Focusing on the physical type photographic portraits made by the Government Anthropologist, Northcote Thomas, in West Africa in the early 20th century, this presentation by Paul Basu discusses some of the [Re:]Entanglements project’s filmic interventions that address the ‘absent voices’ and ‘silences’ in the colonial anthropological archive.
Among various issues, Paul Basu discusses silences in the colonial archive as both a violence and an act of resistance. Drawing on the work of Tina Campt in Listening to Images, he questions whether the Thomas’s photographic portraits are indeed silent, and discusses various approaches to ‘voicing’ these photographs, including using photo elicitation methods, inviting people to voice what the photographs ‘say’ to them, and using storytelling to speculate on what Thomas’s subjects may have had to say.
For 10 days in February 2020, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka hosted the third [Re:]Entanglements project exhibition to take place in Nigeria. The exhibition, ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions: Nsukka Experiments with an Anthropological Archive’, was the culmination of a collaboration between the project and eleven artists associated with the famous ‘Nsukka Art School‘, as well as colleagues from the departments of Music and Linguistics.
Nsukka’s Department of Fine and Applied Arts was established in 1961 by Ben Enwonwu and was one of the earliest departments of the University of Nigeria. The Department became famous in the years following the Biafran War (1967-70) when luminaries such as Uche Okeke, Chike Aniakor and Obiora Udechukwu began turning away from Western art traditions and finding inspiration in indigenous art, culture and philosophy. In particular a number of artists began rediscovering and experimenting with Igbo uli body and wall art traditions. Northcote Thomas‘s photographs are some of the earliest and most comprehensive visual documentations of uli wall paintings. This represents an important new reservoir of traditional uli work and, not surprisingly, a number of the participating artists drew upon these photographs in their contemporary works in different media.
As with earlier exhibitions in Benin City and Lagos, the objective of the collaboration was to explore the ‘creative affordances‘ of the photographs, sound recordings and artefact collections produced during Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys in Nigeria between 1909 and 1913. As the leading university in the Igbo-speaking region of Nigeria, the Nsukka collaboration focused on materials assembled by Thomas during his second and third tours – those focusing on areas of what are now Anambra and Delta states.
The collaboration began in 2018 with an open workshop to introduce prospective participants to the [Re:]Entanglements project and Thomas’s archival materials. Following a call to submit proposals, projects were given the go-ahead and provided with a budget to cover materials and expenses. A follow-up workshop took place in 2019 in which participants presented their works-in-progress.
The exhibition was opened by HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu, the Omu Anioma, a well known female chief from Delta State. The Omu has been a close friend of the [Re:]Entanglements project since our visit to Okpanam. In a very moving speech Obi Martha Dunkwu told the story of how Northcote Thomas’s 1912 photograph of the Omu of Okpanam settled a dispute in which the Omu’s right to wear the red cap of chiefly office had been contested. The story illustrated powerfully how these colonial era archives could intervene in contemporary issues. The Omu explained that this was no small matter.
There was a lively and well-attended opening ceremony in which each of the artists presented their work to the Omu and her entourage. The event was accompanied by a traditional music ensemble made up of students of the Department of Music under the direction of Ikenna Onwuegbuna, Head of the Department of Music. The music included versions of songs originally recorded by Northcote Thomas himself.
In ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’, each of the artists took on a particular Igbo cultural ‘tradition’ – uli body and wall painting, ichi scarification, hair-styles, clothing, wrestling – that featured in Northcote Thomas’s photographic archive. These visual references formed the basis of their experiments. In the following sections we present each of the participating artists’ works juxtaposed with some of the Northcote Thomas photographs that inspired them. The musicological and linguistic contributions to the exhibition are the subject of separate blog posts (see Revisiting some Awka folksongs).
Chijioke Onuora, Ezeana Obidigbo
Chijioke Onuora is Head of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He initially trained at Nsukka as a sculptor in the early 1980s and was taught and influenced by many of the leading figures of the ‘Nsukka School’. Through this training he came to appreciate the traditional Igbo art that was fast disappearing in his village in the Awka area and made studies of shrine carvings. For his PhD in Art History, Onuora made an extensive study of ikolo drums, including their sculptural, musical and socio-cultural dimensions.
Onuora works across many different media, though he regards drawing – the line – as fundamental to all these. For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ collaboration, he was particularly interested in re-engaging with Igbo ichi scarification, with its linear markings. As a child, Onuora encountered men – and, indeed, one woman – bearing these marks. Now he believes there is just one elderly man in his village who has still has the marks.
When he was introduced to the Northcote Thomas archives as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, he was struck by the large number of photographs of men of all ages with ichi scarification. This has inspired him to focus on ichi in his ongoing work.
Onuora produced two monumental batik works for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition. The first is a portrait of Ezeana Obidigbo of Neni, originally photographed by Thomas in 1911. Onuora’s village was close to Neni and his grandparents walked every week to the Oye market there – the scene of some of Thomas’s most memorable photographs. The Umudioka community of Neni were specialist surgeons who travelled throughout the region making the ichi marks.
Onuora’s second batik, ‘Nze na Nwunye ya’, is based on a photograph taken by Thomas in Agulu of a mud relief sculpture of a male and female figure, and marks a return to Onuora’s earlier work on shrine figures. The male figure again wears the ichi scarification marks. In both ‘Ezeana Obidigbo’ and ‘Nze na Nwunye ya’, the central panel is flanked by two panels evoking traditional wood carving – symbols of prestige and status – also photographed by Thomas during his 1910-11 survey of what was then Awka District.
Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi, Playing with Time and Memory
Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi is a painter and Associate Professor in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at Nsukka. He joined the Department as an undergraduate in 1987 and, like many students of his generation, was influenced by Uche Okeke and others who had rediscovered the uli painting tradition as a demonstration of Igbo cultural resilience, first as an indigenous response to European colonialism and subsequently in the wake of the traumatic defeat of the Nigerian Civil War. Ikwuemesi was encouraged to continue the work Okeke’s generation had begun and to conduct research with the last generation of women who created uli wall paintings in the traditional setting of the village.
Although much of Ikwuemesi’s work is more overt in its political engagement, providing commentary on the violence and corruption of contemporary Nigeria, alongside this, he continues to draw upon uli explicitly in his paintings. This he sees as a form of cultural activism. In particular, Ikwuemesi is keen to promote the popularisation of uli design, so that it reaches beyond elite art audiences and collectors, and returns as a popular form.
For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Ikwuemesi drew upon Northcote Thomas’s photographs of uli wall paintings, merging motifs and linear forms from different locations, to produce a series of four acrylic paintings on canvas. The title of the series, ‘Playing with Time and Memory’, reflects both the long history of uli painting among Igbo-speaking people and his own part in that history.
Exploring Thomas’s photographs of uli wall painting, Ikwuemesi was struck by the continuities and changes in the art form. Despite the ruptures of colonialism and war, he celebrates the resilience of cultural traditions, how people continue ‘to do old things in new ways’. ‘Colonialisation’, he argues, ‘did not take away the soul of the people or the soul of their culture’.
RitaDoris Edumchieke Ubah, Igbo Kwenu
RitaDoris Ubah is a Lecturer in Textile Art. She completed her BA, MFA and PhD all at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Ubah’s aunt was herself a traditional uli artist. When Ubah started teaching at Nsukka, she realised that while uli traditions had been incorporated into other forms of contemporary art practice, including painting, ceramics and other graphic arts, they had not been explored in textiles. Thus Ubah was keen to bring uli into the curriculum, whether through weaving, embroidery, knitting or appliqué.
Ubah was particularly excited to discover the rich historical documentation of uli in Northcote Thomas’s photographs. As well as inspiring her own work, she has introduced her students to the archive and it now the subject of various class assignments. She describes the photographs as a ‘landmark resource’ and explains that every student passing through Nsukka is taught about it.
