‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition

Northcote Thomas collections in Artis Unknown exhibition, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge
Installation views of objects collected by Northcote Thomas featuring in the ‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. Photographs by Nicholas Thomas.

One consequence of the [Re:]Entanglements project is that the various archives and collections assembled by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone are gaining greater exposure. This is true in West Africa, but also in the UK and elsewhere. As a example, two objects collected by Thomas are currently being featured in an exhibition at Kettle’s Yard Gallery in Cambridge entitled ‘Artist: Unknown, Art and Artefacts from the University of Cambridge Museums and Collections’. The exhibition opened on 9 July 2019 and will run until 22 September 2019.

The exhibition brings together a selection of artworks and artefacts from across the University of Cambridge’s diverse collections, including the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (which holds the Northcote Thomas collections), Cambridge Botanic Garden, Museum of Classical Archaeology, The Fitzwilliam Museum, The Polar Museum, Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Museum of Zoology, University Library and a couple of the colleges. The selected items share one thing in common: despite displaying remarkable creativity and skill, the identities of the artists or makers are not known. As an exhibition text states, ‘Not knowing, in each instance, who the artist or maker is, shifts our attention from a name and a known or imagined persona, to focus instead on the multiple reasons why the creator is lost to history’.

In the context of historical ethnographic collections, of course, the absence of a named individual artist or maker is the norm, rather than the exception. We’ll return to this issue, but first let us take a look at the two artworks/artefacts collected by Thomas that feature in the exhibition.

Z 14207: Lamellophone (ibweze)

Lamellophone (ibweze) collected by Northcote Thomas in Enugu Ukwu, Nigeria
Lamellophone (ibweze) collected by Northcote Thomas in Enugu-ukwu, 1911. NWT 351; University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Z 14207.

According to Thomas’s label, this lamellophone or thumb piano was collected in 1911 in Enugu-ukwu, south-west of Awka, in present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. It is one of a number of lamellophones collected by Thomas. The Igbo word for a lamellophone is ubọ-aka, and it is thus curious why Thomas gives this particular instrument the name ibweze. According to Dr Ikenna Onwuegbuna, a lecturer in the Music Department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and native of Awka, ibweze – which should actually be spelt ibhe-eze – means simply ‘the thing belonging to the king’, or ‘the king’s thing’, and is not the name of an instrument at all. Onwuegbuna speculates that this ubo-aka was made for the Eze (king) or a musician in his court.

Judging from the lamellophones collected by Thomas, they were a medium for displaying the virtuosity of those who made them as well as the musicians who played them. However, the ibweze is particularly remarkable given the elaborate superstructure (indeed, a lamellophone fit for a king!). The finger-board, which has six cane tongues, is mounted onto a wooden block. Above the finger-board, this has been carved with two human faces, one facing front, one facing back, as well as two antelope heads facing left and right. Surmounted on the antelopes’ horns is a cat-like creature – probably a leopard given its spots. The leopard is also a symbol of kingship.

Northcote Thomas photograph of ibweze (lamellophone) being played, Enugu Ukwu
Sequence of photographs by Northcote Thomas showing the ibweze being played. NWT 2889-2891; RAI 400.16305-16308.

The elaborate carving makes the instrument heavy and poorly balanced. One would imagine that it is impossible to play, but Thomas also took a series of photographs of the ibweze being played along with a drum, which Thomas also acquired. In his register book, Thomas describes the photograph series simply as ‘Young men’s dance’. A further photograph shows both the thumb piano and the drum (Z 14200) lined up before a backcloth with other objects that he had collected in Enugu-ukwu.

Photograph by Northcote Thomas of objects lined up prior to being sent to Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge
During his second tour, in Igbo-speaking Awka District, Northcote Thomas sometimes arranged his collections in a line to photograph them prior to sending them to the Cambridge. Here, the ibweze can be seen alongside other objects collected in Enugu-ukwu. Photograph by Northcote Thomas.

We know that Thomas purchased objects for his collections and he also commissioned artists and craftspeople to make things for him. We do not know, however, whether the ibweze was a specially commissioned piece. If it was, we might speculate that the ibweze-maker used the opportunity to show off his skills as an artist, perhaps aware that his work would travel to a distant land, carrying his reputation and fame with it. Did he imagine that 108 years later, his masterpiece would be displayed in a fine art gallery in Cambridge?! If Thomas did commission the ibweze, it is possible that he was aware of the artist’s name – what a shame that he appears not to have recorded it.

Z 25889: Carved and painted wooden head

Carved and painted head collected by Northcote Thomas in Nigeria
Carved and painted wooden head, collected in Southern Nigeria between 1909 and 1913. University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Z 25889.

