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.
Although there were many early experiments with colour photography from the 1850s, it was not until the mid-1930s, with the introduction of Kodachrome film, that it became widely used. All of Northcote Thomas’s photographs made during his anthropological surveys of Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915 were monochrome. Since the beginning of photography, however, various techniques have been used to hand-colour monochrome prints. Hand-colouring photographic prints using a fine brush with different kinds of dyes, watercolours and oils was a highly-skilled task. Demand for hand-coloured photographs reached its peak in the early twentieth century.
To date, we have come across only one historical example of a photograph taken by Thomas that has been hand-coloured. This was published in the serialised pictorial encyclopaedia, Peoples of All Nations, around 1920. In the section entitled ‘British Empire in Africa’ Thomas contributed around 23 photographs, many of which have been touched-up for publication, among these is the colour plate disparagingly entitled ‘Gewgaws of Primitive Society’. The photograph shows two young girls, which Thomas elsewhere describes as ‘onye ebuci’, adorned with bracelets of hippo ivory, anklets and garters of cowries, and necklaces and headdresses of long red beads. In addition to colouring the photograph, a vaguely ‘tropical’ background has been painted in place of Thomas’s calico photographic backdrop.
Today, with digital tools such as Adobe Photoshop, new possibilities for colourising historical monochrome photographs present themselves, though the process is no less skilled. Artist and Ukpuru blogger, Chiadikōbi Nwaubani has long been interested in historical visual representations of Nigeria and has been digitally colourising some of the Northcote Thomas photographic archive.
I’ve started colouring some of the photographs from the Northcote collection and I’m focusing mainly on the photos of his tours of the Igbo area. Since the colouring is partly based on guess work, some knowledge about the culture helps in deciding what is coloured what, such as the indigo cloth in the picture of the Eze Nri. Resist-dyed indigo cloth like that is still popularly used and I could notice the depth of the grey and the patterns and guess that it was one of the indigo cloths.
I started colouring some of these pictures a few years ago from digital scans of the printed Anthropological Report volumes. I was looking at other areas of the past, and at the time I used the Northcote Thomas images to practice colouring photos. I think the impact of the original black and white photos was less than these coloured versions because of the quality, but there was another sense of familiarity that was added to the pictures after they were coloured, partly because the age and the surroundings had already made the images quite distant.
One of the reactions to Northcote’s pictures I’ve heard is that ‘they don’t look like Igbo people’ (by some Igbo people referring to the pictures he took of Igbo people), and I think this was partly because of the lack of reference for anything in the pictures that they can relate to today, which may also be related to the ambiguity that black and white gives some objects, in this case cultural ones. The colourisation adds another sense of life to the photos, which also includes the colouring of material culture.
As part of the Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements project we shall be creating an exhibition. Initially, this will be installed, from October to December 2020, at the Brunei Gallery at SOAS University of London, close to the British Museum. It will then transfer to the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in 2021. We hope to bring together some of Northcote Thomas’s original collections, photographs and sound recordings alongside artworks and research material that we have assembled throughout the project. The exhibition is not, however, intended to be merely a display of ‘research findings’ – it is intended to be a continuation of the research itself. This builds on some of our own and others’ work on the exhibition as a kind of ‘laboratory’ or experimental space. We hope the exhibition will provide an inspiring and provocative forum in which visitors with different perspectives can come together to discuss and debate some of the issues that the project seeks to address.
As part of the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition, we are collaborating with the multimedia creative studio The Light Surgeons to make a video installation we are conceptualizing under the title ‘Faces/Voices’. We recently filmed some initial interviews to begin the process of developing this installation. During the four anthropological surveys N. W. Thomas undertook in West Africa between 1909 and 1915, he made thousands of photographs. About half of these were so-called ‘physical type’ portraits – typically taking a full-face and profile portrait photograph of each of his sitters. Such photographs have been much discussed and heavily criticized in academic and postcolonial literature. We are interested, however, in how different people ‘read’ these photographs in different ways. Do they epitomize the ‘anthropological gaze’, turning people into objects to be collected, collated and compared? Can we somehow discern in people’s expressions their inner experience of colonialism? Or do they reveal an intimacy between the anthropologist and the communities that he was working with that points beyond the colonial critique?
