The histories of anthropology, photography and colonialism are entangled. Of the various genres of anthropological photography, the ‘physical type’ portrait epitomises the colonial anthropological gaze most fully.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the discipline of anthropology embraced not only the study of human social and cultural practices, but also the anatomical and physiological dimensions of human beings as a species – a field known as physical anthropology.
Anthropologists were interested in recording the physical characteristics of different population groups. As set out in Notes and Queries on Anthropology, the indispensable guide to anthropological fieldwork of the era, this included everything from documenting the colour of skin, eyes and hair to describing the shape of the face, nose and lips, as well as making anthropometric measurements of the body.
Through this documentation of human anatomy, anthropologists sought to identify the physical characteristics of what they perceived to be distinct racial and tribal ‘types’. Population groups were compared and categorised according to these typologies, much as natural scientists classified animal and plant species according to taxonomic conventions. Correlations were made between perceived biological differences and the distinct cultural and linguistic differences between groups, and these were placed in evolutionary schemata from the most ‘primitive’ to the most ‘civilised’.
All this would, of course, be thoroughly criticised by later generations of anthropologists, but it is important to acknowledge that, at the time, these quasi-scientific anthropological practices informed and legitimized ideologies of white supremacy that underpinned European colonial expansion and exploitation.
Since the 1860s, it had been recognised that photography could be an effective tool for anthropologists to document human physical characteristics and differences. By 1909, when Northcote Thomas set off on his first tour as Government Anthropologist in Southern Nigeria, the taking of anthropometric and physical type photographs had become standard practice in much anthropological fieldwork.
In 1896, for example, Maurice Vidal Portman had argued in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute that in ‘Properly taken photographs … will be found the most satisfactory answers to most of the questions in Notes and Queries on Anthropology’. This included the photographic documentation of social and cultural practices (ethnography), but also the physical characteristics of people. Explicitly referencing the anatomical sections in Notes and Queries, Portman noted that these could be recorded by taking ‘large photographs of the face, in full face and profile’.
Portman, a naval officer and colonial administrator, had collaborated with C. H. Read at the British Museum to produce a series of photographic albums documenting the inhabitants of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. These included examples of physical type and anthropometric photographs. A. C. Haddon described the method for making the latter in his entry on Photography in Notes and Queries as follows:
When the whole nude figure is photographed, front, side, and back views should be taken; the heels should be close together, and the arms hanging straight down the side of the body; it is best to photograph a metric scale in the same plane as the body of the subject. It is desirable to have a soft, fine-grained, neutral tinted screen to be used as a background.
Northcote Thomas would have been familiar with Haddon’s guidelines in Notes and Queries as well as Portman’s article and Andamanese photographs. It is likely that he emulated Portman’s examples in his own photographic practice.
Thomas and his assistants made over 7,500 photographs during his anthropological survey work in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Approximately half of those made in his three Nigerian tours were mounted in official photograph albums, copies of which were distributed to the Colonial Office in London, the Colonial Secretariat in Lagos and the Horniman Museum in South London (the latter intended for scholarly use). In these albums, the photographs were organised according to different categories. A statistical analysis of the 3040 photographs in the albums shows that nearly half were physical types (these were further subdivided into type photographs of men, women and children).
Thomas did collect anthropometric data during his 1909-10 survey of Edo-speaking communities in Nigeria, but he abandoned this practice in subsequent tours. In that first survey he also made a few full-length anthropometric photographs – of four individuals in total, evidently all taken in a single session – in which the subject was made to stand naked alongside a measuring scale as per the guidance in Notes and Queries.
While a small number of physical type photographs were published in the official reports of Thomas’s 1910-11 and 1912-13 surveys of Igbo-speaking communities, and in his report of the 1914-15 Sierra Leone survey, no photographs were published in his Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria(1910). Thomas did, however, provide detailed instructions for the taking of physical type photographs in an appendix of the Edo report. In addition to ‘physical types proper’, Thomas recommended taking portraits of family groups, and photographing subjects in more ‘characteristic poses’ (as opposed to the unnatural formalism of the full face and profile shots).
