Hand-colouring Northcote Thomas’s photographs

Chiadikoni Nwaubani colourised versions of Northcote Thomas photographs (NWT 2972 and 2227)
Colourised versions of Northcote Thomas’s original monochrome photographs. Left: Nwamboyi (Nwamgboye) (NWT 2972); Right: Eze Nri Obalike (NWT 2227). Both photographed in Agukwu Nri in 1911. Coloured by Chiadikōbi Nwaubani, 2018.

Although there were many early experiments with colour photography from the 1850s, it was not until the mid-1930s, with the introduction of Kodachrome film, that it became widely used. All of Northcote Thomas’s photographs made during his anthropological surveys of Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915 were monochrome. Since the beginning of photography, however, various techniques have been used to hand-colour monochrome prints. Hand-colouring photographic prints using a fine brush with different kinds of dyes, watercolours and oils was a highly-skilled task. Demand for hand-coloured photographs reached its peak in the early twentieth century.

To date, we have come across only one historical example of a photograph taken by Thomas that has been hand-coloured. This was published in the serialised pictorial encyclopaedia, Peoples of All Nations, around 1920. In the section entitled ‘British Empire in Africa’ Thomas contributed around 23 photographs, many of which have been touched-up for publication, among these is the colour plate disparagingly entitled ‘Gewgaws of Primitive Society’. The photograph shows two young girls, which Thomas elsewhere describes as ‘onye ebuci’, adorned with bracelets of hippo ivory, anklets and garters of cowries, and necklaces and headdresses of long red beads. In addition to colouring the photograph, a vaguely ‘tropical’ background has been painted in place of Thomas’s calico photographic backdrop.

Comparison of Northcote Thomas's original photograph 4136 and the coloured version published in Peoples of All Nations
Comparison of Northcote Thomas’s original photograph of ‘onye ebuci’ girls (NWT 4135), photographed in Onicha Olona in 1912 and the hand-coloured version published in c.1920 in the popular encyclopaedia, Peoples of All Nations.

Today, with digital tools such as Adobe Photoshop, new possibilities for colourising historical monochrome photographs present themselves, though the process is no less skilled. Artist and Ukpuru blogger, Chiadikōbi Nwaubani has long been interested in historical visual representations of Nigeria and has been digitally colourising some of the Northcote Thomas photographic archive.

Chiadikoni Nwaubani colourised versions of Northcote Thomas photographs (NWT 1853 and 1846a)
Colourised versions of Northcote Thomas’s original monochrome photographs. Left: ‘Nwaeyeye girl’ (NWT 1853); Right: Nwaifu (NWT 1846a). Both photographed in Awka in 1910. Coloured by Chiadikōbi Nwaubani, 2018.

Chiadikōbi explains:

I’ve started colouring some of the photographs from the Northcote collection and I’m focusing mainly on the photos of his tours of the Igbo area. Since the colouring is partly based on guess work, some knowledge about the culture helps in deciding what is coloured what, such as the indigo cloth in the picture of the Eze Nri. Resist-dyed indigo cloth like that is still popularly used and I could notice the depth of the grey and the patterns and guess that it was one of the indigo cloths.

I started colouring some of these pictures a few years ago from digital scans of the printed Anthropological Report volumes. I was looking at other areas of the past, and at the time I used the Northcote Thomas images to practice colouring photos. I think the impact of the original black and white photos was less than these coloured versions because of the quality, but there was another sense of familiarity that was added to the pictures after they were coloured, partly because the age and the surroundings had already made the images quite distant.

One of the reactions to Northcote’s pictures I’ve heard is that ‘they don’t look like Igbo people’ (by some Igbo people referring to the pictures he took of Igbo people), and I think this was partly because of the lack of reference for anything in the pictures that they can relate to today, which may also be related to the ambiguity that black and white gives some objects, in this case cultural ones. The colourisation adds another sense of life to the photos, which also includes the colouring of material culture.

Chiadikoni_Nwaubani_colourised version of Northcote Thomas photograph (NWT 3649a)
Colourised version of Northcote Thomas’s original monochrome photograph. Mooku(?) (NWT 3649a), photographed in Mgbakwu in 1911. Coloured by Chiadikōbi Nwaubani, 2018.