For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Ubah produced several works, including a large appliqué panel entitled ‘Igbo Kwenu’, a second appliqué of a masquerade figure photographed by Thomas, and fashion collection featuring uli motifs from Thomas’s photographs. Ubah is particularly interested in the history of uli as a women’s art form, originally painted on the body. (The word uli comes from the plant from which the dye is made.) Ubah’s fashion collection, which was worn by models at the exhibition opening, represents an interesting return of uli to ‘clothing’ the body.
Chinyere Odinukwe, Akwamkosa Achalugonwayi
Chinyere Odinukwe took her BA and MA in the Department of Fine and Applied Art, Nsukka. She works mainly with acrylic paint on canvas, but also incorporates other materials in her work, notably salvaged plastics and metal foils.
For her [Re:]Entanglements project, Odinukwe wanted to juxtapose the historical and the contemporary by transforming the appearance of a woman named Nwambeke, photographed by Thomas in Nibo in 1911. (Odinukwe’s maternal home town is Nibo.) In order to do this, Odinukwe subtly altered the Nwambeke’s dress and jewellery – adding earrings, make-up and bra-top, for instance. In particular, she transformed her wrapper from a locally-made plain cotton garment (akwamkosa) into a dazzling contemporary fabric.
Odinukwe replaces Thomas’s plain photographic backdrop with a background inspired by one of Thomas’s photographs of uli wall painting.
In re-imagining Nwambeke as a modern Nigerian woman, albeit one framed by her indigenous culture, Odinukwe draws attention to the transformed place of women in Nigerian society today. Odinukwe says that she has given this woman her freedom. She observes that, even today, some people are enslaved in their different ways of life, whether religiously, politically or pyschologically. Odinukwe argues that we should not be chained by our traditions.
Chikaogwu Kanu, Isi Mgbe Ochie
Chikaowu Kanu trained at Nsukka as a sculptor. He is now pursuing a PhD in Art History, while continuing to develop his skills as a photographer, videographer and graphic designer. Familiar with the Nsukka School’s long-standing engagement with traditional uli art, Kanu was impressed by another form of body art that was very evident in Northcote Thomas’s photographs – hair dressing.
In his project for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Kanu sought to recreate some of the hairstyles that Thomas photographed. This proved to be a challenging task. It was not easy, for example, to find models willing to have their hair dressed in such remarkable styles. Others – barbers and models alike – assumed that Kanu would make lots of money from the photographs he was taking and thus demanded high fees that Kanu could not pay. Eventually, however, Kanu succeeded in collaborating with barbers and models, and displayed the results as a photo-montage in the exhibition. Kanu’s display drew a great deal of interest from visitors.
Ngozi Omeje, Eriri ji obele
There is a long tradition in ceramics and installation art at the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at University of Nigeria, Nsukka, associated with artists such as El Anatsui and Ozioma Onuzulike. Ngozi Omeje is foremost in the younger generation of ceramicists at Nsukka. In 2018, when the [Re:]Entanglements project collaboration with Nsukka began, she was in the middle of producing work for her highly successful exhibition, ‘Connecting Deep’, at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos.
Omeje creates sculptures by suspending small clay pieces – miniature cups, leaves, rings, balls, etc. – on nylon threads. Often her works are of monumental proportions. For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Omeje echoed the form of an elaborated decorated clay pot photographed by Northcote Thomas by suspending miniature leaves made from clay. On the one hand, her use of leaves fashioned from clay allowed her to follow the form of the linear patterns on the pot; on the other hand they are expressive of the temporality of the archive – the play of ephemerality and permanence.
The title of Omeje’s piece, Eriri ji obele, refers to an Igbo aphorism – ‘the string that holds the pot’ (or, more correctly, ‘the string that holds the calabash’). Our lives are in God’s hands.
Chukwunonso Uzoagba, Ogu Mnwere Onwe
Chukwunonso Uzoagba in a Lecturer in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at Nsukka, specialising in graphics and art education. He has a particular research interest in Igbo rites of passage and ritual practice – aspects of traditional life that were thoroughly documented by Northcote Thomas.
When Uzoagba encountered the Northcote Thomas archives as part of the [Re:]Entanglements workshop at Nsukka, he was immediately drawn to Thomas’s photographs of wrestling matches. Wrestling was very much a traditional art form and part of festivals marking coming of age ceremonies. Combining various elements from different photographs, including a portrait of Thomas himself, Uzoagba wanted to use the wrestling match as a metaphor for the struggle of Igbo people with the forces of colonialism. The title ‘Ogo Mnwere Onwe’ translates into English as the ‘Struggle for Freedom’.
Chukwuemeka Nwigwe, Nibo Lady Fashionista, The Last Sacrifice, Eze Nri
Chukwuemeka Nwigwe teaches art history, textiles and fashion at Nsukka. He has a particular interest in the history of Igbo dress and had already drawn upon the work of Northcote Thomas and other colonial-era publications in his PhD research. While Nwigwe made use of the small selection of photographs published in Thomas’s Anthropological Report of the Igbo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, through the [Re:]Entanglements project he was able to access a vast archive of thousands of images relevant to his research. He was able to utilise these in a recent postdoctoral fellowship.
For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Nwigwe produced three mixed media works, experimenting with weaving techniques inspired by the nest-building techniques of the village weaverbird to create silhouetted figures of characters from the Thomas archive. He used silhouettes to reflect the mystery surrounding these characters, which can only be seen imperfectly in Thomas’s monochrome images.
The backgrounds of each panel are made from discarded poly materials – especially brightly-coloured polythene strips used to wrap motorbike tyres. Nwigwe explains how he collected these from roadside mechanics’ shops.
Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko, The Beauty Within
Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko graduated from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 2018 just before the collaboration with the [Re:]Entanglements project began. She specialises in textile design. As part of her undergraduate studies, she conducted research with traditional Igbo weavers in Delta State.
When Okpoko started exploring the Northcote Thomas archives after the initial [Re:]Entanglements collaboration workshop, she was excited to see photographs of uli murals from her hometown, Agulu, in Anambra State. She chose to feature one of these in her work for the exhibition.
Her piece, entitled The Beauty Within, comprises three large panels, each reproducing the uli mural using different textile materials and techniques. The first uses tapestry weaving using a limited palette of earth colours, similar to the colours that are likely to have been used in the original wall paintings. The second panel has a tiled form, in which vibrant colours are used in the tapestry woven squares, juxtaposed with the earth colours in the other sections. The third panel is mixed media using tapestry weaving and embroidery techniques to recreate the mural in bright contemporary colours.
Ugonna Umeike, Renewal
Ugonna Umeike majored in sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, but he has a wide range of interests including illustration, painting and digital art. Umeike was particularly interested in Northcote Thomas’s artefact collections and field photographs of traditional material culture. These he brought to life in a series of digital illustrations that were exhibited in the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ show.
Umeike also exhibited an illustration of one of the stories that Northcote Thomas recorded and transcribed – ‘The Blind Man, the Cripple, the Poor Man, the Thief and the King’ – which will be the subject of a separate blog post. Finally. he is working on a comic strip of another story recorded by Thomas.
Livinus Kenechi Ngwu, Mask with ichi
Livinus Kenechi Ngwu is a Lecturer in Sculpture at Nsukka. He works in various materials. For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition Ngwu carved a wooden mask using traditional tools and techniques inspired by one of the masks collected by Northcote Thomas in 1911.
The original mask, which was collected in Ugwoba in present-day Anambra State, is described by Thomas as ‘isi maun apipi’. On its forehead are representations of the ichi scarification marks.
‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions: Nsukka Experiments with an Anthropological Archive’ was curated by George Agbo and Paul Basu. We would like to thank all the artists who participated in the collaboration. Especial thanks to Chijioke Onuora and Krydz Ikwuemesi for championing the project within the Department of Fine and Applied Arts; to Chika Kanu for designing the exhibition catalogue; to Glory Onwuasoanya Kanu for coordinating catering at the exhibition launch; to HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu for travelling from Okpanam to open the exhibition; to Emmanuel Ifoegbuike for his invaluable assistance; and to Charles Igwe, Vice Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka for supporting the initiative.