That Thomas should include such guidance, which was largely intended for colonial administrators, is somewhat puzzling since he provides only a very brief description of physical anthropology in the main text of the report, failing to explain why it should be of significance to colonial governance. Indeed, in the limited discussion he does provide, it is hard to arrive at any other conclusion than that, from a practical point of view, the considerable effort required in taking such photographs was quite pointless.
Certainly, the colonial authorities, both in West Africa and in London, had little interest in the physical type photographs, or, for that matter, in the anthropometric data that Thomas was at pains to collect during his first tour. This material was regarded as being of ‘a more purely scientific character’ and it was agreed that Thomas could pursue such work only insofar as it did not ‘encroach materially on the more “practical” side of the enquiry’ – the ‘examination of native law and custom’ being the work for which he was ‘primarily engaged’.
The disconnect between the scientific inquiries of physical anthropology and the supposed practical value of ethnography (what became known as social anthropology) is evident in the incredulity with which a request from Thomas, in July 1910, to supply the Natural History Museum with 20 ‘enlarged photographs, representative of the racial types of the Central Province [of Southern Nigeria]’ was met by the Colonial Office. As the senior Colonial Office clerk with whom Thomas had closest contact remarked in an internal minute: ‘I cannot imagine what a natural history collection wants to do with ethnographical pictures’. That the physical type photographs were mistaken for ‘ethnographical’ ones by the Colonial Office suggests that there was little understanding of these photographs or the purpose they were intended to serve. Indeed, in a letter to W. P. Pycraft, Head of the Anthropology Sub-Department at the Natural History Museum in 1920, Thomas admits that, with regard to physical types, ‘no one cares much for them’.
Given that Thomas was himself much more interested in ethnological and linguistic matters, and seemingly had little to say about physical anthropology, it is curious that he expended so much energy making physical type photographs. One can only speculate that his motivation lay in the sense that this was an essential dimension in the performance of anthropology and that adherence to the methodological orthodoxies of Notes and Queries was a signal of his professionalism.
Of the many hundreds taken, only 30 physical type portraits were actually published in Thomas’s Igbo and Sierra Leone reports. These were accompanied by captions identifying the subjects only by place or ‘tribe’. Here we see further evidence of how people were stripped of their names and individuality and reduced in these ‘scientific’ reports to anonymous representatives of particular ‘types’. We should note, however, that Thomas was in fact careful to record the names of many of those he photographed in his photographic register books. We know, for example, that ‘Man of Awka’ (Igbo report, Part I, Plate IIa) is a blacksmith named Muobuo, aged about 40 years, ‘Woman of Nibo’ (Igbo report, Part I, Plate IIIa) is Ozidi, while ‘Limba girl’ (Sierra Leone report, Part I, Plate XVII) is Kaiyais, photographed in Kabala, and ‘Susu boy’ (Sierra Leone report, Part I, Plate VIII) is young Momo Samura, photographed in Somaia.
If anthropological photography afforded the dehumanization of individuals, reducing people to ‘specimens’ to be collected and ordered by type, the archive now affords the possibility of reuniting the subjects of these portraits with their names, which, in some small way, rehumanizes them and returns to them their individuality. Since we also been able to identify where each photograph was taken, it has been possible to bring the photographs back to Nigeria and Sierra Leone and present these portraits to the descendants of those photographed. In these contexts, rather than toxic traces of a colonial anthropological project, these photographs are treasured by family members as precious portraits of ancestors.
Furthermore, contrasting with the small selection of physical type photographs that were published in Thomas’s reports, in which subjects appear lifeless and inexpressive, in the many hundreds of unpublished prints and negatives we find a great diversity of expression. The informality of many of the unpublished physical types, in which subjects may also be found smiling and even giggling, though failing in the performance of ‘science’, affords a glimpse into the human interaction between subject and photographer-anthropologist that was, after all, at the heart of these fieldwork encounters. We have explored some of the complexity surrounding these photographs, and the multiple ways in which we can ‘read’ them, in the film Faces|Voices.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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!
