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.
During his anthropological survey of the Edo-speaking people of Nigeria in 1909-10, Northcote Thomas spent several months working in Benin City itself. His photographs of the City’s prominent chiefs, its architecture, shrines and markets provide an important record of the capital of the Benin Empire just 12 years after its fall at the hands of the British Punitive Expedition. Although accounts of the sacking of Benin City in 1897 suggest that little was left of Benin’s centuries-old civilization, it is clear from Thomas’s photographs that much escaped destruction and not everything was looted.
Thomas documented a number of Benin shrines in considerable detail. His photographs of the ancestral altar at Chief Ezomo‘s palace, for example, shows many of the classic Benin shrine objects such as rattle staffs (ukhurhẹ), memorial heads (uhunmwun) and altar bells (eroro). Of these ritual objects, Thomas seems to have been particularly intrigued by the presence of polished stone axes or celts in these assemblages.
Thomas’s anthropological reports and other publications contain no information about these stone axes. Indeed, it is important to note that the vast majority of Thomas’s fieldwork findings remained unpublished. In a letter written in 1923 to his friend and colleague Bernhard Struck, Curator of the Museum für Völkerkunde in Dresden, he notes that he published only 10 per cent of his material from his Edo tour – that deemed to be of relevance to members of the colonial service. Among the fragments of unpublished fieldnotes and manuscripts that survive, however, there are a few pages in which he discusses the celts.
Thomas writes that ‘Aro [i.e. Chief Ero] told me that they were used with Osun [a deity] or put in the ancestral shrines to represent their fathers, and were also used in foretelling’. They could also be used as objects to swear by or curse: ‘Chief Ine of Edo said that when they have to reprove a wife or child or anyone, they take a stone implement and lick it and curse them. If a man is before them whom they wish to curse, they take a stone and an uxure [ukhurhẹ]. They knock the uxure on the ground, lick the stone and blow the spittle over the man and wish that he may not prosper’.
It was not only in Benin City that Thomas encountered these stone implements. He also records examples in Irrua, Okpe, Otua and other locations in what is today Edo State. At Okpe he was shown a stone called ‘esax evalalox umu‘ [?] that was said to have fallen from the sky. Elsewhere he was told that ‘a stone axe is a “steward” of lightning’, and in Otua he explains that they are placed in the Osun shrine, and if they are given palm oil (as a sacrifice), then lightning will not strike the house.
The association between these axe heads and lightning is widespread, not only throughout West Africa, but also in Europe and elsewhere, where they are regarded as ‘thunderbolts’ or ‘thunderstones‘ – weapons wielded by gods of thunder, hurled to earth, and not of human manufacture. In 1903, Henry Balfour, Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, had written about such ‘”Thunderbolt” Celts from Benin’ in the anthropological journal Man, which was then edited by Thomas. In a later article in Folklore, in which he surveyed the phenomenon of thunderbolts throughout the world, Balfour also discussed a number of small bronze pendants in the Pitt Rivers Museum collection made in the form of miniature stone axes, which had also been acquired in Benin City
In addition to the examples he photographed at Chief Ezomo’s palace, Thomas also photographed an assemblage of stone axes from an ancestral shrine at Chief Ogiame’s palace in Benin City, and another set at a shrine dedicated to the deity Oxwahe at Eviakoi, in the north-west outskirts of Benin City. Thomas also appears to have collected a number of examples, including one evidently dug up during forestry operations, although we have been unable to trace any of them during our research at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores.
It was not until Graham Connah‘s Polished Stone Axes in Benin, published in Nigeria in 1964, that a more substantial study of these stones became available. A British archaeologist, Connah had been appointed by the Federal Department of Antiquities to conduct a programme of archaeological excavation in Benin City in 1961. Connah was interested in these prehistoric stone axes since they represented the earliest evidence of ‘human industry’ in the region. During his research, Connah was able to consult authorities such as the well-known historian and curator of the Benin Museum, Chief Jacob Egharevba, as well as the Oba of Benin, Akenzua II, himself.
Connah provided a review of the existing, though scant, literature on the celts and drew attention to the depiction of such axes in some of the famous Benin bronze artworks. With Egharevba, he also acquired over 20 examples for the Benin Museum, the close examination of which formed the focus of his publication. It is evident that Connah had no knowledge of Northcote Thomas’s unpublished photographs and notes, which would have otherwise made an important contribution to his study.
