines as a child in his parents’ printing company, now he uses them as a medium for his performative art practice.

The use of the numbering machine as a medium again relates to Abass’s family history and childhood memories. After a day at school, Abass and his siblings would help out in their parents’ print shop, using these automatic numberers to stamp sequences of numbers in newly printed invoice books and other stationery. In relation to the [Re:]Entanglements project, Abass was struck by the sequential printed numbers evident in the stationery used by Northcote Thomas. Indeed, to create these ‘stamping history’ drawings he used stamping machines with a similar font style to the numbers used in Thomas’s photographic registers.

Kelani Abass, Stamping History series, National Museum, Lagos
Juxtaposing Northcote Thomas’s photograph no.1639 (top left) with Kelani Abass’s Colonial Indexicality No.1639 (top right). Below are details of the work, showing how the image is made up of multiple stamped numbers.

The numbers that Abass stamps in these works are not arbitrary either. They index both the specific photographs from the Thomas archives that Abass reproduces, but also act as a form of accountancy, allowing Abass to quantify his artistic labour and reflecting the labour entailed in producing the anthropological archive in the first place. Thus, Abass’s first impression in this work was the number 1155, corresponding with Thomas’s negative number 1155. After each impression, the number on the stamping machine increases by a digit to 1156, then 1157 and so on. At the end of the process of creating these five works, the final number stamped was 85,867. Thus Abass is able to quantify the work as representing 84,710 acts of stamping – this Abass conceptualises as a process of ‘stamping history’, and of ‘making or marking time’.

The grid-like layout of these five ‘drawings’ echoes the layout of the photographs in Thomas’s albums, but also speaks to the fragmentary nature of the archive – an assemblage of parts that must be assembled together in order to make sense. The actual archive is rarely so complete, and the bigger picture is often based on as much conjecture as it is evidence.

Northcote Thomas Igbo Report Part 1, Plate XIV, halftone printing
Left: Plate XIV from Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part 1. Right: Enlarged detail of the same photograph showing the halftone printing technique.

It is, of course, only when one stands back from Abass’s large-scale stamped drawings that the picture, quoted from Thomas’s archive, becomes clear. Up close, one sees a mess of over-lapping stamped numbers. Seen from a distance, however, the individual numbers from which the pictures are made disappear and the eye perceives the pattern. It is the same principle as halftone printing – the technique used to print Thomas’s photographic plates in his published reports (a set of which also resides in the National Museum library). Indeed, the same principle applies to Thomas’s original photographic negatives and our digital scans of them today, in which the coating of granular light-sensitive crystals is translated, imperfectly, into pixels. Switching to a metaphorical register, Abass’s work reminds us that what we perceive in the colonial archive depends on where we stand, as well as how close we look.

Video documentation of the [Re:]Entanglements: Contemporary Art & Colonial Archives exhibition, National Museum, Lagos.

[Re:]Entanglements: Contemporary Art & Colonial Archives is open at the National Museum, Lagos until 27 October 2019. Do go along if you can and let us know what you think!

Kelani Abass [Re:]Entanglements exhibition

Kelani Abass [Re:]Entanglements Contemporary Art & Colonial Archives Exhibition, National Museum Lagos

We are delighted to announce the next [Re:]Entanglements project exhibition, which will be taking place at the National Museum, Lagos, between 21 September and 27 October 2019.

The exhibition is the outcome of a collaboration between the [Re:]Entanglements project, the Lagos-based artist Kelani Abass, and the National Museum, Lagos. The exhibition features a series of new contemporary artworks by Kelani Abass, which respond to archival holdings in the National Museum of Northcote Thomas photograph albums. This will be the first exhibition at the National Museum that focuses on the Museum’s archival collections, and that brings together contemporary art and colonial archives.

The photograph albums were originally deposited at the Colonial Secretariat in Lagos at the time of Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys. They are the only substantial part of the Thomas collections that remains in Nigeria. At the beginning of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we believed these to be duplicates of photograph albums that are held in the UK’s National Archives (originally kept in the Colonial Office Library in London) and at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. When we tracked the albums down, however, we discovered that the albums from Thomas’s 1909-10 tour in Edo-speaking areas of Nigeria were actually very different from the albums in the UK, not least in the layout of the photographs on the pages and inclusion of additional descriptions on each page.

A page from one of the albums from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 anthropological survey of Edo-speaking peoples of Southern Nigeria in the archival collections of the National Museum, Lagos, Nigeria.

