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.

‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition

Northcote Thomas collections in Artis Unknown exhibition, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge
Installation views of objects collected by Northcote Thomas featuring in the ‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. Photographs by Nicholas Thomas.

One consequence of the [Re:]Entanglements project is that the various archives and collections assembled by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone are gaining greater exposure. This is true in West Africa, but also in the UK and elsewhere. As a example, two objects collected by Thomas are currently being featured in an exhibition at Kettle’s Yard Gallery in Cambridge entitled ‘Artist: Unknown, Art and Artefacts from the University of Cambridge Museums and Collections’. The exhibition opened on 9 July 2019 and will run until 22 September 2019.

The exhibition brings together a selection of artworks and artefacts from across the University of Cambridge’s diverse collections, including the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (which holds the Northcote Thomas collections), Cambridge Botanic Garden, Museum of Classical Archaeology, The Fitzwilliam Museum, The Polar Museum, Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Museum of Zoology, University Library and a couple of the colleges. The selected items share one thing in common: despite displaying remarkable creativity and skill, the identities of the artists or makers are not known. As an exhibition text states, ‘Not knowing, in each instance, who the artist or maker is, shifts our attention from a name and a known or imagined persona, to focus instead on the multiple reasons why the creator is lost to history’.

In the context of historical ethnographic collections, of course, the absence of a named individual artist or maker is the norm, rather than the exception. We’ll return to this issue, but first let us take a look at the two artworks/artefacts collected by Thomas that feature in the exhibition.

Z 14207: Lamellophone (ibweze)

Lamellophone (ibweze) collected by Northcote Thomas in Enugu Ukwu, Nigeria
Lamellophone (ibweze) collected by Northcote Thomas in Enugu-ukwu, 1911. NWT 351; University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Z 14207.

According to Thomas’s label, this lamellophone or thumb piano was collected in 1911 in Enugu-ukwu, south-west of Awka, in present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. It is one of a number of lamellophones collected by Thomas. The Igbo word for a lamellophone is ubọ-aka, and it is thus curious why Thomas gives this particular instrument the name ibweze. According to Dr Ikenna Onwuegbuna, a lecturer in the Music Department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and native of Awka, ibweze – which should actually be spelt ibhe-eze – means simply ‘the thing belonging to the king’, or ‘the king’s thing’, and is not the name of an instrument at all. Onwuegbuna speculates that this ubo-aka was made for the Eze (king) or a musician in his court.

Judging from the lamellophones collected by Thomas, they were a medium for displaying the virtuosity of those who made them as well as the musicians who played them. However, the ibweze is particularly remarkable given the elaborate superstructure (indeed, a lamellophone fit for a king!). The finger-board, which has six cane tongues, is mounted onto a wooden block. Above the finger-board, this has been carved with two human faces, one facing front, one facing back, as well as two antelope heads facing left and right. Surmounted on the antelopes’ horns is a cat-like creature – probably a leopard given its spots. The leopard is also a symbol of kingship.

Northcote Thomas photograph of ibweze (lamellophone) being played, Enugu Ukwu
Sequence of photographs by Northcote Thomas showing the ibweze being played. NWT 2889-2891; RAI 400.16305-16308.

The elaborate carving makes the instrument heavy and poorly balanced. One would imagine that it is impossible to play, but Thomas also took a series of photographs of the ibweze being played along with a drum, which Thomas also acquired. In his register book, Thomas describes the photograph series simply as ‘Young men’s dance’. A further photograph shows both the thumb piano and the drum (Z 14200) lined up before a backcloth with other objects that he had collected in Enugu-ukwu.

Photograph by Northcote Thomas of objects lined up prior to being sent to Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge
During his second tour, in Igbo-speaking Awka District, Northcote Thomas sometimes arranged his collections in a line to photograph them prior to sending them to the Cambridge. Here, the ibweze can be seen alongside other objects collected in Enugu-ukwu. Photograph by Northcote Thomas.

We know that Thomas purchased objects for his collections and he also commissioned artists and craftspeople to make things for him. We do not know, however, whether the ibweze was a specially commissioned piece. If it was, we might speculate that the ibweze-maker used the opportunity to show off his skills as an artist, perhaps aware that his work would travel to a distant land, carrying his reputation and fame with it. Did he imagine that 108 years later, his masterpiece would be displayed in a fine art gallery in Cambridge?! If Thomas did commission the ibweze, it is possible that he was aware of the artist’s name – what a shame that he appears not to have recorded it.

