As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project we have been using art and creativity as methods of re-engaging with the anthropological archives assembled by Northcote Thomas in West Africa in the early twentieth century. This has involved developing many wonderfully rewarding collaborations with Nigerian and Sierra Leonean artists. Much of the resulting work has been displayed at exhibitions in Benin City, Lagos and Nsukka.
One of the artists we have been working with in Sierra Leone is Sheku Shakalearn Mansaray. Shakalearn grew up in a village in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone, but came to Freetown in 1990. He comes from a family of artists and developed his skills as a carver partly through an apprenticeship and partly through formal training at Milton Margai College of Education and Technology. He is coordinator of an NGO called Peacelinks, which uses art and performance to promote peacebuilding and social mobilization especially among young people.
Shakalearn chose to engage with a series of photographs Northcote Thomas made in 1914 documenting pot-making in the town of Kamalo in present-day Sanda Loko chiefdom in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone. Thomas created a number of these photographic series during his Nigerian and Sierra Leonean tours. Each image in a sequence recorded a different stage in a process: the stages in a manufacturing process, for example, or a ritual. From a sequence of 15 photographs showing stages in the production of earthenware pots in Kamalo, Shakalearn selected eight to reproduce in his carved panel.
Rather than carving on newly cut timber, Shakalearn salvaged planks from an old Creole ‘board house‘ that was being demolished in Freetown. These beautiful wooden houses, built during the 19th century, were once common in Freetown. Unfortunately, many have fallen into disrepair and they have gradually been knocked down to be replaced with modern concrete structures. When Northcote Thomas visited Freetown during his 1914-15 tour of Sierra Leone, these houses would have predominated.
After rescuing the old timbers and cutting them to size, Shakalearn created a composite drawing of the eight different photographs on paper. He then chalked this onto the wooden panel and began to chisel out the work in relief. Normally Shakalearn’s carved works are given a much more fine finish. On this work, however, Shakalearn wanted to retain the aged patina of the salvaged boards. One inspiration was the work of the African-American artist Whitfield Lovell.
Clay pots were an everyday item used for storage and cooking, and were once made throughout Sierra Leone. Today, these sustainably-sourced and locally-manufactured pots have been displaced by imported plastic and metal utensils. There are, however, a few traditional potters still practicing in Sierra Leone. Most notable is the pot-making community at Mabettor near Lunsar in present-day Buya Romende chiefdom in the north of Sierra Leone.
In 2019, as part of our fieldwork for the [Re:]Entanglements project, we spent some time with the potters at Mabettor. We showed the community Northcote Thomas’s photographs of Sierra Leonean potters from 105 years before and left copies with them. A number of the potters, including Marie Sesay, Khadiatu Conteh, Adamsay Conteh, Isatu Koroma and Ya Abie Koroma demonstrated their pot-making techniques, which were exactly the same as those documented by Thomas in Kamalo. These day, however, their wares are mainly sold to visitors from overseas or Freetown who want them to decorate their homes.
We love the way Shakalearn uses traditional carving techniques to inscribe the archival documentation of another traditional craft form into wood salvaged from a building that would have stood at the time of Thomas’s anthropological surveys. Thank you Shakalearn!
A more detailed discussion of Northcote Thomas’s documentation of traditional pot-making and contemporary pot-making in Mabettor will be the subject of a future article.
The painstaking archival and collections-based research made possible through the Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements project enables us to make novel connections between objects, images, texts and sounds, and opens up new avenues of understanding. Working with the material legacies of Northcote Thomas‘s anthropological surveys in West Africa provides insight into cultural practices of the past, challenges assumptions about colonial collecting, and presents possibilities for creativity and collaboration in the present.
When we first examined a remarkable assemblage of 39 carved wooden ukhurhẹstaffs in the Northcote Thomas Collection at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in 2018, we were immediately struck by the freshness of their appearance. As far as we know, they have never been on public display and they had the appearance of coming straight from the carver’s workshop – despite being at least 110 years old.
Brian Heyer provides a succinct summary of such ‘rattle-staffs’ in Kathy Curnow’s book Iyare! Splendor & Tension in Benin’s Palace Theatre. He writes,
When an Ẹdo man dies it is his eldest son’s duty to commission an ukhurhẹ in his honor. He then places it on the family altar as the only essential ritual object there. An ukhurhẹ consists of a wooden staff divided into segments designed to resemble the ukhurhẹ-oho, a bamboo-like plant that grows wild near Benin City. Each segment represents a single lifespan, and linked they are a visual symbol of ancestry and continuity. Their mass numbers on altars stress the importance of the group over the individual.