 

Chiadikobi Nwaubani animated gif of photograph by Northcote Thomas (NWT 1853)
Animated image showing stages in colourising Northcote Thomas’s photograph of ‘Nwaeyeye girl’ (NWT 1853) using Photoshop. Note the multiple layers needed to build up the skin tones. Chiadikōbi Nwaubani, 2018.

 

See Chiadikōbi Nwaubani’s [Re:]Entanglements project blog on his ‘Susu Boy’ painting.

Ibillo’s Ugolo mask, Guest blog by Jean Borgatti and Wendy Emmanuel Adejumoh

Ofuno mask, collected by Northcote Thomas in Ibillo, Nigeria in 1910. University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, Z 26531.
Figure 1: Mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Ibillo, Nigeria, in 1910. University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, Z 26531.

Northcote Whitridge Thomas collected this helmet mask from Ibillo in 1910, towards the end of his first tour in Edo-speaking areas of Nigeria (Figure 1). Ibillo, one of the Okpameri groups in what is now Akoko-Edo Local Government Area of Edo State (then part of what was called Kukuruku), continues to use this type of mask in its age-grade festival called Ikpishionua, held approximately every 7 years. At the Ikpishionua festival the mask appears under the name of Ugolo, while during smaller annual festivals it appears as Uvbono.

Jean Borgatti photograph of Northcote Thomas Ibillo mask, 1969.
Figure 2: The mask as photographed by Jean Borgatti in 1969.

I photographed this mask at University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in 1969 (Figure 2) as part of a feasibility study for field research among the peoples of Edo North that I began in 1971 – though Ibillo did not figure in that early field research. When I returned to Nigeria in 2015, over forty years later, I did begin to do additional research in Akoko-Edo, and visited Ibillo at that time. When I showed my photograph to an elder and group of age-grade members, they cautioned me not to show it to women since it was in the ‘production’ stage: that is, without costume and without the line of feathers inserted into the sagittal crest, as can be seen in a video made by Emmanuel Concept Video Productions of the Ikpishionua festival in 2015 (Figure 3). I was able to obtain screenshots of various masquerades from this video and Professor P. D. Ogunnubi of Odo Quarter and age group representatives identified these for me, giving a brief explanation for each one. Subsequently, an art history student from the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Benin and an Ibillo indigene, Wendy Emmanuel Adejumo, wrote his honors thesis on the masquerades (Adejumo 2017). This blog entry draws on our shared findings.

Ibillo masquerade from Ibillo People Facebook page and Emmanuel Productions video..
Figure 3: Ugolo masquerade at the Ikpishionua festival, Ibillo, in 2015. (Left: Ibillo People Facebook page; Left: Emmanuel Concept Video Productions)

The term ‘Okpameri’ dates from the mid-19th century and was the result of a number of neighboring villages solidifying their coalition against Nupe slave-raiding (Orifah n.d.). Okpameri has also come to mean ‘We are one’, though it was not a term used much before the middle of the 20th century. Okpameri includes 23 towns and villages: Aiyegunle (Osi), Anyaoza, Bekuma, Dangbala, Ekor, Ekpe, Ekpesa, Ibillo, Ikiran-Ile, Ikiran-Oke, Imoga, Makeke, Lampese, Ogugu, Ogbe, Ojah (Ozah), Ojirami-Afekunu, Ojirami-Dam, Ojirami-Kpetesshi, Somorika, Ugboshi-Afe, Ugboshi-Ele and Unumu (Orifa n.d.). Ibillo’s population as recorded in the 2006 census was 24,303 (Ojeifo & Esaigbe 2012). It consists of four kinship-based quarters. Listed in order of seniority, these are: Eku/Odo, Uwhosi/Illese, Ekuya and Ekuma/Uzeh. Ibillo’s headship rotates among these quarters. All celebrate an age grade festival approximately every 7 years, and in the past they all celebrated on the same date. In recent times, however, the quarters have staggered their celebrations to maximize local attendance. There is some controversy over this since some believe Ibillo could make ‘tourist capital’ from the festival if they celebrated together.

Though held annually to purify the community and foster community identity, the festival is celebrated in its most elaborate form approximately every 7 years when a new male ‘age group’ is formed. In this way, it resembles the situation described in a previous blog on Otuo, a community on the border of Akoko-Edo and Owan Local Government Areas, which Northcote Thomas also visited and where he photographed masquerades associated with an age-group festival called ‘Eliminia’.