Z 25889: Carved and painted wooden head

Carved and painted head collected by Northcote Thomas in Nigeria
Carved and painted wooden head, collected in Southern Nigeria between 1909 and 1913. University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Z 25889.

The second object from the Thomas collections featuring in the ‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition is much more enigmatic. The label is of a kind that was attached to Thomas’s collections when they were originally accessioned at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It reads simply ‘Head, one side painted white, the other with white spots, straw round neck’. There is no surviving record of where it was collected or what its original purpose or function was, let alone who created it.

Unlike the ibweze, Thomas took no photographs showing the carving in situ prior to being collected. There are, however, some formal similarities with some shrine figures photographed by Thomas in December 1909 in Aja-Eyube (spelled Ajeyube by Thomas), which is now a suburb of Agbarho in Delta State, Nigeria. This is, however, inconclusive.

Northcote Thomas photograph of Nama shrine, Aja-Eyube
Nama shrine, Aja-Eyube (Ajeyube), in present-day Delta State, Nigeria. NWT 1394a; RAI 400.16630.

The division of the body using paint – in this case white on the right side, and spotted on the left – has cosmological significance and is found on both carved figures and human bodies. The Anglican missionary, George Basden, published a photograph of a man with his left side painted white in his book Niger Ibos [sic] (1938), which he stated represented the dualism of ‘body’ and ‘spirit’.

George Basden photograph of man with body painting, from Niger Ibos

More than many of the objects that Thomas collected, this carved wooden head perhaps most closely resembles an ‘art object’, the primary function of which is aesthetic.

Artists unknown

In a podcast accompanying the ‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition, Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Nicholas Thomas (no relation to Northcote!) reflects on historical distinctions between art museums and ethnographic museums. In the following excerpt he discusses a Fijian painted barkcloth from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology that also appears in the ‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition, but the broader points apply equally to the Nigerian objects.

Excerpt from Nicholas Thomas’s podcast. Listen to the full version by clicking here.

Whereas (Western) art objects are often valued because of their association with individual artists, (non-Western) ethnographic objects were historically valued as ‘specimens’ of the material culture of particular societies and cultural groups. Although they recognized and appreciated the skills and artistry of individual makers, anthropological collectors such as Northcote Thomas were primarily interested in what material culture could tell them about a given ‘people’. Thus, Thomas conceptualised his collections in terms of ‘technologies’, or their function in relation to religion and ritual. He was also interested in documenting ‘decorative arts’, both in architecture and artefacts. This was, however, principally of interest insofar as distinctive styles and techniques were perceived to delineate cultural boundaries and influences. Thomas used art(efacts) much as he used language and physical type photography as a tool in cultural mapping.

It was only in the 1980s that the distinction between art objects and ethnographic objects began to be questioned critically. This period also saw the rebranding of many ethnographic collections as ‘World Art’. Today, acknowledging the individuality of the artists and craftspeople responsible for making these works is part of a decolonisation agenda. The reduction of singular works such as the ibweze or carved head collected by Thomas to representative specimens, with the corresponding erasure of the identities of their individual makers, is part of the epistemic violence of colonialism. But, at the same time, we might also question whether the highly-commoditised global art system, with its obsession with the named celebrity artist, represents another form of coloniality, obscuring other possible artworlds in which creativity is not necessarily the property and outcome of individual activity.

Creative engagements with the archive

Art workshop at Nosona Studios, Benin City
Art workshop at Nosona Studios, Benin City. Introducing the colonial ethnographic archive to participants. Photograph by Paul Basu.

As part of our exploration of the contemporary value of the colonial-era collections and archives assembled by the Government Anthropologist, Northcote Thomas, in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915, we are working with various young artists in the areas in which Thomas worked. To facilitate this, we have held a series of workshops in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, at Nosona Studios in Benin City, and at the Sierra Leone National Museum in Freetown. We have also been developing collaborations with more established artists, for instance with Kelani Abass, Mike Omoighe and Ndidi Dike in Nigeria, and with Charlie Haffner in Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone artists workshop at the Sierra Leone National Museum
Sierra Leonean artists discuss each others’ initial ideas for works engaging with the archives and collections assembled by Northcote Thomas during his 1914-15 tour in Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone National Museum, Freetown. Photograph by Paul Basu.

At the workshops we have been introducing artists to the Northcote Thomas archives and collections, and discussing the context of the colonial anthropological surveys through which they were assembled. We have then looked at other examples of how contemporary artists have engaged with the colonial archive in their work – often as a way of interrogating or critiquing colonialism and its legacies. Participants then discuss their initial ideas for how they might respond specifically to the Northcote Thomas collections through their art practice. After the initial workshops we have held follow-up sessions and been in close contact with the artists as they have developed their initial ideas and begun producing their works. We report here on just a few of these works-in-progress.