The exhibition will include displays of the original albums, and juxtaposes Kelani Abass’s new works, produced on various media, with large scale digital prints of pages from the albums. Abass has created two series of works for the exhibition under the title Colonial Indexicality. First, is a series of 12 works produced using acrylic, oil on canvas and letterpress type, which explores the archival textures of the albums from Thomas’s Edo tour. The paintings reproduce the yellowed paper panels on the album pages, including texts in various coloured inks and pencils, some in Thomas’s own hand. On each canvas Abass has painted one of the photographs from the corresponding album page, capturing the aging of the photographic images in the subtle tones of his paint. Inset in each panel, letterpress type blocks with the corresponding number of the photographic image is set.

Three of Kelani Abass’s works in his Colonial Indexicality series, which will feature in the [Re:]Entanglements: Contemporary Art & Colonial Archives exhibition.

A second series of works forms a large-scale intersecting collage reproducing five of Thomas’s photographs. Remarkably, these are ‘painted’ using a hand automatic number stamping machine. Like dots in halftone photographic printing, from a distance the photographic image can be seen, but as one approaches, the integrity of the image breaks down to its component ‘dots’, which in this case are each unique numbers. This speaks powerfully to seemingly obsessive use of numbers used by Thomas to index not only the photographs he made during his anthropological surveys, but also his sound recordings, artefact collections, botanical specimens and indeed every page of fieldnotes. This gives rise to the title of Abass’s work for the project, Colonial Indexicality.

Details of one of Kelani Abass’s ‘stamping history’ works for the Colonial Indexicality series. Large scale reproductions of photographs from Northcote Thomas’s albums are created using a handheld numbering stamp (see close up on the right).

The ‘dissolution’ of the photographic archive so powerfully evoked in Abass’s works, is reflected too in the large scale digital prints of Thomas’s original albums. As such the exhibition is also a reflection on the precarious state of the archive itself – especially in West African institutions. The condition of the albums is extremely poor as a result of the environmental conditions in which they have been stored and pest damage. They, along with many other collections in West African museums and archives, are in urgent need of conservation care if they are to survive. This can be seen, for example, in the way in which the photographs in some of the albums have faded – in some cases, they have become almost invisible. As well as drawing attention to the precarity of the archive, this speaks eloquently to fading of memory – something that we have been very aware of during fieldwork in Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

Fading photographs, fading memories. A page from one of the albums from Northcote Thomas’s 1912-13 anthropological survey of Igbo-speaking peoples of Southern Nigeria in the archival collections of the National Museum, Lagos, Nigeria.

It has been especially rewarding working with Abass on this collaboration, since the themes of the [Re:]Entanglements project link closely with themes that he has been exploring in other work over a number of years (see, for instance, this interview with Kelani Abass). We were introduced to the work Abass produced for his solo exhibitions If I Could Save Time and Àsìkò: Evoking Personal Narratives and Collective History at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos, and we are especially grateful to Iheanyi Onwuegbucha, curator at CCA, for working with us on the curation of the exhibition at the National Museum. We are also very grateful to Mrs Omotayo Adeboye, Curator of the National Museum, and Mr Taye Pedro, Librarian and Archivist at the National Museum, for providing access to the collections and hosting the exhibition. Without their support the exhibition would not be possible.

[Re:]Entanglements: Contemporary Art & Colonial Archives is on at the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos between 21 September and 27 October 2019. See our next blog about the exhibition, including video documentation of its installation and opening event.

110 years of photographing N. W. Thomas collections

Five photographs, spanning a century, of the same agbazi mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Fugar, North Edo in 1909 (NWT (1) 2654; MAA Z 12287 A).

As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project we have sought to document the material culture collections assembled by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone as thoroughly as possible. An important aspect of this has been to photograph the collections at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores, and then to use the photographs during our fieldwork activities in which we have been revisiting the communities from which they were originally sourced.

Left: George Agbo, postdoctoral researcher on the [Re:]Entanglements project, photographing Isi abogefi mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu in 1911 (NWT (2) 390, MAA Z 13689); right: community members in Nise, Anambra State, Nigeria, discussing photographs of objects collected by Thomas in the town during fieldwork (photograph by George Agbo).

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.

[Re:]Entanglements team members, Katrina Dring and Paul Basu, setting up the photographic background paper at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores. (Photograph by George Agbo.)

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.