The second object from the Thomas collections featuring in the ‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition is much more enigmatic. The label is of a kind that was attached to Thomas’s collections when they were originally accessioned at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It reads simply ‘Head, one side painted white, the other with white spots, straw round neck’. There is no surviving record of where it was collected or what its original purpose or function was, let alone who created it.

Unlike the ibweze, Thomas took no photographs showing the carving in situ prior to being collected. There are, however, some formal similarities with some shrine figures photographed by Thomas in December 1909 in Aja-Eyube (spelled Ajeyube by Thomas), which is now a suburb of Agbarho in Delta State, Nigeria. This is, however, inconclusive.

Northcote Thomas photograph of Nama shrine, Aja-Eyube
Nama shrine, Aja-Eyube (Ajeyube), in present-day Delta State, Nigeria. NWT 1394a; RAI 400.16630.

The division of the body using paint – in this case white on the right side, and spotted on the left – has cosmological significance and is found on both carved figures and human bodies. The Anglican missionary, George Basden, published a photograph of a man with his left side painted white in his book Niger Ibos [sic] (1938), which he stated represented the dualism of ‘body’ and ‘spirit’.

George Basden photograph of man with body painting, from Niger Ibos

More than many of the objects that Thomas collected, this carved wooden head perhaps most closely resembles an ‘art object’, the primary function of which is aesthetic.

Artists unknown

In a podcast accompanying the ‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition, Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Nicholas Thomas (no relation to Northcote!) reflects on historical distinctions between art museums and ethnographic museums. In the following excerpt he discusses a Fijian painted barkcloth from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology that also appears in the ‘Artist: Unknown’ exhibition, but the broader points apply equally to the Nigerian objects.

Excerpt from Nicholas Thomas’s podcast. Listen to the full version by clicking here.

Whereas (Western) art objects are often valued because of their association with individual artists, (non-Western) ethnographic objects were historically valued as ‘specimens’ of the material culture of particular societies and cultural groups. Although they recognized and appreciated the skills and artistry of individual makers, anthropological collectors such as Northcote Thomas were primarily interested in what material culture could tell them about a given ‘people’. Thus, Thomas conceptualised his collections in terms of ‘technologies’, or their function in relation to religion and ritual. He was also interested in documenting ‘decorative arts’, both in architecture and artefacts. This was, however, principally of interest insofar as distinctive styles and techniques were perceived to delineate cultural boundaries and influences. Thomas used art(efacts) much as he used language and physical type photography as a tool in cultural mapping.

It was only in the 1980s that the distinction between art objects and ethnographic objects began to be questioned critically. This period also saw the rebranding of many ethnographic collections as ‘World Art’. Today, acknowledging the individuality of the artists and craftspeople responsible for making these works is part of a decolonisation agenda. The reduction of singular works such as the ibweze or carved head collected by Thomas to representative specimens, with the corresponding erasure of the identities of their individual makers, is part of the epistemic violence of colonialism. But, at the same time, we might also question whether the highly-commoditised global art system, with its obsession with the named celebrity artist, represents another form of coloniality, obscuring other possible artworlds in which creativity is not necessarily the property and outcome of individual activity.

Faces|Voices – confronting the photographic archive

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

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

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

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

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

‘Susu Boy’, Guest blog by Chiadikōbi Nwaubani

'Susu Boy' by Chiadikobi Nwaubani, 2018.
‘Susu Boy’ by Chiadikōbi Nwaubani, 2018.

In the first of a series of guest blogs for the [Re:]Entanglements project, the artist and designer Chiadikōbi Nwaubani introduces his discovery of Northcote Thomas’s photographic archive and how this has provided inspiration for his work. Nwaubani was born in London in 1991 to Igbo parents. He returned with them to live in Nigeria between 1994 and 1997, and subsequently travelled back and forth between the UK and Nigeria. Having encountered many historical photographs of Igbo culture online, mainly digitised from old ethnographic accounts such as N. W. Thomas’s Anthropological Reports, he created the Ukpuru blog in 2010, where he reposts them along with associated information.

In this guest blog Chiadikōbi Nwaubani describes how he began experimenting with the archival images and interrogating them through his art practice. ‘Susu Boy’ is Nwaubani’s response to Plate VIII of N. W. Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone, published in 1916. From Thomas’s photographic registers, we know that the subject was in fact Momo Samura. The original photographs, from which the plate was made, were taken in Samaia in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone in May 1914.

I became involved in the [Re:]Entanglements project after sharing some of the designs I made with Northcote Thomas’s published photographs online. My initial involvement with Northcote’s work was through the lens of a descendant of the people he depicted in his photographs. I was interested in the ‘physical type’ portraits he made. Even though I was not familiar with the history of this kind of anthropological photograph, I had some idea about the nature of colonialism, which these photographs seemed to affirm. I started the Ukpuru blog in 2010 in which I post old photographs of the Igbo area that I have found online, particularly from early European ethnographies. My interest in ethnography comes from witnessing masquerades in my ancestral home town in Umuahia. The Ekpo masquerades, as they are known, have an imposing presence. The designs of the masks are highly varied and quite detailed. These figures were some of the earliest images I drew.

