Experiments in language

Northcote Thomas experiments in language

Linguistic research formed an important part of Northcote Thomas‘ anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Prior to the early 20th century, most research into West African languages had been undertaken by Christian missionaries. In the context of the emerging colonial sciences, an understanding of local languages was not only useful in terms of communication with local populations, but it also served the project of mapping ‘tribal’ or ‘ethnic’ groups, their territories and their historical relation with one another.

The languages people speak and the tribal or ethnic group names they are given were often used interchangeably. In this respect, Thomas introduced a more nuanced distinction between language and ethnicity. The titles of his published reports therefore refer to the ‘Edo-speaking’ and ‘Igbo-speaking’ people of Southern Nigeria, rather than, for instance, ‘the Edo’ or ‘the Igbo’. Alas, this recognition that language and ethnicity are quite different entities was not reflected in the subtitle of his Sierra Leone report: ‘The Timne and Other Tribes’.

Northcote Thomas, Specimens of Languages from Southern Nigeria
Northcote Thomas’ own annotated copy of his Specimens of Languages from Southern Nigeria (1914). Cambridge University Library, Special Collections.

Collecting specimens of language

Methodologically, Thomas’s anthropological surveys in West Africa between 1909 and 1915 were defined by practices of collecting and documentation. Thus, he collected ‘specimens’ of language in much the same way as he collected ‘specimens’ of material culture or, indeed, specimens of local botanical species. The use of the term ‘specimen’ carries an implicit assertion about the ‘scientific’ status of the anthropological surveys and the knowledge they produced, with its connotations of objectivity, rigour and authority. (Qualities that can, of course, all be contested.)

Northcote Thomas linguistic tour, Edo dialects, ,1909-10
Pages from one of Northcote Thomas’s linguistic notebooks, comparing dialectical differences in Edo-speaking areas of Nigeria. SOAS Library, Special Collections. (Click image to enlarge.)

The process of collecting linguistic specimens included the compilation of word lists, phrases and stories. For this, Thomas enlisted the assistance of interpreters. Finding reliable interpreters was a considerable challenge and there is much correspondence on this issue in the Colonial Office archives, especially relating to Thomas’s initial tour as Government Anthropologist in 1909-10. We learn, for example, that Thomas regarded the first interpreter who had been assigned to him – a schoolteacher named Erumese – as ‘reckless and inaccurate’, while he was frustrated that his replacement – a Corporal Nimahan of the Police Force, who was ‘thoroughly competent’ – was obliged to return to his police duties after a period of four months.

Excerpt from Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part II: Linguistics, in which Thomas lists the names of the interpreters employed during his 1909-10 tour, including Erumese, Corporal Nimahan, Osidora, Ogbebo, James Smart, George, Oganna and Isuma.

Thomas named these interpreters and acknowledged the extent and importance of their contributions in his Edo report. Unfortunately, in his subsequent reports, individual assistants are not named, though there is no doubt that their contributions remained vital. The role of interpreters also went beyond providing linguistic assistance. In a letter sent in 1911, during his second tour in what was then Awka District, for instance, Thomas praised his ‘junior interpreter’, one Alfred Nwile, remarking that he has displayed ‘great intelligence and skill’ in collecting botanical specimens.

The actual ‘collecting’ of words, phrases and stories, whether by Thomas or his assistants, was done either through direct transcription into text or with the use of a wax cylinder phonograph recorder. In appendices to his Edo Report, Thomas provided guidance notes for colonial officials, including use of the phonograph in linguistic documentation, and advice regarding language transcription. He provided a list of 150 words and phrases for translation to allow for comparison across languages, as well as more detailed questions about language usage. These were effectively the same techniques that Thomas and his assistants used during the four anthropological surveys.

Northcote Thomas, linguistic notebook, Igbo dialects, 1910-13
Pages from one of Northcote Thomas’s linguistic notebooks, comparing differences in Igbo dialects. SOAS Library, Special Collections. (Click image to enlarge.)

Recordings and transcriptions

Thomas wrote up and published the results of the linguistic research from the surveys in various books and articles. These included volumes of his main anthropological reports dedicated to ‘linguistics’, ‘vocabularies’, ‘grammar’, ‘tones’ and ‘dictionaries’, as well as separate volumes entitled Specimens of Language from Southern Nigeria (1914) and Specimens of Language from Sierra Leone (1916), which comprise of pages of tables of words translated into different local languages and dialects. These works were distributed to members of the colonial service, as well as to university libraries. How many people actually read them at the time is unknown – one suspects not many!

Northcote Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples, Proverbs, Narratives, Vocabularies and Grammar
Pages from Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part III (1913), illustrating Thomas’s method of phonetic transcription and comparing dialect differences between Onitsha, Awka and Bende Igbo. (Click image to enlarge.)

Duplicates of the wax cylinder sound recordings were also made available at the Horniman Museum in South London and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford for scholarly consultation. Again, these seem to have been little used. The recordings have now been digitized by the British Library and we have been working with these throughout the [Re:]Entanglements project. In particular, we have been taking the recordings back to the communities in which they were recorded over 110 years ago, and it has been wonderful to witness as people listen to the voices of their ancestors and reconnect with this aural heritage.

In many cases, Thomas published transcriptions of the audio recordings, and it is fascinating to reunite these sounds and texts.

