Ukhurhẹ – ancestors, archives, interventions

Ukhure carvings commissioned by Northcote Thomas in University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
A selection of ukhurhẹ ancestral staffs collected by Northcote Thomas in the care of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Photograph by George Agbo.

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 ukhurhẹ staffs 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 ukhurhẹ staffs 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.

Northcote Thomas photographs of ukhure on ancestral altars, Benin City, 1909
Left: Ikuta at ancestral shrine in Uzebba, 1909 (NWT 546, RAI 400.15687); Right: Ukhurhẹ propped against the back wall of Chief Ezomo’s ancestral altar, Benin City, 1909 (NWT 160, RAI 400.17962). Photographs by Northcote Thomas, courtesy Royal Anthropological Institute.

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 ukhurhẹ is a manifestation of the ancestor’s spirit, and the family make sacrifices to the ukhurhẹ to 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.

Excerpt from Northcote Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Southern Nigeria, 1910
Excerpt from Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria (London, 1910), describing the uchure (ukhurhẹ).

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 ukhurhẹ propped 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 ukhurhẹ of 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 ukhurhẹ of Ovia plays a central part in the festival as a manifestation of the deity itself. The figure on the top of the ukhurhẹ has the same form as the Ovia masquerade, which carries it.

Northcote Thomas's photographs of Ovia Festival, Iyowa, 1909
Left: Ovia masquerade holding the ukhurhẹ (NWT 1276, MAA P.29433); Middle: boys holding Ovia ukhurhẹ staffs for Thomas to photographs, note that the carved figure at the top of each staff has the form of the Ovia masquerade (NWT 1253, RAI 400.18358); Right: Cowries are offered to Ovia on the second day of the festival (NWT 1267, RAI 400.18370). Photographs by Northcote Thomas, courtesy Royal Anthropological Institute and University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology.
Northcote Thomas's typescript notes on the Ovia Festival, Iyowa, 1909
Pages from Northcote Thomas’s unpublished typescript notes about the Ovia Festival, including description of the use of ukhurhẹ. Click image to enlarge.

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’.

Representations of Ovia on ukhure
Left: Detail of two of the Ovia ukhurhẹ photographed by Northcote Thomas in Iyowa (NWT 1253, RAI 400.18358); Right: Detail of Ovia ukhurhẹ collected by Northcote Thomas in Benin City in 1909 (NWT 296, MAA Z 20328). The carved figure has the same form as the Ovia masquerade, with its network headdress surmounted with parrot feather plumes, and crossed sticks beaten during the Ovia dances.

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 ukhurhẹ that 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 ukhurhẹ we encountered in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores in 2018.

Ukhure carvings commissioned by Northcote Thomas in University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
A selection of ukhure ancestral staffs collected by Northcote Thomas in the care of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Photograph by Paul Basu.

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’.

Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and C. H. Read of the British Museum, 1909
Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and C. H. Read of the British Museum, 14 July 1909 and 20 August 1909. British Museum original correspondence. Click image to enlarge.

Given the freshness of the carvings, we suspected that the carved ‘jujus’ Thomas refers to in this letter were the ukhurhẹ staffs, 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’.

Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and Bernhard Struck
Excerpts from a letter from Northcote Thomas to Bernhard Struck, 6 August 1924. Thomas was a fluent German speaker/writer. In the letter Thomas comments on the manuscript of an article Struck is writing; this seems to correspond with Struck’s essay ‘Chronologie der Benin-Altertümer’ [Chronology of Benin Antiquities], but this was published in the journal Zeitschrift für Ethnologie in 1923.

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 ukhurhẹ from 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 ukhurhẹ were 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 ukhurhẹ and in the corresponding catalogue of collections, each is given its name.

Excerpt from catalogue of objects collected by Northcote Thomas in Southern Nigeria, 1909-10
Above: Pages from the collections catalogue from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 tour, listing the names of the various ebo represented on the ukhurhẹ staffs; Below: Carved figures on the tops of the ukhurhẹ commissioned by Thomas, corresponding to the list above. Click images to enlarge.