Although Professor Ogunnubi identified the mask collected by Thomas as ‘Ugolo’, Northcote Thomas recorded its name as ‘Ofuno’. This appears to be a misspelling. The proper spelling should be ‘Ubvono’ or ‘Uvono’. Ubvono is only celebrated in the interval between Ikpishionua festivals, suggesting that Thomas was not in Ibillo during a year when an age company was formed. Local respondents suggested that the mask was likely to have been made in Ekuya quarter, a community known for the thick weaving of the Ugolo mask form. The Ugolo, Ubvono and other woven masks are essentially the same, differentiated only by their context of use and the ‘finishing’ or decoration of the mask. For Uvbono, the Ugolo mask would have its feathers fixed differently from when it performs during Ikpishionua, and it does not perform fully in Ubvono because Uvbono is not a ‘serious’ festival, but more entertainment oriented. A nine-day festival, its function is to keep the community busy and engaged.

A description of the mask may be found in Thomas’s typed-up fieldnotes (Figure 4). He writes that, in Ibillo, ‘headdresses are woven of cord and made upon long pieces of wood carved to the shape of each man’s head. There is a stiff crest of cord surmounted by nuts of some sort. Eye holes are surrounded with cowries. There is a wooden nose; the mouth is represented by a ring of cowries without an aperture and from it hangs a double cord with a tassel at the end. The lower part of the mask is coloured with cam wood; the upper part is black; the intervening portion is white’. (Note that the tasselled cords extending from the mouth have become detached and lost, though one can see evidence of where it was attached.)

Northcote Thomas Edo manuscript notes on Ibillo mask
Figure 4: Except from Northcote Thomas’s typed-up fieldnotes describing the mask.

Many of the characteristics Thomas described can still be found in the Ugolo masks that are made in Ibillo today. The colours include red around eyes and mouth as well as on the beak-like nose. They have sagittal crests dramatized by the addition of feathers. The feathers have not been identified, but it is possible that they include the tail feathers of a rooster since the head with its crest and beak represents the head of a cock. The body covering is made of the pith from the bark of any healthy tree with a thick bark. Once the bark is removed, it is left to soften in the river for some days to allow for easy separation of the inner part or pith from the bark. The pith is further washed to increase its pliability. The resulting material, emue, is used to create the fronds covering the masqueraders’ bodies as well as the fiber employed in weaving the masks themselves.

Ibillo masquerade from Emmanuel Concept Video Productions.
Figure 5: Ugolo masquerade wearing a cloth in the initial stages of the Ikpishionua festival. Emmanuel Concept Video Productions.

During the initial outing of the masquerades during the Ikpishionua festival, all the masqueraders wear cloth covers over the costume of fronds as illustrated in another screenshot from the Emmanuel Concept video (Figure 5). The cloth covers are only worn during the full Ikpishionua age-grade festival, and not during the minor annual festivals in intervening years. The cloth covers are also seen as a symbolic definition of women’s involvement in the festival when they have license to dance alongside masquerades without committing offense, contrary to other festival celebrations. Women and family members often wear the same cloth to indicate their relationship to a particular masquerader who may be one of the newly initiated or someone being promoted to another level – tacitly identifying him. As the festival progresses, the masqueraders abandon their cloth shawls, revealing their masks more clearly for the audience to appreciate.

Northcote Thomas photograph of Ibillo mask. NWT 1733, RAI 400.17686.
Figure 6: Northcote Thomas’s photograph of a similar mask ‘at rest’ in the ukpala, Ibillo,1910. The tasselled cords extending from the mouth mentioned in Thomas’s description of the mask can be seen here. NWT 1733. Royal Anthropological Institute 400.17686.

In 1910, Thomas also photographed a similar mask at rest in the masquerade stockade (ukpala or uyala) (Figure 6) where participants make their masks and prepare for the celebration of the festival in relative privacy, away from the gaze of women. This is also a place where those wearing masks can rehearse their dancing before coming out to display. The ukpala walls stand about 15 feet high and the interior space is as large as possible in the area allocated for its construction. It is a temporary structure with walls made of dry palm branches today as in the past.