Derek Jahyem Jombo Ogboi work in progress, Benin City
Work-in-progress by Derek Jahyem Jombo-Ogboi, Benin City. Derek Jahyem is especially drawn to the expressions on the faces and the body language of those Northcote Thomas photographed. ‘I can’t really say much about the piece, as it’s ongoing’, he explains. ‘The eyes of these people in the images keep directing me on where to go … it’s like I hear each one of them whisper to me, saying: “Tell my story, tell my story!”‘. Artist photograph by Jonathan Chambalin Nwachukwu.
Uli-based art projects, Department of Fine and Applied Art, University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Uli-inspired works-in-progress, Nsukka. There is a long-standing tradition of creating contemporary work inspired by Igbo uli body and wall painting in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Continuing the tradition of the ‘Nsukka School’, a number of workshop participants, including C. Krydz Ikwuemesi, RitaDoris Edumchieke Ubah, Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko and Chinyere Odinukwe are developing works in different media inspired by Northcote Thomas’s documentation of historical uli art. Left: preliminary drawings for mixed media work by Chinyere Odinukwe ; Right: RitaDoris Edumchieke Ubah, discusses her ideas for translating uli motifs documented by Thomas into textile designs.
Jonathan Chambalin and Anedu Edozie work in progress, Benin City
Work-in-progress by Jonathan Chambalin Nwachukwu, Benin City. Photographer and sound artist, Jonathan Chambalin Nwachukwu, is collaborating with painter, Anendu Edozie, to create a series of linked cinemagraphs (a hybrid of stills photography and video) and sound installations based on Northcote Thomas’s photographs and phonograph recordings. Jonathan is recreating a number of Thomas’s photographic portraits using the painted bodies of live models. Artist self-portrait by Jonathan Chambalin Nwachukwu.
Chukwuemeka Nwigwe, work in progress, University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Works-in-progress by Chukwuemeka Nwigwe, Nsukka. Chukwuemeka is a textile artist who combines traditional weaving techniques with the use of discarded plastics and foils. He is producing a series of works featuring silhouettes of figures drawn from Northcote Thomas’s photographs woven into colourful backgrounds formed of waste materials. His work highlights the contrast between the historical Igbo worlds documented, in monochrome, by Thomas, in which organic materials dominated, and the present environment, full of colour, but also facing a crisis due to the dominance of petrochemical industries and plastic waste.
Bello Ameen, work in progress, Benin City
Works-in-progress by Bello Imoudu Ameen, Benin City. Among the works that Bello Ameen is producing for the project is a pair of paintings provisionally entitled ‘Loss or Gain’. Based on Thomas’s photograph of Chief Ero and his son, taken in Benin City in 1909, he is re-imagining the scene in oils, with abstract backgrounds incorporating architectural design motifs that Thomas also documented. The foreground characters are represented ‘then’ and ‘now’ as a way of reflecting on what has been gained in Nigerian society in the last 100 years, but also what has been lost.

Contemporary artworks resulting from these collaborations will be exhibited at a series of exhibitions over the coming months and years. The first will open at Nosona Studios, Benin City, in July 2019, to coincide with a meeting of the Benin Dialogue Group (a forum to discuss the future of antiquities looted from Benin during the 1897 Punitive Expedition). Then exhibitions will be taking place at the National Museum, Lagos and Sierra Leone National Museum in October 2019, followed by an exhibition at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. A selection of the works will then be redisplayed in the large [Re:]Entanglements exhibition that will be taking place at the Brunei Gallery in London between October and December 2020.

Further updates and individual profiles of the artists and their works will be posted to the blog in due course.

Conversations with a carver

George Agbo in conversation with Chief Anaemena, Amansea.
George Agbo and Chief Anaemena discuss photographs of wood carvings collected by Northcote Thomas in 1911.

In 2018 we photographed many of the artefacts collected by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone and now held at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. This allowed us glimpse into the artistic skills of the various communities in which Thomas worked. This included metal working such as bronze casting and blacksmithing, wood carving, pottery, basketry, weaving and leather working. Our engagement with these collections has led us to pursue certain lines of inquiry in our fieldwork: for instance, we are interested in who made these objects, why and how they were made, to what uses were they put, and whether these artistic practices have survived.

Carver, Felix Ekhator, Sakpohba Road, Benin City.
Carver, Felic Ekhator, of Sakpohba Road, Benin City.