Ikenga-like figure identified by Northcote Thomas as Akosi, collected in Fugar, Northern Edo, 1909. (Photograph by N. W. Thomas, NWT 1095, MAA P.29204; Object NWT (1) 2659, MAA Z 12293.)

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.

Left: Twin masks described by Thomas as Ibonodike, collected in Fugar, present-day Edo State, in 1909. (Photograph by N. W. Thomas, NWT 1088, RAI 400.17528; Objects NWT (1) 2602a & 2602b, MAA Z 12252 A & Z 12252 B.) Right: Mask described by Thomas as Isi abogefi collected in Agukwu, present-day Anambra State, in 1911. (Photograph by N. W. Thomas, NWT 2934b, MAA N.78430; Object NWT (2) 390, MAA Z 13689.)

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.

Array of objects collected by Thomas in 1911 in Awgbu and Enugu Ukwu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. (Photograph by N. W. Thomas, NMT 2934, MAA N.78429.)

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.

Plates XX and XXI in Arts of West Africa (1935). Aule mask collected by N. W. Thomas in Agenebode in 1909 (NWT (1) 2722, MAA Z 11910).

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.

Aule mask collected by N. W. Thomas in Agenebode in 1909 (NWT (1) 2722, MAA Z 11910). Left: photograph in British Museum collection, date unknown (BM Af,B62.18); right: photograph taken by George Agbo for [Re:]Entanglements project, 2019.

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.

Ngene shrine figure collected by N. W. Thomas in Awgbu in 1911 (NWT (2) 378, MAA Z 14234.1-2). Left: photograph in British Museum collection, date unknown (BM Af,B62.11); right: photograph taken by George Agbo for [Re:]Entanglements project, 2019.

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.

Obo mask collected by N. W. Thomas in Fugar, 1909 (NWT (1) 2662, MAA Z 12297). Left: photograph in British Museum collection, date unknown (BM Af,B62.16); right: photograph taken by George Agbo for [Re:]Entanglements project, 2019.

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.

Three examples of Len Morley’s mid-20th-century photographic documentation of masks collected by Northcote Thomas in North Edo in 1909-10. From left to right: Ogbodu, collected in Agenebode (NWT (1) 2729, MAA Z 11917.1), Amababa, collected in Irrua (NWT (1) 2566a, MAA Z 12816), Obo, collected in Fugar (NWT (1) 2662, MAA Z 12297).

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.

Moji mask, collected by Northcote Thomas in Afikpo, present-day Ebonyi State, Nigeria in 1912-13, photographed by Len Morley in 1951. (NWT (3) 50, MAA Z 13585.)

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.

Front cover and p.101 of William Fagg and Margaret Plass, African Sculpture, first published in 1964. The photograph on p.101 is an agbazi mask collected by Thomas in Fugar in 1909 (NWT (1) 2654; MAA Z 12287 A).

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.

Front cover and p.31 of the revised edition of Frank Willett, African Art, the original edition of which was first published in 1971. The figure on p.31 is described by Thomas merely as a doll, collected in Sabongida Ora in 1909 (NWT (1) 2164; MAA Z 13449).

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.

Isi abogefi mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, in 1911 (NWT (2) 390, MAA Z 13689). Left: camera-ready artwork of Figure 46 (MAA archives); right: Figure 46 of G. I. Jones, The Art of Eastern Nigeria.

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.

Examples of Jean Borgatti’s contact sheets of her photographic documentation of N. W. Thomas’s North Edo collections in 1969.

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.

Examples of Roger Blench and Mark Alexander’s photographs of Thomas collections pinned to the reverse of MAA index cards. Anticlockwise from top right: guitar (NWT (4) 132, MAA Z 14553), charm (NWT (4) 130, MAA Z 14551) and powder horn (NWT (4) 100, MAA Z 14527), all collected from Yalunka-speaking areas of Sierra Leone (probably Musaia); charm (NWT (4) 74, MAA Z 14502), collected from Sendugu, Sierra Leone.

Benin City: Colonial archives, creative collaborations

Installation view of Andrew Omote Edjobeguo’s ‘First Contact’, pictured against one of Enotie Ogbebor’s paintings.

On July 4, 2019 the first of the [Re:]Entanglements project exhibitions resulting from our creative collaborations in Nigeria and Sierra Leone opened at Nosona Studios, Benin City. The exhibition featured the work of 15 young Edo State-based artists responding to the archives and collections that resulted from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 anthropological survey of Edo-speaking communities in Southern Nigeria.