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
[Re:]Entanglements is part of a broader project entitled Museum Affordances, which is exploring what museum collections and archives make possible, or afford, for different stakeholders. As we have retraced the journeys made by the colonial anthropologist Northcote Thomas over 100 years ago in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, equipped with the photographs and sound recordings that he and his local assistants made, it has become apparent that one of the most powerful affordances of these archives is to enable people to reconnect with their ancestors. It has been a privilege for us to witness as community members set eyes upon the faces of their grandparents and great-grandparents, often for the first time.
Another striking affordance is the way these ancestral reconnections also connect extended families in the present. The descendants of those photographed during Thomas’s anthropological surveys now reside in many places throughout the world, forming transnational family networks among the broader diasporas of people with West African heritage. Social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp enable such families to stay in contact, and it is interesting to see how the archive photographs that we bring back to communities in Nigeria and Sierra Leone are recirculated on these platforms, bringing extended families together through an appreciation of their shared past.
In October 2019, we were delighted to receive a message from Dr Obianuju Helen Okoye (née Nnama), a public health physician based in Chicago, Illinois, USA, sending us a photograph she had received from family members in Nibo in Anambra State, Nigeria. Dr Okoye – ‘Uju’ – wrote seeking confirmation: Was this really Chief Nnama, her late great-grandfather? It had been presented as such by a researcher from the [Re:]Entanglements project who had visited Nibo bearing the photographs.
In this guest blog, Uju tells the story of this ‘reunion of sorts’. Part family memoir, part eulogy for an illustrious ancestor, part local history, it is a rich and personal reflection on the contemporary value of these colonial-era archives.
The visitor from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka came unannounced, bearing precious gifts. ‘My name is Dr George Agbo’, he said in Igbo as he explained the purpose of his visit to the assembled group of Nibo indigenes. As he set up copies of Northcote Thomas’s 100-year-old photographs in an impromptu display, many of those gathered were somewhat bewildered. The exhibition of these portraits of strange-yet-familiar faces can best be described as a homecoming – an unexpected reunion of sorts, an intimate opportunity to embrace a past that was lost…
Staring at my phone in disbelief, I carefully examined the image that had pinged into our Nnama family WhatsApp group, which has over 50 members dispersed across West Africa, the UK and USA. My cousin, Chief Edozie Nnama (Ozo Odenigbo), had just shared a black and white photograph of a chiefly-looking man stating that it was our famous great grandfather. For the next two days there was confusion as we tried to make sense of what seemed to be an interesting rumour. How could we be sure? My cousin in the UK, Mrs Uzoamaka Nwamarah (nee Nnama), went off searching, and found the contact information for the [Re:]Entanglements project. So, to the source we went for confirmation, and I sent an email enquiry to Paul Basu, the leader of the project.
Fingers shaking, I took a screenshot of my email correspondence with Paul Basu, forwarding it to the family WhatsApp group. A mere ‘copy and paste’ seemed inadequate for news of such magnitude. For all of our Nnama family members – all who knew Nnama in the same manner that I did, as a revered name – it was the unearthing of a priceless family heirloom, made possible through the archival excavations undertaken by the [Re:]Entanglements project.
Nibo, my great-grandfather’s lands
Dusty red sand. Lush green tropical terrain. A bumpy ascent along untarred roads above the Obibia river. The joyous chants of children playing in the water below. My father’s loud voice bellowing, ‘These are my grandfather’s lands! These are all Nnama’s lands!’ These images remain ingrained in my mind. As a child I knew their significance. This was the land of my ancestors. It was my land. This place, Nibo, was home.