The top segment of the ukhurhẹ is hollowed by slits, a wooden piece remaining within. This acts as a rattle when the staff is stamped on the ground, a sound said to call the ancestors.
Ukhurhẹ topped by heads are standard for commoners and chiefs. Royal family members’ examples end in hands or hands holding mudfish. Only the Oba’s ukhurhẹ can be made from brass or ivory, though even most of the royal staffs are usually wooden, made by the members of the Igbesanmwan royal carving guild.
Northcote Thomas encountered these ukhurhẹstaffs during his 1909-10 anthropological survey of the Edo people of Southern Nigeria. They were – and, indeed, still are – an important part of the ancestral altars located in chiefly families’ palaces and compounds. Thomas photographed a number of such altars in Benin City itself and in the wider region. In Uzebba, for instance, Thomas noted that ukhurhẹ(which he spelled uxure or uchure) were known as ikuta, but fulfilled a similar memorial function – presencing the ancestors.
In his Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, published in 1910, Thomas explains that these staves – also widely known as rattle-staffs – represent particular male ancestors. They are placed on the family altar after the death of the family head, once he has transitioned into the status of an ancestor. The ukhurhẹis a manifestation of the ancestor’s spirit, and the family make sacrifices to the ukhurhẹto honour and seek the intercession of their departed kin. Over the generations the staffs accumulate, alongside other altar objects such as ivory tusks, memorial heads, bells and stone celts.
In unpublished notes, Thomas describes the practices surround the ukhure in greater detail. He describes, for example, Chief Ero‘s yearly sacrifice to his ancestors in which the blood of sacrificed cows, goats and fowl was smeared on the staffs. He describes how the ukhurhẹpropped against the wall at the ‘shrine of the father’ in Chief Ezomo‘s compound were stained dark brown due to these ‘repeated outpourings of blood’. He also reports that Ero could only give the names of two of the ancestors represented by the staffs, suggesting that the massed staffs come to represent the ancestors in a more collective sense.
In addition to the rattle-staffs found on ancestral altars, Thomas also documents the use of larger, more elaborately carved ukhurhẹof community cults associated with various divinities. In October 1909, Thomas spent several days observing the festival of the Ovia cult in the town of Iyowa, a few miles north of Benin City. He documented the ceremonies, songs and dances in great detail. (This will be the subject of a future article). The ukhurhẹof Ovia plays a central part in the festival as a manifestation of the deity itself. The figure on the top of the ukhurhẹhas the same form as the Ovia masquerade, which carries it.
Forty-four years after Northcote Thomas documented the Ovia Festival at Iyowa, another anthropologist – R. E. Bradbury – made a study of the same festival at Ehor, another village on the northern outskirts of Benin City. Bradbury writes that the ukhurhẹ ‘are the real symbols of Ovia’; ‘they are about four and a half feet high, carved with representations of the Ovia masquerades. They, more than anything else, are identified with Ovia herself who is sometimes said to enter them when she is called upon by the priests’.
In The Art of Benin, art historian Paula Girschick Ben-Amos explains that the ukhurhẹ of these ‘hero deities’ are ‘different from the more commonly seen ancestral staffs, as they are much thicker and have the figure of a priest or other objects specific to the cult as a finial’. ‘The rattle staff,’ she writes, ‘is both a means of communication with the spirit world, achieved when the staff is struck upon the ground, and a staff of authority, to be wielded only by properly designated persons’.
It is interesting to note that Thomas did not collect any ukhurhẹthat had actually been used in rituals either on ancestral altars or in cult ceremonies. And this brings us back to our initial impressions of the assemblage of ukhurhẹwe encountered in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores in 2018.
Prior to our examination of the staves we had found an intriguing exchange of letters between Northcote Thomas and Charles Hercules Read, who, in 1909, was Keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography at the British Museum. The letters show that Thomas was under the impression that Read had agreed to acquire the collections he had been gathering during his survey, reimbursing his initial outlay in purchasing them. It is clear, however, that Read was not interested in the kinds of ‘ethnographical specimens’ that Thomas was collecting. Writing from Benin City in July 1909, Thomas explained, for example, that ‘I have ordered all the “jujus” of Benin City to be carved, probable cost £25’. Read replied in August that ‘I am by no means sure that I want these modern things made to order as it were, unless they serve some definite and immediate purpose’.