By juxtaposing Thomas’s historical photographic portraits with the faces and voices of project participants and members of the public, we hope to explore the diversity of responses to these images, allowing the different perspectives to co-exist alongside each other.
Thomas’s photographic portraits are mute. The people he photographed lack ‘voice’ (although we are also experimenting with reuniting Thomas’s historical photographs with his sound recordings – perhaps giving back voice to these images). In the pilot video shoot, we began experimenting with how the photographs enable people today who have often very different connections with the areas in which Thomas worked to voice their own positions and responses to the anthropological archive.
We’ll be doing more filming in due course. Let us know if you would like to participate!
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Marking the launch of the [Re:]Entanglements project, the first of a number of exhibitions related to the project has been installed at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London. The exhibition, entitled ‘Photographic Affordances’, includes a selection of fine digital prints from scans of N. W. Thomas’s original glass plate negatives that are held in the Royal Anthropological Institute’s collections.
Photographs made during Thomas’s four anthropological surveys in West Africa between 1909 and 1915 are dispersed in various institutions, including over 5,000 glass plate negatives held at the Royal Anthropological Institute and several thousand loose prints in the collections of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Approximately half the photographs made in Thomas’s three Nigerian tours were compiled in albums. Triplicate sets of these albums were made: one was originally kept in the Colonial Office Library in London, another was sent to the Colonial Secretariat in Lagos, while the third was intended for scholarly reference and originally deposited at the Horniman Museum in London. Today complete sets of the albums can be found in the UK’s National Archives and the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, while, to date, we have located one album at the National Museum in Lagos. Hopefully, in the course of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we will be able to locate the remaining albums in Lagos.
Many of the prints on display at the Royal Anthropological Institute are so-called ‘physical type’ portraits. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century anthropological orthodoxy imagined the world’s population to be divided into distinct races and tribes, each with its own language, material culture and cultural traditions. It was also believed that people belonging to these groups were physically different from one another. Anthropologists of the era, including N. W. Thomas, expended a great deal of effort in mapping these different groups and their physical characteristics. One technique for doing this was through making photographic portraits of people – usually full face and profile – which could then be compared. The same techniques were used in the Ethnographic Survey of the British Isles, for example, but this kind of photography is often associated with colonial attitudes, which seemingly reduced people to objects that could be measured, categorized and compared.
When physical type photographs were published in Thomas’s Anthropological Reports, the captions followed this objectifying anthropological practice. Thus, people were reduced to ‘types’ and the photographs were accompanied by labels such as ‘Man of Awka’, ‘Man of Mbwaku’ and ‘Woman of Isele Asaba’. In keeping with the supposedly ‘scientific’ genre of the photographs, the subjects do not smile. They seem to manifest the colonial violence we expect of them. By examining Thomas’s photographic negatives, however, a different impression emerges: Thomas was usually careful to note the names of those he photographed and, among the unpublished outtakes, we find people smiling and even giggling. This challenges our expectations and suggests there was a more personal relationship between the anthropologist and the person being photographed.
Despite the large number of physical type photographs made by Thomas while he was engaged as Government Anthropologist, the colonial authorities themselves had little interest in them, regarding them as being of ‘purely scientific interest’ and of no value in colonial governance. Thomas himself seems to have pursued this kind of photographic practice more out of a sense that this was what a professional anthropologist was expected to do, rather than a conviction in its scientific import.
The physical type photographs displayed in the Royal Anthropological Institute exhibition raise difficult questions, particularly for an institution founded in the 1870s and also entangled in histories of colonialism and ‘racial science’. Some of the faces smile, but others gaze into Thomas’s camera lens defiantly. They return the colonial anthropologist’s gaze, and now, gazing down from the Institute’s meeting room walls after 100 years hidden away in storage, they confront and unsettle representatives of the discipline today.
The exhibition is not open to the public, but please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in seeing it.
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.