Nested in Igboland, on the banks of the Obibia river in Anambra State, Nigeria, Nibo lies close to its populous neighbour, Awka, with whom it shares a long history and close cultural ties. As children raised in various locations in West Africa and the United States, my father – Prof Samuel Kingsley Ifeanyi Nnama (Ozo Oyibo, Ozo Akaligwe, Ikenga Nibo-Traditional Prime Minister of Nibo, and the second in Nibo’s hierarchy at the time of his passing in 2016), who spent his childhood in Nibo and initially migrated to the United States in 1975 – made it a point to ensure that my siblings and I fully understood the legacy with which we had been entrusted. This was made especially tangible each Christmas during our childhood and teen years, when we would make an annual pilgrimage to our Nigerian hometown, Nibo.
Hearing the pride in my dad’s voice as he attempted to connect us, his children, with our mysterious and powerful ancestor – his grandfather, who he never actually knew in person – left a desire for a deeper understanding. Who exactly was this Nnama? How did he acquire his fame? What did he look like?
Since we had no photographs to look at, we created our own images in our minds. As I matured on another continent, thousands of miles from Nibo, my curiosity grew even stronger.
There he sits, with identifying facial marks and the nza over his shoulder. The scarification marks are called ichi – they signified royalty and status. The nza is a horsetail switch, which in those days formed part of the regalia of leadership. It is even used today by the current ruler of Nibo. His neatly-cut beard amazed me – what instrument, I wondered, did they use to maintain such neatness?
The photograph had a profound effect on me. I realized that while my dad has passed on his love for history and family to me, this image validated my connections. Nnama was more than a figure in a folktale – he was real! And the tears started flowing.
My late father was a keen family historian. This was a passion which he passed on to me at an early age. Back in 2007, we together created Wikipedia pages for Nibo and Chief Nnama to document their histories. Nibo is made up of four villages: Ezeawulu, Umuanum, Ifite and Ezeoye. Nnama Orjiakor was born sometime in the late 1860s/early 1870s into the royal family of Umuanum village. In the late 19th century there was a dispute between the ruling lineages of Umuanum and Ezeawulu, each claiming the throne. After decades of conflict (ogu uno), Umuanum prevailed and Nnama was confirmed as the Ezeike (king). To secure the peace, the opposing factions were united in the marriage of Nnama’s son – my grandfather – Orji Nnama and Mgbafor, the daughter of Ezekwe, the warrior leader of Ezeawulu village.
Ezeike Nnama Orjiakor was an astute strategist and formed an alliance with the powerful Aro warlord Okoli Ijoma of Ndikelionwu. Nnama arranged for his younger sister to marry Okoli’s second son Nwene Ijomah. In pre-colonial days, Nnama served as Okoli Ijomah’s deputy in the ‘Omenuko’ court, which presided over much of present-day Anambra State. This alliance offered Nibo great protection and safety during turbulent times.
With the coming of the British, however, Nnama recognized the futility of resisting the colonialist’s military might and the Nibo war council agreed to surrender. This marked the end of Nnama’s alliance with Okoli, who vowed that he would not be ruled by any other king and waged a military campaign against the British, suffering great losses and eventually putting an end to his own life rather than succumbing to the enemy. Meanwhile, Nnama was appointed as a Warrant Chief by the British in 1896 and continued to serve as Nibo’s traditional ruler until his death in 1945.
Northcote did not only photograph Chief Nnama when he visited Nibo in 1911. Inquiring further from Paul Basu, I was directed to a Flickr album containing almost 300 photographs he had made of people and places from my hometown. I was amazed to see my people in their natural habitat, often with remarkably intricate hairstyles that would be envied even today. As I looked through the photographs, I tried to connect the dots.
The photograph of Nnama begins the sequence of images that Northcote took in Nibo. The anthropologist would, of course, have gone to the king first. After taking Nnama’s picture, I reasoned that Nnama would then have arranged for Northcote to photograph other members of the ruling family. Prof Basu then sent me copies of Northcote’s photographic registers, allowing us to put names to the faces. Although the Igbo names were often incorrectly transcribed, I was hopeful that some of them might correspond with those recorded in our extended family (umunna) tree compiled by my late father.
