Unspoken stories: Five archival monologues

Unspoken Stories - Five Archival Monologues

Between 1909 and 1915, during four ethnographic surveys in West Africa, the colonial anthropologist N. W. Thomas and his assistants made over 7,500 photographs. Approximately half of these were so-called ‘physical type’ portraits: head and shoulder shots intended to document the physiological characteristics of different ethno-linguistic groups. Thomas also made hundreds of sound recordings of songs, stories, ‘linguistic specimens’ and conversations.

To date, from this mass of archival photographs and sound recordings, we have only been able to identify one recording of a first person narrative by an individual who Thomas also photographed. This is a speech given by Onyeso, the son of Eze Nri Ènweleána, the spiritual head of the Igbo Nri Kingdom in the second half of the 19th century. In fact, only the published transcript of Onyeso’s speech survives. Onyeso’s speech provides a remarkable insight into the experience of colonialism from the perspective of the displaced ritual and political elite. In elliptical terms, Onyeso refers to the havoc wreaked by colonial intrusion into the Igbo cosmological order of things: Oge ụwa Gọọmentị bịara , anyị wee lee, obodo mebie, he says (‘When the Government came, we looked, and the town was spoiled’).

What, we wondered, if Thomas had recorded the first person narratives of the hundreds of other individuals that were photographed? What other perspectives on colonialism would they have voiced? What stories would they have told of themselves and their experiences? What might they have said about their encounter with the colonial anthropologist, his camera and his phonograph recorder?

Physical type photographs in albums from Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys of Igbo-speaking communities in Nigeria. Copies of the albums are held at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, the UK National Archives and the National Museum, Lagos.

The Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot has written about silences in the archive and in the production of histories. Certain voices – usually the voices of the powerful – are privileged in the historical record, while others are excluded (even if they are visually present, as in Thomas’s ‘voiceless’ physical type photographs). It comes as no surprise that the account of West African societies produced during Thomas’s anthropological tours privileges the authorial voice of Thomas himself. This makes the inclusion in his published report of Onyeso’s speech, with its anti-colonial sentiment, all the more interesting, complicating the assumption that Thomas merely represented a narrow colonialist viewpoint.

Drawing on decolonial thought regarding presencing silenced voices in the colonial archive, and ideas of ‘speculative history’, we worked with the Sierra Leonean storyteller Usifu Jalloh and other storytellers with Sierra Leonean or Nigerian heritage to imagine the stories other individuals photographed by Thomas might have voiced had they been recorded. Five short monologues were developed collaboratively with the storytellers based on archival research but also by ‘listening’ to the photographs of the individuals, as proposed by Tina Campt in her book Listening to Images.

Storyteller Olusola Adebiyi during filming of Unspoken Stories, 2020. Photograph: Paul Basu.

We collaborated with multimedia artist Chris Thomas Allen of The Light Surgeons, to create a video installation of the monologues for the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition. The monologues were filmed in portrait aspect ratio to reflect the framing of the physical type portraits. Between each of the storytellers’ performances, we intercut and morphed between more of the archival photographs to communicate a sense that these were just five from among many hundreds of untold stories, and that each person photographed had their own story to tell. The films’ soundscapes are drawn from the wax cylinder recordings made during the anthropological surveys.

The monologues are, of course, works of imagination. They are also recorded in the English language, whereas Thomas’s interlocutors would have spoken in various dialects of Igbo, Edo and other West African languages. We hope, however, to voice another kind of truth in these characters’ words. As Usifu Jalloh notes: ‘as a storyteller, I live in a world of magic; and in a world of magic, everything is possible!’

Below, you will find videos of the five short monologues, followed by comments by Usifu Jalloh on each of the characters, and discussion of the archival sources that informed our scripts. The article concludes with Usifu Jalloh’s more general comments on bringing the archive to life through storytelling.

Monologue 1: Onyeso

Performed by Olusola Adebiyi
Listen to Usifu Jalloh discussing the character of Onyeso in Unspoken Stories.

Although the text of Onyeso’s speech was published in Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria in 1913, we wanted to include this as one of the monologues for a number of reasons. As mentioned previously, Onyeso’s is the only first person narrative actually given by an individual who Thomas also photographed and named. Since the original recording has not survived, we wanted to re-enact the speech and bring Onyeso’s words to life.

Onyeso’s father was one of the most powerful people in the Igbo world: a ‘spiritual potentate’ of the Igbo people. When a person assumes the role of Eze Nri, he dies as a mortal human and is reborn as a deity-king. In doing so, he becomes subject to many ritual prohibitions. Traditionally, the Eze Nri cannot leave the town of Nri, and should not be seen by ordinary people. An Eze Nri does not die, but ‘goes travelling’ for a number of years before a new Eze Nri is appointed through the agency of the spirits/gods. In the interregnum between Ènweleána’s reign and that of Obalike, the Eze Nri when Northcote Thomas visited the town, Onyeso acted as Regent. He remained a powerful and influential man at the time of Thomas’s surveys in 1910-11. He had many wives and children.

Chief Onyeso and family, photographed by N. W. Thomas, Agukwu Nri, 1911
‘Chief Onyeso and family’, photographed by N. W. Thomas, Agukwu Nri, 1911. NWT 2236. RAI 400.15837.

There are at least two photographs of Onyeso in the archive. One of these shows Onyeso surrounded by his children (no fewer than 26 of them!). He wears a highly decorated gown and a European hat with the eagle feathers of his chiefly office tucked into its band. A horsetail flywhisk is laid across his shoulder – another symbol of his titled status. In his right hand, he holds a cloth, the significance of which is not clear. On his forehead we can discern ichi scarification marks.

Onyeso, Agukwu Nri, photographed by N. W. Thomas was oton and ofo.
N. W. Thomas photographs of Onyeso of Agukwu Nri, pictured with oton, ofo and goat skin bag. NWT 2563 and 2564; RAI 400.15415 and 400.15416.