Given the freshness of the carvings, we suspected that the carved ‘jujus’ Thomas refers to in this letter were the ukhurhẹstaffs, each surmounted with a figure representing a different deity or ebo. Confirmation of this came, by chance, a couple of years later, when we found a further reference to the carvings in correspondence between Thomas and the German anthropologist Bernhard Struck, curator at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Dresden. Thomas and Struck maintained a professional correspondence over many years and, in a 1924 letter sent from his home near Oswestry, Thomas provides detailed corrections and comments on an scholarly article Struck was evidently working on. In a digression, Thomas notes that ‘There are 30-40 ebo; I have commissioned [herstellen lassen] the uxure from Eholo nigbesawa. They are in Cambridge’.
Elsewhere in the same letter, Thomas explains that ‘Eholo nigbesawa’ means Eholo the woodworker [Holzarbeiter]. In fact, however, Eholo is the title given to the head of the wood and ivory carvers’ guild, the Igbesanmwan – and the name/title should be Eholo N’Igbesamwan. It seems, therefore, that Thomas commissioned the ukhurhẹfrom Eholo N’Igbesamwan and they were either carved by him personally or by other members of the guild. According to the Historical UK inflation rate calculator, the estimated cost of £25 corresponds to approximately £2850 today, so this would have been a significant and lucrative commission.
The story of how the ukhurhẹwere obtained is important, not least since it challenges stereotypical assumptions that colonial-era collectors such as Thomas either looted objects from sacred sites or else exploited local craftspeople by paying paltry sums for their work.
Whereas Read saw little value or purpose in these ‘modern things made to order’, it appears that, for Thomas, this was an opportunity to assemble what he perceived as a complete set of representations of Edo deities in a traditional form. While many of these deities are associated with identifiable symbols or regalia, such as that of Ovia, Thomas may have been projecting his own assumptions about the distinct visual representation of each ebo when he commissioned them to be carved in this way. Perhaps the carvers even encouraged him in this belief! In the labels attached to each ukhurhẹand in the corresponding catalogue of collections, each is given its name.
Carvers still produce ukhurhẹin Benin City today, and many families still maintain traditional ancestral altars in their compounds.
As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we commissioned an ukhurhẹto be made as a memorial to Northcote Thomas himself. We worked with traditional carver Felix Ekhator, who has a workshop on Sokponba Road, Benin City, just opposite the famous Igun Street. Felix’s first calling was as a professional wrestler, but in the late 1970s he followed in his father’s footsteps and focused on woodworking as a career. He made our ukhurhẹin the traditional way from the wood of a kola tree, which is hard and durable. At its top Felix carved the figure of Northcote Thomas, copying his posture and clothing from a photograph taken on his 1909-10 tour.
The finished ukhurhẹis on display alongside a selection of those commissioned by Thomas 110 years previously in Benin City at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology (June 2021 to April 2022). The exhibition uses contemporary artworks, such as Felix Ekhator’s ukhurhẹ, as interventions to disrupt conventional expectations of what an ‘ethnographic’ or ‘historical’ display should be, and provoke further questions. Should, for example, we honour Northcote Thomas, the colonial-era anthropologist, as an ancestor? Should we introduce his presence, his agency, alongside the cultural artefacts that he caused to be produced?
We gratefully acknowledge a small grant from the Crowther-Beynon Fund that enabled us to commission the new ukhurhẹ from Felix Ekhator.
[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 collections and archives assembled by the colonial anthropologist, Northcote Thomas, in Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the early 20th century, and consider their relevance for young people in South London today. The Art Assassins’ work will culminate in an exhibition at the South London Gallery which they will curate themselves.
The second artist to collaborate with the group is Rosa-Johan Uddoh. Rosa is an interdisciplinary artist inspired by black feminist practice and writing. Using performance, ceramics and sound, she explores a seeming infatuation with places, objects and celebrities in British popular culture, and the effects of these on self-formation. Rosa originally studied architecture at university, and she continues to draw upon this background, rooting stories in specific spaces and materials.
For her project with the Art Assassins, Rosa is working with the group to create a performance piece inspired by the material culture collections made by Thomas, now in the care of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Linking back to her own practice, Rosa is challenging the group to consider what these objects can tell us about colonial legacies in contemporary British society. Confronted with the huge number of items within the collection, the Art Assassins and Rosa have chosen to focus on materials Thomas collected from Benin City, in present day Edo State, Nigeria. Benin and Britain both possessed empires – a fact that has provided a starting point for the Art Assassins’ performance.