Chiadikobi Nwaubani and Ekpo masquerade in Umuahia, Nigeria.
A young Chiadikōbi Nwaubani and Ekpo masquerade in Umuahia, Nigeria.

I took some of Northcote Thomas’s published photographs and manipulated them with gradient colours – colours that were quite sharp, like purple and a kind of neon red. These colours gave a lively theme to the photos, and also a pop art feel. In this way, I feel that the subjects are transported from being a ‘type’ into being a symbol of history – both colonial and indigenous… a kind of vision of the past.

Recoloured archive photographs by Chiadikobi Nwaubani.
A contemporary vision of the past? N. W. Thomas’s anthropological photographs reworked by Chiadikōbi Nwaubani.

More recently I have been making paintings on paper, which bring out stronger themes. My use of black for fleshing out figures, not only draws out the focus on race, but also seems quite similar to Ekpo masks – these represent ghosts and ancestral spirits. The first of this type of painting I made was ‘Susu Boy’. When I first saw the photograph in Thomas’s Anthropological Report, it struck me as a kind of lonely looking study of the young man because of where he was positioned in the book. There is no name in the caption. The only information left for the viewer is the man’s features, particularly ones that are suggested to be racial, and also his skin colour. With so little information, I am led to imagine what might be happening ‘off camera’, in the margins. What happened just before the photo was taken? Or just after? What was the nature of the relationship between the man photographed and the photographer?

Plate VIII from N. W. Thomas's Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone. The caption reads 'Susu Boy'.
The original ‘Susu Boy’ physical type photograph published in N. W. Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone (1916). In fact, we know this is Momo Samura, photographed by Thomas in Samaia in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone in May 1914.

The arm of a white man holds the number board. Although no measure or number board may be found on the published photograph or negative, I wanted to draw attention to the ‘scientific’ presentation of the subject. The numbers, the measure, the presence of the hand with the board – these are used to frame the story and to raise questions pertaining to what was happening around the subject, both literally and figuratively considering the situation that this area of the world was in at the time. Most of this – and his – story will, for the most part, remain unknown. The jumbled numbers and bright colours give a sense of turmoil in the background – even if not literal turmoil, then one coming from the nature of the study of the subject and the way we see these images today in relation to what we know of the past.

Chiadikobi Nwaubani installing 'Susu Boy' as part of the Photographic Affordances exhibition at the Royal Anthropological Institute, London.
Chiadikōbi Nwaubani installing ‘Susu Boy’ as part of the Photographic Affordances exhibition at the Royal Anthropological Institute, London.

Chiadikōbi Nwaubani’s ‘Susu Boy’ is currently on display alongside N. W. Thomas’s photograph of Momo Samura as part of the Photographic Affordances exhibition at the Royal Anthropological Institute.

See an interview with Chiadikōbi Nwaubani at That Igbo Girl blog.

Call for Papers: Museum Affordances

We are organising a panel as part of the Royal Anthropological Institute’s 2018 Conference, Art, Materiality and Representation, to be held at the British Museum and SOAS University of London, 1-3 June 2018. The panel, entitled ‘Museum Affordances: Collections, Interventions, Exhibitions’, relates closely to the [Re:]Entanglements project.

Abstract: What do museums afford? What repertoires of action do they make possible? This panel explores the latent possibilities of collections, interventions and innovative exhibition practices, focusing on the material legacies of historical anthropological fieldwork and collecting in the present. The vast collections of objects, images and sound recordings from Africa, Oceania, America and Asia assembled during the colonial era remain a troubling presence in our cultural institutions. Increasingly museums are developing new ways of engaging with source communities and diasporic groups to facilitate intercultural dialogue, and yet the latent possibilities for action, understanding and meaning-making that ethnographic collections afford remains largely unexplored. Such affordances are relational and situational, and we are interested in exploring how possibilities for action change over time and become perceptible for differently-situated actors in different contexts. Many such possibilities may be regarded as ‘hidden affordances’ (Gaver 1991), and we are particularly interested in exploring the scope for interventions of different kinds to reveal and expand what these collections make possible. (Such interventions might include anthropological fieldwork, art practice, conservation, exhibition experiments, etc.) How, through exploiting innovative museological processes of intervention and exhibition-making, can the hidden capacities of historical objects, images and sounds be identified and actualised in the present?

If you would like further information or would like to submit a paper, please contact paul.basu@soas.ac.uk or follow the instructions at the conference website.

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