The artists had participated in workshops introducing them to the Northcote Thomas materials as well as the work of established artists who have interrogated colonial archives in their practice. Over the past several months they have developed their work, supported by Enotie Ogbebor, Creative Director of Nosona Studios, as well as the [Re:]Entanglements project team.

The opening event of the exhibition included some of the artists working of their pieces live, exhibiting something of the process of engaging with the archival materials. In the foreground, Ojevwe Onomigbo works on her ‘Ovia’ collage; in the background Jahyém Jombo works on his painting ‘Against the Odds’.

Nosona Studios is a large industrial, workshop type space in the centre of Benin City. In keeping with the character of the space, a section of the exhibition was set up as an artists’ studio, with a number of artists continuing to work on their pieces during the opening. Works included painting; sculpture in wood, bronze and iron; digital art; and mixed media pieces. Each was exhibited with a label illustrating some of the archival source materials that the artists had engaged with. There were also displays of enlarged digital prints of a selection of Northcote Thomas’s photographs, and a TV monitor on which all c.1,800 photographs that Thomas made during his Edo tour played on a continuous loop.

Scenes from the exhibition opening. Clockwise from top right: Jayhem Jombo discusses his work ‘Against the Odds’ with Mark Elliot, Senior Curator at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; Edo State Commissioner for Arts, Culture, Tourism and Diaspora Affairs, Hon Osaze Osemwegie-Ero with a photograph of his ancestor Chief Ero and his son; Paul Basu and George Agbo; Joseph Ogie Obamina discussing his painting ‘The Anthropological Gaze’ with Prof John Ogene of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Benin.

The opening was scheduled to coincide with a meeting of the Benin Dialogue Group in Benin City and served as the venue for the evening reception on the first day of talks. The Benin Dialogue Group is a forum for discussing the future of artefacts looted from Benin City during the British Punitive Expedition of 1897, which are now dispersed in museums and collections across the world. The Group comprises representatives of the Oba of Benin, the Edo State Government, National Commission for Museums and Monuments and several European museums which hold Benin artefacts in their collections. This provided a wonderful opportunity for young artists to meet and talk to both Nigerian and international members of the museum/heritage/culture sector about their work on the project.

Jonathan Chambalin Nwachuckwu (left) and Randy Osabuohien Edughaen (right) discuss their respective works, ‘A Game of Numbers’ and ‘Ol’akohen‘, with members of the Benin Dialogue Group, including HRH Prince Gregory Akenzua, Jonathan Fine (Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin), Barbara Plankensteiner (MARKK Hamburg), Michael Barrett (Världskulturmuseet, Stockholm), Julie Hudson (British Museum) and Sam Nixon (British Museum).
Exhibition visitors watching and rephotographing the loop of Northcote Thomas photographs taken during his 1909-10 anthropological survey of Edo-speaking Peoples playing on a TV monitor.

In the following sections, we include a photograph of each of the works produced by the artists and displayed in the exhibition, together with a selection of images providing insight into some of the archival materials the artists worked with in their individual projects. Our commentary is based on interviews with each of the artists. In the case of Enotie Ogbebor and Jahyém Jombo we include the video interviews themselves.

Creative engagements with the colonial archive

Enotie Ogbebor, Chronicles of an Era

Enotie Ogbebor, Chronicles of an Era
Enotie Ogbebor provides some background information about Nosona Studios and the collaboration with the [Re:]Entanglements project. He goes on to discuss his own contribution to the ‘Colonial Archives, Creative Collaborations’ project, ‘Chronicles of an Era’.

Joseph Ogie Obamina, The Anthropological Gaze

Joseph Ogie Obamina, The Anthropological Gaze

Joseph Ogie Obamina was born in Edo State. He studied art first at Auchi Polytechnic and subsequently at the University of Benin. He works with oil on canvas, and also acrylics and pastel. Obamina was struck by the interchange of gazes evident in Thomas’s photographic archive: the gaze of the people Thomas photographed, and the gaze of Thomas himself through the camera lens. Thomas’s survey of Edo-speaking Nigeria came just 12 years after the Punitive Expedition of 1897. Obamina wonders how they were feeling then – were they oppressed? The photographs show that some were happy, others were not happy. He feels there was some ‘agreement’ between Thomas and the people, which allowed him to photograph almost every aspect of their lives. He is interested in how they perceived the anthropologist.