In her first workshop with the Art Assassins, Rosa asked the group to explore the possible dialogues between the Benin City objects and contemporary British culture. Presenting the group with a stack of free newspapers, Rosa asked the Art Assassins to produce collaborative collages that juxtaposed the objects with images of celebrities, current affairs headlines and advertisements. When sharing back their finished collages, the group discussed whether notions of empire were still prevalent in the UK today and how pop culture can address serious subjects.
In the next workshop the Art Assassins started to plan more specifically which objects they would focus on for their performance. By looking into the biographies of objects in more detail, via the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Cambridge’s online catalogue, the group found out about their origins. Rosa then asked the group to ‘cast’ these objects into a TV show format of their choice. By combining the object biographies with a TV show structure the group then formed possible narratives for the performance. These played out the complex relationship between anthropology and its subjects and objects.
In recent workshops the Art Assassins have been working on ideas for the costume in their performance. As research the group have been looking at how archival objects and images have been appropriated in design for activism and protest. The group explored examples such as Black Lives Matter in the USA, Sisters Uncut in the UK and the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eight Amendment in Ireland. These have all used strategies of appropriation, scaling and performance to convey a message.
Unlike the Benin exhibition, this initiative focused specifically on the photograph albums from Thomas’s three Nigerian surveys, which we have discovered in the National Museum library and archive collections. Indeed, these albums, dating from 1909 to 1913, appear to be the only substantial archival traces of Thomas’s anthropological surveys to have survived in Nigeria. The initiative is also different insofar as it features the work of a single artist rather than a collective.
Over the course of a year, Kelani Abass has produced two series of works for the exhibition under the common title of Colonial Indexicality. These both employ techniques developed in earlier works by Abass, including his Calendar and Stamping History series, first exhibited at exhibitions at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos in 2013 and 2016 respectively. In both of these series, Abass explored a more personal history through sifting through the archives of his parents’ printing business in Abeokuta, incorporating both the technologies of hand-operated letter-press printing and the accumulated materials – photographs, leaflets, design motifs – deposited at the press by customers. The Colonial Indexicality series produced for the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition connects this family history with a broader cultural history as refracted through Northcote Thomas’s colonial anthropological lens.
The pervasiveness of numbering systems and indexes are, of course, characteristics of all archives, and the archives of Thomas’s anthropological tours are no exception. Thomas numbered each of his photographic negatives, for example, and he made notes about each negative in a series of pre-numbered photographic register books. Most literally, the negative number acts as an index in relation to corresponding prints, but also indexes other information, for instance, the identity of the person photographed, where the photograph was taken, and places the particular photograph in relation to a sequence. We know, for example, that Thomas’s negative number 649 is of a boy named Ike, and is one of a series of 122 photographs that Thomas made in Okpe in present-day Edo North in 1909. There is a further note in the corresponding photographic register – ‘meas.’ – short-hand for ‘measurement’, recording that Thomas also recorded Ike’s anthropometric measurements, indexing how this young man entered other forms of colonial scientific calculation.
It is no surprise, then, that the theme of numbers and numbering emerges prominently in Abass’s artistic responses to the albums in the National Museum. Indeed, each work in the Colonial Indexicality series bears a simple number as its title – the number of the particular photograph the work itself indexes.
The principle of indexicality is also evident in the very grammar of the exhibition. In the first room of the exhibition, we brought three elements into relation: examples of the original photograph albums from Thomas’s 1909-10 Edo tour; enlarged digital prints of a selection of pages from these albums; and a series of 12 mixed media paintings by Abass that respond to the particular qualities of these albums.
The pages of the Edo albums are arranged in a uniform manner, with five photographs in a grid with a paper index panel cut to the same size as the prints and pasted in the grid. For each of the 55×68 cm paintings, created in acrylic and oil on canvas, mounted onto board, Abass reproduces these index panels as his backgrounds. He captures the ‘texture’ of the yellowed parchment-like paper panels, complete with Thomas’s handwriting and various other ticks, annotations and crossings-out that have been added in different coloured inks. He then selects one of the photographs from the same album page, which he paints in tones which evoke the photographic originals. The number of the photograph is used as a title for the work, which is also inset into the painting either using letterpress types or components of a numbering machine.
In the second room of the exhibition, the juxtaposition of original archives, digital prints and Abass’s contemporary artworks continues. Additional themes of disintegration and dissolution are invoked here, pointing to the fragility of the archive and the impermanence of memory. In one 105×127 cm digital print of an album page from Thomas’s 1912-13 tour of Igbo-speaking peoples, for example, the faces in Thomas’s physical type photographs have faded to little more than ghostly impressions. Indeed, one objective of the exhibition was to draw attention to the urgent need for better storage and conservation of the National Museum’s important archival collections.