In the present context, perhaps the most interesting section of Connah’s publication is that on ‘Bini beliefs about stone axes’. Connah notes that the Bini call the axes ughavan, a contraction of ughamwan (axe) prefixed to avan (thunder), and meaning ‘thunder-axe’ or ‘thunderbolt’. In the early 1960s they were evidently not uncommonly found on household shrines throughout Benin City, and Connah states that they could be seen on Oba Akenzua II’s shrines to his predecessors, Eweka II, Overamwen and Adolo. In historical bronzes, obas are sometimes depicted holding an ughavan in their left hand. Here, its function is ‘to increase the potency of a cursing or blessing’.
Connah further notes that there was no realisation in Benin that these prehistoric stone tools had a functional origin. ‘To the Bini’, he writes, ‘they are “thunderbolts”, and “thunderbolts” they remain. Any suggestion that they could be stone tools made at a time before the availability of iron in West Africa is met by polite misbelief’. He also doubts that they have been made in more recent centuries for ‘cult purposes’, having recorded stories about how they were found during farming or embedded in trees that have been struck by lightning.
In her recent book, Iyare! Splendor and Tension in Benin’s Palace Theatre, Kathy Curnow provides a succinct summary of these fascinating objects:
Prehistoric stone axe heads antedate metal tools. Easily damaged, they were tossed away and replaced, and readily turn up today when land is farmed. In Benin, as in many other parts of the world, they are not always recognized as man-made objects. Instead, they are considered thunderstones (ughavan), the product of lightning strikes. The Edo believe Ogiuwu, the god of death, hurls them to the ground as manifestations of his power and anger. The Oba likewise has the right to kill, and gripped thunderstones or celts to magnify his curses. Still kept on altars, they call the ancestors into service as witnesses and supporters.
Balfour, H. 1903. ‘”Thunderbolt” Celts from Benin’, Man, vol.3, pp.182-3.
Balfour, H. 1929. ‘Concerning Thunderbolts’, Folklore, vol.40, pp.37-49, 168-173.
Connah, G. 1964. Polished Stone Axes in Benin. Nigerian National Press.
Curnow, K. 2016. Iyare! Splendor and Tension in Benin’s Palace Theatre. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Plankensteiner, B. (ed.) 2007. Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria. Snoeck Publishers, Ghent.
All Northcote Thomas photographs reproduced here have been scanned from the glass plate negatives in the collection of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and are reproduced courtesy of the Institute.
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!
Along with the sound archives and collections of artefacts, the photographic legacy of N. W. Thomas’s anthropological surveys in West Africa provide a remarkable record of life in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the early twentieth century. As part of a ‘scientific’ endeavour, they were intended primarily as a form of ethnographic documentation and also constituted ‘data’ in themselves – particularly with regard to physical type photography. As part of a government-sponsored project, their entanglement in colonial power relations and racial representation/categorisation is unavoidable. This political context must be the primary lens through which we approach these images and practices.
Working through this vast archive of photographs, however, one is also struck occasionally by the aesthetic qualities of the images. This extends to both portraiture – which, in many cases, complicates our reading of these as ‘physical type’ photographs (this will be the subject of a future blog) – and what we might call ‘still life’ photographs. Indeed, as the examples included here show, Thomas’s photographs of material culture or architectural details are sometimes strongly redolent of the early still-life photography of Fox Talbot or Daguerre . This includes photographs of what appear to be ‘found scenes’ as well as compositions in which objects have been arranged purposefully for the camera. (Compare, for example, with Fox Talbot’s ‘The Open Door‘ and Daguerre’s ‘Fossils and Shells‘.)
This reminds us of a dual characteristic of photography that has been present throughout the history of the medium – that photography has been regarded as both a medium for the objective documentation of reality, independent of the photographer’s ‘artistry’, and as a medium of subjective artistic expression akin to painting or drawing. In the context of Thomas’s anthropological survey photography, a further question is raised regarding whether we may appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the photographs, while being mindful (and critical) of the racial/colonial politics in which they are entangled?
Further to our post on Northcote Thomas, Benin Kingship and the Interregnum, this photograph shows another controversial Benin chief who rose to power during Oba Ovonramwen’s exile. This is Chief Iyamu, a paramount chief appointed by the British colonial administration and given executive powers over a territory to the South East of Benin City at Urhonigbe.
In his history of Benin under British Administration, Philip Igbafe argues that such paramount chiefs ‘were ordinary chiefs and individuals who showed themselves to be useful agents of the British officers and had to be used to rule the extensive Benin Territories’. They were appointed ‘because they were loyal [to the British] and willing to serve, prepared to adapt to new conditions in order to retain influence, and could therefore be relied upon to do the bidding of the administrative officers’.