Experimenting with tones

Edo, Igbo and Temne are all tonal languages, in which lexical or grammatical meaning is altered by the pitch contour in which words are spoken. Thomas’s anthropological surveys took place at a time when the science of phonetics was becoming established in universities in Europe. Thomas was a friend of the phonetician Daniel Jones, who ran the Experimental Phonetics Laboratory at University College London. Jones had developed a method for determining what he termed phonetic ‘intonation curves‘ using phonograph cylinder recordings. Jones and Thomas worked together applying this technique to document the tonal changes in the specimens of Igbo speech that Thomas and his assistants had recorded during his 1910-11 and 1912-13 tours. According to Jones’ biographers, Beverly Collins and Inger Mees (1999), this was a pioneering piece of research on tone languages.

Daniel Jones, experimental phonetics, UCL, 1918
Daniel Jones demonstrating the use of the kymograph, an instrument for recording air pressure variations during speech. Experimental Phonetics Laboratory, University College London.

Thomas wrote up the experiment in Part VI of his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, providing transcriptions with musical annotations for some of the recordings they worked with. The specimens of Igbo language they worked with include such memorable expressions as ‘Does the goat frighten the dancer?’, ‘He took an egg, cried for a cloth, passed the bridge’ and ‘He put his foot on her waist and caused a big palaver’!

Northcote Thomas, Tones in Ibo, 1914
Top: Pages from Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part VI (1914), providing a tonal transcription of phrases recorded in Awka Igbo dialect. (Click image to enlarge.) Bottom: The original wax cylinder recording from which the transcription was made, NWT 505 ‘Spoken sentences in Igbo’, recorded 1911 (British Library C51/2785). Thomas’s voice can be heard between the Igbo phrases giving the translation in English.
Top: Pages an article entitled ‘Some Notes on the Tones of the Ibo Language of Nigeria‘ (originally published in 1914), providing a tonal transcription of vowel sounds recorded in the Asaba Igbo dialect. (Click image to enlarge.) Bottom: The original wax cylinder recording from which the transcription was made, NWT 627a ‘Asaba vowel sounds’, recorded 1913 (British Library C51/2975). After Thomas’ introductory ‘ident’, the voice pronouncing the words is probably that of one of Thomas’ assistants, who also provides the English translations.

Orthographic debates

In his guidance for colonial officers, Thomas wrote that ‘For the collection of Vocabularies or native texts, two things are essential, one is, a certain amount of training of the ear, the other is an adequate system of transcription’. With regard to this system of transcription, he added, ‘the cardinal principles are, that each sound should have a sign peculiar to itself and that each sign should represent one and only one sound’.

At the time of Thomas’s surveys, there were a number of competing phonetic alphabets in use. Thomas used a system based on modifications to Latin script through diacritical marks. This was based on a Standard Alphabet devised by Karl Richard Lepsius for ‘reducing unwritten languages and foreign graphic systems to a uniform orthography in European letters’, published in the 1860s and recommended for adoption by the Church Missionary Society.

Northcote Thomas linguistic orthography and diacritical marks
Excerpts from Appendix A of Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part I (1910), setting out the orthographic system that he uses for different speech sounds. Thomas explained in some detail how it should be used and modified. (Click image to enlarge.)

In a review of Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone published in the Times Literary Supplement published in 1916, the reviewer criticized Thomas’s use of ‘inverted vowels and coined accents’, which he found confusing and wondered if there were not a more simple system. This provoked a lengthy exchange in the letters pages of the TLS that lasted seven months, in which numerous authorities debated various issues concerning phonetic spelling.

In Nigeria, the Lepsius system was superseded, first, by the adoption of a ‘Practical Orthography of African Languages’, developed by the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures in the 1920s, and, subsequently – in the case of Igbo – by the Ọnwụ system in the 1960s. The Ọnwụ system consists of 28 consonants and 8 vowel sounds.

The Ọnwụ system of orthography widely used in Nigeria today, with equivalent sounds as represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet in square brackets.

N. W. Thomas, linguist?

As may be discerned in the discussion above, Thomas was as much a linguist as he was an anthropologist. In 1914, while he was working in Sierra Leone, he was asked to advise on the introduction of linguistics in the training of new Colonial Service staff. Candidates who passed the examination were entitled to salary supplement. In the National Archives in Sierra Leone we discovered a draft paper Thomas had prepared entitled ‘Elementary Sketch of Phonetics’, which was evidently intended as a introductory text for teaching purposes.

Northcote Thomas Elementary Sketch of Phonetics
Handwritten manuscript of Thomas’s ‘Elementary Sketch of Phonetics’ in a correspondence file concerned with language training for officers in the Colonial Service, probably drafted in 1914. The manuscript includes annotated excerpts from proofs of Daniel Jones’ An Outline of English Phonetics (1918). Sierra Leone National Archives. (Click image to enlarge.)

In the event, it appears that this text was not adopted, and George Noel-Armfield’s book, General Phonetics for Missionaries and Students of Languages (1915) was used alongside reprints of the linguistic appendix to Thomas’s earlier Edo report. The latter was used as a guide for candidates who were expected to collect specimens of language from the colonial territories in which they served.

Thomas’s career as a government anthropologist came to an abrupt end in 1915 at end of his Sierra Leonean tour. He did, however, continue to write articles on linguistic themes, including a broader survey of what were then called ‘Sudanic languages‘ (languages of the Sahel belt) published in the Bulletin of the newly established School of Oriental Studies in 1920, and an attempt at reconstructing historical population movements through linguistic analysis in a paper entitled ‘Who were the Manes?‘ published the same year in the Journal of the Royal African Society.