In a second photograph, Onyeso is seated alone on a folding deckchair (perhaps Thomas’s). His right eyelid is marked with nzu, sacred chalk. Around his ankles are akarị; anklets which again show that Onyeso has attained the ozo title. Arranged before Onyeso, besides his goat-skin bag, are two ritually significant objects: his oton and ofo.

In his speech, Onyeso states that he received ichi marks as a baby before he cut his first teeth. He explains that the son of an Eze Nri cuts his teeth by the time he is fourteen weeks old, and that it is necessary for the child to be given the ichi marks before this. Had his teeth come through before he received the marks, this would be considered an abomination according to traditional Igbo cosmology and the child would, in Onyeso’s words, be ‘thrown away’.

Onyeso goes on to talk about the role of the Eze Nri’s sons in maintaining social order. He reminds his audience that it is they who are ‘the wearers of the leopard skins’; they who have the authority to settle disputes, not the colonial government. He speaks of the traditional Nri hegemony that has been usurped by the British. This is not just a matter of political authority, but Nri’s role in maintaining the cosmological order. Through Nri control of ritual power, the land is ‘made good’. It is this order that has broken down through the coming of ‘the Government’. There is a suggestion that the Igbo people have willingly accepted colonial authority, perhaps as a way of freeing themselves from Nri’s power over them.

Onyeso stands for the traditional patriarchal and ritual order, which has been shattered by the coming of the Europeans. He speaks defiantly of this into the phonograph recorder of the colonial anthropologist.

See also It is I who come, Onyeso!

Monologue 2: Unnamed children

Performed by Nadia Maddy
Listen to Usifu Jalloh discussing the children’s perspective in Unspoken Stories.

As well as adult men and women, Thomas photographed many children during his surveys. We wondered how they might have experienced the anthropologist’s visit to their town or village. What did they make of this strange white man, who spoke with a funny voice in a mysterious language through intermediaries. What did they make of all the boxes and crates that his carriers and assistants brought with them: a box with a glass eye on legs that he crouched behind (the camera), another box with a wide mouth, into which people were asked to speak (the phonograph). What rumours might have passed between the children about these things? The white man was capturing people’s faces, capturing their voices. What was he doing with them? Where was he taking them?

‘Boys’, photographed by Northcote Thomas or an assistant at Aja-Eyube, present-day Delta State, Nigeria, in 1909. NWT 1410c; RAI 400.16679.

In the photographs, some children seem to avert their eyes from the camera’s lens; others gaze open-eyed, partly in curiosity, partly in fear; some hide behind their older siblings. Had they been told by their parents to do as the white man instructed? Would they be punished if they did not comply?

Unlike the other four monologues, we imagined this as a story as a conversation between different children as they exchanged views about what they had seen and heard. We used names recorded by Thomas or his assistants during the 1909-10 Edo tour. The children relate the views of adults they have overheard: that the white man is a trickster, like Egui the tortoise in traditional Edo stories. They also relate how their elders have outwitted the oyibo: how one man gave misinformation about his name, how the blacksmith over-charged the white man for tools he had been asked to make for his collection.

Children’s game, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Eviakoi, near Benin City, 1909. NWT 1199a; RAI 400.18304.

We also did not want to over-state the impact of the colonial anthropologist’s visit in the communities he worked. His presence would have been fleeting, and no doubt the children had other chores to perform or games to play. His visit may have soon been forgotten.

Monologue 3: Yainkain

Performed by Anni Domingo
Listen to Usifu Jalloh discussing the character of Yainkain in Unspoken Stories.

Men’s voices and perspectives dominate in the colonial ethnographic archive. We wanted to challenge the white, male gaze of the anthropologist with a strong female response. One of the most powerful photographic portraits in the archive is that of Yainkain. Described in Thomas’s photo register (in the handwriting of one of Thomas’s assistants) as ‘Head wife of Chief Sehi Bureh of Tormah’, Yainkain gazes defiantly to camera. Chief Sehi Bureh was not, of course, defined by his wife in Thomas’s notes, and, when we ‘listen to’ this image, we are certain that Yainkain was in no way defined by her husband, even if he was the paramount chief!

Left: Yainkain, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Tormah, Bum Chiefdom, Sierra Leone, 1915. NWT 6191-2; RAI 400.19748. Right: Corresponding entry in photographic register (Royal Anthropological Institute).

Yainkain’s hairstyle is similar to that reproduced on the carved heads of the female masquerade, the ndoli jowei or ‘dancing sowei’. The masquerade of the female Bondo society is one of the few female masquerades in Africa that is actually danced by women (others represent female spirits, but are danced by men). The ndoli jowei represents ideals of feminine beauty – the smooth, polished black surface signifies health and beauty. Yainkain personifies the Bondo spirit, while the Bondo spirit is a symbol of female qualities and power.

Ndoli jowei (dancing sowei) of the Bondo society, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Tormah, Bum chiefdom, Sierra Leone, 1915. NWT 6183-4; RAI 400.38125.

The Bondo society is an important female counterpart to the male Poro society, and keeps male power in check. Thomas writes quite a lot about the Poro society in his Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone, but he barely mentions the Bondo society. Indeed, he would have struggled to get information from the women. Perhaps Yainkain and other members of the Bondo sisterhood were proud of the fact that, while the men gave away their secrets, the women kept their knowledge to themselves. (Thomas attempted to get initiated into the Poro society, but was stopped due to the interference of the colonial authorities.)

See also Sierra Leone masquerades.

Monologue 4: Ngene

Performed by Usifu Jalloh
Listen to Usifu Jalloh discussing the character of Ngene in Unspoken Stories.

Ngene is a shrine figure, a representation or manifestation of the Igbo alusi (deity or spirit) Ngene. One would communicate with Ngene through a priest of the shrine or dibia (diviner/doctor). Sacrifices must be made. One must greet Ngene first with an offering of kola nut and alcoholic spirits. Ngene is regarded as a good spirit, but he can cause trouble if upset – for instance by building or trespassing on his land without gaining his permission. The Ngene shrine would be within a large enclosure, surrounded by mud walls decorated with uli murals. Ngene himself is painted in white and yellow ochre; he wears the ichi marks on his forehead.