In some place, such as Benin City, we have found that traditional arts continue to flourish, as can be seen in the metal working guilds in Igun Street or the nearby wood carvers who produce works not dissimilar to those collected by Thomas over 100 years ago. In many places, however, it appears that these skills are being lost or have died out.

Chief Anaemena, Amansea.
Ozo Chief Raphael Anaemena of Amansea, Anambra State, Nigeria.

In Amansea, Anambra State, Nigeria, which Thomas visited in 1911 during his first tour among Igbo-speaking communities, we met a carver – Chief Raphael Anaemena – who also holds the Ozo title. We did not see him work; he is advanced in age and has not carved in a couple of years, but he shared interesting insight into the art. He is from the Ibe family in Amansea, historically known across the region for the art of carving.

Although we do not have record of any wooden artefacts collected by Thomas from Amansea, Chief Anaemena’s father or grandfather may well have carved the doors or shrine figures that Thomas photographed in the town. He and other carvers from the Ibe family also received commissions from neighbouring towns such as Ebenebe, Ugwuoba and Awka where Thomas did collect. There were carvers in these places too, but the works of the Ibe of Amansea were particularly sought after due to the high quality of their craftsmanship.

Examples of wood carving photographed by Northcote Thomas in Amansea in 1911.
Examples of wood carving photographed by Northcote Thomas in Amansea in 1911. Left: carved door (NWT 3466; RAI 400.20020; MAA P.31638); Right: shrine figure (NWT 3473; RAI 400.20026).

We sat down with Chief Anaemena to look over some of the photographs of the wooden objects Thomas collected in the area and benefitted from his insight into production techniques. Consider, for example, how carvers joined pieces of wood.

Thumb piano collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu, 1911. NWT 2 0351; MAA Z 14207.
Elaborately carved thumb piano or ubo collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu in 1911. (MAA Z 14207)

Looking at the above elegant wood carving to which a thumb piano (ubo) is attached, and which was acquired by Thomas in Awgbu, Chief Anaemena explained that some parts such as the leopard and the animal heads with horns were carved separately and then joined together. While other carvers would use glue, such as the type made of wax from a certain insect in the bee family, to join the various parts, the Ibe would achieve a better result by creating a protrusion on one piece of wood and a groove on the other wood into which the protuberance would be fitted. Another joinery technique is ‘nailing’ with thorns such as those from orange trees, palm branches or pieces of wood given nail-like shape. However, this technique only works with soft woods such as the type used in the production of the box for keeping eagle feathers which Thomas collected from Nise.

Box collected by Northcote Thomas in Nise, 1911. NWT 2 0599; MAA Z 13900.
Box for storing eagle feathers collected by Northcote Thomas in Nise, 1911. (MAA Z 13900)

Generally, the kind of wood used for carving is determined by the object the carver intends to create. Masks for instance would be produced from light wood so that they could easily be carried by the masker. Other production specifications such as size and design are largely determined by the one who commissioned the carving. Carvers do not usually produce carvings to be kept for sale. The work is driven by demand, where the carver could even be employed for some time in his client’s home. One who wishes to have an ikenga figure made, for example, would give the carver specifications about size and the objects it would carry in its hands. However, clients could at times ask the carver to make design decisions for them. According to Chief Anaemena, it was once common to see the ikenga figure with a knife in one hand and a human head in the other as exemplified by the one Thomas collected from Awgbu.

Ikenga collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu, 1911. NWT 2 0348; MAA Z 14203.
Ikenga figure collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu, 1911. (MAA Z 14203)

The trophy is suggestive of the malevolent side of ikenga’s power. At some point, people began to find that too fierce. Ozo Chief Anaemena explained that, in the 1970s, he began to put the ofo stick in one of the ikenga’s hands and a knife in the other to suggest ‘okpegbuo ogbuo’ (it can only kill justly). This was well received and it soon became fashionable.

Stool carved by Chief Anaemena for his Ozo title taking ceremony, Amansea
Stool carved by Chief Anaemena for his Ozo title taking ceremony, Amansea.

Today, Ozo Chief Anaemena does not carve anymore but he still has some of his works. An example is the stool he carved in 2013 for his Ozo title taking ceremony the following year. He also showed us some of his carving tools including nkori oshishi (for creating effects on the wood), muma (for shaping), ugama (for cutting), and mma oge (for cutting). We hope that in the course of our fieldwork we will meet some traditional carvers who still practice their art and look forward to learning more from them.

Some of Chief Anaemena's woodworking tools, Amansea.
Some of Chief Anaemena’s wood carving tools, including: (1) nkori oshishi (for creating effects on the wood); (2) muma (for shaping); (3) ugama (for cutting); and (4) mma oge (for cutting).