Thomas also taught African languages, as an occasional lecturer at the Imperial Institute in London’s South Kensington, as part of the Tropical African Services Course. Candidates were evidently required to collect and transcribe language samples, as evidenced in a letter we discovered from Llewellyn Travers Chubb, sent to Thomas in 1925 from Bende in present-day Abia State.

Travers Chubb letter to Northcote Thomas regarding Tropical African Service course, 1925
Letter from Llewellyn Travers Chubb to Northcote Thomas, 21 February 1925, from Bende, Owerri Province, referring to Thomas’s teaching on the Tropical African Services Course in the autumn of 1924, and enclosing his word list assignment. (Click image to enlarge.)

Nothing of significance?

What are we to make of all this endeavour today? More recent linguists have been quick to dismiss the value of Thomas’s work. Betram Okolo, a linguist based at the University of Benin, Nigeria, argues that ‘nothing of significance’ was written on Igbo linguistics between 1890 and 1930, and describes Thomas’ efforts as ‘grossly inadequate’ and ‘misleading’. However, his remark that Thomas’ work ‘represents one of the most idle performances offered to the public on the Igbo language’ seems somewhat unfair. Indeed, it seems Okolo was not aware that the records on which Thomas conducted his tonal experiments were also recorded by him and his assistants over six years of fieldwork using primitive equipment in challenging conditions, or just how pioneering were his attempts with Daniel Jones at documenting tonal languages using ‘scientific’ methods.

Excerpt from Betram Okolo article, The History of NIgerian Linguistics
Excerpt from Betram Okolo’s article ‘The History of Nigerian Linguistics: A Preliminary Survey‘, published in 1981, in which he dismisses Thomas’s linguistic research, perhaps without fully appreciating its vast scope or pioneering nature.

While we might contest the assertion that Thomas’s linguistic work was an ‘idle performance’, its entanglement in the colonial project cannot, of course, be denied. Joseph Errington argues that ‘Colonial linguistics needs to be framed … as a nexus of technology (literacy), reason, and faith and as a project of multiple conversion: of pagan to Christian, of speech to writing, and of the alien to the comprehensible’ (Errington 2001: 21).

Furthermore, as Judith Irvine has recently noted, ‘These early projects contributed to the shape of African linguistics as we inherit it today, and – as part of the colonial enterprise – they had effects on the lives of the African languages’ speakers’ (Irvine 2008: 324). This is perhaps most evident in the use of (modified) European scripts to render many of Nigeria’s and Sierra Leone’s languages, and in the use of English as their national languages, such that younger people especially are turning away from their local languages.

Revisiting Thomas’s linguistic research

As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we have been collaborating with colleagues in the Department of Linguistics and Nigerian Languages at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In a future article, linguists Gloria Tochukwu Okeke and Ogechukwu Miracle Uzoagba will report on their experimental research on dialect change, comparing Northcote Thomas’s historical sound recordings with recreations of the same texts by present-day speakers of the same dialect. Their fascinating work suggests that the value of Thomas’s recordings may lie in the future rather than in the past.

Dr Gloria Okeke of the Department of Linguistics and Nigerian Languages, University of Nigeria, introduces her work exploring sound changes in the Awka Igbo dialect using Northcote Thomas’s historical sound recordings.

Selected references

  • Collins, B. and I. M. Mees (1999) The Real Professor Higgins: The Life and Career of Daniel Jones. Berlin & New York.
  • Errington, J. (2001) ‘Colonial Linguistics’, Annual Review of Anthropology 30: 19-39.
  • Irvine, J. T. (2008) ‘Subjected Words: African Linguistics and the Colonial Encounter’, Language & Communication 28: 323-343.
  • Okolo, B. A. (1981) ‘The History of Nigerian Linguistics: A Preliminary Survey’, Kansas Working Papers in Linguistics 6: 99-125.

[Re:]Entangled Traditions exhibition, Nsukka

Re-entangled Traditions exhibition, University of Nigeria, Nsukka
‘Red cap chiefs’ appreciating Chijioke Onuora’s large scale batik portrait of Ezeana Odigbo.

For 10 days in February 2020, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka hosted the third [Re:]Entanglements project exhibition to take place in Nigeria. The exhibition, ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions: Nsukka Experiments with an Anthropological Archive’, was the culmination of a collaboration between the project and eleven artists associated with the famous ‘Nsukka Art School‘, as well as colleagues from the departments of Music and Linguistics.

Nsukka’s Department of Fine and Applied Arts was established in 1961 by Ben Enwonwu and was one of the earliest departments of the University of Nigeria. The Department became famous in the years following the Biafran War (1967-70) when luminaries such as Uche Okeke, Chike Aniakor and Obiora Udechukwu began turning away from Western art traditions and finding inspiration in indigenous art, culture and philosophy. In particular a number of artists began rediscovering and experimenting with Igbo uli body and wall art traditions. Northcote Thomas‘s photographs are some of the earliest and most comprehensive visual documentations of uli wall paintings. This represents an important new reservoir of traditional uli work and, not surprisingly, a number of the participating artists drew upon these photographs in their contemporary works in different media.

Re-entangled Traditions exhibition, University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Visitors at the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

As with earlier exhibitions in Benin City and Lagos, the objective of the collaboration was to explore the ‘creative affordances‘ of the photographs, sound recordings and artefact collections produced during Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys in Nigeria between 1909 and 1913. As the leading university in the Igbo-speaking region of Nigeria, the Nsukka collaboration focused on materials assembled by Thomas during his second and third tours – those focusing on areas of what are now Anambra and Delta states.