Walls of the Ngene shrine painted with uli designs, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Nibo, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, in 1911. NWT 3068; RAI 400.16439.

Ngene tells the story of sacred gods turned into secular objects in the ethnographic museum. He represents many of the things collected by Northcote Thomas, and others like him, from Africa and now incarcerated in museums. Instead of a revered and powerful god, he is treated as a thing – a piece of shaped and painted wood that comes to stand for the ‘primitive religion’ of the local people, or a specimen of African art.

Ngene was acquired by Thomas in Awgbu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. A label was strung around his neck, carrying the obscure description ‘Ngene. Alusi. To keep alive’. The number ‘378’ was scribbled on the back of his leg. He was crated up with other artefacts, carried over land to the port, shipped as a piece of cargo on the Elder Dempster line to Liverpool, transported by railway to Cambridge and carted into the museum store room.

Inspecting Ngene alusi figure, University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology
Left: Close-up of the Ngene alusi figure. Note the igbu ichi marks on the forehead. (Photograph: George Agbo.) Right: George Agbo and Paul Basu encountering Ngene for the first time having taken him out of his storage crate at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores, Cambridge. (Photograph: Katrina Dring.)

For over a century Ngene has lain in a coffin-like crate, rarely seeing the light of day. A ‘dead’ museum object. The paradox is that his incarceration has ensured the physical survival of his carved representation – had he been placed in a shrine in Awgbu, the insects would have eaten him and the weather rotted him. Perhaps he would have been burned like so many of his spirit family by iconoclastic converts to Christianity.

As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we have set Ngene free (for the time being at least). Removed from his crate, he stands upright and is placed on a strange new shrine – a plinth in the museum gallery. What is he now? Part of the ethnographic archive? An African art object? Or, indeed, is he a god once again? The star of the show? A deity to dance before?

Display in the [Re:]Entanglements: Colonial Collections in Decolonial Times exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, 2021. The display recreates a photograph taken by Northcote Thomas (or one of his assistants) in Awgbu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, in which collected objects are lined up and recorded prior to being shipped to Cambridge. (Photograph: Paul Basu.)

See also Collections notes: Ngene alusi figure

Monologue 5: John Osagbo

Performed by Richard Olatunde Baker
Listen to Usifu Jalloh discussing the character of John Osagbo in Unspoken Stories.

John Osagbo was employed by Northcote Thomas on his first anthropological survey, which focused on Edo-speaking areas of Nigeria (present-day Edo and Delta States). John accompanied Thomas on his travels. Thomas sometimes refers to him as his ‘boy’, his ‘servant’ or his ‘assistant’. He can occasionally be seen at the edge of the frame in Thomas’s photographs, holding an umbrella to shade the sitters, holding a number board, or supporting the photographic backdrop. Thomas also recorded John playing a flute.

Northcote Thomas gives an ident at the start of this phonograph wax cylinder recording, stating: ‘…Song played by my servant, John, February 10th, 1909.’ Recorded in Benin City. (NWT 16; BL C51/2245.)
Physical type portrait of Igbenosa (centre of frame) made by Northcote Thomas in Benin City, Nigeria, in 1909. On left, holding an umbrella, is Thomas’s assistant, whom we believe to be John Osagbo. NWT 198a; RAI 400.18019.

Although John was not Thomas’s official translator, the anthropologist probably relied on him for informal translations and help understanding what was going on. In return Thomas probably taught John how to use a camera and operate the phonograph sound recorder.

Northcote Thomas’s assistant, whom we believe to be John Osagbo, appears in the periphery of many photographs from Thomas’s 1909-10 tour of Edo-speaking communities. The photographs are re-framed here to place John more centrally. Left, photographed in Utekon (NWT 427; RAI 400.15581) ; right, photographed in Agbede (NWT 959; RAI 400.17317).

We don’t know how John came to work with Northcote Thomas, but it must have been a remarkable experience. He would have travelled extensively throughout the Edo-speaking territories of Southern Nigeria as part of Thomas’s retinue. As Thomas’s ‘boy’ or ‘servant’, he was probably intimately familiar with Thomas’s personal habits and quirks. The photographs show that he dressed in European clothes, though went barefoot. We might imagine him being plucked out of his ordinary life in Benin City and finding himself part of the world of the colonialists.

Letter from Northcote Thomas to Alexander Fiddian of the Colonial Office dated 14 May 1910, after Thomas’s return from his first anthropological survey. Thomas writes, ‘I have an assistant – John Osakbo – the most capable boy I ever saw. He can’t read or write. I recommend that he get a retaining fee (£1 per mensem) during my absence on condition that he learns to read and write. He should also go and get training in photography. He is in Benin City and could do all this there.’ (TNA CO 520/100.)

At the end of the 1909-10 survey, Thomas sent a letter to Alexander Fiddian at the Colonial Office in London expressing his appreciation of John – Thomas describes him as ‘the most capable boy I ever saw’ – and asking that he be paid a retainer of £1 a month, on condition that he learns to read and write. He also suggests that he receive training in photography, which, he notes, can be done in Benin City. His address in Benin City is given as care of Mr J. C. Mbanugo at the Government Telegraph Office in Benin City.

We do not know if Thomas’s requests were acted upon. There is no mention of John in Thomas’s subsequent tours in Igbo-speaking areas of Nigeria. We don’t know what happened to him. Did he learn to read and write? Did he receive formal training in photography? Perhaps he became a photographer, or went on to work for the colonial administration? Or were Thomas’s promises empty ones? Did he return to obscurity, forever recalling his year as the anthropologist’s assistant? We might imagine him as an elderly man, in the 1970s, telling stories about his youthful escapades with Mr Northcote – maybe his grandchildren’s eyes rolled at hearing the stories told again and again!