See also the following posts on other contributors to the exhibition:
Autograph started in Brixton in the 1980s as the Association of Black Photographers. They are now based in a fantastic gallery and archive space in Shoreditch. Autograph’s mission is to enable to public to explore issues around identity, representation and social justice through work produced by artists who use photography and film. It has a remarkable photographic collection dating from the 1860s to the present day.
One of the big questions
that inevitably surfaces whilst working with anthropological archives is the issue
of representation. Since their first encounter with the Northcote Thomas archive,
the Art Assassins have been debating this issue and thinking about how it informs
their response to the materials. This has led them to devise a manifesto to
problems we encounter via the archive should be reflected in our work
will document our understanding of the archive as it changes over time
consider our individual relationship to the archive given our different
will avoid replicating the problematic methodologies associated with the
will question what the value of the archive is for young people today
To explore this further the group have participated in two workshops with Ali Eisa, Public Programme Manager at Autograph, which looked at how people and communities are represented in contemporary photographic archives. We asked Art Assassin, Jordan Minga, and Ali Eisa to talk a bit more about what we got up to in the workshops.
Can you give some background to Autograph as an organisation and the archive that it has collected?
Ali: Autograph shares the work of artists who use photography and film to highlight issues of identity, representation, human rights and social justice. Since its foundation in 1988, Autograph has collected photographic material, which reflects our mission: to use photography to explore questions of cultural identity, race, representation, human rights and social justice. The Archive constitutes Autograph’s permanent collection of photography, and covers key periods in the formation of culturally diverse communities in Britain, including the post-war Windrush generation and Victorian era. It contains photographic works made by renowned fine artists, social documentary and high street studio photographers, plus personal family albums and vernacular imagery.
What did you do with Ali in the first session at Autograph?
Jordan: The first thing we did at Autograph was explore the current exhibition of work by the British-Liberian artist Lina Iris Viktor. After that we had the pleasure of getting to look at three portfolios of photographs in the Autograph collection. We discussed the compositions and the intentions of the photographers.
What was the intention of introducing the Art Assassins to the different collections that Autograph has collected in its own archive?
Ali: The intention was to introduce the Art
Assassins to a contemporary photographic archive that can give them a critical
perspective on issues of representation, race, identity, human rights. This was
seen as important in the project because the young people are responding to a
colonial era archive, which from a contemporary perspective is highly
problematic in its representation of the black subject. So, we were interested
in generating a critical conversation with the young people around issues of
representation, history, memory and identity with the intention of developing
how they look at the colonial archive, and what kinds of questions they might
ask of it.
At the first session you said that you’d never really looked into the lives of young black people in London in the past. What did you find interesting about seeing those photographs?
Jordan: I have always had an interest in the history of the area I live in. We looked at a series of works entitled Lovers’ Rock by John Goto. It was interesting to learn that the subjects of the photographs were young people from a Youth Centre in South London. It helped me discover the fashion of young people around my age in that time period. I can now imagine myself in the 1970s!
In the second workshop the Art Assassins made collages that combined the imagery from the Autograph archives and the Northcote Thomas archive. How did the collage exercise try and address the difficulties of representation in the images?
Ali: The collage exercise was really great
because you are forced in the making of the work to put different images into
conversation. It also allows you to layer images on top of one another, to give
them new ways of relating and new contexts to look at them. It was an activity
that allowed the young people to tell their own story about these images and
how they think we might start to view them. What was really interesting was how
easy it was to start mistaking the Northcote Thomas images from the Autograph
ones, once they had been creatively collaged. It showed how important a
creative response is to telling new stories and thinking forward in the
project, how this group of young people can rethink and reframe the Thomas
archive to say something about our contemporary world.
Jordan, how did the collage exercise change the way you thought about the photos from the different archives?
Jordan: The collaging exercise showed me a lot about he the contrast between the contents of the archives. Through college, I got to play with the images. Changing the symbolism of the photography was fun as we gave them new meanings.
The Awards ceremony took place on 12 November 2019 at the British Film Institute on London’s Southbank. It was wonderful seeing Faces|Voices projected on the huge screen of the National Film Theatre, and of course it was a great honour to win the top prize. Paul Basu received the prize alongside co-director Chris Allen of The Light Surgeons.
The award resulted in some great media covered for Voices|Faces and the broader [Re:]Entanglements project. Please explore some of the links below.
We would especially like to thank the participants in Faces|Voices – Ebony Francis, Robert Kelechi Isiodu, Kofi Mawuli Klu, Yvonne Mbanefo and Esther Stanford-Xose – whose eloquent commentaries on Northcote Thomas’s photographs made the film such a success.
One of our objectives in the [Re:]Entanglements project is to reach out to a wide range of communities to explore the different values, meanings and possibilities they perceive in the archival traces of Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys. This includes people living in the towns and villages in which Thomas worked in Nigeria and Sierra Leone over a century ago, but also artists, activists, academics and others who identify with the groups Thomas studied in one way or another – regardless of where they live now.
We have recently begun a new collaboration funded by the UK’s National Lottery Heritage Fund with the Art Assassins – a youth forum based at the South London Gallery in Peckham. Peckham is a wonderfully diverse area of London, where there is a large British-Nigerian and Sierra Leonean community. The South London Gallery – or SLG, as it is now known – is a vibrant cultural hub. Its young people’s programme, which includes the Art Assassins and REcreative, who we shall also be working with, is especially inspiring.
This is the first of a regular series of blogs that members and coordinators of the Art Assassins will post as the project develops. The project will culminate in an exhibition based on their engagement with the Northcote Thomas archives and collections that the Art Assassins will curate in the SLG’s new Fire Station annexe in May 2020. Over to the Art Assassins…
My name is Tommie Introna, and I have been working with the Art Assassins over the last two-and-a-half years. The Art Assassins is an ever-evolving group for young people aged between 14 and 20 years old that formed ten years ago at SLG. They work collaboratively with each other and with established artists and experts to create platforms that represent themselves and their ideas.
Over the coming months, we will be working with SOAS, UCL’s Museum Conservation programme, the Igbo Studies Initiative, Autograph ABP, two ‘researchers-in-residence’, Emmanuelle Andrews and Emma Dabiri, and artists including Onyeka Igwe and Rosa-Johan Uddoh to examine the archives and collections associated with Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. The project will enable young people in South London to get an insight into the professional world of archives and museums as they engage with the photographs, sound recordings, artefacts, botanical specimens and texts relating to Thomas’s surverys. We will be visiting the institutions that care for them today, and explore other related collections, gaining insights into conservation practice, collections based research and curatorship.
Working with these anthropological
archives and collections from the early twentieth century will provide an
opportunity to explore colonial history in Britain and West Africa. This is an
area that is neglected in the school curriculum, but central to the experiences
of many communities living in South London today. We will be working with
researchers and artists to explore how history can inform our understanding of
our everyday lives and our collective futures.
The project has only recently begun, but already we have been very busy. We have been introduced to the field of ethnography and the history of ethnographic collecting during a visit to the Horniman Museum’s recently refurbished World Gallery. We have got to handle some of the artefacts collected by Thomas during his surveys and learnt about the process of museum conservation in a visit to the Conservation Labs at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology. We have had an initial meeting with Onyeka Igwe, the first of the artists with whom we will be working. And we have had several sessions now in which we have begun to discuss our initial ideas and plans for the project.
We are really excited about the project and can’t wait to see what develops through the collaboration. We’ll be posting regular updates to the [Re:]Entanglements blog and you will also be able to follow our progress through Instagram.
The Art Assassins welcomes new members. If you are aged 14-20 and able to meet regularly at our base in Peckham, South London, please join us! Drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tommie Introna, Young People’s Programme Coordinator, South London Gallery.
On July 4, 2019 the first of the [Re:]Entanglements project exhibitions resulting from our creative collaborations in Nigeria and Sierra Leone opened at Nosona Studios, Benin City. The exhibition featured the work of 15 young Edo State-based artists responding to the archives and collections that resulted from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 anthropological survey of Edo-speaking communities in Southern Nigeria.