Fieldnotes: Kuranko flute

Hassan Jalloh, flute player from Bendugu, Sambaya Chiefdom, Sierra Leone.
Hassan Jalloh, flute player from Bendugu, Sambaya Chiefdom, Sierra Leone.

As part of our fieldwork in Sierra Leone, we are recording contemporary musicians and singers in the locations in which Northcote Thomas worked in 1914-15. Indeed, the majority of the wax cylinder phonograph recordings that Thomas made during his Sierra Leonean tour are ethnomusicological.

On 21 October 1914, while conducting research in Mabonto in what is now Simera Chiefdom, Tonkolili District, Northern Sierra Leone, Thomas recorded a flute player. Mabonto is now largely Temne-speaking as a result of in-migration due to mining activities. In 1914, however, Mabonto was a Koranko-speaking town.

Recording of Koranko flute made by Northcote Thomas in Mabonto on 21 October 1914. NWT 681; British Library C51/3076.

When we asked whether there were any traditional flute players in Mabonto, we were told that there were none, and that one would have to go deeper into ‘Koranko country’ in order to find one. We were told about a flute player named Hassan Jalloh, who lived in Bendugu in neighbouring Sambaya Chiefdom. The following day, after a long, arduous drive through the hilly terrain, we arrived at Bendugu only to find that Hassan had been called away to play his flute at a men’s society ceremony. Thankfully, however, we were able to arrange for him to come to Mabonto the day after, where he played for us.

We played Hassan Northcote Thomas’s 105-year-old recordings of the flute player in Mabonto. Hassan confirmed that this was the same instrument he played. He immediately recognized the music and began playing a version of the same song, which he told us was played in the men’s society camp.

Hassan Jalloh playing a version of the flute music recorded by Northcote Thomas in Mabonto in 1914.

Thomas collected two examples of these flutes and they were some of the most fragile objects that we photographed in the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) stores in 2018. They are made from reeds that grow on river banks in the region. Hassan explained that he learnt to make and play the flute (locally called fuli or fullii) from his father who had learnt from his father before him. The finger holes are burnt into the reed using a hot stick and one can still see where the stick has singed the reed in the examples in the MAA collection. It appears that the MAA examples were not played, however, since they are missing the mouthpiece, which is fashioned from a kind of resin produced by insects.

Flutes collected by Northcote Thomas in Koranko country in 1914. NWT SL 0139; MAA Z 14559.1-2.
Reed flutes collected by Northcote Thomas in northeastern Sierra Leone in 1914, now in the collection of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. NWT 139; MAA Z 14559.1-2.
Hassan Jalloh's flute
Hassan Jalloh’s flute. Note the mouthpiece formed of resin that is missing from the examples collected by Northcote Thomas.

Alele, Ọja, Flute

Flutes collected by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys of Edo- and Igbo-speaking communities in Southern Nigeria.
Flutes collected by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys of Edo- and Igbo-speaking communities, Southern Nigeria, 1909-1913. (University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology).

During his anthropological surveys of Edo- and Igbo-speaking communities in Southern Nigeria between 1909 and 1913, N. W. Thomas collected and recorded a number of examples of local flutes. Thomas gives the Edo name for these as alele, elele or ulele (depending on dialect); he records the Igbo name as ja. In the first volume of his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Thomas notes that, next to the drum, the flute was probably the commonest musical instrument in the region; he also observes that there are ‘two or three kinds made of wood’, and another kind ‘made of calabash covered with the skin of a cow’ (1913: 136). Thomas distinguishes different styles of flute music, played in different contexts, for example during wrestling matches, during wall-making and while drinking palm wine (ibid.).

Northcote Thomas photographs of flute players, Southern Nigeria, 1909 and 1911.
Left: ‘Man with flute’, Ijebba [Uzebba], June 1909 (NWT 640; RAI 400.15778); Right: man with three flutes strung around his neck, Agolo [Agulu], 1911 (NWT 2171; RAI 400.16124).
In her article ‘Classification of Igbo Musical Instruments’ (1987), the ethnomusicologist, Joy Nwosu Lo-Bamijoko, provides the following account of the ja:

Ọja is the most common of the wind instruments. It is made of wood, usually a light soft wood, and of bamboo. The wooden ja is notched and end blown, while the bamboo ja, also notched, is side blown. Of the two types of ja only the wooden one has survived the changing times. The explanation of this survival can once again be found in its deep functionality in Igbo cultural and social life. The characteristic of ja is the high-pitched sound which the different types produce. This is because this family of instruments is small in size. The biggest ja discovered by this author is about 26cm long, and the smallest about 14cm long. The size of an ja determines its pitch and the quality of sound determines the instrument’s function. The highest-pitched flutes, which are also the shortest, are known either as ja-mmonwu (flutes used for masquerade music) or ja-okolobia (flutes used for ceremonies of men who have attained manhood). The sound of both flutes is bright and they are used more for chanting than for singing. The difference between the two styles is that chanting is an extended form of speaking, while singing is purely musical.