John was, of course, just one of many assistants that accompanied Northcote Thomas on his travels in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. John represents all those who straddled, perhaps uneasily, the worlds of the British colonialists and the indigenous populations. They were rarely the main subject of Thomas’s photographs, but they appear occasionally in the periphery. There is an interesting pair of photographs, one presumably taken by Thomas of a uniformed man, wearing the stripes of a corporal. We believe this is Corporal Nimahan, a corporal in the Police Force and one of Thomas’s main interpreters in 1909-10. Nimahan and John Osagbo would have travelled together, and we imagine the older man cautioning John not to allow himself to be enthralled by the world of the colonialists (reminding him he is merely a ‘servant’ after all). The other photograph, taken in exactly the same location, beside the same bush, is of Thomas himself, most likely taken by Nimahan.

Left: Northcote Thomas, probably photographed by his translator/assistant Corporal Nimahan (RAI: 400.38267); Right: Corporal Nimahan, in the same location, probably photographed by Northcote Thomas (RAI 400.38292).

Interpreters and assistants can be seen in other photographs made during the anthropological surveys, including in a photograph – again presumably taken by one of Thomas’s assistants – of a meeting of chiefs to discuss a land dispute in Neni, present-day Anambra State, in 1911. John tells the story of these people ambiguously caught between worlds. They are part of the African world that Thomas was researching, but also caught up – at least for a while – in the world of the researcher and the colonialists. Dressed like the white anthropologist, jotting down notes, operating the camera and the phonograph, how were they perceived by the local people? We can read much into the interchange of gazes in the photograph taken in Neni. This being ‘between worlds’ has become an increasingly familiar experience. Many of the descendants of those photographed may have migrated to or been born in Europe or North America, and speak English as a first language, yet still retaining a profound connection to Africa. (See, for example, Obianuju Helen Okoye’s article on Ancestral Reconnections.)

‘Group of chiefs at meeting of land dispute and Government Anthropologist’, photographed by one of Northcote Thomas’s assistants in Neni, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, in 1911. NWT: 2270; RAI 400.15905.

See also Peripheral presences: N. W. Thomas’s field assistants.

Bringing the archive to life through storytelling

Unspoken Stories was a collaboration between the [Re:]Entanglements project and the storytellers who gave voice to these five characters from the archive. They were led by the Sierra Leonean storyteller, Usifu Jalloh, also known as The Cowfoot Prince. Jalloh was born in Kamakwie in the north of Sierra Leone, attended St Edwards Secondary School in Freetown, and began his professional storytelling career as a member of the famous Tabule Theatre group. In the remainder of this article, he discusses how West African storytelling traditions can bring the anthropological archives of Northcote Thomas to life.

As a professional storyteller, I have learnt that stories are the palm oil with which wisdom is swallowed. The work that Northcote Thomas did in many ways reflects the traditions of oral storytelling. Most African kingdoms and communities have designated families entrusted with and dedicated to learning, archiving and telling the stories of the past. These people are called Djali among the Malinke people of West Africa.

Through the voices of these highly respected people we are able to access the lives of ancestors past. Their stories are sometimes yardsticks embedded with moral and ethical codes that guide the smooth running of the community.

Sierra Leonean storyeteller, Usifu Jalloh (www.usifujalloh.com).

Storytelling is used effectively today to connect the younger generation to their ancestral identity. One way this is done is by understanding names given to certain children or objects. Names are used in storytelling to maintain genetic continuity. My name is Jalloh. It identifies me to be a Fulla and that I am from a merchant clan. The same is true for names belonging to blacksmiths, hunters and farmers. This is one important aspect of information for a storyteller in order to influence and maintain traditions of old.

Through the names recorded by Northcote Thomas we are transported back to the narratives of families a hundred years ago and more. We have been able to reawaken the lives of ancestors into a contemporary paradigm through the objects, sounds, photographs and names provided. Much like the ancient Djali did and still do.

To bring these characters to life we had to search within our own cultural experiences. Each chosen character resonated deeply within all the tellers for this project. All the storytellers had to draw from their practical experiences to give the narratives of these characters a real time relevance.

For example, I related to Ngene as I am also a part of the rites of passage fraternity in my community. We have the Matoma masquerade, which is revered and serves as a protector for the farms. There is Bondo, which Yainkain must have been part of during her rites of passage from girl to womanhood. My grandmother was the one who initiated many girls. I grew up with many aunties like Yainkain, beating drums and singing all night during initiation ceremonies.

In addition to this is the dual Afro-colonial narrative, which John embodies. I went to a school with a strict European paradigm, and we were all taught in a manner that encouraged us to leave behind our identity as native Africans to embrace the new ‘civilised’ Western ways. We wore suits and ties to school, and learnt and spoke English, French and Latin with pride – usually in spite of our native tongue. We saw John as a young man in this dual thought process, which many young Africans still experience today.

The curiosity of children is as present today as it was back a hundred years ago. I can still remember the fascination of standing in front of a camera for a photoshoot with my family. It was usually a special event where we will dress up with our Sunday best, as we called it. We would wait with excitement for a few days for the photos to be printed and then show off to all friends and relatives who visited our home.

The fascination of seeing a white person is still yet another attraction. Rumours and hearsays of the whiteman coming to catch the evil spirit, Kassila, at the river were rife because white people seemed not to be afraid of swimming far into the river where the evil Kassila resides. These were useful reflections while the storytellers were developing the story for the children. There was also ample information given in the records of Northcote Thomas that formed a springboard for us to leap from.

The Unspoken Stories video installation at the [Re:]Entanglements: Colonial Collections in Decolonial Times exhibition, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, 2021. (Photograph: Paul Basu.)

Collection notes: Ngene alusi figure

Ngene alusi figure, Awgbu, University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology
Ngene alusi figure, collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, in 1911. Now in the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. (NWT 378; MAA Z 14234)

One of the most impressive objects collected by Northcote Thomas during his 1910-11 anthropological survey of present-day Anambra State, Nigeria is this Ngene alusi figure. Thomas appears to have acquired this 1.25m high sculpture in Awgbu, about 11km south of Awka.