The artists had participated in workshops introducing them to the Northcote Thomas materials as well as the work of established artists who have interrogated colonial archives in their practice. Over the past several months they have developed their work, supported by Enotie Ogbebor, Creative Director of Nosona Studios, as well as the [Re:]Entanglements project team.
Nosona Studios is a large industrial, workshop type space in the centre of Benin City. In keeping with the character of the space, a section of the exhibition was set up as an artists’ studio, with a number of artists continuing to work on their pieces during the opening. Works included painting; sculpture in wood, bronze and iron; digital art; and mixed media pieces. Each was exhibited with a label illustrating some of the archival source materials that the artists had engaged with. There were also displays of enlarged digital prints of a selection of Northcote Thomas’s photographs, and a TV monitor on which all c.1,800 photographs that Thomas made during his Edo tour played on a continuous loop.
The opening was scheduled to coincide with a meeting of the Benin Dialogue Group in Benin City and served as the venue for the evening reception on the first day of talks. The Benin Dialogue Group is a forum for discussing the future of artefacts looted from Benin City during the British Punitive Expedition of 1897, which are now dispersed in museums and collections across the world. The Group comprises representatives of the Oba of Benin, the Edo State Government, National Commission for Museums and Monuments and several European museums which hold Benin artefacts in their collections. This provided a wonderful opportunity for young artists to meet and talk to both Nigerian and international members of the museum/heritage/culture sector about their work on the project.
In the following sections, we include a photograph of each of the works produced by the artists and displayed in the exhibition, together with a selection of images providing insight into some of the archival materials the artists worked with in their individual projects. Our commentary is based on interviews with each of the artists. In the case of Enotie Ogbebor and Jahyém Jombo we include the video interviews themselves.
Creative engagements with the colonial archive
Enotie Ogbebor, Chronicles of an Era
Joseph Ogie Obamina, The Anthropological Gaze
Joseph Ogie Obamina was born in Edo State. He studied art first at Auchi Polytechnic and subsequently at the University of Benin. He works with oil on canvas, and also acrylics and pastel. Obamina was struck by the interchange of gazes evident in Thomas’s photographic archive: the gaze of the people Thomas photographed, and the gaze of Thomas himself through the camera lens. Thomas’s survey of Edo-speaking Nigeria came just 12 years after the Punitive Expedition of 1897. Obamina wonders how they were feeling then – were they oppressed? The photographs show that some were happy, others were not happy. He feels there was some ‘agreement’ between Thomas and the people, which allowed him to photograph almost every aspect of their lives. He is interested in how they perceived the anthropologist.
Obamina expresses this exchange of gazes by creating a pixelated portrait of Northcote Thomas himself, based on the now iconic photograph of the Government Anthropologist wearing his pith helmet, shirt and tie. Viewed from a distance the patterns of the pixels reveal the figure of Thomas. As one approaches one can see that each individual pixel is made up of a scene photographed by Thomas. In addition to reproducing Thomas’s images in the pixels, Obamina adds numbers and texts. The numbers reflect Thomas’s numbering of the photographs, while Obamina uses the texts to add commentary on the nature of Thomas’s anthropological project and its archival legacy.
Ojevwe (Ojay) Onomigbo, Ovia
Ojevwe Onomigbo is from Delta State. She is a collagist, who ‘paints with paper’. She studied first at Delta State University and then came to the University of Benin. She has been a practicing artist for about 10 years. Onomigbo created this work, entitled simply ‘Ovia’, during the exhibition’s opening event.
Onomigbo’s work depicts the main masquerade of the Ovia cult at Iyowa. Ovia is a female deity, worshipped in various communities surrounding Benin City. Each Ovia society holds an annual festival at which the ancestral spirits of the society (the masqueraders) dance. Thomas documented the Ovia festival held in Iyowa in 1909. Onomigbo’s reproduction of one of Thomas’s photographs of an Ovia spirit is made from cut up strips and fragments of copies of Thomas’s field notes and publications that document the festival itself.
Jonathan Chambalin Nwachukwu, Game of Numbers
Jonathan Chambalin Nwachuckwu is a photographer and digital artist, working with images and sound. He splits his time between Benin City and Lagos. Like many of the exhibitors, he was first introduced to the archives of Northcote Thomas at a workshop held at Nosona Studios. Nwachuckwu produced a series of six digital animations for the project, which were accompanied by a sound track combining archival and contemporary recordings. His works involved collaborating with a painter, a spoken-word artist, an animator, sound engineer and a number of models.
Each of the six pieces explored a different aspects of the Northcote Thomas archives, from his documentation of female Iwu body scarification to his physical type photographs of members of the local police force. Each work involved the layering of archival images and texts with Nwachuckwu’s contemporary photographs of models posed in the manner of Thomas’s anthropological subjects – their bodies sometimes painted with numbers and symbols. Another digital collage shows a more dejected looking Northcote Thomas himself superimposed on a map of Benin City torn out, as it were, from Thomas’s own notes.
Andrew Omote Edjobeguo, First Contact
Andrew Omote Edjobeguo is from Delta State. He studies art and industrial design at Auchi Polytechnic. A sculptor, he works in different metals including bronze and mild steel as well as recycled scrap metals.
In his piece ‘First Contact’, Edjobeguo was interested in exploring the points of contact between the anthropologist and the society he was documenting. Thomas’s survey of the Edo-speaking peoples of Nigeria was his first experience of anthropological fieldwork and his first encounter with Africa. Edjobeguo’s sculpture explores how Thomas was in some sense ‘indigenized’ through this experience (he was thought of as an eccentric who had ‘gone native’ by many in the colonial service). This is represented by the incorporation of Edo design motifs on Thomas’s chest and back. These motifs were, of course, drawn from Thomas’s documentary photographs.
The piece also reflects the entanglement of Thomas and Edo culture. Thomas’s career is, as it were, propped up by Edo culture (or a distorted version of it), represented by the ukhure that support Thomas’s bust. Yet the ukhure themselves are supported by Thomas’s work represented in the open book (his Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria).
Jahyém Jombo, Against the Odds
Osaru Obaseki, The Journey amidst Time
Osaru Obaseki is a self-taught artist from Edo State based at Nosona Studios in Benin City. She paints using a combination of acrylic paint, sand and glue. This adds depth and texture to the surface of her work, into which she inscribes African patterns and symbols. The fine sand she uses also links her work to the ancient bronze casting tradition of Benin – the sand, which is unique to the region, is essential to the lost wax casting technique.
Obaseki was especially interested in the representation of women in Northcote Thomas’s photographs from Benin. In particular she was fascinated by the unnatural, formal poses in which Thomas positioned his photographic subjects. She echoes these group profile portraits in her work for the [Re:]Entanglements project, which is entitled ‘A Journey amidst Time’. Rather than merely reproducing the photographs, however, Obaseki dresses the women differently, showing the continuities and changes in their attire and hair styles over the 110 years since Thomas visited Benin. In the background, she inscribes abstract designs into the acrylic-sand mix, quoting from the designs which decorated the walls of houses that Thomas documented in his Benin photographs.
‘I am so happy that Northcote Thomas was there at the time to document the way women looked, what they did, how they dressed’, Obaseki explains. ‘It was really exciting seeing the photographs – I also saw a picture of my great-grandfather, Chief Agho Obaseki. I was thrilled’. Reflecting on the importance of the archive, she states that ‘it encourages us to do more now to cultivate a culture of documentation for posterity’.