The lowest-pitched flutes are known as ja-igede. Igede is a drum music used for burial ceremonies, and ja-igede is used in pairs with the male ja calling and the female ja responding.

The next ja, whose sound is half way between the highest-pitched and the lowest-pitched ones, is known as ja-ukwe (the singing flute). This is used for women’s dances of all types.

Flutes collected by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys of Edo- and Igbo-speaking communities in Southern Nigeria.
Flutes collected by Northcote Thomas in Nigeria. Left: ‘Flute of camwood, Bini’, collected 1909-10 (NWT 55; MAA Z 12063); Right: ‘Flute (oja), Obu [Awgbu]’, collected 1911 (NWT 192; MAA Z 14046).
Christian Uzoma Onyeji, Professor of Music at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, further elaborates on the significance of the ja in Igbo culture (Onyeji 2006: 198):

As an instrument, it is fundamentally employed for performance-composition of melodies, as well as simulation of texts in music and dance performance situations. It provides lyrical melodies that contribute immensely to the overall timbre and aesthetics of Igbo music. In some musical performances oja effectively employed for non-verbal communication with ensemble members as well as the audience. This could be in the form of cues, musical signals or mere encouragement of dancers and players to a more creative performance. … In some instances, oja is employed as a master instrument that conducts and marshals or determines a musical event or performance form. This is found in some masquerade performances such as Ojionu. But, oja performs both musical and non-musical roles in Igbo land. Its use extends beyond the musical. It is employed in non-musical events and contexts as a talking instrument. As such it encodes significant messages within non-musical contexts. In such instances it conveys relevant messages to cognitive members or initiates in a a ceremony. It is, particularly, used for salutations and praise on these occasions.

Northcote Thomas made several recordings of flute playing using his wax cylinder phonograph, which illustrate a number of different styles. Beyond stating where and when they were recorded, Thomas unfortunately provided little further information about the different styles. Here are three examples:

‘Uzebba flute, June 10th, 1909’ (NWT 137; BL C51/2424) – this is likely to be a recording of the flute player in the photograph on the left above (NWT 640):

 

‘Flute record, taken at Awka, December 13th, 1910’ (NWT 409; BL C51/2636):

 

‘Record 441, taken at Awgulu, February 8th, 1911’ (NWT 441; BL C51/2683):

 

A number of videos of contemporary ja players can be found online.

References

  • Lo-Bamijoko, J. N. (1987) ‘Classification of Igbo Musical Instruments’, African Music 6(4): 19-41.
  • Onyeji, C. U. (2006) ‘Oja (Igbo wooden flute): An Introduction to the Playing Technique and Performance’, in M. Mans (ed.) Centering on African Practice in Musical Arts Education (pp.195-208), Cape Town: African Minds.
  • Thomas, N. W. (1913) Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part 1: Law and Custom of the Ibo of the Awka Neighbourhood, London: Harrison & Sons.

Otuo wrestling festival, July 1909

N. W. Thomas type-written notes describing wrestling festival in Otuo
Excerpt from N. W. Thomas’s typed-up notes describing Otuo’s ‘Ukpesoda’ wrestling festival, 12-13 July 1909.

The first phase of the [Re:]Entanglements project has been focusing on researching the archives and collections assembled during Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. After the surveys, the collections were dispersed and they are now scattered across many institutions, including the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the Royal Anthropological Institute, the British Library Sound Archive, the UK National Archives, and National Museum, Lagos. One of the exciting aspects of this research is to reassemble the disassembled documents, photographs, sound recordings and artefacts relating to a particular event that N. W. Thomas documented.

Here, for example, we bring together photographs, sound recordings and an object that can be associated with an account of a wrestling festival that Thomas attended on 12-13 July 1909 in the North Edo town of Otuo (spelled Otua by Thomas). This written account was found in a bundle of typed up notes from his first tour, perhaps fragments of an early draft of his Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria.

At Otua I witnessed a wrestling festival called Ukpesoda, said to have been ordered by Osa.