Chief Iyamu was photographed by N. W. Thomas seated on a white horse, surrounded by his retainers, and wearing a splendid gown. He is pictured in front of an imposing European-style house, known as Egedege N’okaro or ‘first storey building’. It was reputedly the first residential building constructed in Benin City with an upper storey. According to the Edo World website, construction of the house began in 1903-04 under the supervision of O. S. Crewe-Read, an Assistant District Commissioner, who was killed in 1906 at Owa by Ika resistance fighters. Although the circumstances are not clear, the house was given to Chief Iyamu, who completed its construction around 1905-06.
Although Thomas did not record the circumstances in which the photograph was made, one can surmise that Chief Iyamu had a hand in the mise en scène. Resplendent on his white horse, posed in the forecourt of his impressive Benin City residence, here is a carefully composed display of power, prestige and status.
At the same time, Chief Iyamu was a controversial figure. According to Igbafe, Iyamu was among those paramount chiefs who abused the power given them by the colonial administration, and it is likely that he would have been imprisoned for his misdemeanours had the British authorities not deemed it inexpedient to do so for political reasons. Despite the people of Urhonigbe rising up against Iyamu in 1912 and 1914, he was given the title Ine after restoration of the Obaship and crowning of Eweka II in 1914.
Egedege N’okaro is still standing, a well-known landmark on Erie Street in Benin City.
Earlier generations of anthropologists have been criticised for their failure to properly account for the historical contingencies that frame the context of their fieldwork. In their writing they often represented the societies they studied as if they existed outside of time, evoking customs and cultural practices as if they had remained unchanged over the centuries. For anthropologists of Northcote Thomas’s generation, there was a further paradox insofar as they worked within a ‘salvage’ paradigm, documenting and collecting cultures that they believed were on the brink of extinction due to the incursion of European influence. Thomas acknowledged that colonial contact was destructive, but he did not question whether it was also inevitable.
Thomas arrived in Benin City at a time of tumultuous change, just twelve years after the sacking of the city during the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897, in the aftermath of which Oba Ovonramwen was exiled to Calabar. Benin’s monarchy was eventually restored in 1914, when Ovonramwen’s son, Prince Aiguobasimwin, was installed as Oba Eweka II, but the interregnum between 1897 and 1914 was characterised by fierce political rivalry between different factions. This rivalry was played out in the context of the new political system introduced by the British colonial authorities, which included the appointment of a Native Council and so-called paramount chiefs. While purporting to respect traditional power structures, this system of ‘native administration’ weakened the indigenous system of government, creating new tensions and rivalries.
This was the fraught political context in which Thomas’s first tour as Government Anthropologist took place. Reading Thomas’s official report of this tour, his Anthropological Report on the Edo-Speaking Peoples of Nigeria, published in 1910, one is struck by the absence of any discussion of political structure. Indeed, given the primacy of sacred kingship in Edo, and the elaborate rituals that surround it, it is remarkable that Thomas should not devote a chapter to the subject in the report. It is important to remember, however, that Thomas’s reports were effectively British government publications, intended primarily for distribution to colonial officers. It is perhaps not surprising that they omitted such a controversial issue as kingship.
In fact, it appears that Thomas intended to write a more detailed account of Edo-speaking communities in Nigeria. An incomplete manuscript survives, which we will be piecing together as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, that does include a chapter specifically dealing with kingship. This address such matters as the origins of kingship in Benin, the relationship between the Oba and the Uzama chiefs, rituals around succession and so on. The account does not, however, make mention of the destruction of the Oba’s Palace in 1897 or the dethroning of Ovonramwen, who was, after all, still living in exile at the time it was written.
While Thomas was silent on colonial politics and contemporary power struggles among Benin’s elites, he was evidently granted audiences with and photographed many of the key figures involved. These included Chief Obaseki, Chief Ezomo, Chief Ero, Chief Osula and Chief Imaran. Chief Obaseki was close to the British administration and came to dominate the Native Council during the interregnum. He was ambitious and opposed the installation of Aiguobasimwin as Oba in 1914. Chief Ezomo and Chief Ero had been among the seven Uzama chiefs, and had played important roles within the pre-1897 Benin government. During the interregnum, these chiefs were all members of the Native Council. It is possible that Thomas’s are the only photographic representations of these important figures in the history of Benin. If Thomas himself was an unreliable witness to these events, his photographs, at least, constitute a unique historical record.