Ibillo masquerade from Ibillo People Facebook page.
Minor masquerades at the Ikpishionua festival, Ibillo. (Ibillo People Facebook page)

During Ikpishionua, Ugolo represents the elders and chiefly ancestors of Ibillo. It plays the metal gong, elo, as it sings historical songs, eulogies and epics (welaku), communicating with the people in specific areas or quarters it visits, speaking in parables. It is one of the four main mask types seen today, and probably the oldest type, the others being Umueku, Ulele and Obibia. There are numerous minor masquerades too that use the basic knit or woven form displayed by Ugolo, often without the crest. These minor masks are created by the incoming age group, and they sport different caps or headdresses created to amuse the community, inspiring jokes and nicknames. Such names refer especially to the addition of the objects to the top of the mask, such as a pouch of ‘pure water’ (ame) for the ‘hawker of water’ and ‘water as life’ masks. The label ‘fish cold-room’ (ehwena) suggests the seller of meat or food, a female hair-do (zo ehwo eh bio za) depicts young females and their fashion, a woman’s head-tie or igaleh suggests elderly women, mirrors (ugbegbe) represent eyes in the round as well as reflection, interpretation, or the foreshadowing of possibility. Costuming and accessories are meant to encourage women to make satirical comments on the masquerades. The festival is, after all, an ‘occasion for people of different ages – men, women and children – to work together creatively, making masks, costumes, musical instruments, engaging in body painting, and performing together as a community’ (Adejumoh 2017).

References

The Eliminya Festival masquerades ‘in detail’, Guest blog by Jean Borgatti

Jean Borgatti Eliminya Festival masquerades in detail
Left: Otuoyema Group masquerades of the type referred to as Osa. Photographed by Jean Borgatti at the final performance of Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, 1973. The performance was held in honor of Samuel Ogbemudia who served as military governor of what was then Midwest State. Right: Otuoyema Group masquerade photographed by Northcote Thomas (NWT 839) in Emafu (Imafun) Quarter, Otuo, in 1909.

In an earlier guest blog, the art historian Professor Jean Borgatti described her first encounter with the photographic archives of Northcote Thomas in the early 1970s. She recounted how she was able to track the changes and continuities in the masquerade traditions associated with the Eliminya Festival in Otuo from Thomas’s photographs from 1909 to her own documentation of the festival in 1973, 2003 and 2016. In this second guest blog, Jean discusses the Eliminya masquerade costumes themselves in greater detail.

Otuo community life is based on the principle of age-grading. Community member and teacher, I. Igbafe, described a series of 13 grades through which passed age sets formed every 5 years. (The anthropologist, R. E. Bradbury, described 11 such grades). Each grade bears a name and has specific tasks associated with it as well as specific ritual duties and roles. Masquerade and dance regalia characterize each group through the Otuoyema, or first title grade – the group moving upward in the Eliminya/Igugu festival. Igugu is a cognate with the Yoruba language term Egungun that refers to ancestors and ancestral masquerades, and was the name used by my informants in 1972-3. (Yoruba is spoken widely in Otuo as well as throughout northwest Edo communities.) Eliminya is cognate with the Edo term Erivi meaning the world of the dead and unborn, residence of the gods, the ancestors and masquerade-dancers (Melzian 1937: 55-6).

Jean Borgatti Eliminya Festival masquerades in detail
Osa type masquerades photographed by Jean Borgatti at the Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, in 1973.

In Otuo, men between the ages of 45 and 50 both sponsor and wear masks and headdresses in festivals held to mark their entry into the group of community leaders. The sponsoring age group wears only two of the seven or eight mask types that appear, the others being worn by the age company above them. These masks are used for a season lasting 5-7 years and are thereafter destroyed. Consequently, they are almost unknown to the outside world. The masks incorporate a vast array of images that refer to ideas of power and leadership: leopards, equestrian figures, colonial officers, the Nigerian Army, heraldic angels and airplanes. The names of the masquerades belong to the esoteric lore associated with each age company, although the masks I refer to as ‘bowler hats’ are called by the popular names ‘umbrella’ or ‘helmet’ – names that suggest kingship or the military but in either case, authority.  These and the ‘whipping masquerades’ are those costumes carried by the sponsoring age company [see illustrations in Jean’s previous guest blog]. The symbolism and significance of these masks also belongs to the esoteric lore of the association. However it is said that while the activity of whipping masquerades purifies the community, the ‘umbrella’ masquerades are enjoyed for their dancing.