Thomas wrote a great deal about alusi (or alose) in his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria. According to Thomas this referred to a wide range of deities or spirits, which were subordinate to Chukwu, the supreme being of Igbo religion. Some, he explained, had personal names such as ‘Ngene’ or ‘Ofufe’, whose shrines were often located in large enclosures, sometimes surrounded by highly decorated walls. These shrines were the locus of weekly and annual rituals, sites for oath-taking and sacrifice. These deities are given material form in different ways, including through sculptures such as this Ngene figure.

In Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos, Herbert Cole and Chike Aniakor note that in the area around Awka ‘sculptures of gods and their supporters are typically arranged against a shrine wall often hung with cult apparatus’ (1984: 89). The carvings, they explain, are rarely by the same artist – over time the figures rot, are eaten by termites or otherwise deteriorate and are replaced as necessary. They are repainted and re-dressed during annual festivals, when the community’s allegiance to the deities is renewed through feasting and sacrifices.

Inspecting Ngene alusi figure, University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology
Left: Detail of Ngene alusi figure showing ichi scarification marks on forehead and white, yellow and red-brown paint pigmentation. Right: [Re:]Entanglements project researchers, George Agbo and Paul Basu, examining the Ngene figure at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores. (Photograph by Katrina Dring)

When we first located the Ngene figure in the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores, we were struck at how fresh the carving and its paint was. Unlike such figures we have seen in situ, it did not appear to have accrued the signs that it had been installed in a shrine or used in rituals. We know that Thomas commissioned carvers to make other objects he collected, such as a large number of ukhurhe rattle staffs in Benin City, and we wondered if this was the case with Ngene.

Photographing Ngene in the field

Three interesting photographs of Ngene exist from the time that it was collected. During his 1910-11 tour, Thomas began the practice of lining up objects he had collected in front of a cloth backdrop and photographing them prior to shipping them to Cambridge. Numbers are set up alongside each object, and Ngene stands in a row of objects numbered 374 to 388, including two masks, a dance paddle, an iron staff for ozo title holders, two drums, an ogene gong, a rattle, a yam grater, dish, basket, cup and a mat used for carrying the dead. In total, Thomas collected 19 objects in Awgbu. One of Thomas’s assistants can be seen on the left holding the backdrop straight.

Northcote Thomas collections, Awgbu, Nigeria, 1911
A photograph by Northcote Thomas or one of his assistants documenting collections made in Awgbu prior to being shipped to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. Note one of Thomas’s assistants holding up the backcloth on the left. The numbers, 374-388, correspond with those in Thomas’ collection catalogue. (NWT 2968; MAA P.31227)

There are two even more intriguing photographs of Ngene in an album held at the National Museum in Lagos. The photographs were made using Thomas’s Kodak Panoram camera, which had a swivel lens and created a ‘panoramic’ exposure measuring 7″ x 2¼” on 105 format film rolls. In contrast to the formality of the documentation photo of the objects lined up with their catalogue numbers, these offer a glimpse of humour, even frivolity, behind the scenes.

Panoramic photographs taken by Northcote Thomas or one of his assistants, captioned ‘Chief dancing’ in Thomas’ photo register. The Ngene figure and other objects in the formal documentation photograph can be seen in the scene. Note the children sitting on Thomas’s camp chairs, watching the scene, and one of Thomas’ assistants on the left hand of the lower image. (NWT 3995 & 3996)

In Thomas’ photo register, the images are captioned ‘Chief dancing’, and we can see two robed men in bowler hats dancing in front of an audience of young man and children, some lounging on Thomas’ camp chairs. To the left of the photographs is Ngene. It appears that a number of caps have been placed on its head, but they may be placed on top of the iron staff in front. Looking carefully, one can see other objects from collection documentation photograph in the frame, and indeed it appears musicians are playing the drums and rattle that also feature in the object line up. Again, one of Thomas’ assistants can be seen, smiling at the joyful spectacle, to the left of one of the photographs.

Notes on Ngene’s form

The Ngene figure acquired by Thomas in Awgbu shares many formal similarities to other alusi sculptures from the region, although it is also quite distinctive (it is less naturalistic than many examples). Like many alusi, it has ichi scarification marks on its forehead and a carved pattern on its chest and torso. It has a prominent umbilical hernia, a small penis, large nipples and carved bracelets and anklets. It is made from a single piece of wood and painted with white, yellow and red-brown pigments.

Formal comparison of Igbo alusi figures
Formal comparison of Ngene figure from Awgbu (left) with other alusi sculptures. The three figures on the right were collected, controversially, by Jacques Kerchache from the area around Awka in the late 1960s during the Nigerian Civil War. They featured in an exhibition Igbo: Monumental Sculptures from Nigeria in 2010.

The hands and feet of alusi fugures are often not naturalistic. As Herbert Cole and Chike Aniakor note, ‘One conventionalized feature of these carvings, the palms-up hand position, has meanings which contribute to our understanding of the deities and their cults. Informants report that this shows the open-handedness or generosity of the deities, as well as their willingness to receive sacrifices and other presents. The gesture also means “I have nothing to hide”, suggesting honesty and a “good face” (1984: 92).

As part of the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition, we will be recreating the line up of objects, including the Ngene alusi figure, as per Thomas’ documentation photograph above. These objects are being prepared for display at the conservation labs at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. The remainder of this article is written by Bill Mastandrea, a postgraduate conservation student who has been working on the figure.

[Re:]Connecting across time: Human hands and the conservator’s eye

by Bill Mastandrea

As mentioned in previous blog posts, conservation can help to provide a voice to objects which may otherwise have little to no context. Where objects are left voiceless, we run the risk of losing the valuable, humanizing information which surrounds them. It is these intangible facets of object biography that have personally interested me and propelled me to pursue conservation as a career. While the physical materiality of an object is integral, it is arguably its invisible stories which bring us closer both to it and to the people associated with it. Objects are not simply empty remnants of the past, but are living things, full of traces of what they have witnessed, endured, and experienced. While objects reveal different things to different people, the tools of conservation allow us to see particular narratives that others might miss, helping connect people of the present to those in the past.