The collaboration began in 2018 with an open workshop to introduce prospective participants to the [Re:]Entanglements project and Thomas’s archival materials. Following a call to submit proposals, projects were given the go-ahead and provided with a budget to cover materials and expenses. A follow-up workshop took place in 2019 in which participants presented their works-in-progress.

The exhibition was opened by HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu, the Omu Anioma, a well known female chief from Delta State. The Omu has been a close friend of the [Re:]Entanglements project since our visit to Okpanam. In a very moving speech Obi Martha Dunkwu told the story of how Northcote Thomas’s 1912 photograph of the Omu of Okpanam settled a dispute in which the Omu’s right to wear the red cap of chiefly office had been contested. The story illustrated powerfully how these colonial era archives could intervene in contemporary issues. The Omu explained that this was no small matter.

Re-entangled Traditions exhibition, University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Scenes from the opening event with special guest HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu, the Omu Anioma.

There was a lively and well-attended opening ceremony in which each of the artists presented their work to the Omu and her entourage. The event was accompanied by a traditional music ensemble made up of students of the Department of Music under the direction of Ikenna Onwuegbuna, Head of the Department of Music. The music included versions of songs originally recorded by Northcote Thomas himself.

Re-entangled Traditions exhibition, University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Artist Chinyere Odinukwe introducing her work to HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu and other guests at the exhibition opening.

In ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’, each of the artists took on a particular Igbo cultural ‘tradition’ – uli body and wall painting, ichi scarification, hair-styles, clothing, wrestling – that featured in Northcote Thomas’s photographic archive. These visual references formed the basis of their experiments. In the following sections we present each of the participating artists’ works juxtaposed with some of the Northcote Thomas photographs that inspired them. The musicological and linguistic contributions to the exhibition are the subject of separate blog posts (see Revisiting some Awka folksongs).

Chijioke Onuora, Ezeana Obidigbo

Chijioke Onuora, Ezeana Obidigbo
Chijioke Onuora, Ezeana Obidigbo, 2019, batik, 396x207cm
Chijioke Onuora, Ezeana Obidigbo - Northcote Thomas reference
Listen to Chijioke Onuora discussing his training at the ‘Nsukka Art School’, his contribution to the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition and the significance of the N. W. Thomas archives.

Chijioke Onuora is Head of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He initially trained at Nsukka as a sculptor in the early 1980s and was taught and influenced by many of the leading figures of the ‘Nsukka School’. Through this training he came to appreciate the traditional Igbo art that was fast disappearing in his village in the Awka area and made studies of shrine carvings. For his PhD in Art History, Onuora made an extensive study of ikolo drums, including their sculptural, musical and socio-cultural dimensions.

Onuora works across many different media, though he regards drawing – the line – as fundamental to all these. For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ collaboration, he was particularly interested in re-engaging with Igbo ichi scarification, with its linear markings. As a child, Onuora encountered men – and, indeed, one woman – bearing these marks. Now he believes there is just one elderly man in his village who has still has the marks.

When he was introduced to the Northcote Thomas archives as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, he was struck by the large number of photographs of men of all ages with ichi scarification. This has inspired him to focus on ichi in his ongoing work.

Onuora produced two monumental batik works for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition. The first is a portrait of Ezeana Obidigbo of Neni, originally photographed by Thomas in 1911. Onuora’s village was close to Neni and his grandparents walked every week to the Oye market there – the scene of some of Thomas’s most memorable photographs. The Umudioka community of Neni were specialist surgeons who travelled throughout the region making the ichi marks.

Chijioke Onuora, Nze na Nwunye ya
Chijioke Onuora, Nze na Nwunye ya, 2019, batik, 376x220cm.

Onuora’s second batik, ‘Nze na Nwunye ya’, is based on a photograph taken by Thomas in Agulu of a mud relief sculpture of a male and female figure, and marks a return to Onuora’s earlier work on shrine figures. The male figure again wears the ichi scarification marks. In both ‘Ezeana Obidigbo’ and ‘Nze na Nwunye ya’, the central panel is flanked by two panels evoking traditional wood carving – symbols of prestige and status – also photographed by Thomas during his 1910-11 survey of what was then Awka District.

Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi, Playing with Time and Memory

Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi, Playing with Time and Memory
Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi, Playing with Time and Memory, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 4x 101x101cm.
Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi, Playing with Time and Memory - Northcote Thomas references
Listen to Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi discussing the history of uli at the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, including his own engagement with the uli tradition.

Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi is a painter and Associate Professor in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at Nsukka. He joined the Department as an undergraduate in 1987 and, like many students of his generation, was influenced by Uche Okeke and others who had rediscovered the uli painting tradition as a demonstration of Igbo cultural resilience, first as an indigenous response to European colonialism and subsequently in the wake of the traumatic defeat of the Nigerian Civil War. Ikwuemesi was encouraged to continue the work Okeke’s generation had begun and to conduct research with the last generation of women who created uli wall paintings in the traditional setting of the village.

Although much of Ikwuemesi’s work is more overt in its political engagement, providing commentary on the violence and corruption of contemporary Nigeria, alongside this, he continues to draw upon uli explicitly in his paintings. This he sees as a form of cultural activism. In particular, Ikwuemesi is keen to promote the popularisation of uli design, so that it reaches beyond elite art audiences and collectors, and returns as a popular form.