Abass refers to the second series of works in Colonial Indexicality as a continuation of a ‘performative oeuvre’ that ‘calls attention to the interplay of manual and mechanical processes involved in the production of printed works, photographs and drawings’. This work comprises of five interlinked 126×90 cm ‘drawings’ of Northcote Thomas photographs, which have been laboriously made using a hand numbering machine.
The use of the numbering machine as a medium again relates to Abass’s family history and childhood memories. After a day at school, Abass and his siblings would help out in their parents’ print shop, using these automatic numberers to stamp sequences of numbers in newly printed invoice books and other stationery. In relation to the [Re:]Entanglements project, Abass was struck by the sequential printed numbers evident in the stationery used by Northcote Thomas. Indeed, to create these ‘stamping history’ drawings he used stamping machines with a similar font style to the numbers used in Thomas’s photographic registers.
The numbers that Abass stamps in these works are not arbitrary either. They index both the specific photographs from the Thomas archives that Abass reproduces, but also act as a form of accountancy, allowing Abass to quantify his artistic labour and reflecting the labour entailed in producing the anthropological archive in the first place. Thus, Abass’s first impression in this work was the number 1155, corresponding with Thomas’s negative number 1155. After each impression, the number on the stamping machine increases by a digit to 1156, then 1157 and so on. At the end of the process of creating these five works, the final number stamped was 85,867. Thus Abass is able to quantify the work as representing 84,710 acts of stamping – this Abass conceptualises as a process of ‘stamping history’, and of ‘making or marking time’.
The grid-like layout of these five ‘drawings’ echoes the layout of the photographs in Thomas’s albums, but also speaks to the fragmentary nature of the archive – an assemblage of parts that must be assembled together in order to make sense. The actual archive is rarely so complete, and the bigger picture is often based on as much conjecture as it is evidence.
It is, of course, only when one stands back from Abass’s large-scale stamped drawings that the picture, quoted from Thomas’s archive, becomes clear. Up close, one sees a mess of over-lapping stamped numbers. Seen from a distance, however, the individual numbers from which the pictures are made disappear and the eye perceives the pattern. It is the same principle as halftone printing – the technique used to print Thomas’s photographic plates in his published reports (a set of which also resides in the National Museum library). Indeed, the same principle applies to Thomas’s original photographic negatives and our digital scans of them today, in which the coating of granular light-sensitive crystals is translated, imperfectly, into pixels. Switching to a metaphorical register, Abass’s work reminds us that what we perceive in the colonial archive depends on where we stand, as well as how close we look.
[Re:]Entanglements: Contemporary Art & Colonial Archives is open at the National Museum, Lagos until 27 October 2019. Do go along if you can and let us know what you think!
As part of our exploration of the contemporary value of the colonial-era collections and archives assembled by the Government Anthropologist, Northcote Thomas, in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915, we are working with various young artists in the areas in which Thomas worked. To facilitate this, we have held a series of workshops in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, at Nosona Studios in Benin City, and at the Sierra Leone National Museum in Freetown. We have also been developing collaborations with more established artists, for instance with Kelani Abass, Mike Omoighe and Ndidi Dike in Nigeria, and with Charlie Haffner in Sierra Leone.
At the workshops we have been introducing artists to the Northcote Thomas archives and collections, and discussing the context of the colonial anthropological surveys through which they were assembled. We have then looked at other examples of how contemporary artists have engaged with the colonial archive in their work – often as a way of interrogating or critiquing colonialism and its legacies. Participants then discuss their initial ideas for how they might respond specifically to the Northcote Thomas collections through their art practice. After the initial workshops we have held follow-up sessions and been in close contact with the artists as they have developed their initial ideas and begun producing their works. We report here on just a few of these works-in-progress.
Contemporary artworks resulting from these collaborations will be exhibited at a series of exhibitions over the coming months and years. The first will open at Nosona Studios, Benin City, in July 2019, to coincide with a meeting of the Benin Dialogue Group (a forum to discuss the future of antiquities looted from Benin during the 1897 Punitive Expedition). Then exhibitions will be taking place at the National Museum, Lagos, in October 2019, and at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in February 2020. A selection of the works will then be redisplayed in the final [Re:]Entanglements exhibition that will be held at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, due to open in April 2021.