Randy Osabuohien Edughaen, Ol’akohen (The Flute Player)
Randy Osabuohien Edughaen is an artist from Benin City. He studied art at Auchi Polytechnic and the University of Benin, and is now based at Nosona Studios. Edughaen explains how excited he was to participate in the [Re:]Entanglements project and the opportunity to explore the Northcote Thomas archive. ‘This archive is so important to me’, he states. ‘I am the kind of person who doesn’t attach much value to my culture, I don’t know why. But this archive has opened my eyes to my culture. It has made me understand our collective past. Looking at the face of the people in Thomas’s photographs. They have all gone. Their bones must be dust, but seeing the faces of my people gives me joy. Thomas has been able to conserve our culture. He makes me understand where I am coming from. We should try to understand our people – their artefacts, their way of life, their way of dressing … Moving from place to place, Thomas was able to capture these things’.
The dominant figure in Edughaen’s painting, inspired by a photograph taken by Thomas, gives the painting its title, Ol’akohen (‘The Flute Player’). It is the flute player who can communicate with the spirits of the ancestors. The passing of time is the central theme of the piece. Images of the past captured in Thomas’s photographs pass, like sand through an hour glass, through the body of the flute player and are brought up-to-date in colour scenes drawn from press cuttings charting more recent transformations in Benin life, culminating in an image of the present Oba Ewuare II. Among the press cuttings pasted onto the canvas, one in particular poses a challenging question: ‘What Are You Doing About Saving Our Culture?’
Victor Chiejine Mowete, Ọmwan nọr dia uyi ẹdo yi
Victor Chiejine Mowete is a sculptor who works in various metals, including steel and bronze. He trained as an artist at Delta State University and the University of Benin. Like many of the artists collaborating with the [Re:]Entanglements project, Mowete is conscious of the ambivalence surrounding the Northcote Thomas archives. He is interested how over time, photographs and collections that were assembled as part of a colonial project – with all its associations with appropriation, exploitation and violence – have become important resources for present-day populations. As he says, ‘Those things that were collected for exploitative reasons, in later years are also going to be important to us and can be used to our own advantage’.
For his contribution to the project, entitled Ọmwan nọr dia uyi ẹdo yi (meaning ‘Preserver of Edo culture and glory’), Mowete has cast a work in bronze that speaks to one of Benin’s most iconic treasures – the 16th-century ivory Idia pendant mask, versions of which are in the collections of the British Museum in London and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This famous mask was also used as the emblem of FESTAC in 1977, thus becoming an icon of Nigeria and African arts and culture more generally.
In place of the Iyoba – the Queen Mother, Idia – Mowete has used the head of Northcote Thomas wearing his distinctive pith helmet. The top of the original mask is decorated with heads representing the Portuguese, symbolizing Benin’s alliance with and control over Europeans. These have been replaced, in Mowete’s work, with the heads from various ukhure (rattle staffs) that Thomas collected in Benin City, as well two heads taken from a carved shrine figure (ikute) collected by Thomas from Okpe. Thus, the ambiguity remains: the piece is, on the one hand, a celebration of Thomas as the ‘preserver’ of Edo cultural heritage; on the other hand, however, there is the suggestion that this preservation entails the control of the ancestral objects and knowledges that Thomas assembled as a government anthropologist.
Yewande E. Oyeniyi, Evolution of Benin Attire
Yewande Oyeniyi initially studied Fine Art at Yaba College of Technology in Lagos, and is now pursuing postgraduate studies in Theatre Arts at the University of Benin. Oyeniyi was particularly interested in representations of women in Northcote Thomas’s photographic archive and chose to focus on dress in her work for the project: ‘Evolution of Benin Attire’.
When Oyeniyi started to engage with the archive, the impression she had was of a timeless world in which there was no anticipation that things would change. Many of the women photographed were unselfconscious of their exposed breasts, for example. Oyeniyi wanted to explore how this had now changed with Western influence that was already apparent in Thomas’s photographs. She also wanted to show how certain aspects of traditional Benin attire, notable the red coral beads, which were once the preserve of the elites, had become more widely popular and iconic of Benin identity.
Imoudu Ameen Bello, Loss or Gain?
Imoudu Ameen Bello is from Edo State. He works with oil on canvas. Bello is particularly interested in Benin’s royal heritage and its system of palace and town chiefs. Since Thomas’s survey of Edo-speaking communities took place between 1909-10 when Ovonramwen was in exile in Calabar, the Oba is, of course, conspicuously absent from the archive. Bello was, however, particularly struck by Thomas’s photographic portrait of Chief Ero, Izedonmwen, and his son, Evbuomwan. From ancient times, the Ero chiefs were senior members of the Uzama (king-makers) of Benin. Izedonmwen was a particularly celebrated Ero and was instrumental in the restoration of the monarchy after Ovonramwen’s death in 1914.
Bello created a diptych for the [Re:]Entanglements project, posing a question regarding what was lost and what gained in the encounter between European colonisers and the Edo people. The panel on the left represents a people embedded and inseparable from their indigenous culture. This is represented by the traditional Edo design motifs on both background and the bodies of the people. The panel on the right represents the same scene today. Edo cultural heritage, again represented by the traditional designs, now merely acts as an aesthetic background, while the people – especially the younger generations – go about in Western-styled clothing. Bello states that ‘We are doing away with our own lifestyle, and adopting that of the European’. Despite being part of that colonial contact, Bello is grateful that Thomas came to Benin and documented traditional life.
Bello also prepared a preliminary sketch for another work that we hope he will develop entitled ‘Chief Thomas’. It portrays Northcote Thomas as a traditional Benin chief, seated on a throne, and surrounded by artefacts that he collected and documented during his 1909-10 anthropological survey.
O. Kenneth Ugherughe, Glass Plates
Kenneth Ugherughe was born in Benin City, though his family hail from Delta State. He works in oil on canvas. His work, ‘Glass Plates’, is a reflection on the fragility of the archive. Northcote Thomas’s photographs were exposed on glass plate negatives. A number of these negatives have been broken over time and reassembled by the [Re:]Entanglements team in the process of digitisation. In his painting, Ugherughe pieces together different fragments from the photographic archive in his new composition. Although he insists that he did not intend his painting as a critique of colonialism, we find it hard not to read these broken plates in the light of the fracturing impact of colonialism on Edo society. What was broken in Thomas’s efforts to document traditional Edo life, including its ‘secret societies’ and ritual performances, which were not intended to be accessed by outsiders? Working merely 12 years after the destruction of Benin City at the hands of the British expeditionary force, might it be said that Thomas was documenting a social world that had been irredeemably damaged?
Tony Efeakpokrire, Voices from the Past
Tony Efeakpokrire was born and bred in Warri, in Delta State. He studied art at Auchi Polytechnic and now works as a studio assistant at Nosona Studios. This give him the opportunity of practicing his art on a full time basis. In addition to contributing an artwork, Efeakpokrire worked very hard, assisting the project team install the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition (thanks Tony!).
When Efeakpokrire began exploring the Northcote Thomas archives, it was the material culture collections – and especially the sculptural pieces – that spoke to him most. Efeakpokrire is a keen student of Edo history and Edo art and he has read widely on the subjects. Seeing photographs of Thomas’s collections made a great impression on him: ‘I have never seen images like this. I realised that this is what I had been reading about’. He reflected on the differences between reading about traditional art and its functions and actually seeing the objects – even photographs of them – themselves. ‘On a normal day’, he explained, ‘I would just get a history book. I would just read – ok, this is what happened. This is how it went. Finish. Close the book. But with the archive, it is like I have been able to travel back to that period’. This gives rise to the title of his work: ‘Voices from the Past’.
Efeakpokrire composition brings together a series of objects that, he says, almost selected themselves. They are all objects collected by Thomas during his survey of Edo-speaking people, and extend the familiar repertoire of Palace art to the material cultures of other groups in the region. He states that Northcote Thomas is, for him, ‘like a deity of sorts, like an ancestor’. Without the archive created through his work he would not be aware of these things.
Efeakpokrire was struck by how advanced Edo society was at the time Thomas documented it, and he sees the archives as issuing a challenge to the present: ‘These images will play a very big role in our lives. They allow us to understand what has changed. How far have we developed? How far have we come? Where do we need to be? Given the distance in time, have we grown? Have we advanced enough? You can see that our ancestors were so civilized. We need to beef up our game. We still need to put in the work. The archive is a challenge. This is the standard. We don’t need to relax’.