For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Ikwuemesi drew upon Northcote Thomas’s photographs of uli wall paintings, merging motifs and linear forms from different locations, to produce a series of four acrylic paintings on canvas. The title of the series, ‘Playing with Time and Memory’, reflects both the long history of uli painting among Igbo-speaking people and his own part in that history.

Exploring Thomas’s photographs of uli wall painting, Ikwuemesi was struck by the continuities and changes in the art form. Despite the ruptures of colonialism and war, he celebrates the resilience of cultural traditions, how people continue ‘to do old things in new ways’. ‘Colonialisation’, he argues, ‘did not take away the soul of the people or the soul of their culture’.

RitaDoris Edumchieke Ubah, Igbo Kwenu

RitaDoris Ubah, Igbo Kwenu
RitaDoris Edumchieke Ubah, Igbo Kwenu, 2019, appliqué, 305x144cm.
RitaDoris Ubah, IgboKwenu - Northcote Thomas references
Listen to RitaDoris Edumchieke Ubah discussing her translation of uli mural designs into textile art and her incorporation of N. W. Thomas archives into her teaching.

RitaDoris Ubah is a Lecturer in Textile Art. She completed her BA, MFA and PhD all at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Ubah’s aunt was herself a traditional uli artist. When Ubah started teaching at Nsukka, she realised that while uli traditions had been incorporated into other forms of contemporary art practice, including painting, ceramics and other graphic arts, they had not been explored in textiles. Thus Ubah was keen to bring uli into the curriculum, whether through weaving, embroidery, knitting or appliqué.

Ubah was particularly excited to discover the rich historical documentation of uli in Northcote Thomas’s photographs. As well as inspiring her own work, she has introduced her students to the archive and it now the subject of various class assignments. She describes the photographs as a ‘landmark resource’ and explains that every student passing through Nsukka is taught about it.

RitaDoris Ubah, Oje Mba Enwe Ilo
Some of RitaDoris Edumchieke Ubah’s fashion collection inspired by N. W. Thomas’s documentation of traditional uli designs.

For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Ubah produced several works, including a large appliqué panel entitled ‘Igbo Kwenu’, a second appliqué of a masquerade figure photographed by Thomas, and fashion collection featuring uli motifs from Thomas’s photographs. Ubah is particularly interested in the history of uli as a women’s art form, originally painted on the body. (The word uli comes from the plant from which the dye is made.) Ubah’s fashion collection, which was worn by models at the exhibition opening, represents an interesting return of uli to ‘clothing’ the body.

Chinyere Odinukwe, Akwamkosa Achalugonwayi

Chinyere Odinukwe, Akwamkosa Achalugonwayi
Chinyere Odinukwe, Akwamkosa Achalugonwayi, 2019, oil on canvas, 2x 61x76cm.
Chinyere Odinukwe, Akwamkosa Achalugonwayi - Northcote Thomas references
Listen to Chinyere Odinukwe discussing her work for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition.

Chinyere Odinukwe took her BA and MA in the Department of Fine and Applied Art, Nsukka. She works mainly with acrylic paint on canvas, but also incorporates other materials in her work, notably salvaged plastics and metal foils.

For her [Re:]Entanglements project, Odinukwe wanted to juxtapose the historical and the contemporary by transforming the appearance of a woman named Nwambeke, photographed by Thomas in Nibo in 1911. (Odinukwe’s maternal home town is Nibo.) In order to do this, Odinukwe subtly altered the Nwambeke’s dress and jewellery – adding earrings, make-up and bra-top, for instance. In particular, she transformed her wrapper from a locally-made plain cotton garment (akwamkosa) into a dazzling contemporary fabric.

Odinukwe replaces Thomas’s plain photographic backdrop with a background inspired by one of Thomas’s photographs of uli wall painting.

Chinyere Odinukwe, Ulomdi
Chinyere Odinukwe, Ulomdi, 2019, oil on canvas, 76x61cm.

In re-imagining Nwambeke as a modern Nigerian woman, albeit one framed by her indigenous culture, Odinukwe draws attention to the transformed place of women in Nigerian society today. Odinukwe says that she has given this woman her freedom. She observes that, even today, some people are enslaved in their different ways of life, whether religiously, politically or pyschologically. Odinukwe argues that we should not be chained by our traditions.

Chikaogwu Kanu, Isi Mgbe Ochie

Chika Kanu, Isi Mgbe Ochie
Chikaogwu Kanu, Isi Mgbe Ochie, 2019, photography, 178x114cm.
Chika Kanu, Isi Mgbe Ochie - Northcote Thomas references

Chikaowu Kanu trained at Nsukka as a sculptor. He is now pursuing a PhD in Art History, while continuing to develop his skills as a photographer, videographer and graphic designer. Familiar with the Nsukka School’s long-standing engagement with traditional uli art, Kanu was impressed by another form of body art that was very evident in Northcote Thomas’s photographs – hair dressing.

In his project for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Kanu sought to recreate some of the hairstyles that Thomas photographed. This proved to be a challenging task. It was not easy, for example, to find models willing to have their hair dressed in such remarkable styles. Others – barbers and models alike – assumed that Kanu would make lots of money from the photographs he was taking and thus demanded high fees that Kanu could not pay. Eventually, however, Kanu succeeded in collaborating with barbers and models, and displayed the results as a photo-montage in the exhibition. Kanu’s display drew a great deal of interest from visitors.

Ngozi Omeje, Eriri ji obele

Ngozi Omeye, The String That Holds the Pot
Ngozi Omeje, Eriri ji obele, 2020, clay, nylon thread, steel.
Ngozi Omeye, The String That Holds the Pot - Northcote Thomas references
Listen to Ngozi Omeje discussing her work for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition.