Carvers still produce ukhurhẹ in Benin City today, and many families still maintain traditional ancestral altars in their compounds.

Ukhure for sale in carvers' shops in Benin City
Ukhurhẹ for sale in carvers’ shops in Benin City today. Left, the shop of William Edosomwan, Igun Street; Right, Emma O. Carving Depot, Igbesanmwan Street. Photographs by Paul Basu.
Ukhure on ancestral altar at Ezomo's Palace, Benin City
Chief Ezomo, James Okponmwense, shows us the ancestral shrine at his Palace. None of the ukhurhẹ are of particular antiquity. He explained that most of the shrine objects were sold or stolen in the 1980s. Photograph by Paul Basu.

As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we commissioned an ukhurhẹ to 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 ukhurhẹ in 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.

Felix Ekhator carving new commission of ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Above and below: Felix Ekhator working on the Northcote Thomas ukhurhẹ in his workshop off Sokponba Road, Benin City. Photographs by George Agbo.
Felix Ekhator carving new commission of ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Felix Ekhator and the finished ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Felix Ekhator with the finished Northcote Thomas ukhurhẹ. Photograph by Paul Basu.

The finished ukhurhẹ will be displayed alongside a selection of those commissioned by Thomas 110 years previously in Benin City at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition scheduled to open at SOAS’s Brunei Gallery in January 2021. In the exhibition, which will transfer to the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in April 2021, our intention is to use contemporary artworks, such as Felix Ekhator’s ukhurhẹ, as interventions, disrupting conventional expectations of what an ‘ethnographic’ or ‘historical’ display should be, and provoking 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?

Mock up of [Re:]Entanglements exhibition display of ukhure collected by Northcote Thomas
Initial mock-up of the planned display of ukhurhẹ at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition. Felix Ekhator’s contemporary ukhure disrupts our reading of the historical ‘specimens’ commissioned by Thomas. Visualisation by Paul Basu.

We gratefully acknowledge a small grant from the Crowther-Beynon Fund that enabled us to commission the new ukhurhẹ from Felix Ekhator.

Art, appropriation, activism

Rosa Johan Uddoh, South London Gallery
Photographs of Benin objects from the Northcote Thomas collection. Artist Rosa-Johan Uddoh preparing for a workshop with the Art Assassins at the South London Gallery.

[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. 

Rosa Johan Uddoh, The Serve, 2007
Blurring reality and fiction, Rosa-Johan Uddoh’s performance art, The Serve, 2017-19. Photograph by Sam Nightingale.

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.

Art Assassins workshop with Rosa Johan Uddoh, South London Gallery
Rosa and the Art Assassins working on their collages at the South London Gallery.

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.

Rosa Johan Uddoh, Benin collage
Examples of the Art Assassin’s collaborative collages – appropriating the archive, juxtaposing historical collections from Benin with newspaper images, headlines and adverts.
Art Assassins, Benin collages

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.

Art Assassins workshop with Rosa Johan Uddoh, South London Gallery
Rosa and the Art Assassins discussing TV show narratives inspired by the object biographies of material culture collections assembled by Northcote Thomas in Benin City.

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.

Black Lives Matter, Eric Garner eyes
Examples of the appropriation of images and objects in activism. Above, Black Lives Matter protesters march behind a large banner featuring a photograph of the eyes of Eric Garner, New York City, 2014 (Photograph JR-ART.net); Below, Rachel Fallon’s ‘Aprons of Power‘, part of the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eight Amendment, Limerick, 2018. (Photographs by Darren Ryan and Alison Laredo.)

Over the next months the Art Assassins will continue to work with Rosa to develop the narrative, costumes and staging for their performance. They will also participate in museum conservation training at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology to learn more about uncovering the stories that objects in the Thomas collection can tell.