In the photo register, after ‘Chief Nnama’ was ‘Oniyi’, who I couldn’t identify. But next was ‘Eke’. This was Nnama’s brother, whose descendants we all know. Then there was ‘Aduko’, which sounded so familiar. Could it be? Was it her? I wondered. Yes, this was surely Nwonye Oduko, my grandfather’s older sister, and Nnama’s first child.
Unfortunately, Aduko’s photograph is spoilt by a double-exposure. But, nevertheless, there she stands: Nnama’s ‘Ada’, his first child and daughter. Tall and seemingly full of pride, with scarification marks around her breast signifying her status as a daughter of the king. My dad had told me about his aunt Oduko, and the image made me smile.
‘Nwoze’, ‘Ekewuna’, ‘Ekwnire’, ‘Nweze’, ‘Ebede’, ‘Nwogu’, ‘Nwankwo’… these names I did not recognize, even taking into consideration Northcote’s errors of transcription. But then came ‘Nwanna’. Looking at the family tree, I saw there was indeed a Nwanna under the Ogbuefi branch of the family. I looked up the corresponding photograph and was stunned to discover that this Nwanna bore a striking resemblance to my dad’s older cousin, Chief Lawrence Ogbuefi, as well as his siblings, children and grandchildren. Other family members made the same observation.
In haste, I forwarded the image and a summary of my findings to Chief Lawrence’s daughter via WhatsApp. It was a remarkable discovery. For the Ogbuefi family members, looking at the photograph of Nwanna was akin to gazing in a mirror. For my Uncle Lawrence, aged 87 years old, this was a priceless heirloom. Nwanna was his father. He died when Uncle Lawrence was still young and my uncle had never before seen a photograph of him. After over 80 years, this image was a kind of resurrection that had him shedding tears of joy.
Uncle Lawrence wrote to me:
I salute the doggedness of the British anthropologist, Northcote Thomas, who visited my town Nibo in 1911 and took photographs of my people, including my dad – Nwanna Ogbuefi. I also salute the Royal Anthropological Institute and University of Cambridge for preserving those photographs for us. Those of us who were too young, even at our father’s death, to have any mental picture or reminiscences of what he looked like now have the opportunity of seeing what our dad looked like and appreciate the resemblances.
Northcote Thomas made trips to our land and made recordings that now establish a link with our fore-parents. Thomas may be long gone, but his work lives on to unite peoples of lost identities and educate and inform our children of the kinds of lives their great grandparents lived.
Travelling in time
To see Northcote’s photographs of Nibo carries us back to the Nibo of my grandfather’s childhood. To hear voices, recorded on Northcote’s phonograph, chanting songs in a pure Nibo dialect, stirs up a deep nostalgic feeling. As my cousin, Chief Nnamdi Nnama (Ozo Owelle) put it: It is an uncommon feeling, like one has travelled back in time to truly discover who you really are. Looking at the pictures said so much to me, and also left so much unanswered.
While much has changed in Nibo since Northcote’s visit, there are still traces of that time. Although faded over time, still standing is our famous uno nko nko – built over the site where our founding ancestor, Anum Ogoli, who established our village Umuanum was laid to rest. Inside can still be found the huge ikolo drum, which was also photographed by Northcote in 1911. The sound of this great drum could be heard at a great distance and the ikolo was used to communicate with the villagers.
The large tree that Northcote photographed, was still to be seen in my youth, when we took the short cut along the dusty path back to our house. And the obu, or court house, that Nnama’s father – Chief Orjiakor Eleh – built around 1856 remains an important landmark. (Nnama was buried just behind it.) Long gone, however, were the richly decorated walls that once enclosed the Ngene shrine.