Adeyemi Semiu, Rhythm of Thought
Adeyemi Semiu is an artist based at Nosona Studios working in mixed media. He trained initially at Yaba College of Technology and then at the University of Benin. Semiu was inspired by both photographs and material culture collections in the Northcote Thomas archive. In particular, he was interested in how the archive reflected the more performative aspects of Edo cultural heritage – music, dance, festivals, masquerade.
The music and materiality of the drum are central to Semiu’s work for the project, ‘Rhythm of Thought’. Rather than painting on a stretched canvas, his work is painted onto a stretched animal skin, traditionally used as a drum skin, which he procured from traditional hunters. His medium speaks directly to the drums in the Northcote Thomas collection, including a wonderful example with a painted skin collected in Okpe in North Edo. Semiu uses some of the animal motifs on the Okpe drum to decorate the edge of his work, which is cut and stretched into the shape of the map of the Edo-speaking area of Nigeria published in Thomas’s Anthropological Report.
Semiu’s ‘Rhythm of Thought’ is suspended like a mobile from the ceiling in the exhibition, allowing visitors to inspect both sides. Semiu argues that be creating his work on a drum skin, his very medium invokes the memory of Edo’s past.
Ayodeji Ayimoro, The Gods are Safe
Ayodeji Ayimoro is an artist and textile designer based at Nosona Studios. As someone who works in textiles, Ayimoro was particularly interested in Northcote Thomas’s documentation of traditional weaving in the Edo-speaking world. The work Ayimoro produced for the project is entitled ‘The Gods are Safe’ and it reproduces in a woolen tapestry one of Thomas’s photographs of the Ovia masquerade taken in Iyowa in 1909. The base into which Ayimoro wove his design is piece of cloth he obtained in Somorika, in North Edo, where textiles are still produced using tradition looms as documented by Thomas. The tapestry is suspended on a reproduction of a ‘loom sword’, which were used on traditional looms, to separate the warps and compress the wefts. Thomas collected a number of such loom swords during his Edo tour.
Another interesting apect of Ayimoro’s composition is the inclusion of Northcote Thomas and his equipment. The figure of Thomas is hunched under the dark cloth of his camera in the act of taking the photograph of the Ovia masquerade, while his phonograph machine with its recording horn documents the masquerade song. The process of Thomas’s anthropological survey, including the equipment used and the presence of Thomas himself, is largely absent from the archive, and Ayimoro’s work reinserts this into the frame. Indeed, it is interesting that, in one way or another, most of the artists chose to depict Thomas in their work.
Christopher Osayimwen, Ukhure
The exhibition ‘[Re:]Entanglements: Colonial Archives, Creative Collaborations’ is on at Nosona Studios, Benin City until the end of August 2019. A selection of the artists’ work will later be displayed at the end of project [Re:]Entanglements exhibition at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
In addition to the AHRC, the main funder of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we gratefully acknowledge HE Godwin Obaseki and the Government of Edo State for its generous support of the exhibition and opening event. We’d like to thank all the artists who enthusiastically engaged in this creative collaboration with the Northcote Thomas archives, and especially thank Enotie Ogbebor for his enthusiasm and support of the venture. We look forward to many future creative collaborations!
In the context of historical
ethnographic collections, of course, the absence of a named individual artist
or maker is the norm, rather than the exception. We’ll return to this issue,
but first let us take a look at the two artworks/artefacts collected by Thomas
that feature in the exhibition.
Z 14207: Lamellophone(ibweze)
According to Thomas’s label, this lamellophone or thumb piano was collected in 1911 in Enugu-ukwu, south-west of Awka, in present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. It is one of a number of lamellophones collected by Thomas. The Igbo word for a lamellophone is ubọ-aka, and it is thus curious why Thomas gives this particular instrument the name ibweze. According to Dr Ikenna Onwuegbuna, a lecturer in the Music Department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and native of Awka, ibweze – which should actually be spelt ibhe-eze – means simply ‘the thing belonging to the king’, or ‘the king’s thing’, and is not the name of an instrument at all. Onwuegbuna speculates that this ubo-aka was made for the Eze (king) or a musician in his court.
Judging from the lamellophones collected by Thomas, they were a medium for displaying the virtuosity of those who made them as well as the musicians who played them. However, the ibweze is particularly remarkable given the elaborate superstructure (indeed, a lamellophone fit for a king!). The finger-board, which has six cane tongues, is mounted onto a wooden block. Above the finger-board, this has been carved with two human faces, one facing front, one facing back, as well as two antelope heads facing left and right. Surmounted on the antelopes’ horns is a cat-like creature – probably a leopard given its spots. The leopard is also a symbol of kingship.
The elaborate carving makes the instrument heavy and poorly balanced. One would imagine that it is impossible to play, but Thomas also took a series of photographs of the ibweze being played along with a drum, which Thomas also acquired. In his register book, Thomas describes the photograph series simply as ‘Young men’s dance’. A further photograph shows both the thumb piano and the drum (Z 14200) lined up before a backcloth with other objects that he had collected in Enugu-ukwu.
We know that Thomas purchased objects for his collections and he also commissioned artists and craftspeople to make things for him. We do not know, however, whether the ibweze was a specially commissioned piece. If it was, we might speculate that the ibweze-maker used the opportunity to show off his skills as an artist, perhaps aware that his work would travel to a distant land, carrying his reputation and fame with it. Did he imagine that 108 years later, his masterpiece would be displayed in a fine art gallery in Cambridge?! If Thomas did commission the ibweze, it is possible that he was aware of the artist’s name – what a shame that he appears not to have recorded it.
Z 25889: Carved and painted
The second object from the Thomas collections featuring in the ‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition is much more enigmatic. The label is of a kind that was attached to Thomas’s collections when they were originally accessioned at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It reads simply ‘Head, one side painted white, the other with white spots, straw round neck’. There is no surviving record of where it was collected or what its original purpose or function was, let alone who created it.
Unlike the ibweze, Thomas
took no photographs showing the carving in situ prior to being collected. There
are, however, some formal similarities with some shrine figures photographed by
Thomas in December 1909 in Aja-Eyube (spelled Ajeyube by Thomas), which is now
a suburb of Agbarho in Delta State, Nigeria. This is, however, inconclusive.
The division of the body using paint – in this case white on the right side, and spotted on the left – has cosmological significance and is found on both carved figures and human bodies. The Anglican missionary, George Basden, published a photograph of a man with his left side painted white in his book Niger Ibos [sic] (1938), which he stated represented the dualism of ‘body’ and ‘spirit’.
More than many of the objects that Thomas collected, this carved wooden head perhaps most closely resembles an ‘art object’, the primary function of which is aesthetic.
In a podcast accompanying the ‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition, Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Nicholas Thomas (no relation to Northcote!) reflects on historical distinctions between art museums and ethnographic museums. In the following excerpt he discusses a Fijian painted barkcloth from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology that also appears in the ‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition, but the broader points apply equally to the Nigerian objects.
Whereas (Western) art objects are
often valued because of their association with individual artists, (non-Western)
ethnographic objects were historically valued as ‘specimens’ of the material
culture of particular societies and cultural groups. Although they recognized
and appreciated the skills and artistry of individual makers, anthropological
collectors such as Northcote Thomas were primarily interested in what material
culture could tell them about a given ‘people’. Thus, Thomas conceptualised his
collections in terms of ‘technologies’, or their function in relation to religion
and ritual. He was also interested in documenting ‘decorative arts’, both in
architecture and artefacts. This was, however, principally of interest insofar
as distinctive styles and techniques were perceived to delineate cultural
boundaries and influences. Thomas used art(efacts) much as he used language and
physical type photography as a tool in cultural mapping.
It was only in the 1980s that the
distinction between art objects and ethnographic objects began to be questioned
critically. This period also saw the rebranding of many ethnographic collections
as ‘World Art’. Today, acknowledging the individuality of the artists and
craftspeople responsible for making these works is part of a decolonisation agenda.