At 8.30 in the morning the road to the market but not the market itself was swept by boys who had not yet joined otu [an age-set]; then they plucked leaves from any tree on the road & headed by two boys carrying brooms marched through the town & back to the square.

Children sweeping road before wrestling festival, Otuo
Uninitiated children sweeping the road to the market before the start of the festival, Otuo. NWT 817b, RAI 400.17082.

In the afternoon a sacrifice was offered to the ground, euelekpa, by four of the king’s company, while the other chiefs looked on. The main share in the ceremony was borne by Eidevri (A) & Omorigie (B). A said: I salute the whole town; now is the time for our feast; B replied: the whole town thanks you.

A said: The king gets more fufu than others. The king replied: I thank you for seeing that it is all right. The fufu was provided by the king & three chiefs.

Distributing sacrifices at wrestling festival, Otuo
Distributing sacrificed fufu and meat to the king and chiefs on the first day of the festival, Otuo. NWT 816f, RAI 400.17075.

A & B then washed their hands & stood on either side of the stone of sacrifice. B brought water & put the dish on the ground; A washed his hands over the stone; B brought fufu & handed it to A & then put soup & four pieces of meat in the fufu dish. A put it on the ground close to the stone & they repeated this operation four times, once for each set of fufu. Then A & B stood aside, saying: We have finished, come & eat.

Then small boys lined up some ten yards away, rushed in, seized the fufu & took it away from the square to eat.

On their return A & B began to divide the fufu for the different companies. A cut the fufu horizontally, leaving some in the bottom of the calabash for the chief who provided it & putting the other slices on leaves on the ground. Then he took a knife & cut the fufu on the leaf & B gave to each company. The head took it & summoned the others. The people who are not yet in a company also get a portion, which is handed to the firstcomer after the order is given.

The meat was then cut up; the four chiefs got a piece each & A took the remainder home; it was divided on the following day.

The sacrifice over, the women began to dance & sing for joy; two performed to the song of the others; then all raised their hands & shouted.

Otua wrestling festival, women's song.
Women singing on the first day of the festival, Otuo. NWT 816l, RAI 400.17080.

‘Otua women’s song, July 13th 1909’. NWT 169, BL C51/2449.

On the following morning three drummers appeared on the square at 7.30 AM with three kinds of drums called alukpe, ozi & adoka.

Otua wrestling festival, drummers
Drummers playing on the second day of the festival, Otuo. NWT 817a, RAI 400.17081.

Drumming recorded by N. W. Thomas in Otuo, July 1909. NWT 156, BL C51/2268.

As soon as the people collected the wrestling began. Men hopped round the circle as a challenge & the victor hopped around afterwards.

Wrestling festival, Otuo
Wrestling scenes during the second day of the festival, Otuo. NWT 818c2, RAI 400.17084; NWT 818c3, RAI 400.17085; NWT 818c4, RAI 400.17086.

Anyone familiar with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart will recall the significance of wrestling in southern Nigerian society. We might imagine the scene in Otuo as being not unlike that evoked by Achebe:

The drummers took up their sticks again and the air shivered and grew tense like a tightened bow … The wrestlers were now almost still in each other’s grip. The muscles on their arms and their thighs and on their backs stood out and twitched. It looked like an equal match. The two judges were already moving forward to separate them when Ikezue, now desperate, went down quickly on one knee in an attempt to fling his man backwards over his head. It was a sad miscalculation. Quick as the lightning of Amadiora, Okafo raised his right leg and swung it over his rival’s head. The crowd burst into a thunderous roar. Okafo was swept off his feet by his supporters and carried home shoulder-high. They sang his praise and the young women clapped their hands.

Since the N. W. Thomas collections are in different physical locations, it is only through digital technology that we can bring them together in one space, reuniting sound, image and object. Bringing together these materials seems simple enough, but actually involves painstaking archival and collections-based research. Each institution has accessioned these materials using its own numbering system, and it has been necessary to reunite them using Thomas’s own original numbering systems, relying on the scratched numbers on the edges of photographic negatives, Thomas’s spoken ident at the beginning of sound tracks, and associating Thomas’s collection numbers with his object catalogues. This is further complicated by the fact that there is no straight-forward documentation of Thomas’s itineraries, recording what he did where, and what he collected, photographed and recorded.

Alukpe drum collected by N. W. Thomas in Otuo
‘Alukpe’ drum collected by N. W. Thomas in Otuo in 1909. If this is not the actual drum in the photographs of the wrestling festival, it is very similar. NWT 2048, MAA Z 13384.

Meeting themselves again. An object-oriented perspective?