Obamina expresses this exchange of gazes by creating a pixelated portrait of Northcote Thomas himself, based on the now iconic photograph of the Government Anthropologist wearing his pith helmet, shirt and tie. Viewed from a distance the patterns of the pixels reveal the figure of Thomas. As one approaches one can see that each individual pixel is made up of a scene photographed by Thomas. In addition to reproducing Thomas’s images in the pixels, Obamina adds numbers and texts. The numbers reflect Thomas’s numbering of the photographs, while Obamina uses the texts to add commentary on the nature of Thomas’s anthropological project and its archival legacy.

Ojevwe (Ojay) Onomigbo, Ovia

Ojevwe Onomigbo, Ovia

Ojevwe Onomigbo is from Delta State. She is a collagist, who ‘paints with paper’. She studied first at Delta State University and then came to the University of Benin. She has been a practicing artist for about 10 years. Onomigbo created this work, entitled simply ‘Ovia’, during the exhibition’s opening event.

Onomigbo’s work depicts the main masquerade of the Ovia cult at Iyowa. Ovia is a female deity, worshipped in various communities surrounding Benin City. Each Ovia society holds an annual festival at which the ancestral spirits of the society (the masqueraders) dance. Thomas documented the Ovia festival held in Iyowa in 1909. Onomigbo’s reproduction of one of Thomas’s photographs of an Ovia spirit is made from cut up strips and fragments of copies of Thomas’s field notes and publications that document the festival itself.

Jonathan Chambalin Nwachukwu, Game of Numbers

Jonathan Chambalin Nwachukwu, Game of Numbers

Jonathan Chambalin Nwachuckwu is a photographer and digital artist, working with images and sound. He splits his time between Benin City and Lagos. Like many of the exhibitors, he was first introduced to the archives of Northcote Thomas at a workshop held at Nosona Studios. Nwachuckwu produced a series of six digital animations for the project, which were accompanied by a sound track combining archival and contemporary recordings. His works involved collaborating with a painter, a spoken-word artist, an animator, sound engineer and a number of models.

Each of the six pieces explored a different aspects of the Northcote Thomas archives, from his documentation of female Iwu body scarification to his physical type photographs of members of the local police force. Each work involved the layering of archival images and texts with Nwachuckwu’s contemporary photographs of models posed in the manner of Thomas’s anthropological subjects – their bodies sometimes painted with numbers and symbols. Another digital collage shows a more dejected looking Northcote Thomas himself superimposed on a map of Benin City torn out, as it were, from Thomas’s own notes.

Andrew Omote Edjobeguo, First Contact

Andrew Omote Edjobeguo, First Contact

Andrew Omote Edjobeguo is from Delta State. He studies art and industrial design at Auchi Polytechnic. A sculptor, he works in different metals including bronze and mild steel as well as recycled scrap metals.

In his piece ‘First Contact’, Edjobeguo was interested in exploring the points of contact between the anthropologist and the society he was documenting. Thomas’s survey of the Edo-speaking peoples of Nigeria was his first experience of anthropological fieldwork and his first encounter with Africa. Edjobeguo’s sculpture explores how Thomas was in some sense ‘indigenized’ through this experience (he was thought of as an eccentric who had ‘gone native’ by many in the colonial service). This is represented by the incorporation of Edo design motifs on Thomas’s chest and back. These motifs were, of course, drawn from Thomas’s documentary photographs.

The piece also reflects the entanglement of Thomas and Edo culture. Thomas’s career is, as it were, propped up by Edo culture (or a distorted version of it), represented by the ukhure that support Thomas’s bust. Yet the ukhure themselves are supported by Thomas’s work represented in the open book (his Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria).

Jahyém Jombo, Against the Odds

Jahyem Jombo, Against the Odds
Derek Jahyem Jombo-Ogboi presents his work for the Colonial Archives, Creative Collaborations project. He explains how he drew upon the historical archive of Northcote Thomas to address contemporary issues faced by young people in Edo State, and discusses the importance of the archive more generally.

Osaru Obaseki, The Journey amidst Time

Osaru Obaseki, The Journey amidst Time

Osaru Obaseki is a self-taught artist from Edo State based at Nosona Studios in Benin City. She paints using a combination of acrylic paint, sand and glue. This adds depth and texture to the surface of her work, into which she inscribes African patterns and symbols. The fine sand she uses also links her work to the ancient bronze casting tradition of Benin – the sand, which is unique to the region, is essential to the lost wax casting technique.