The reduction of singular works such as the ibweze or carved head
collected by Thomas to representative specimens, with the corresponding erasure
of the identities of their individual makers, is part of the epistemic violence
of colonialism. But, at the same time, we might also question whether the
highly-commoditised global art system, with its obsession with the named celebrity
artist, represents another form of coloniality, obscuring other possible artworlds
in which creativity is not necessarily the property and outcome of individual
On 19-20 September 2018, the first of three workshops that we are organizing as part of the Museum Affordances project took place at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge. The workshops seek to bridge the worlds of museum and archives scholarship and practice, and critically explore the concept of ‘affordance’ in relation to different spheres of museum and archive work. The first workshop focused on collections; subsequent workshops – to be held in Berlin and Leiden respectively – will focus on museum interventions and museum exhibitions. One of the objectives of the workshop series is to contextualize our work with the N. W. Thomas collections and archives in relation to other innovative museum and archive projects currently taking place.
One of the participants, Cécile Bründlmayer of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, kindly agreed to write a guest blog summarizing some of the presentations and discussions that took place.
I was recently fortunate to attend a two-day workshop with the title ‘Museum Affordances’ at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. The venue served as an excellent background to kick off a series of three workshops over the span of three years which are loosely based around three broad dimensions of museum work, starting with the topic of collections and then continuing with the topics of interventions and exhibitions. The workshops are part of a research project funded by the UK’s Art and Humanities Research Council which is engaging with a multifaceted ethnographic archive assembled by the colonial anthropologist, Northcote W. Thomas, in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915.
Within that context, the first workshop on collections served as a means to ask how the concept of affordances might help in order to address current questions concerning ethnographic museum practice. Applying the concept to specific case examples served as an interesting tool for experimental brainstorming which raised a lot of thought provoking questions.
Introduction: The affordance concept and its application to ethnographic museum practice
The workshop started with an introduction to the Museum Affordances project by Paul Basu (SOAS University of London, UK). He started by positioning the project within a broader context of questioning the continued relevance of ethnographic museums and their collections today, particularly confronting the colonial entanglements of these institutions and what these entanglements mean in a postcolonial or decolonizing world.
He presented the concept of ‘affordances‘ which was developed in the 1970s by the American psychologist James Gibson who described the term in the following way: ‘The affordance of anything is a specific combination of (its) properties in light of what it offers, provides, or furnishes for the animal that perceives it’ (Gibson 1977). So while properties are objective phenomena with an existence independent of values and meanings, they serve as affordances only in particular combinations and relative to particular actors. Based on this concept, the following questions where discussed throughout the workshop: What do museums afford? What do they make possible?
Panel 1: Changing contexts, changing perceptions
Chaired by Nicholas Thomas, Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Cambridge (UK)
The first panel dealt with examples of how the changing of time and context affects the perception of particular affordances. Dan Gilfoyle from The National Archives (UK) opened the panel with a talk about the archive of the Colonial Office which was responsible for the overall administration of the British Empire. The Colonial Office gathered an enormous amount of documentation about the Empires’ administration, from correspondence letters to maps and photographs. From the 1870s on the Colonial Office appointed scientific specialists to work in and for the colonies: one of them was the anthropologist, N. W. Thomas. Despite some small achievements in language teaching for colonial officers, his work wasn’t considered a success during his time and the results of his project have remained hidden in the archives for over 100 years. The affordances that Thomas’ collections might offer are therefore latent and unused. While Thomas’ work didn’t afford much in the eyes of his past employers, what might it afford today?
Chris Wingfield, senior lecturer at the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania & the Americas (UK), then shifted the focus to the London Missionary Society, its history and questions of affordance and affordability. Based on the collecting history of the London Missionary Society, he reflected on the tension between affordances and affordability. If affordances are unlimited, he asked, how is it possible that only some of them are activated and others are not? How are the affordances of collections affected by institutional considerations, including judgments of value and cost? How do people negotiate affordability? As he showed with the example of the London Missionary Society, the perception of affordability of collecting or of an existing collection changes throughout time. The same collection can be considered useless in one context and useful in another.
Michael Aird from the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Queensland (Australia) then continued to reflect upon his exhibition ‘Transforming Tindale’, which was shown at the state library of Queensland in 2010. In that exhibition, he displayed a collection of photographs taken in 1938 by the prominent scientist Norman Tindale, an Australian anthropologist who documented about 5,000 Aboriginal people for the government. As part of the exhibition, Michael Aird reunited the photographs with their depicted subjects or their descendants. As most of the people that have been photographed by Tindale were on governmental reserves and had no chance to refuse to be photographed, Aird’s presentation prompted a long debate about the ethics of exhibiting photographs that where taken under forced conditions.
Panel 2: Engaging with collections, perceiving affordances
Chaired by Haidy Geismar, Department of Anthropology, University College London (UK)
George Agbo, a postdoctoral researcher on the Museum Affordances project based Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Cambridge (UK) opened the second panel by asking what digital photography affords when working with collections, taking his own work with the N. W. Thomas collection as an example. He pointed towards the ability of digital photography to get closer to the objects and to be able to reunite objects that were originally collected together but which have become separated in the museum stores. He also stressed the affordance of digital photography to put the collection online and circulate it. What happens when you do that? He provided examples of discussions from the project’s own Facebook Group, which has a growing number of Nigerian and Sierra Leonean members. Finally, he discussed different methods of photographing the objects and the specific qualities of a photographed object. How to capture the integrity of an object? What happens when you manipulate the background of the object? Is the environment not part of the object? And what are the things that photography cannot afford, such as the smell, sound or touch of an object?
Philipp Schorch from the Staatliche Ethnographische Sammlungen Sachsen (Germany) then continued with a presentation about an experiment he undertook together with his students and the German art historian/philosopher Bruno Haas. Based on the example of a Tatanua mask from Papua New Guinea, he started with the following questions: What can a mask tell us? How can we see the mask for what it is and not for what it supposes to represent through a typical anthropological or art historical lens? By referring to Bruno Haas’ recent work, ‘Die ikonischen Situationen’, he tried to come closer to the structures that show themselves in the singular piece, starting with the specific formal qualities of the object, and ignoring preconceived notions such as ritual or ethnic group, in order to approach the mask in all its individuality.
Finally, Dean Sully, from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London (UK) took us through the everyday life of a conservator and revealed the tools, techniques and thought processes that come together in contemporary museum conservation practice. He presented heritage conservation as a broader analysis of the past which affords an understanding of the world from the traces left behind by people. The analytical process of conservation reveals how museum objects may have been used in the past, how they transmitted agency to the present and how they impact the lives of people now and in the future. Through the enduring presence of heritage places and objects cultural practices can be rethought, reimagined and revitalised continuously.
Panel 3: Whose affordances? Connections and communities
The second day of the workshop started with a panel focusing on questions of affordances related to collaborative work. Rita Ouedraogo from the Research Centre for Material Culture at the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (The Netherlands) started by presenting a project she conducted within the context of the 60-year celebration of Ghana’s independence. For the project she invited people who feel a connection to Ghana to look at the Ghanaian objects in the collections of the Tropenmuseum and choose objects that related to them. After several months of talks, meetings and depot visits, one person became intrigued by a Fanti canoe, which became the centre of a series of discussions. What does the canoe represent or make possible for the differently-positioned participants of the project? What does the object afford to whom? Do all such affordances co-exist harmoniously?
Maria-Katharina Lang from the Institut für Sozialanthropologie, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften (Austria) then continued to present her work with a collection from Mongolia, which was gathered by the Austrian natural scientist Hans Leder during the second half of the 19th century. Shortly after the objects arrived in Europe, Buddhism was forcefully eliminated in Mongolia, monasteries were closed or even destroyed. With her project, which was called called ‘Nomadic Artefacts‘, Maria-Katharina Lang tried to reassemble the dispersed collection, which got distributed among different museums. She then linked the objects with specific regions and people and conducted interviews with monks, herders and museum workers in Mongolia about the collection and its meanings. The results of the project were presented in an innovative exhibition and website.