As a post-graduate student in Conservation at UCL, the Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements project has afforded me the great opportunity to investigate and conserve this Ngene alusi figure prior to it being exhibited. Here I want to report particularly on discoveries made during the initial stages of the conservation process, including condition checking and visual examination under visible and ultraviolet (UV) light. My observations point to a particular episode in the figure’s life history, which will inform my treatment proposal and future work on the object.

Details of Ngene alusi figure, collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, in 1911. (NWT 378; MAA Z 14234)

Condition checking of the figure began routinely, with investigation under visible light. The figure is carved from a single piece of wood and painted with white, yellow, and red-brown pigments and stands 1.24 metres tall. Intricate carving on the face, chest, upper arms, and stomach are interpreted as representative of scarification marks; and the carved rings around the ankles and wrists, bangles. Prominent areas of physical damage are noted on the head of the figure, where a non-terminal crack has formed, likely from fluctuations of temperature and humidity, and the right foot, which has been broken in two. Small flight-holes in the object are evidence of prior insect infestation, made by boring insects after reaching maturity.

Left: Photograph of Ngene figure taken probably in the 1930s held by the British Museum, showing the right foot apparently in tact. Right: The figure photographed by George Agbo at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores in 2018, showing the broken foot.

Comparison with historic photographs shows that damage to the foot occurred after it had been accessioned into the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology collection. The foot appears to be in tact in a photograph of the figure probably dating to the 1930s held at the British Museum. The crack in the head is already evident in that photograph and, indeed, on close inspection, it can be seen in the field photograph of the figure lined up with other objects. The crack appears, however, to have worsened over time. It is presently unclear when the insect damage took place. Remnant material on the break edge of the foot suggests that someone in the past has attempted to adhere the foot back together.

In order to investigate the historic repair to the foot, the figure was observed under UV light. Some materials, including those used in the creation of objects or in their repair/conservation, have characteristic fluorescence, which can help in preliminary material identification. The use of UV is a valuable tool for a conservator trying to ascertain whether a repair was carried out with an historically-used conservation material, or through a more traditional repair practice carried out by the ‘source community’ itself. When I inspected the repair on the Ngene figure’s foot, the material was crusty and flaky in nature, and barely visible against the colour of the wood under ordinary light. Under UV, however, the material flouresced a pale yellow-white colour.

Ultraviolet light Ngene alusi figure, damage to foot
Top: Detail of the figures broken right foot, showing sides A and B of the break in visible light. Bottom: Sides A and B of the break under ultraviolet light. Note the crusty, pale yellow-white material under UV.

This routine investigation into adhesive material on the figure’s foot under UV light led, however, to the discovery of something unexpected. Hidden in plain sight, but made more obvious by UV light, were a series of hand prints on the back of the left leg and on the back of the head. In visible light, they appear only as a clear, glossy film, while under UV, these hand prints fluoresce strongly, similar in colour to that of the adhesive material used on the foot of the object. What information is there for the conservator to glean from these prints?

Ultraviolet light Ngene alusi figure
Left: Back of the head of the figure in visible light (A), showing no clear hand print, and under UV light (B), where finger prints are visible. Right: Back of the right leg of the figure in visible light (A), showing an unknown clear, glossy material, and under UV (B), where the finger prints are more visible.

After discussion with the project conservator, Carmen Vida, and with Kirstie French, the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s conservator, it was decided that non-destructive material identification of the adhesive material used to make the hand prints will be conducted. In order to identify adhesive materials, conservators use a number of methods, including solubility tests, microchemical tests and what is called Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR). By identifying the material trace on the broken foot, it will be possibly to establish when and where the repair was likely to have taken place. And, by comparing this with the material of the hand prints, we will be able to ascertain if these were left at the same time as the repair or relate to another episode in the figure’s biography.

While we wait for the tests to be completed, we can only speculate as to who the hand prints belong to: Perhaps the object’s creator, or a member of the community? Perhaps N. W. Thomas himself, or one of his assistants? Perhaps a long-since retired conservator at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology? Other questions arise. Do the prints on the head and leg belong to the same person? Were they created at the same time? Their orientation may tell us more about how they came to be left. Was the figure being carried or set up straight?

Further investigation will hopefully provide at least some of the answers to these questions. For now, the hand prints remain an opportunity for personal contemplation. Tactility is an essential aspect of human experience, and one that is experienced by nearly everyone as we navigate through our world. So much of our past has come into being through the hands, as well as minds, of artisans, craftspeople and other specialists. At the very least, these hand prints add to the biography of the Ngene figure, instilling in it yet another story of lived experience with which we can connect.

Reference

  • Cole, H. M. and C. C. Aniakor. 1984. Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos. Museum of Cultural History, University of California, Los Angeles.

Nzu, orhue, sacred chalk

Nzu, orhue, sacred chalk
John Okwuchukwu Okoye Mgbemena, chief priest of the Ndi-ichie shrine at Obu Mgbemena, Umudioka, Neni, inviting the presence of Chukwu, other deities and ancestors through nzu (chalk). Filmed by Chris Allen, lightsurgeons.com. Translation: George Agbo and Yvonne Mbanefo.

The areas in which Northcote Thomas worked as a Government Anthropologist in Nigeria and Sierra Leone have, of course, changed a great deal in the 105 years since the end of his last tour. During 18 months of fieldwork, retracing the itineraries of Thomas, we have, however, also been struck by the many continuities. Despite urbanisation and Christianity, cultural traditions are strong! Take chalk, for example…

Thomas’s reports and fieldnotes on the Edo- and Igbo-speaking communities that he researched between 1909 and 1913 are full of references to the use of chalk in rituals, ceremonies and customs. This chalk is known variously as ‘calabash chalk‘ and ‘kaolin‘. In Igbo it is nzu, in Edo orhue. As Thomas documented, this chalk is used in multiple ways – as an offering to the deities and ancestors, as a medicine, as a symbol of purity, of good fortune and hospitality. It is a sacred substance.

Rites of passage

Initiate of Ovia Society, Iyowa, Benin City, 1909
An Oviovia, a newly initiated member of the Ovia society, Iyowa, with his forehead smeared with chalk (orhue). Photographed by Northcote Thomas, October 1909. NWT 1288. MAA P.29446.