Obaseki was especially interested in the representation of women in Northcote Thomas’s photographs from Benin. In particular she was fascinated by the unnatural, formal poses in which Thomas positioned his photographic subjects. She echoes these group profile portraits in her work for the [Re:]Entanglements project, which is entitled ‘A Journey amidst Time’. Rather than merely reproducing the photographs, however, Obaseki dresses the women differently, showing the continuities and changes in their attire and hair styles over the 110 years since Thomas visited Benin. In the background, she inscribes abstract designs into the acrylic-sand mix, quoting from the designs which decorated the walls of houses that Thomas documented in his Benin photographs.

‘I am so happy that Northcote Thomas was there at the time to document the way women looked, what they did, how they dressed’, Obaseki explains. ‘It was really exciting seeing the photographs – I also saw a picture of my great-grandfather, Chief Agho Obaseki. I was thrilled’. Reflecting on the importance of the archive, she states that ‘it encourages us to do more now to cultivate a culture of documentation for posterity’.

Randy Osabuohien Edughaen, Ol’akohen (The Flute Player)

Randy Osabuohien Edughaen, Ol'akohen (the flute player)

Randy Osabuohien Edughaen is an artist from Benin City. He studied art at Auchi Polytechnic and the University of Benin, and is now based at Nosona Studios. Edughaen explains how excited he was to participate in the [Re:]Entanglements project and the opportunity to explore the Northcote Thomas archive. ‘This archive is so important to me’, he states. ‘I am the kind of person who doesn’t attach much value to my culture, I don’t know why. But this archive has opened my eyes to my culture. It has made me understand our collective past. Looking at the face of the people in Thomas’s photographs. They have all gone. Their bones must be dust, but seeing the faces of my people gives me joy. Thomas has been able to conserve our culture. He makes me understand where I am coming from. We should try to understand our people – their artefacts, their way of life, their way of dressing … Moving from place to place, Thomas was able to capture these things’.

The dominant figure in Edughaen’s painting, inspired by a photograph taken by Thomas, gives the painting its title, Ol’akohen (‘The Flute Player’). It is the flute player who can communicate with the spirits of the ancestors. The passing of time is the central theme of the piece. Images of the past captured in Thomas’s photographs pass, like sand through an hour glass, through the body of the flute player and are brought up-to-date in colour scenes drawn from press cuttings charting more recent transformations in Benin life, culminating in an image of the present Oba Ewuare II. Among the press cuttings pasted onto the canvas, one in particular poses a challenging question: ‘What Are You Doing About Saving Our Culture?’

Victor Chiejine Mowete, Ọmwan nọr dia uyi ẹdo yi

Victor Chiejine Mowete, Omwan nor dia uyi edo yi

Victor Chiejine Mowete is a sculptor who works in various metals, including steel and bronze. He trained as an artist at Delta State University and the University of Benin. Like many of the artists collaborating with the [Re:]Entanglements project, Mowete is conscious of the ambivalence surrounding the Northcote Thomas archives. He is interested how over time, photographs and collections that were assembled as part of a colonial project – with all its associations with appropriation, exploitation and violence – have become important resources for present-day populations. As he says, ‘Those things that were collected for exploitative reasons, in later years are also going to be important to us and can be used to our own advantage’.

For his contribution to the project, entitled Ọmwan nọr dia uyi ẹdo yi (meaning ‘Preserver of Edo culture and glory’), Mowete has cast a work in bronze that speaks to one of Benin’s most iconic treasures – the 16th-century ivory Idia pendant mask, versions of which are in the collections of the British Museum in London and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This famous mask was also used as the emblem of FESTAC in 1977, thus becoming an icon of Nigeria and African arts and culture more generally.

In place of the Iyoba – the Queen Mother, Idia – Mowete has used the head of Northcote Thomas wearing his distinctive pith helmet. The top of the original mask is decorated with heads representing the Portuguese, symbolizing Benin’s alliance with and control over Europeans. These have been replaced, in Mowete’s work, with the heads from various ukhure (rattle staffs) that Thomas collected in Benin City, as well two heads taken from a carved shrine figure (ikute) collected by Thomas from Okpe. Thus, the ambiguity remains: the piece is, on the one hand, a celebration of Thomas as the ‘preserver’ of Edo cultural heritage; on the other hand, however, there is the suggestion that this preservation entails the control of the ancestral objects and knowledges that Thomas assembled as a government anthropologist.