Jean Borgatti Eliminya Festival masquerades in detail
From left to right: Obagege, crested, and Ogbigbia type masquerades photographed by Jean Borgatti at the Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, in 1973.

All the masquerade headdresses are worn with a costume of woven raffia covering the performer’s head and torso, following the shape of his body. A fringed panel falls over his chest and shoulders. The section covering his head is embellished with a nose-like tassel. The lower hem of the costume terminates in long strands of fiber. The performer’s arms and legs, painted with linear designs, are partially visible through the fringe as is his cloth applique apron. (Today, shorts are worn rather than the backless apron worn in the past that left the buttocks exposed and visible as the fringe swayed.) Each headdress appears to give a distinctive name to the masquerade. In the parade of masked figures I witnessed in 1973, where the photographs that accompany this blog were taken, costumes worn with a towering feather headdress (Obagege), a central crest of straws bound together, and small wooden caps resembling women’s plaited hairstyles (Ogbigbia) precede the whipping masquerades (Olu), a type far outnumbering the rest since each member of the age group moving upward must wear this one. The wooden capped masqueraders are said to be for maintaining order during the public displays.

Jean Borgatti Eliminya Festival masquerades in detail
Left: Olu, ‘whipping masquerades’, whose role is to disperse malevolent spirits; right: Ogbogbomudu masquerade types, which perform humorous skits in the playing ground. Photographed by Jean Borgatti at the Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, in 1973.

The ‘whipping masqueraders’ perform to disperse malevolent spiritual forces, each cracking  his whip in an attempt to achieve a sound approximating a gunshot. (Those who succeeded were greeted with a resounding cheer.) These are followed by the ‘umbrellas’ (Ugbokpa) and the wooden helmet masks (Ogbogbomudu). These characters are said to be linked to the rains, and perform humorous skits in the playing ground. The most elaborate masks and headdresses featuring figural superstructures (Osa) come a stately last.

Eliminya Festival masquerade photographed by Northcote Thomas in Otuo in 1909
Northcote Thomas’s photograph of the Osa masquerade type in Otuo in 1909. NWT 837.

That each company moving upwards in the system must provide a new set of headdresses provides for the incorporation of new motifs into the compositions and new materials into their construction. Northcote Thomas photographed only three of these masquerade types in Otuo: the whipping masquerade (Olu) and the umbrella masquerade (Ugbokpa), whose later 20th- and 21st-century counterparts are dramatically similar, and one towering Osa masquerade that appears to have a canework superstructure into which are pegged multiple small figures. The final two types of masquerade I witnessed in the 1973 parade consisted of a helmet, usually janus-faced, surmounted by a superstructure containing multiple figures or simply a multi-tiered headdress with carved figures and animals attached to the basic structure, evoking the complex example photographed by Thomas.

My research in Nigeria was carried out between 1971 and 1974 under the auspices of the Federal Department of Antiquities and was partially funded by the following: UCLA Museum of Cultural History-Ralph Altman Fund and NDEA Title VI fellowships via the African Studies Center, UCLA.  Research in 2002-04 and in 2014-16 was carried out under a Fulbright-Hays teaching and research fellowship at the University of Benin in Benin City. I would like to thank the people of Otuo for sharing information and experiences with me, particularly Chief Erukpe Omokhudu, Mr Isaac Adokhai Afekhai, and Teacher Igbafe of Otuo for their personal assistance in 1973. In 2003, his Highness, Julius Elugbe, the Ovie of Otuo, was instrumental in facilitating my documentation of the festival. In 2016, his nephew, Professor Ben Elugbe, was my host during the masquerades’ morning walk-about.

Further reading:

Borgatti, J. M. 1982. ‘Age Grades, Masquerades, and Leadership among the Northern Edo’, African Arts 16 (1): 36-51+96.
Bradbury, R. 1957. The Benin Kingdom and the Edo-Speaking Peoples of Southwestern Nigeria. London: International African Institute.
Igbafe, I. n.d. ‘Age Group Organization in Otuo’. Unpublished manuscript given to the author, and subsequently deposited in the Robbins Library, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC.
Melzian, H. 1937. A Concise History of the Bini Language of Southern Nigeria. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

Rediscovering Northcote Thomas’s artefact collections

Basket in Northcote Thomas collection, Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Detailed documentation photographs of a basket (nkata) collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu in present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. Note the various different accession numbers recorded on the label. MAA Z 13945.

