Faces|Voices – confronting the photographic archive

Looking through the photographic archives of Northcote Thomas’s early twentieth-century anthropological surveys of Nigeria and Sierra Leone, one gazes upon thousands of faces. Faces of men, women and children, many photographed against a canvas backdrop; all of them silent. What were they thinking as they were being photographed by this Government Anthropologist, perhaps with a number card held above their heads? Was the encounter with this pith-helmeted white man, with his entourage of carriers and boxes full of strange equipment, an unpleasant one, or an amusing distraction from everyday chores? What can we see in the faces Thomas photographed? What can we read in their expressions?

In Faces|Voices, a short film we have made as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we invited participants to reflect upon some of the faces captured in Thomas’s photographic portraits and to comment more generally on the significance of these archival images. Adding their voices to the mute photographs, we find that the same portrait may invite quite different ‘readings’. Where one may see coercion, another might detect boredom. The crushing experience of colonialism may be found in one subject’s expression; optimism and resilience in another’s. Perhaps most surprising is the sympathetic view – even identification with – the face of the Government Anthropologist himself.

The film complicates any simple reading of the colonial archive. Even ‘physical type’ photographs, intended to identify and classify people into different racial or tribal categories, and which seemingly epitomize the violences of colonial ideologies, become ambiguous on closer inspection.

What do you read in these faces? Please make your voice heard by adding a comment.

Faces|Voices was made in collaboration with The Light Surgeons as a pilot for a video installation for the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition planned for 2020. See also our earlier blog entry about the making of the film. Many thanks to our participants: Ebony Francis, Robert Kelechi Isiodu, Kofi Mawuli Klu, Yvonne Mbanefo and Esther Stanford-Xose.

Faces/Voices pilot video shoot

Interviewing project participant for Faces/Voices video installation, [Re:]Entanglements project, 2018

As part of the Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements project we shall be creating an exhibition. Initially, this will be installed, from October to December 2020, at the Brunei Gallery at SOAS University of London, close to the British Museum. It will then transfer to the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in 2021. We hope to bring together some of Northcote Thomas’s original collections, photographs and sound recordings alongside artworks and research material that we have assembled throughout the project. The exhibition is not, however, intended to be merely a display of ‘research findings’ – it is intended to be a continuation of the research itself. This builds on some of our own and others’ work on the exhibition as a kind of ‘laboratory’ or experimental space. We hope the exhibition will provide an inspiring and provocative forum in which visitors with different perspectives can come together to discuss and debate some of the issues that the project seeks to address.

Paul Basu and Sharon Macdonald, Exhibition Experiments and The Light Surgeons The Body Adorned exhibition
Left: Exhibition Experiments book edited by Sharon Macdonald and Paul Basu; Right: The Light Surgeons’ video installation at The Body Adorned exhibition, The Horniman Museum, 2012.

As part of the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition, we are collaborating with the multimedia creative studio The Light Surgeons to make a video installation we are conceptualizing under the title ‘Faces/Voices’. We recently filmed some initial interviews to begin the process of developing this installation. During the four anthropological surveys N. W. Thomas undertook in West Africa between 1909 and 1915, he made thousands of photographs. About half of these were so-called ‘physical type’ portraits – typically taking a full-face and profile portrait photograph of each of his sitters. Such photographs have been much discussed and heavily criticized in academic and postcolonial literature. We are interested, however, in how different people ‘read’ these photographs in different ways. Do they epitomize the ‘anthropological gaze’, turning people into objects to be collected, collated and compared? Can we somehow discern in people’s expressions their inner experience of colonialism? Or do they reveal an intimacy between the anthropologist and the communities that he was working with that points beyond the colonial critique?

Faces/Voices video installation, [Re:]Entanglements project, 2018
In the Faces/Voices installation we experiment with how faces ‘captured’ in Northcote Thomas’s historical photographs enable contemporary participants to voice their thoughts, opinions and responses to the colonial/anthropological archive.
By juxtaposing Thomas’s historical photographic portraits with the faces and voices of project participants and members of the public, we hope to explore the diversity of responses to these images, allowing the different perspectives to co-exist alongside each other.

Interviewing project participant for Faces/Voices video installation, [Re:]Entanglements project, 2018
Interviewing a project participant for the Faces/Voices video installation. In the finished work we will juxtapose the faces and voices of our participants with the faces of N. W. Thomas’s research participants from over 100 years ago. (Photograph by George Agbo.)
Thomas’s photographic portraits are mute. The people he photographed lack ‘voice’ (although we are also experimenting with reuniting Thomas’s historical photographs with his sound recordings – perhaps giving back voice to these images). In the pilot video shoot, we began experimenting with how the photographs enable people today who have often very different connections with the areas in which Thomas worked to voice their own positions and responses to the anthropological archive.

We’ll be doing more filming in due course. Let us know if you would like to participate!

See the final pilot film at https://re-entanglements.net/faces-voices/