Chris Morton from the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford (UK), then continued with a presentation about a collection of physical anthropology photographs from Botswana, discussing its original context and his recent work with the community. The collection comprises photographs of the San people in Botswana taken by the anthropologist Joseph Weiner in the 1950s. Weiner was part of an expedition into the central Kalahari, where he led one of the physical anthropology sub-sections. The latter focused his work on taking blood and hair samples, measuring skin color, genitalia, muscle strength, weight measure and photographs, based on a systematized method to document physique. Despite the huge effort, the work was not successful and the methods fell into disrepute – an example of ‘false affordances’, in which the project failed to deliver what it promised. Chris Morton asked what the photographs might afford the communities in which they were taken today and presented some preliminary findings in which the photographs were perceived very differently. While the photographs represent an anthropological ‘dead end’, how might they be useful for the future? Who decides what the future of such a collection is?
Chaired by Wayne Modest, Research Centre for Material Culture at the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (The Netherlands)
Michael Barrett, curator at the Varldkultur Museerna, Stockholm (Sweden) opened the panel with a presentation of a project he started in 2017, a long term public engagement in collaboration with people of African descent in Sweden whose purpose is to adopt new perspectives in order to make the museum more relevant for a broader and more engaged audience. In the course of a workshop series called ‘Encountering the collection’ he tried to ease out previously unacknowledged affordances of the collections together with the participants. His case study showed that ethnographic collections may afford some aspects of a utopian ‘Afropean’ museum, which includes highlighting and questioning cultural and social identities. The project also afforded uncovering entangled histories between Sweden and Ethiopia which allowed a reflection on the historical development of African identities in Europe/Sweden.
Annette Schmidt from the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (The Netherlands) then shed light on the hidden affordances of so-called ‘tourist art’ from the Museum’s Lower Congo collection in order to unpack the local perspective on life in the region during the period 1850 to 1908, covering a time frame in which power relations between the local rulers and the European traders changed dramatically. Annette Schmidt emphasized the potential of tourist art as representatives of the local Congolese view of Europeans. Can it provide a new perspective on the history that for so long has been told from the perspective of the colonisers?
Sharon Macdonald and Tal Adler from the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH) at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin (Germany) concluded the panel with a talk about the project ‘TRACES’ (Transmitting Contentious Cultural Heritages with the Arts, From Intervention to Co-Production) which allowed artists, researchers and museum staff to engage on a long term basis with ethically problematic collections. Tal Adler presented his work on a collection of human skulls and photographs from the Natural History Museum in Vienna and showed clips of a film that resulted from his work.
Panel 5: Focus on sound
Chaired by Ikenna Onwuegbuna, Department of Music, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (Nigeria)
Finally, the last panel focused on sound archives. Janet Topp Fargion from the British Library (UK) presented her work at the British Library Sound Archive and the challenges of making its large collection available (online and offline) to all kinds of communities. She emphasized the importance of recirculating the collections in order to keep languages and cultural traditions alive. She provided examples of the connections with communities being made through the sound elicitation work being done as part of the Museum Affordances project.
Yvonne Mbanefo from the Igbo Studies Initiative (UK), then gave a talk about the possibilities of historical sound recordings and what can be done with it. Alarmed by the language and culture decline in Nigeria, she started to record oral histories in her native language Igbo which triggered strong interest in many different groups. With the example of two audio files from the N. W. Thomas collection, she demonstrated the creative possibilities inherent in these recordings. She demonstrated how one of Thomas’s recordings of a traditional folktale could be transcribed, translated and re-recorded, forming the basis for a Igbo language training resource for children. From linguistic information to the creation of text-based T-Shirts in the Igbo language or inspiration for rap-songs and new choreographies, Yvonne Mbanefo argued that the possibilities to create something new out of old sound recordings are endless. The more museums involve the community the more ideas can be found.
Throughout the workshop, questions and discussions opened up a variety of different topics concerning the usability of the concept of affordances for museum practice. All presentations made clear that affordances change over time and that while the possibilities they enable are seemingly endless, they are still limited by certain restraints which are connected to certain institutional, academic or historical contexts as well as to ethical or political views. It became clear that museum affordances are made up of latent relations between things, people and intentions, which are interdependent, changeable and in constant mutual exchange and can be (re)activated within different contexts.
Haidy Geismar stressed the tension between the ecological definition of affordance by James Gibson which is about understanding the entangled nature of things and their environment and the idea of a pure and unmediated engagement with an object. How can we stick with the ecological complexity? And what does engaging with the object really mean?
An important topic circulated around questions of how to find ways to apply the concept of affordances within museum practices and what ethical and political questions emerge while doing that. When opening up a collection and making all affordances accessible, isn’t there also a danger of losing control over misuse and misapplication? How to deal with this tension of wanting to make the collection and its affordances accessible while having to consider ethical and political issues at the same time?
With reference to Michael Aird’s ‘Transforming Tindale’ exhibition, Sharon Macdonald asked about the limits of aesthetization, which prompted a long discussion about the aesthetization of potentially discriminating photographs. How far does one affordance play off against others? How do you decide if a photograph can be shown or not? Does the strength of the people looking into the camera transcend their status as victims, as Michael Aird suggested? Nicholas Thomas argued that it is not constructive to stick to a rigid methodology in order to judge if some photographs are appropriate and others are not. Deciding whether or not photographs are potentially hurtful is a social process and always depends on the specific objects or photographs and what people are doing with them or how they respond to them. The discussion then turned towards the question of the responsibility of the curator concerning the openness of contentious collections. Who should be allowed to use them and for what? And what role does the institutional context play? What is the difference in storing or exhibiting problematic collections in ethnographic museums, art galleries or natural history museums?
The presentations of collaborative projects then prompted discussion on how these projects serve to rethink the ethnographic archive and push beyond their original intentions. Can the ethnographic museum be reframed not as a problematic site, but as a more hopeful place for discussing identity in a novel way?
Finally, with regard to the last two presentations, Wayne Modest asked about the affordance of sound in relation to the visual. Does it afford something different? By pointing to the large amount of research that has been done on the nature of sound, Janet Topp Fargion stressed the immersive quality of sound which has the ability to trigger strong emotional reactions. When seeking to reveal the hidden affordances of museum collections, audio recordings have as much potential for collaborative projects as material objects or photographs do.
Cécile Bründlmayer studied Social and Cultural Anthropology and Fine Arts in Vienna and currently works as research associate and curator at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. Prior to this she worked at the Weltmuseum Wien (former Museum of Ethnology, Vienna) during the process of re-establishing and reconceptualising the entire new permanent exhibition.
[Re:]Entanglements is part of a research project entitled ‘Museum Affordances‘ funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council. The project is exploring the legacies of N. W. Thomas’s anthropological surveys in West Africa as a way of thinking through broader issues that museums and archives are negotiating today. Ethnographic museums in particular have large collections of objects that were acquired during the colonial era from throughout the world, and which have been on display or deposited in museum stores ever since.
One way of thinking about these collections, which have been dispersed from their place of origin, is through the metaphor of ‘diaspora‘. Like diasporas of people, ‘object diasporas’ are caught ‘in-between’ one place and another. Some diasporic populations regard themselves as exiles, forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands; others feel quite ‘at home’ in their diasporic location, but nevertheless have strong sense of connection and identification with the places from which they or their ancestors originated. This is often determined by the circumstances in which they or their ancestors left their place of origin. Were they taken by force? Did they decide to leave voluntarily?
How might the metaphor of diaspora help us understand the status of ethnographic objects in European and North American museums? Some objects were taken forcibly – confiscated, for example, as ‘loot’ during colonial punitive expeditions. Others were purchased or exchanged. We need to think about where – and how – these objects ‘belong’. How do such object diasporas connect with diasporas of people who have links to the same places of origin?