Yewande E. Oyeniyi, Evolution of Benin Attire

Yewande E. Oyeniyi, Evolution in Benin Attire

Yewande Oyeniyi initially studied Fine Art at Yaba College of Technology in Lagos, and is now pursuing postgraduate studies in Theatre Arts at the University of Benin. Oyeniyi was particularly interested in representations of women in Northcote Thomas’s photographic archive and chose to focus on dress in her work for the project: ‘Evolution of Benin Attire’.

When Oyeniyi started to engage with the archive, the impression she had was of a timeless world in which there was no anticipation that things would change. Many of the women photographed were unselfconscious of their exposed breasts, for example. Oyeniyi wanted to explore how this had now changed with Western influence that was already apparent in Thomas’s photographs. She also wanted to show how certain aspects of traditional Benin attire, notable the red coral beads, which were once the preserve of the elites, had become more widely popular and iconic of Benin identity.

Imoudu Ameen Bello, Loss or Gain?

Imoudu Ameen Bello, Loss or Gain

Imoudu Ameen Bello is from Edo State. He works with oil on canvas. Bello is particularly interested in Benin’s royal heritage and its system of palace and town chiefs. Since Thomas’s survey of Edo-speaking communities took place between 1909-10 when Ovonramwen was in exile in Calabar, the Oba is, of course, conspicuously absent from the archive. Bello was, however, particularly struck by Thomas’s photographic portrait of Chief Ero, Izedonmwen, and his son, Evbuomwan. From ancient times, the Ero chiefs were senior members of the Uzama (king-makers) of Benin. Izedonmwen was a particularly celebrated Ero and was instrumental in the restoration of the monarchy after Ovonramwen’s death in 1914.

Bello created a diptych for the [Re:]Entanglements project, posing a question regarding what was lost and what gained in the encounter between European colonisers and the Edo people. The panel on the left represents a people embedded and inseparable from their indigenous culture. This is represented by the traditional Edo design motifs on both background and the bodies of the people. The panel on the right represents the same scene today. Edo cultural heritage, again represented by the traditional designs, now merely acts as an aesthetic background, while the people – especially the younger generations – go about in Western-styled clothing. Bello states that ‘We are doing away with our own lifestyle, and adopting that of the European’. Despite being part of that colonial contact, Bello is grateful that Thomas came to Benin and documented traditional life.

Bello also prepared a preliminary sketch for another work that we hope he will develop entitled ‘Chief Thomas’. It portrays Northcote Thomas as a traditional Benin chief, seated on a throne, and surrounded by artefacts that he collected and documented during his 1909-10 anthropological survey.

Imoudu Ameen Bello, Chief Thomas

O. Kenneth Ugherughe, Glass Plates

O. Kenneth Ugherughe, Glass Plates

Kenneth Ugherughe was born in Benin City, though his family hail from Delta State. He works in oil on canvas. His work, ‘Glass Plates’, is a reflection on the fragility of the archive. Northcote Thomas’s photographs were exposed on glass plate negatives. A number of these negatives have been broken over time and reassembled by the [Re:]Entanglements team in the process of digitisation. In his painting, Ugherughe pieces together different fragments from the photographic archive in his new composition. Although he insists that he did not intend his painting as a critique of colonialism, we find it hard not to read these broken plates in the light of the fracturing impact of colonialism on Edo society. What was broken in Thomas’s efforts to document traditional Edo life, including its ‘secret societies’ and ritual performances, which were not intended to be accessed by outsiders? Working merely 12 years after the destruction of Benin City at the hands of the British expeditionary force, might it be said that Thomas was documenting a social world that had been irredeemably damaged?

Tony Efeakpokrire, Voices from the Past

Tony Efeakpokrire, Voices from the Past

Tony Efeakpokrire was born and bred in Warri, in Delta State. He studied art at Auchi Polytechnic and now works as a studio assistant at Nosona Studios. This give him the opportunity of practicing his art on a full time basis. In addition to contributing an artwork, Efeakpokrire worked very hard, assisting the project team install the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition (thanks Tony!).

When Efeakpokrire began exploring the Northcote Thomas archives, it was the material culture collections – and especially the sculptural pieces – that spoke to him most. Efeakpokrire is a keen student of Edo history and Edo art and he has read widely on the subjects. Seeing photographs of Thomas’s collections made a great impression on him: ‘I have never seen images like this. I realised that this is what I had been reading about’. He reflected on the differences between reading about traditional art and its functions and actually seeing the objects – even photographs of them – themselves. ‘On a normal day’, he explained, ‘I would just get a history book. I would just read – ok, this is what happened. This is how it went. Finish. Close the book. But with the archive, it is like I have been able to travel back to that period’. This gives rise to the title of his work: ‘Voices from the Past’.