My dad always told me that when the British came to Nibo, they came with a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other. Chief’s Nnama’s son, my grandfather, Orji Nnama, chose the Bible. He converted to Christianity, taking on the Christian name Joshua, and eventually became a missionary. This must have dismayed his father, since Nnama was not only the king, he was also keeper of the local gods, the chief priest of the Ngene shrine (Ngene Ukwu Afa), the biggest shrine in Nibo.
Even though Chief Nnama was a traditionalist he was also pragmatic. When his missionary son, now known to everyone as Rev Joshua, approached his father for land to build what would become St Matthew’s Anglican Church, Nnama rose to the task by offering his prized land at the very centre of the town – the Eke market square. A remarkable edifice that still stands today.
Rev Joshua also later built his own personal church on Nnama family land, All Saints Anglican Church. When the church needed to expand, the Nnama family donated the land on which the Ngene shrine once stood, and which had long-since become overgrown with bushes, to be the site of the new All Saints Anglican Church. In the passage of over a hundred years since Northcote photographed it, different religious institutions, the old exchanged for new, and yet the site is still sacred.
Since that fateful day when his face appeared on my phone, I often think about Ezeike Nnama. What would he think about his many descendants scattered around the world? What would he think of his town of Nibo today, with a new church prevailing where his traditional shrine once stood? I wish I could tell him that, though his descendants now serve a Christian God, we all stand tall with great pride in our rich legacy, because we know from whom we came.
Ancestral reconnections foretold
Reflecting on the significance of these ancestral reconnections, I want to leave the last words to my cousin, Chief Chibueze Nnama (Ozo Orjiakor VI, Ozo Nnama V), the current Nnama clan family head, who eloquently states:
I was elated, excited, amazed and joyous when we were informed of the interviews, records and pictures of our great-grandfather Chief Nnama Orjiakor (also known as Ozo Orjiakor II, Ozo Nnama I, Ofulozo, Alukachaa ekwe). This was awesome because in line with the cultural oral tradition of our forefathers: we, my brothers and sisters, children of Chief Godwin Chukwuedozie Davidson Nnama (Ofulozo), the first son of Rev Joshua Orjiakor Nnama (Ogbuaku), as teenagers and undergraduates, would sit down with our grandfather at the Obu Nnama Orjiakor while he relayed our entire family history, culture, taboos, African tradition religion, the coming of the white man and conquering of the Igbo tribes of the Lower Niger, slave trade, notable judgements as Warrant Chief, words of wisdom of his father, Chief Nnama Orjiakor and grandfather, Chief Orjiakor Eleh, the Warrior King. We were repeatedly told that our great-grandfather, Chief Nnama Orjiakor, was interviewed and the records were stored in the archives somewhere in Britain.
As the family historian and cultural custodian, it is awesome and uplifting that the truth of the records, culture and heritage of our great-grandfather, Chief Nnama Orjiakor, as foretold and repeatedly emphasised by our grandfather, Rev Joshua Orjiakor Nnama Ogbuaku, has come to light in our lifetime.
Thank you very much, Uju, for sharing your family’s remarkable story with us!
The Awards ceremony took place on 12 November 2019 at the British Film Institute on London’s Southbank. It was wonderful seeing Faces|Voices projected on the huge screen of the National Film Theatre, and of course it was a great honour to win the top prize. Paul Basu received the prize alongside co-director Chris Allen of The Light Surgeons.
The award resulted in some great media covered for Voices|Faces and the broader [Re:]Entanglements project. Please explore some of the links below.
We would especially like to thank the participants in Faces|Voices – Ebony Francis, Robert Kelechi Isiodu, Kofi Mawuli Klu, Yvonne Mbanefo and Esther Stanford-Xose – whose eloquent commentaries on Northcote Thomas’s photographs made the film such a success.
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.
Faces|Voices was winner of the Best Research Film prize at the 2019 AHRC Research in Film Awards.
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!
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. During research in Nigeria for the [Re:]Entanglements project, we also discovered a further 16 albums of Northcote Thomas photographs at the Nigerian National Museum in Lagos, presumably those that had originally been deposited at the Colonial Secretariat.
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.