Igbafe, P. A. 1979. Benin under British Administration: The Impact of Colonial Rule on an African Kingdom, 1897-1938. Longman.
Photography played an important part of N. W. Thomas’s work as Government Anthropologist in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. During the 55 months between 1909 and 1915 that he spent conducting fieldwork, Thomas took approximately 7,000 photographs on quarter plate glass negatives. Although these photographs were made as part of an anthropological survey, today they form a remarkable historical record of the localities in which he worked.
The first surviving photograph from Thomas’s anthropological surveys, made soon after he arrived in Southern Nigeria in January 1909, shows a chain of three men passing pots of water between them to put out a house fire in Benin City. Thomas captions the photograph ‘fire brigade’ in his photographic register. It is one of a sequence of shots of a house fire and its aftermath.
Thomas individually numbered each of his photographs and subsequently categorized them under geographical and thematic headings, such as Topography, Houses, Daily Life, Decorative Art, Technology, Ceremonies and so forth. He also kept a photographic register, in which he – or an assistant – made a brief note about each photograph as they were taken.
Over the course of the [Re:]Entanglements project we will be researching this unique photographic archive alongside Thomas’s sound recordings and artefact collections and will regularly post about our discoveries. Please share these posts and add any comments you may have.
On this day, January 9th, in 1909, the Government Anthropologist, N. W. Thomas, set sail on the S. S. Burutu from Liverpool. Travelling on this Elder Dempster & Co. steam ship, he was bound for Lagos and his first experience of anthropological fieldwork in West Africa.
It was a more a matter of chance than design that N. W. Thomas’s became the first Government Anthropologist to be appointed by the British Colonial Office. A few years earlier, in 1905, the Chief Magistrate of the Gambia, A. D. Russell, had proposed distributing a questionnaire to colonial administrators in Britain’s West African territories in order to collect information about the ‘customary laws’ of local populations. It was thought that this information would be useful for those colonial officials who were responsible for ‘administering justice’ in the context of indirect rule. The proposal was adopted and over the following couple of years a large amount of material amassed at the Colonial Office.
At the same time, the academic discipline of anthropology was fast establishing itself in Britain. The first qualification in the subject was, for example, introduced at Oxford in 1906, and a first generation of professional anthropologists had been lobbying government for the establishment of an Imperial Bureau of Anthropology modelled on that already existing in the USA. In 1908, when the Colonial Office began considering publication of the information about customary laws in West Africa, it was decided that the job of editing the material should be entrusted to an anthropologist. On the recommendation of E. B. Tylor, N. W. Thomas was approached to take on this task.
Thomas’s review of the questionnaire material was, however, damning. He reported that the quality of the information gathered was extremely variable, and found fault both in the design of the questionnaire and in the methods used in gathering the data. Such research, he argued, needed to be undertaken by an expert ‘familiar with modern anthropological methods’ rather than by colonial administrators – adding that, if so desired, he would be prepared to take on such a task. Thomas’s report shook the confidence of officials in the Colonial Office, and they took Thomas’s recommendations seriously. Following further consultation with senior anthropologists, including J. G. Frazer and C. H. Read, Thomas was duly engaged to carry out ‘an investigation of an experimental character into native law, custom, &c.’ in West Africa.
Of the governors of Britain’s West African territories, it was Sir Walter Egerton, Governor of the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria, who was most receptive to the idea of supporting the initiative to engage a professional anthropologist. It was thus agreed that the first ‘experimental’ anthropological survey should take place in Southern Nigeria. If the survey proved successful, it was agreed that the initiative would be extended, perhaps to other territories. It was important to note that Thomas was given little direct instruction either from the Colonial Office or colonial government in Southern Nigeria. Rather than focusing narrowly on specific problems or issues, Thomas embarked on a general ethnographic survey, following the guidance set out in the methodological handbook, Notes and Queries in Anthropology.
It is likely that Thomas chose Southern Nigeria’s Central Province as the focus of his initial tour due to his acquaintance with R. E. Dennett and H. N. Thompson, respectively the Deputy Conservator and Conservator of Forests in Southern Nigeria, who were ordinarily based in Benin City, the provincial headquarters. The companionship of Dennett and Thompson would, no doubt, have eased Thomas’s entry into what were, for him, the unknown worlds of both West Africa and the Colonial Service. Indeed, when his appointment was confirmed, Thomas requested that his departure for Southern Nigeria might be delayed until January 1909, so that he might travel out with Thompson, who had been on leave in England. The passenger list on the S. S. Burutu thus lists both N. W. Thomas and H. N. Thompson among its first class customers.