Chalk is used in many ceremonies and rituals, from birth to death. For example, Thomas describes the initiation of boys into the Ovia society in Iyowa, north of Benin City. ‘The boy joins the society’, Thomas writes in an unpublished manuscript, ‘by payment of a calabash of [palm] oil, 20 yams, a calabash of palm wine, 4 kola and 5 legs of Uzo [duiker]. The yams are cooked and fufu is sacrificed to Ovia. The boy marks his face with chalk and is then called Oviovia or the son of Ovia’.

Thomas recorded a number of what he labelled ‘birth songs’ in his travels in what is now the north of Edo State. The Omolotuo Cultural Group interpreted a number of these when we visited Otuo, explaining that they would be sung when the newly born child was presented to the community. To celebrate, both the child and the community members would mark their faces with chalk or arue as it is called in the Otuo dialect. The Omolotuo Cultural Group performed such a song for us, marking their faces accordingly…

The Omolotuo Cultural Group sing: A gigantic tree has given birth to its king; A lion has given birth to its king; It is a good person that gives; Celebrate with this chalk. Filmed by Paul Basu.

Title-taking and kingship

During our fieldwork in Okpanam, in present-day Delta State, Obi Victor Nwokobia explained that nzu is part of the paraphernalia associated with royalty, signifying blessing and purity. It is used in the coronation of a new king (obi) and to invoke ancestral blessings on his guests at the palace.

Obi Nwokobia and nzu, Okpanam
Left: George Agbo and Obi Victor Nwokobia discussing nzu during fieldwork in Okpanam; Right: close-up of the molded chalk. Photographs by Glory Chika-Kanu.

With others in Okpanam, Obi Nwokobia was particularly interested in a series of photographs Northcote Thomas took in 1912 of an individual he identified as ‘Chief Mbweze’. The name, we were told, should be written ‘Mgbeze’, and what the photographs record is his title-taking ceremony. Thomas does not state what title Mgbeze was receiving, though he lists the highest titles a man may attain in Okpanam as being eze and obu.

Northcote Thomas photograph of Obi Mgbeze Okpanam after his title-taking
‘Chief Mgbeze’ of Okpanam, photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1912 after his title-taking ceremony. He holds a pair of alo staffs and wears the eriri ukwu on his ankles, visual markers of his new status. Mgbeze is painted with chalk to symbolize purity and communion with the ancestors. We were told that this photograph was taken at the Udo shrine. (NWT 4093, MAA P.32104)

Obi Nwokobia explained to us the use of nzu in the obi/eze coronation ceremonies. Prior to the conferment of the title, the initiand is rubbed with chalk all over his body. He also wears a white wrapper. The white of the chalk and cloth represents purity and sanctification. The candidate must then spend a period of 28 days in isolation. During this time, the white of the chalk connects the initiand to the ancestors. When the candidate emerges from this period of seclusion, he is considered pure and to have received ancestral validation of his coronation. The newly titled man dances and throws nzu on the people gathered as a mark of blessing on them. It is a moment that Thomas captured in his series of photographs of Mgbeze’s title-taking. These same practices are used in the coronation of an obi today.

Seeing beyond the visible

Among the hundreds of photographic portraits of individuals made by Thomas can be found many in which people have chalk smeared around one or both eyes. This could signify various things. The high female office of Omu, for example, was entitled to wear chalk around both eyes, as can be seen in Thomas’s photograph of the Omu of Okpanam (see centre photograph below).

Northcote Thomas portraits of people with nzu markings
Use of chalk around the eyes. Left to right: Woman and baby, Kokori, 1910 (NWT 1461, MAA P.29759); Omu, Okpanam, 1912 (NWT 4108, MAA P.32119); Okonlo, Ibuzo, 1912 (NWT 4336, MAA P.32320). Photographs by Northcote W. Thomas.
Northcote Thomas portraits of people with nzu markings
Use of chalk around the eyes. Left to right: Okoye, Awgbu, 1911 (NWT 2383, MAA P.30731); Ojankwo of Onudu, Awgbu, 1911 (NWT 2491, MAA P.30817); Man in farm, Nimo, 1911 (NWT 2964b, MAA P.31223). Photographs by Northcote W. Thomas.

Thomas notes that native doctors (dibia) were also entitled to wear chalk around either one or both eyes, depending on their seniority. The same was true of priests. Chalk around the eyes signifies an ability to see beyond the visible world and into the world of the spirits. Chalk is still used in this way among traditional doctors, diviners and priests, as we have often encountered during our travels in Thomas’s footsteps. They are sometimes called dibia anya nzu, meaning ‘native doctor with the eye of chalk’.

When we met Paul Okafor, chief priest of the Nge-Ndo Ngene shrine in Nibo, Anambra State, he wore chalk on his forehead and left eyelid. He explained that the mark on his forehead granted him access into the spirit world, while that on his eyelid allowed him to see into the spirit world so as to be able to solve his clients’ problems. Okafor further explained that he must wash the nzu off before going to bed, or else he would not be able to sleep, but rather continue to commune with the spirits until the next morning.

Paul Okafor, Chief Priest of Nge Ndo, Nibo
Paul Okafor, one of the chief priests of the Nge-Ndo shrine, Nibo. (Nge-Ndo means the Ngede whose mother is called Udo.) The chalk marks on his forehead and left eyelid grant him access into the world of the spirits. Photographs by Glory Chika-Kanu.

According to Nwandu, a dibia we met at Ebenebe, he uses nzu as a medium to communicate with the ancestors. He also applies nzu to part of his eyelid to be able to see the spirit world, and he demonstrated for us how he draws chalk lines on the ground when performing spiritual consultations – igba afa – for his clients.

Dibia Nwandu, Ebenebe
Nwandu, a dibia in Ebenebe, demonstrating how he performs igba afa (divination). As well as the chalk markings on the ground, note the spots of chalk daubed on his right eyelid and left foot. Photographs by Glory Chika-Kanu.