The Art Assassins are making a film about their explorations of the Northcote Thomas archive. At each of their meetings, they take it in turn to make video diaries recording their experiences. Here Mia and Phaedra reflect on the workshops run by Rosa.

Colonial Indexicality

Kelani Abass, Stamping History series, National Museum, Lagos
Four of Kelani Abass’s ‘stamping history’ works, which form part of his Colonial Indexicality series, for the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition at the National Museum, Lagos.

On 21 September 2019, the [Re:]Entanglements: Contemporary Art & Colonial Archives exhibition opened at the National Museum, Lagos. The opening event was attended by an estimated 300 people, including many from Nigeria’s vibrant arts scene. Following on from our successful exhibition in Benin City, this collaboration between the [Re:]Entanglements project, the National Museum, and the Lagos-based artist Kelani Abass continues our exploration of artistic engagements with the archival traces of Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys.

Scenes from opening of [Re:]Entanglements exhibition, National Museum, Lagos
Scenes from the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition opening, National Museum, Lagos, 21 September 2019. Photographs by Paul Basu and Nnaemezie Asogwa.

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.

Pages from one of the photograph albums from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 survey of Edo-speaking peoples. Note the index panel at the bottom right of each page. National Museum, Lagos.

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 parent’s 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.

Indexicality in its most literal sense. Northcote Thomas took over 8,000 photographs during his four anthropological surveys. Each was individually numbered and entered in a pre-numbered photograph register book. We know that negative No.649 is of a boy named Ike, and that this was one of 122 photographs Thomas made in Okpe.

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.

[Re:]Entanglements exhibition view, National Museum, Lagos
Installation view. Room 1 of the [Re:]Entanglements: Contemporary Art & Colonial Archives exhibition, National Museum, Lagos. Note the juxtaposition of Thomas’s original photograph albums, the large-scale digital prints and Kelani Abass’s paintings. Photograph by Paul Basu.

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.

Kelani Abass, Colonial Indexicality series, National Museum, Lagos
A page from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 Edo album alongside one of Kelani Abass’s Colonial Indexicality paintings (No.256). The index panel on the album page provides the inspiration for Abass’s background, while Thomas’s neg.256 (top left) is the source for the foreground figures.

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.

Kelani Abass, Colonial Indexicality series, National Museum, Lagos
Six of Kelani Abass’s Colonial Indexicality portraits, clockwise from top left, No.130, No.237A, No.239, No.248, No.245 and No.243. Acrylic, oil on canvas mounted on board with either letterpress type or numbering machine inserts.

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.

[Re:]Entanglements exhibition view, National Museum, Lagos
Installation view. Room 2 of the exhibition. Enlarged, ghost-like images from the Northcote Thomas albums are juxtaposed with addition examples of the historical albums themselves and with the second part of Kelani Abass’s Colonial Indexicality series. This room also featured enlarged digital prints of some of Thomas’s remarkable panoramic photoagraphs. Photograph by Paul Basu.
Broken pages from one of the albums from Northcote Thomas’s 1910-11 tour of Igbo-speaking peoples. Some of the albums in the National Museum are in extremely poor condition and in urgent need of conservation.

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.

Kelani Abass’s hand numbering machines. He used such stamping machines as a child in his parents’ printing company, now he uses them as a medium for his performative art practice.

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.

Kelani Abass, Stamping History series, National Museum, Lagos
Juxtaposing Northcote Thomas’s photograph no.1639 (top left) with Kelani Abass’s Colonial Indexicality No.1639 (top right). Below are details of the work, showing how the image is made up of multiple stamped numbers.

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.

Northcote Thomas Igbo Report Part 1, Plate XIV, halftone printing
Left: Plate XIV from Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part 1. Right: Enlarged detail of the same photograph showing the halftone printing technique.

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.

Video documentation of the [Re:]Entanglements: Contemporary Art & Colonial Archives exhibition, National Museum, Lagos.

[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!

Creative engagements with the archive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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