Over the coming months, we shall be exploring the artefact collections assembled by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological survey work in Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915. The collection of ‘ethnological specimens’ was very much a part of anthropological fieldwork in the early twentieth century, and part of a broader project of ‘salvaging’ what was perceived to be the last vestiges of ‘primitive society’ before they were made extinct by the incursion of colonial ‘civilization’. Thomas had written about the need for making such collections long before he conducted any fieldwork himself and, in 1909, he echoed his earlier sentiments when justifying his collecting activities to the Colonial Office: ‘I regard the making of these collections as important. … The opportunities which I have may not recur, every year European goods are ousting native products more & more’.

Judging from correspondence with C. H. Read and T. A. Joyce at the British Museum, it appears that Thomas purchased most of the objects he collected at markets or else commissioned them to be made. This is in stark contrast with the looting of antiquities and treasures that accompanied colonial campaigns, such as the notorious Punitive Expedition to Benin City in 1897. Thomas initially anticipated that the collections would be acquired by the British Museum. However, Read, who was then Keeper of Ethnological Collections, declined the collections from his 1909-10 tour, partly due to a misunderstanding about funds available, partly because Thomas insisted that the collection be kept together in its entirety, but partly also because many of the objects were indeed made especially for Thomas. As Read wrote, ‘I am by no means sure that I want these modern things made to order as it were’. Today, paradoxically, Thomas’s collecting methods would be considered highly ethical.

Northcote Thomas fieldwork photograph of collections prior to sending to Britain
During his 1910-11 tour in what was then Awka District, Southern Nigeria, Thomas photographed his collections prior to dispatching them to the Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology in Cambridge. As part of our collections-based research, we are identifying these objects in the museum stores. The numbers correspond to Thomas object numbers 338 to 350. MAA P.31169.

Thomas subsequently offered the collection to the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. A draft letter by the museum’s curator, Anatole von Hügel, to the University’s Antiquarian Committee, which was responsible for the museum, survives in which he recommends acquiring the collection. Von Hügel notes that there are some ‘2500 objects, now lying in forty cases at the Colonial Office’, and ‘Mr Thomas is very anxious that the collection shall be kept together and is prepared to hand it over to our Museum at cost price’. He adds that ‘Mr Thomas procured what he believes to be the last examples of genuine native workmanship in many villages’. The sum of £100 was raised from one of the Museum’s regular patrons, Professor Anthony Bevan of Trinity College Cambridge, and the collection was duly acquired.

Letter from Anatole von Hugel proposing acquisition of Northcote Thomas collection, 1910
Draft letter from Anatole von Hugel to the Cambridge University Antiquarian Society, proposing the acquisition of Northcote Thomas collection in 1910. MAA archives.

Having acquired the collection he assembled during his first tour in Edo-speaking areas of Southern Nigeria, Thomas was then given a grant by the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology ‘for collecting purposes’ during his subsequent tours among Igbo-speaking communities (1910-11, 1912-13), and it appears that Thomas donated the collections he assembled in Sierra Leone (1914-15). Together the ‘Thomas Collection’, as it was known, provided a comprehensive representation of ‘native manufactures’ of Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. The size of the collection was such that the gallery in which they were stored at the Museum was assigned as a dedicated ‘African room’.

Documenting and caring for a collection of this scale also presented challenges, especially since a large number of the objects had been damaged in transit from West Africa to Britain. The Museum’s Annual Reports in the years following the initial acquisition often mention the work of ‘cleaning, mending and restoring’ the objects; while Thomas himself assisted in the work of classifying and labelling the collections. Indeed, the work of accessioning, cataloguing and documenting the collection has continued sporadically over the decades. This work was carried out by individuals who went on to become established figures in the study of African Art, including G. I. Jones in the late 1940s and Malcolm Mcleod in the early 1970s. In the late 1980s, a project was led by Cambridge students, Roger Blench and Mark Alexander, to re-examine the collections, and today, of course, we are engaging with them again in the [Re:]Entanglements project.