Ọgbọ obodo and the Mkpitime cult

In the fourth part of his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking People of Nigeria (1914), concerning the ‘laws and customs’ of the Western Igbo or Anioma people, Thomas provides an interesting account of the Nkpetime or Mkpitime cult. Mkpitime is the name of a female deity associated with a small lake close to Onitsha Olona, now Delta State, which Thomas visited in October 1912. Thomas evidently spent time with the orhene or priest of Mkpitime, a man named Mokweni, whom he also photographed. His visit coincided with the annual Iwaji (New Yam Festival).

During the festival, the orhene is said to ‘go into nzu (chalk)’. This is a period of seclusion during which no one is allowed to make a noise, quarrel or fire a gun. Three days after going ‘into nzu‘, the orhene is supposed to make offerings at Lake Mkpitime and swim in its waters. On the fourth day, the orhene comes out of seclusion, accompanied by drumming and dancing before the mmanwu (spirits manifest as masquerades). Thomas describes how a woman created figures on the earth of the dancing ground using chalk, but also charcoal, red mud and ashes. Thomas notes that this is called obwo [ọgbọ] obodo – translating as ‘circle of dance’. The motifs represent various ‘totemic’ animals and other aspects of local cosmology, including a leopard, ‘tiger cat’, pangolin, monkey, viper, cross-roads, mirror, the sun, moon and Mkpitime herself. According to Thomas, domestic animals such as goats, ducks and fowls must not step on the figures. However, they are soon obliterated by the dancing feet of the celebrants.

Ogbo Obodo marks, Iwa-Ji ohuu (New Yam) Festival, Onitsha Olona
Northcote Thomas’s photograph of the ọgbọ obodo markings associated with the Mkpitime cult in Onitsha Olona, 1912. The marks, created in chalk and other materials, represent different totemic animals and aspects of local cosmology. They are drawn on the dancing ground during the Iwaji festival and are erased in the dust by the feet of the dancers. (NWT 4258, MAA P.32253).

Chalk at shrines

Chalk is associated with many deities throughout Southern Nigeria, including Ovia, Ngene and Mkpitime, mentioned above, but also Olokun, Ake, Imoka and others. Artist-educator, Norma Rosen, has written about chalk iconography in Olokun worship, for example, and some of the designs she discusses are not dissimilar to those Thomas photographed in Onitsha Olona. In an article Rosen wrote with the art historian Joseph Nevadomsky, the scene is described in which this ‘elaborately drawn chalk iconography’ is similarly ‘obliterated by dancing feet’, sending ‘vaporous messages fly[ing] back and forth … between the other world and earth’.

Chalk lozenges and markings, Ake shrine, Idumowina, Benin City
Chalk in various forms at the altar of the Ake shrine, Idumowina, near Benin City. An album of Northcote Thomas’s photographs of the shrine that we presented to the community is placed on the altar as an offering to Ake. Photograph by Paul Basu.

We witnessed something similar – and, indeed, participated in the dancing – when we visited the Ake shrine at Idumowina, on the outskirts of Benin City. We had created an album of Thomas’s photographs, which documented the shrine in 1909, and presented copies to the community and the Ake priest. A special ceremony was held in which the album was presented to the deity. As can be seen in the photograph above, adjacent to the altar was a pile of molded chalk blocks and a dish of powdered chalk. The powdered chalk was sprinkled on the altar on which the album was placed, and was used to create patterns on the ground, which were subsequently erased by our dancing.

In his fieldnotes about the Ake Festival that he documented at at Idumowina in 1909, Thomas describes how women would come to the shrine asking the deity to bless them with children, and also to thank the deity if they had recently given birth. (Ake, like Olokun, is a deity associated with fertility.) He records that children were given chalk to eat.

Paul Basu at Imoka Shrine, Imoka Festival, Awka
Paul Basu kneels before the Imoka shrine during the Imoka Festival in Awka. A great mass of nzu (chalk) was piled up in the shrine. Having received blessings at the shrine, he was given chalk from the shrine to eat. Note also chalk marks around the eyes of the priests on the left, and on the toe of the priest on the right. Photograph by George Agbo.

Indeed, chalk is traditionally ingested by pregnant women and as a medicine for various complaints. We have eaten nzu, too, during our fieldwork, after seeking blessings at the Imoka shrine, during the Imoka Festival in Awka.

A symbol of goodwill, friendship and hospitality

In some areas of Igboland, nzu is used instead of or alongside kola-nut in traditional hospitality ceremonies. The most senior man or traditional priest will draw or sprinkle lines of chalk on the ground while uttering a prayer. The number of lines drawn is often four, corresponding to the four deities or market days of the week – eke, oye, afo and nkwo. The prayer is addressed to Chukwu (the supreme God), lesser deities and the ancestors, asking for long life, wealth, peace and fairness. At the end of each prayer, those present will respond by saying Ise!

Prince Chukwunonso Umeokonkwo, Obi Dege Igbo, Igbo-ukwu
Prince Chukwunonso Umeokonkwo at the Obi Dege Igbo, Igbo-ukwu discussing the use of nzu in Igbo culture. To his left a visitor from Neni draws four lines on the ground before rolling the chalk to another guest. Photograph by Glory Chika-Kanu.
Prince Chukwunonso Umeokonkwo calls upon God, the deities and ancestors while marking the ground with chalk. Filmed by Chris Allen, lightsurgeons.com. Translation: George Agbo and Yvonne Mbanefo.

After the prayer, the chalk will be rolled across the ground from the feet of one person to the next in order of seniority (and social/geographical proximity to the host). It is important that the chalk is not passed hand to hand. Each will then make a mark on the ground before him, again often four lines. Ozo title holders are entitled to mark eight lines. Before rolling the nzu to the next person, each will take a small piece of chalk and mark one of their feet, or an eyelid and put a little in their mouth.

Further reading

  • Nevadomsky, J. & N. Rosen, 1988. ‘The Initiation of a Priestess: Performance and Imagery in Olokun Ritual’, The Drama Review 32(2): 186-207.
  • Rosen, N. 1989. ‘Chalk Iconography in Olokun Worship’, African Arts 22(3): 44-53.