Efeakpokrire composition brings together a series of objects that, he says, almost selected themselves. They are all objects collected by Thomas during his survey of Edo-speaking people, and extend the familiar repertoire of Palace art to the material cultures of other groups in the region. He states that Northcote Thomas is, for him, ‘like a deity of sorts, like an ancestor’. Without the archive created through his work he would not be aware of these things.

Efeakpokrire was struck by how advanced Edo society was at the time Thomas documented it, and he sees the archives as issuing a challenge to the present: ‘These images will play a very big role in our lives. They allow us to understand what has changed. How far have we developed? How far have we come? Where do we need to be? Given the distance in time, have we grown? Have we advanced enough? You can see that our ancestors were so civilized. We need to beef up our game. We still need to put in the work. The archive is a challenge. This is the standard. We don’t need to relax’.

Adeyemi Semiu, Rhythm of Thought

Adeyemi Semiu, Rhythm of Thought

Adeyemi Semiu is an artist based at Nosona Studios working in mixed media. He trained initially at Yaba College of Technology and then at the University of Benin. Semiu was inspired by both photographs and material culture collections in the Northcote Thomas archive. In particular, he was interested in how the archive reflected the more performative aspects of Edo cultural heritage – music, dance, festivals, masquerade.

The music and materiality of the drum are central to Semiu’s work for the project, ‘Rhythm of Thought’. Rather than painting on a stretched canvas, his work is painted onto a stretched animal skin, traditionally used as a drum skin, which he procured from traditional hunters. His medium speaks directly to the drums in the Northcote Thomas collection, including a wonderful example with a painted skin collected in Okpe in North Edo. Semiu uses some of the animal motifs on the Okpe drum to decorate the edge of his work, which is cut and stretched into the shape of the map of the Edo-speaking area of Nigeria published in Thomas’s Anthropological Report.

Semiu’s ‘Rhythm of Thought’ is suspended like a mobile from the ceiling in the exhibition, allowing visitors to inspect both sides. Semiu argues that be creating his work on a drum skin, his very medium invokes the memory of Edo’s past.

Ayodeji Ayimoro, The Gods are Safe

Ayodeji Ayimoro is an artist and textile designer based at Nosona Studios. As someone who works in textiles, Ayimoro was particularly interested in Northcote Thomas’s documentation of traditional weaving in the Edo-speaking world. The work Ayimoro produced for the project is entitled ‘The Gods are Safe’ and it reproduces in a woolen tapestry one of Thomas’s photographs of the Ovia masquerade taken in Iyowa in 1909. The base into which Ayimoro wove his design is piece of cloth he obtained in Somorika, in North Edo, where textiles are still produced using tradition looms as documented by Thomas. The tapestry is suspended on a reproduction of a ‘loom sword’, which were used on traditional looms, to separate the warps and compress the wefts. Thomas collected a number of such loom swords during his Edo tour.

Another interesting apect of Ayimoro’s composition is the inclusion of Northcote Thomas and his equipment. The figure of Thomas is hunched under the dark cloth of his camera in the act of taking the photograph of the Ovia masquerade, while his phonograph machine with its recording horn documents the masquerade song. The process of Thomas’s anthropological survey, including the equipment used and the presence of Thomas himself, is largely absent from the archive, and Ayimoro’s work reinserts this into the frame. Indeed, it is interesting that, in one way or another, most of the artists chose to depict Thomas in their work.

Christopher Osayimwen, Ukhure

The exhibition ‘[Re:]Entanglements: Colonial Archives, Creative Collaborations’ is on at Nosona Studios, Benin City until the end of August 2019. A selection of the artists’ work will later be displayed at the end of project [Re:]Entanglements exhibitions at the Brunei Gallery, London and University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

In addition to the AHRC, the main funder of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we gratefully acknowledge HE Godwin Obaseki and the Government of Edo State for its generous support of the exhibition and opening event. We’d like to thank all the artists who enthusiastically engaged in this creative collaboration with the Northcote Thomas archives, and especially thank Enotie Ogbebor for his enthusiasm and support of the venture. We look forward to many future creative collaborations!