Archival Soundscapes with Onyeka Igwe

Northcote Thomas wax cylinder records at British Library
Wax cylinder recordings made by Northcote Thomas stored in their original cases in the British Library Sound Archive.

[Re:]Entanglements is collaborating with the Art Assassins, the young people’s forum of the South London Gallery in Peckham. As part of the project, the Art Assassins are working with a number of London-based artists and researchers with connections to West Africa. The idea is for each artist or researcher to use their creative practice to help the Art Assassins explore the Northcote Thomas collections and archives, and consider its relevance for young people in South London today. The Art Assassins’ work will culminate in an exhibition at the South London Gallery in May 2020, which they will curate themselves.

The first artist to collaborate with the group is Onyeka Igwe. Onyeka is a filmmaker, programmer and researcher. She is widely known for her video work which uses dance, voice, archive and text to expose hidden narratives. Her work explores the physical body and geographical place as sites of cultural and political meaning. Onyeka won the 2019 Berwick New Cinema Competition for her film the names have changed, including my own and truths have been altered. The film explores three interconnected narratives – a story of the artist’s grandfather, one of ‘the land’, and another detailing an encounter with Nigeria.

Onyeka Igwe, still from 'the names have changed'
Onyeka Igwe. Still from her prize-winning film the names have changed, including my own and truths have been altered.

For her project with the Art Assassins, Onyeka has been exploring the sound recordings made during Northcote Thomas’ anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. The work is ongoing, so here we report on our activities so far and our plans for developing this strand of the project over the coming months.

Listening to the archive

At an initial workshop with Onyeka, the Art Assassins explored the [Re:]Entanglements SoundCloud site, at which the complete set of Northcote Thomas’ digitised sound recordings have been made available. They spent time listening to a selection of the recordings on high quality speakers in the South London Gallery’s Clore Studio. Participants were struck by the texture of the phonograph recordings and how the crackles and pops created their own rhythms. This led into a discussion about how the recordings were made and Onyeka explained more about the wax cylinder recording process employed by Thomas. To give a more contemporary context, Onyeka set up a vinyl record player so the group could get hands on with the analogue sound equipment and learn how sounds can be manipulated.

Onyeka Igwe and the Art Assassins listening to Northcote Thomas recordings at SLG
Onyeka Igwe and the Art Assassins listening to a selection of the digitized Northcote Thomas recordings in the Clore Studio, South London Gallery.
One of the first recordings made by N. W. Thomas. Recorded in Benin City on February 2nd, 1909, a few days after his arrival in Nigeria, this song is performed during the Ugie Ewere festival to bring ‘Ewere’ blessings to all homes.

Visiting the archive

The group visited British Library Sound Archive in Kings Cross to find out more about its huge collection of historical ethnographic and ethnomusicological wax cylinder recordings. The British library holds over 700 discrete recordings made by Thomas between 1909 and 1915. It was also responsible for producing the digitised versions of the recordings that the Art Assassins were able to access online. Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music, hosted the visit. After travelling down several floors deep into the basement of the British Library the Art Assassins were amazing to find themselves face-to-face with shelves of Thomas’ original wax cylinders. They were then introduced to the team responsible for digitising the wax cylinders and witnessed a live demonstration of the process.

Janet Topp Fargion showing the Art Assassins the Northcote Thomas wax cylinder records at the British Library
Dr Janet Topp Fargion showing the Art Assassins the Northcote Thomas recordings in archival storage at the British Library.
Janet Topp Fargion showing the Art Assassins the Northcote Thomas wax cylinder records at the British Library
The Art Assassins gained an insight into the work of conservators and researchers at the British Library Sound Archive.
Wax cylinder phonograph recorder at the British Library
The British Library’s sound conservation department has a large collection of historical recording equipment, including this wax cylinder phonograph recorder similar to the one Northcote Thomas would have used during his anthropological surveys of Nigeria and Sierra Leone, 1909-15.
In order to digitize the wax cylinders, the British Library had this bespoke machine built for them. British Library sound conservators demonstrated the digitization process.

Making an audio archive

Back at the South London Gallery, Onyeka and the Art Assassins started to plan how they might create their own archive of sounds reflecting their own lives. Relating back to the Thomas’s work, Onyeka asked the group to consider the categories he had used in his anthropological reports. Would these same categories work for understanding young people living in London today? The group debated this and offered up other categories to guide their sound recording process.

Onyeka Igwe and the Art Assassins discussing Northcote Thomas recordings at SLG
Onyeka Igwe and the Art Assassins back at the South London Gallery, reflecting on what they have learnt about sound archives and considering how they might include sound recording in their response to the Northcote Thomas collections.

The group are continuing to build up their own archive of sound recordings ranging from everyday sounds and actions to capturing their own and their families’ accents and phrases. They will also be conducting oral histories with people living the UK with a connection to Nigeria and Sierra Leone which will become part of their larger archive.

Onyeka Igwe and the Art Assassins discussing Northcote Thomas recordings at SLG
Comparing the categories that Northcote Thomas used to order his anthropological data and collections with the Art Assassins’ lists of topics that reflect their own experiences in contemporary South London, and which will guide their sound collecting work.

In preparation for the exhibition in at South London Gallery in May, the group will be working with Onyeka to explore how this developing sound archive can take shape as an artwork. Some of the early ideas are to draw on the technologies and techniques of sound systems and other urban music cultures, using sampling and remixing to produce new arrangements of sound.


The Art Assassins are making a film to document their project. As part of this they are interviewing each other about their experiences. In this clip Art Assassin, Sam Baraitser Smith, reflects on the visit to the British Library and some of the issues raised engaging with the sound archives.

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