Mask collected by N. W. Thomas in Agukwu or Nibo in 1910-11. (MAA Z 13689)
Maiden spirit mask, recorded by Northcote Thomas as ‘Isi abogefi’, collected in either Agukwu-Nri or Nibo in present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, in 1910-11. Thomas noted that this spirit (manwu) would dance each dry season at the feast of Anuoye. (MAA Z 13689; Photograph by N. W. Thomas MAA N.78430.)

In an essay, ‘The buzz of displacement’, in the book The Inbetweenness of Things (Bloomsbury, 2017), Sandra Dudley draws upon the concept of an object-oriented ontology and conducts a thought-experiment to imagine how museum objects themselves might experience senses of displacement and liminality. Dudley considers the perspective of a carved wooden bee that once adorned the throne of King Thibaw in the Mandalay Palace in Burma, which has been caught in the liminal space of the Pitt Rivers Museum collection in Oxford since 1889. For the bee, the museum may be regarded as a liminal space where it is isolated from the contexts which originally animated it; the object yearns for reincorporation into that lost social and material world from which it is exiled. On the other hand, however, the museum is a space in which possibilities for incorporation into new social worlds abound as the bee forms relationships with other people and things. Dudley mentions, for example, the intimate relationship formed between the bee and a contemporary wood carver who was inspired by the bee to create a replica.

Ethnographic museum objects may be said to be displaced both spatially and temporally. As we have been rediscovering the collections of artefacts that Northcote Thomas assembled during his anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, we have also been experiencing this sense of the objects’ dislocation, but also the possibilities for reconnection in the present. The idea of reconnection and re-entanglement with the ethnographic archive is, of course, at the heart of the [Re:]Entanglements project. However, we have been struck especially by the temporal reconnections brought about in our approach to collections-based research in the museum store too – especially through our use of Thomas’s original field photographs.

Pot for Olokun, collected by N. W. Thomas in Benin City, 1909. (MAA Z 12112)
Shrine vessel, recorded by Northcote Thomas simply as ‘Pot for Olokun’, collected in Benin City in 1909. Such ‘akh olukun’ were made by women from river clay, symbolic of the cycle of life and the worlds of earth and water, human spirit. (MAA Z 12112; Photograph by N. W. Thomas MAA P.29327.)

Thomas did not systematically photograph all the objects he collected prior to dispatching them to what was then the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. In fact, only a small percentage of the collection was photographed either in the field or at the Museum at the time. Those photographs of ‘specimens of native manufacture’ that Thomas did take in West Africa are therefore especially valuable, and have been one of the starting points for us as we have been exploring the collections in stores. In most cases, it is only through painstaking archival research and detective work that we have been able to locate these objects today. But how thrilling when one is able to identify such objects and reunite them with their historical photographic portraits!

Object-based research at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge. Katrina Dring, Collections Assistant, documenting Olukun pot (Z 12112) collected by N. W. Thomas probably in Benin City, 1909.
[Re:]Entanglements team member, Katrina Dring, updating the Museum record of the Olokun shrine vessel, comparing the Northcote Thomas’s field photograph of the pot with the object today. The vessel has evidently been badly damaged at some point in its biography and has been repaired.
From the objects’ point of view, we wonder what the experience of being brought ‘face-to-face’ with themselves in this way must be like? Seeing their younger selves, as it were, from nearly 110 years ago, when they had newly been brought into being through the skills of artists and craftspeople in the areas in which N. W. Thomas was working. The exchange of gazes between historic photograph and object presences other times, places and people, most particularly the very moment in time when, in West Africa, Thomas clicked the shutter on his Videx camera, capturing the reflected light from these objects in the emulsion of his glass plate negatives, which we, in turn, have pored over and digitized, and used in our quest to discover those same objects in the anonymous wooden crates in which they are now housed in Cambridge. The museum affords such possibilities for presencing these temporal and spatial journeys. And this, we hope, will be just the beginning of these journeys and possibilities as we invite others to reconnect with the collections and the histories they are entangled in, both virtually, through the internet, and when we physically travel back to the locations where the objects were made with copies of Thomas’s historical photographs and the photographs we are now taking.

Masks collected by N. W. Thomas in Fugar, North Edo, in 1909. (MAA Z 12252)
Recreating Thomas’s field photograph of two masks, labelled as ‘Ibonodike’ and ‘Wonodike’, collected in Fugar, in present-day Edo State, in 1909. (MAA Z 12252; Photograph by N. W. Thomas RAI 400.17528.) Thomas collected a large number of masks in Fugar; it seems likely that he commissioned a carver to produce various types of mask typical of the area.

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.