There is a long tradition in ceramics and installation art at the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at University of Nigeria, Nsukka, associated with artists such as El Anatsui and Ozioma Onuzulike. Ngozi Omeje is foremost in the younger generation of ceramicists at Nsukka. In 2018, when the [Re:]Entanglements project collaboration with Nsukka began, she was in the middle of producing work for her highly successful exhibition, ‘Connecting Deep’, at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos.

Omeje creates sculptures by suspending small clay pieces – miniature cups, leaves, rings, balls, etc. – on nylon threads. Often her works are of monumental proportions. For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Omeje echoed the form of an elaborated decorated clay pot photographed by Northcote Thomas by suspending miniature leaves made from clay. On the one hand, her use of leaves fashioned from clay allowed her to follow the form of the linear patterns on the pot; on the other hand they are expressive of the temporality of the archive – the play of ephemerality and permanence.

The title of Omeje’s piece, Eriri ji obele, refers to an Igbo aphorism – ‘the string that holds the pot’ (or, more correctly, ‘the string that holds the calabash’). Our lives are in God’s hands.

Chukwunonso Uzoagba, Ogu Mnwere Onwe

Chukwunonso Uzoagba, Ogu Mnwere Onwe
Chukwunonso Uzoagba, Ogu Mnwere Onwe (Struggle for Freedom), 2019, acrylic on canvas, 130x97cm.
Chukwunonso Uzoagba, Ogu Mnwere Onwe - Northcote Thomas references
Listen to Chukwunonso Uzoagba discussing his work for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition.

Chukwunonso Uzoagba in a Lecturer in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at Nsukka, specialising in graphics and art education. He has a particular research interest in Igbo rites of passage and ritual practice – aspects of traditional life that were thoroughly documented by Northcote Thomas.

When Uzoagba encountered the Northcote Thomas archives as part of the [Re:]Entanglements workshop at Nsukka, he was immediately drawn to Thomas’s photographs of wrestling matches. Wrestling was very much a traditional art form and part of festivals marking coming of age ceremonies. Combining various elements from different photographs, including a portrait of Thomas himself, Uzoagba wanted to use the wrestling match as a metaphor for the struggle of Igbo people with the forces of colonialism. The title ‘Ogo Mnwere Onwe’ translates into English as the ‘Struggle for Freedom’.

Chukwuemeka Nwigwe, Nibo Lady Fashionista, The Last Sacrifice, Eze Nri

Chukwuemeka Nwigwe, Nibo Lady Fashionista, The Last Sacrifice and Eze Nri
Chukwuemeka Nwigwe, left to right: Nibo Lady Fashionista, 2019, 87x117cm; The Last Sacrifice, 2019, 95x171cm; Eze Nri, 2019, 93x120cm; all poly material, wire gauze and acrylic.
Chukwuemeka Nwigwe, Nibo Lady Fashionista, The Last Sacrifice and Eze Nri - Northcote Thomas references
Listen to Chukwuemeka Nwigwe discussing his work for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition.

Chukwuemeka Nwigwe teaches art history, textiles and fashion at Nsukka. He has a particular interest in the history of Igbo dress and had already drawn upon the work of Northcote Thomas and other colonial-era publications in his PhD research. While Nwigwe made use of the small selection of photographs published in Thomas’s Anthropological Report of the Igbo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, through the [Re:]Entanglements project he was able to access a vast archive of thousands of images relevant to his research. He was able to utilise these in a recent postdoctoral fellowship.

For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Nwigwe produced three mixed media works, experimenting with weaving techniques inspired by the nest-building techniques of the village weaverbird to create silhouetted figures of characters from the Thomas archive. He used silhouettes to reflect the mystery surrounding these characters, which can only be seen imperfectly in Thomas’s monochrome images.

The backgrounds of each panel are made from discarded poly materials – especially brightly-coloured polythene strips used to wrap motorbike tyres. Nwigwe explains how he collected these from roadside mechanics’ shops.

Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko, The Beauty Within

Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko, The Beauty Within
Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko, The Beauty Within, 2019, tapestry weaving, embroidery, 3x 150x61cm.
Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko, The Beauty Within - Northcote Thomas references

Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko graduated from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 2018 just before the collaboration with the [Re:]Entanglements project began. She specialises in textile design. As part of her undergraduate studies, she conducted research with traditional Igbo weavers in Delta State.

When Okpoko started exploring the Northcote Thomas archives after the initial [Re:]Entanglements collaboration workshop, she was excited to see photographs of uli murals from her hometown, Agulu, in Anambra State. She chose to feature one of these in her work for the exhibition.

Her piece, entitled The Beauty Within, comprises three large panels, each reproducing the uli mural using different textile materials and techniques. The first uses tapestry weaving using a limited palette of earth colours, similar to the colours that are likely to have been used in the original wall paintings. The second panel has a tiled form, in which vibrant colours are used in the tapestry woven squares, juxtaposed with the earth colours in the other sections. The third panel is mixed media using tapestry weaving and embroidery techniques to recreate the mural in bright contemporary colours.

Ugonna Umeike, Renewal

Ugonna Umeike, Renewal
Ugonna Umeike, Renewal, 2019, digital painting.
Ugonna Umeike, Renewal - Northcote Thomas reference

Ugonna Umeike majored in sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, but he has a wide range of interests including illustration, painting and digital art. Umeike was particularly interested in Northcote Thomas’s artefact collections and field photographs of traditional material culture. These he brought to life in a series of digital illustrations that were exhibited in the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ show.