Katrina Dring, George Agbo and Paul Basu working with the Northcote Thomas collection, Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
[Re:]Entanglements team members (Katrina Dring, George Agbo and Paul Basu) working with the Thomas collections in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores in Cambridge.
Despite this occasional attention, the collections have rarely been seen. Today, only a handful of the objects are on display in the Museum’s permanent galleries. Through the [Re:]Entanglements project, for the first time we will be taking photographs of the collections back to the places from which they were collected. Thomas’s documentation of the collections is relatively limited, and we have much to learn about them. We are also interested in how the descendants of those who made or used these objects perceive them today. What craft skills and continuities in design and materials exists in these places now? And what inspiration might these collections provide for contemporary artists and craftspeople in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and beyond? Our intention is to commission new works and to display this newly-commissioned work alongside Thomas’s historical collections in our [Re:]Entanglements exhibition that will be staged in 2020.

Catalogue of Northcote Thomas's collection from his first tour, 1909-10. Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
A page from the catalogue of Northcote Thomas’s collection from his first tour, 1909-10. Historical museum documentation has a palimpsest-like quality as different people have added notes and queries over the decades. Collections-based research is like archaeological excavation, as one deciphers the layers of knowledge and ordering systems that have accumulated.

Thomas photographed some of the objects he collected ‘in the field’, prior to having them packed in crates and shipped to Britain. Our starting point as we work through the collections is to identify and locate these same objects in the Museum stores, to photograph them in detail, and to enhance the Museum’s catalogue record of each. You can follow our progress by joining the project’s Facebook Group, and, indeed, you can make your own discoveries by searching the MAA’s online catalogue.

N. W. Thomas – an accidental artist?

N. W. Thomas, Still Life, Shrine of Olukun, Benin City. NWT 144. MAA P.28134.
N. W. Thomas, Shrine of Olukun, Benin City, 1909. NWT 144. MAA P.28134.

Along with the sound archives and collections of artefacts, the photographic legacy of N. W. Thomas’s anthropological surveys in West Africa provide a remarkable record of life in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the early twentieth century. As part of a ‘scientific’ endeavour, they were intended primarily as a form of ethnographic documentation and also constituted ‘data’ in themselves – particularly with regard to physical type photography. As part of a government-sponsored project, their entanglement in colonial power relations and racial representation/categorisation is unavoidable. This political context must be the primary lens through which we approach these images and practices.

Working through this vast archive of photographs, however, one is also struck occasionally by the aesthetic qualities of the images. This extends to both portraiture – which, in many cases, complicates our reading of these as ‘physical type’ photographs (this will be the subject of a future blog) – and what we might call ‘still life’ photographs. Indeed, as the examples included here show, Thomas’s photographs of material culture or architectural details are sometimes strongly redolent of the early still-life photography of Fox Talbot or Daguerre . This includes photographs of what appear to be ‘found scenes’ as well as compositions in which objects have been arranged purposefully for the camera. (Compare, for example, with Fox Talbot’s ‘The Open Door‘ and Daguerre’s ‘Fossils and Shells‘.)

N. W. Thomas, Still Life, Instruments for marking body and medicines, Benin City. NWT 49. MAA P.28070.
N. W. Thomas, Instruments for marking body and medicines, Benin City, 1909. NWT 49. MAA P.28070.

This reminds us of a dual characteristic of photography that has been present throughout the history of the medium – that photography has been regarded as both a medium for the objective documentation of reality, independent of the photographer’s ‘artistry’, and as a medium of subjective artistic expression akin to painting or drawing. In the context of Thomas’s anthropological survey photography, a further question is raised regarding whether we may appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the photographs, while being mindful (and critical) of the racial/colonial politics in which they are entangled?

N. W. Thomas, Still Life, Shrine, Fugar. NWT 1056. MAA P.29135.
N. W. Thomas, Shrine, Fugar, 1909. NWT 1056. MAA P.29135.

‘Susu Boy’, Guest blog by Chiadikōbi Nwaubani

'Susu Boy' by Chiadikobi Nwaubani, 2018.
‘Susu Boy’ by Chiadikōbi Nwaubani, 2018.

In the first of a series of guest blogs for the [Re:]Entanglements project, the artist and designer Chiadikōbi Nwaubani introduces his discovery of Northcote Thomas’s photographic archive and how this has provided inspiration for his work. Nwaubani was born in London in 1991 to Igbo parents. He returned with them to live in Nigeria between 1994 and 1997, and subsequently travelled back and forth between the UK and Nigeria. Having encountered many historical photographs of Igbo culture online, mainly digitised from old ethnographic accounts such as N. W. Thomas’s Anthropological Reports, he created the Ukpuru blog in 2010, where he reposts them along with associated information.

In this guest blog Chiadikōbi Nwaubani describes how he began experimenting with the archival images and interrogating them through his art practice. ‘Susu Boy’ is Nwaubani’s response to Plate VIII of N. W. Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone, published in 1916. From Thomas’s photographic registers, we know that the subject was in fact Momo Samura. The original photographs, from which the plate was made, were taken in Samaia in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone in May 1914.

I became involved in the [Re:]Entanglements project after sharing some of the designs I made with Northcote Thomas’s published photographs online. My initial involvement with Northcote’s work was through the lens of a descendant of the people he depicted in his photographs. I was interested in the ‘physical type’ portraits he made. Even though I was not familiar with the history of this kind of anthropological photograph, I had some idea about the nature of colonialism, which these photographs seemed to affirm. I started the Ukpuru blog in 2010 in which I post old photographs of the Igbo area that I have found online, particularly from early European ethnographies. My interest in ethnography comes from witnessing masquerades in my ancestral home town in Umuahia. The Ekpo masquerades, as they are known, have an imposing presence. The designs of the masks are highly varied and quite detailed. These figures were some of the earliest images I drew.

Chiadikobi Nwaubani and Ekpo masquerade in Umuahia, Nigeria.
A young Chiadikōbi Nwaubani and Ekpo masquerade in Umuahia, Nigeria.

I took some of Northcote Thomas’s published photographs and manipulated them with gradient colours – colours that were quite sharp, like purple and a kind of neon red. These colours gave a lively theme to the photos, and also a pop art feel. In this way, I feel that the subjects are transported from being a ‘type’ into being a symbol of history – both colonial and indigenous… a kind of vision of the past.

Recoloured archive photographs by Chiadikobi Nwaubani.
A contemporary vision of the past? N. W. Thomas’s anthropological photographs reworked by Chiadikōbi Nwaubani.

More recently I have been making paintings on paper, which bring out stronger themes. My use of black for fleshing out figures, not only draws out the focus on race, but also seems quite similar to Ekpo masks – these represent ghosts and ancestral spirits. The first of this type of painting I made was ‘Susu Boy’. When I first saw the photograph in Thomas’s Anthropological Report, it struck me as a kind of lonely looking study of the young man because of where he was positioned in the book. There is no name in the caption. The only information left for the viewer is the man’s features, particularly ones that are suggested to be racial, and also his skin colour. With so little information, I am led to imagine what might be happening ‘off camera’, in the margins. What happened just before the photo was taken? Or just after? What was the nature of the relationship between the man photographed and the photographer?

Plate VIII from N. W. Thomas's Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone. The caption reads 'Susu Boy'.
The original ‘Susu Boy’ physical type photograph published in N. W. Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone (1916). In fact, we know this is Momo Samura, photographed by Thomas in Samaia in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone in May 1914.

The arm of a white man holds the number board. Although no measure or number board may be found on the published photograph or negative, I wanted to draw attention to the ‘scientific’ presentation of the subject. The numbers, the measure, the presence of the hand with the board – these are used to frame the story and to raise questions pertaining to what was happening around the subject, both literally and figuratively considering the situation that this area of the world was in at the time. Most of this – and his – story will, for the most part, remain unknown. The jumbled numbers and bright colours give a sense of turmoil in the background – even if not literal turmoil, then one coming from the nature of the study of the subject and the way we see these images today in relation to what we know of the past.

Chiadikobi Nwaubani installing 'Susu Boy' as part of the Photographic Affordances exhibition at the Royal Anthropological Institute, London.
Chiadikōbi Nwaubani installing ‘Susu Boy’ as part of the Photographic Affordances exhibition at the Royal Anthropological Institute, London.

Chiadikōbi Nwaubani’s ‘Susu Boy’ is currently on display alongside N. W. Thomas’s photograph of Momo Samura as part of the Photographic Affordances exhibition at the Royal Anthropological Institute.

See an interview with Chiadikōbi Nwaubani at That Igbo Girl blog.