Umeike also exhibited an illustration of one of the stories that Northcote Thomas recorded and transcribed – ‘The Blind Man, the Cripple, the Poor Man, the Thief and the King’ – which will be the subject of a separate blog post. Finally. he is working on a comic strip of another story recorded by Thomas.

Ugonna Umeike, Open;y covered
Left: Ugonna Umeike, Openly Covered, 2019, digital painting; right: charm collected by N. W. Thomas, used to keep owner from getting wet when raining.

Livinus Kenechi Ngwu, Mask with ichi

Livinus Kenechi Ngwu, Mask with ichi
Left: mask featuring ichi scarifications collected by N. W. Thomas in Ugwoba; right: Livinus Kenechi Ngwu holding his freshly carved response to the mask in the N. W. Thomas collection.

Livinus Kenechi Ngwu is a Lecturer in Sculpture at Nsukka. He works in various materials. For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition Ngwu carved a wooden mask using traditional tools and techniques inspired by one of the masks collected by Northcote Thomas in 1911.

The original mask, which was collected in Ugwoba in present-day Anambra State, is described by Thomas as ‘isi maun apipi’. On its forehead are representations of the ichi scarification marks.


‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions: Nsukka Experiments with an Anthropological Archive’ was curated by George Agbo and Paul Basu. We would like to thank all the artists who participated in the collaboration. Especial thanks to Chijioke Onuora and Krydz Ikwuemesi for championing the project within the Department of Fine and Applied Arts; to Chika Kanu for designing the exhibition catalogue; to Glory Onwuasoanya Kanu for coordinating catering at the exhibition launch; to HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu for travelling from Okpanam to open the exhibition; to Emmanuel Ifoegbuike for his invaluable assistance; and to Charles Igwe, Vice Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka for supporting the initiative.

See also the following posts on other contributors to the exhibition:

  • Samson Uchenna Eze
  • Ikenna Onwuegbuna (coming soon!)
  • Gloria Okeke and Ogechukwu Miracle Uzoagba (coming soon!)

Revisiting some Awka folksongs, guest blog by Samson Uchenna Eze

Rerecording folksongs originally recorded by Northcote Thomas in 1910-11
Performers recreating folksongs originally recorded by Northcote Thomas in Awka in 1910-11. Photograph by George Agbo.

Northcote Thomas recorded hundreds of folksongs, stories and proverbs during his anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone at the beginning of the twentieth century. These were recorded through a sound horn, diaphragm and needle onto wax cylinders using a phonograph. This technology has long been obsolete and it is only now, through digitization, that we have been able to begin exploring the ‘sound heritage’ that has been locked away in these fragile cylinders. The British Library holds Thomas’s original recordings and, having undertaken the painstaking work of digitization, has made them available to the [Re:]Entanglements project to experiment with.

Even once they are digitized, Thomas’s sound recordings are not easy to work with – the recordings are often faint, the noise levels high. Just as challenging are the linguistic changes that have taken place over the past 100 years. In Nigeria, for example, Standard Igbo has replaced the local dialects that Thomas recorded in many areas. It has, however, been especially rewarding collaborating with local experts, who have been helping us to explore this rich archive and its contemporary affordances.

Samson Uchenna Eze, for instance, is a lecturer in the Department of Music at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He has been working on a number of folksongs recorded by Thomas in Awka in 1910-11. In this guest blog, he describes the process of transcribing and re-recording three of these songs with local performers. Eze was even inspired to compose a contemporary choral piece based on one of Thomas’s recordings – NWT 417, Igbo bu Igbo – and has made his score available here. Eze’s account is interesting for many reasons, not least in highlighting the amount time and effort required to fully engage with these historical recordings. His closing reflections on the significance of Thomas’s recordings as well as the challenges of conducting research on them in contemporary Nigeria are profound.

Samson Uchenna Eze, Lecturer in the Music Department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Samson Uchenna Eze at work on the Northcote Thomas sound recordings. Researchers such as Eze have to make do with the very limited resources available at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Photograph by George Agbo.

I am Samson Uchenna Eze, a lecturer in the Department of Music, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and an alumnus of the same institution. I hold a Diploma in Music Education, a BA in Music and MA in Music Performance. My participation in the transcription and re-recording of some of Northcote Thomas’s recordings was born out of a passion for music archaeology and ethnomusicology.

I was introduced to the [Re:]Entanglements project by Prof. Paul Basu during a workshop he organized at the University of Nigeria in 2018. Following the workshop, I presented a proposal to work on some Igbo folksongs recorded by Northcote Thomas in Awka, Southern Nigeria, in 1910-11.

Having selected three recordings, for which I could hear and understand most of the lyrics, I invited a group of indigenes of Awka to work on these tracks with me. They were Goodness Okwuchuckwu, Kosisochukwu Sandra Adigwe, Confidence Kosisochi Ndụdinanti, Agatha Oby Mba and Mmesoma Dilichukwu Emekwisia. Together we set about listening, transcribing, rehearsing and exploring the meanings of the songs. Due to the poor sound quality, I used audio editing software to amplify the voices and reduce noise on the historical recordings, making it possible for everyone to hear the playback well.

Samson Uchenna Eze
Indigenous performers from Awka are introduced to the historical folksong recordings.

I spent time in Awka, enlisting the help of others in understanding the meaning of the lyrics and other details of the songs. At Ọkpụnọ Awka, I met two elderly men and an old woman. After listening to the songs they directed me to Ụmụdịọka where they believed the songs were recorded. When I got to Ụmụdịọka, I met three elderly men at Ụmụ Udeke Ndị Ichie Hall who confirmed that the voices have the intonation of the Ụmụdịọka people. They identified the songs as Egwu Ọnwa – ‘moonlight songs’; songs performed as part of communal music-making activities during the evening and accompanied by dancing. They explained that the word Odumodu, which features in one of the songs means ‘leopard’, and that ana bụ ana, which features in another, means ‘all communities’. These elders preferred to remain anonymous.

Rehearsals for new recordings of folksongs originally recorded by Northcote Thomas in 1910-11
Rehearsal at Nsukka. Having transcribed and listened to the original recordings, Eze’s research participants recreate the songs.

Meanwhile the five performers and I met several times to recreate and rehearse the songs. Each of the rehearsals was very fruitful because it helped us to understand these ancient recordings more. In June 2019, with the assistance of George Agbo, we video recorded performances of each of the tracks. We recorded each twice: firstly, with one or two voices as can be heard on the original recordings; secondly, as a rendition of mixed structural ensemble. The major difference when one compares the new recordings with Thomas’s originals is the sense of regular rhythm and tonality in the new work. Percussive instruments – an Udu (pot drum) and Ichaka (gourd shaker) – were added to make the music danceable.

Igbo bụ Igbo (Great Igbo)

Northcote Thomas Record No.417 (British Library: C51/2277), recorded in Awka on December 16, 1910.

Northcote Thomas’s original recording of Igbo bu Igbo. Recorded in Awka, December 16, 1910. (NWT 417; BL C51/2277)

Lyrics in Igbo
Igbo bụ Igbo bịa nụlụ ife eziokwu, hm eziokwu
Ana bụ ana bịa ifve eziokwu, hm eziokwu
Ogbe m dị n’Enugu Omekome bịa nụlụ ifve eziokwu, hm eziokwu
Enugu Omekome, unu ana-eme nma, eziokwu
Igbo bụ Igbo bịa nụlụ ifve eziokwu, hm eziokwu

Lyrics in English
Great Igbo (all Igbo), come and hear the truth
All lands, come and hear the truth
Enugu people, my great neighbours, come and hear the truth
Enugu people, you keep on doing good, the truth
Great Igbo (all Igbo), come and hear the truth

In this song the female singer repeats the phrase several times and improvises in the internal variation section, calling on neighbouring villages to come and hear the truth. The song begins on F pentatonic mode that maintains compound duple time. It is a song of admonition that calls on the Igbo-speaking peoples to stick to the truth. It is a moonlight song.

Recreation of Igbo bu Igbo led by Confidence Kosisochukwu Ndudinanti, June 2019. Video recorded by George Agbo.

With the incursion of colonial power in the early twentieth century, the identity of the Igbo nation was lost, and the repercussions of this are felt to this day. This song issues a maternal call for all Igbo to return to our truthful ways. The message in this song inspired me to compose a short four-part vocal piece. I included a few additional words to support the call for sticking to the truth, but they remain minor features to the central theme. I thought of the message and its possible acceptance as a choral piece for social gatherings within Igboland and beyond. You are welcome to download the score (pdf). It can be performed by any choral group that wishes to do so.

Nwa mgbọtọ (The Young Woman)

Northcote Thomas Record No.405 (British Library: C51/2625), recorded in Awka on December 12, 1910.

Northcote Thomas’s original recording of Nwa Mgboto. Recorded in Awka, December 12, 1910. (NWT 405; BL C51/2625)

Lyrics in Igbo
Nwa mgbọtọ eme m na m amarọ ihe
Nwa mgbọtọ eme m na m amarọ ihe
Nwa mgboto oo oo, Nwa mgboto oo oo
Nwa mgbọtọ eme m na m amarọ ihe
Nwa mgboto oo oo, Nwa mgboto oo oo
Nwa mgbọtọ eme m na m amarọ ihe
Nwa mgboto akpagbuo m na nganga
Nwa mgbọtọ eme m na m amarọ ihe
Nwa mgboto akpagbuo m na nganga
Nwa mgboto akpagbuo m na nganga
Nwa mgboto akpagbuo m na nganga
Nwa mgbọtọ eme m na m amarọ ihe
Nwa mgboto oo oo, Nwa mgboto oo oo
Iyooo Iyo, Iyooo Iyo
Iyooo Iyo, nwanyi ogbirigbi I ga taa gba kwa?
Iyooo Iyo, Iyooo Iyo

Lyrics in English
The young woman takes me for a fool
The young woman takes me for a fool
The young woman! The young woman!
The young woman takes me for a fool
The young woman! The young woman!
The young woman takes me for a fool
The young woman is showing off
The young woman takes me for a fool
The young woman is showing off
The young woman is showing off
The young woman is showing off
The young woman takes me for a fool
The young woman! The young woman!
(Wailing)
Woman, the good dancer, will you dance today?
(Wailing)

Nwa mgbọtọ (The Young Woman) is a mother’s lament. The melody emphasizes the B hexatonic minor mode in compound duple time. Most people who listened to this song wondered what the young woman did to the mother, which provoked such a lamentation. It is also sung by mother’s as a corrective against unseemly behaviour.

Recreation of Nwa Mgboto led by Kosisochukwu Sandra Adigwe, June 2019. Video recorded by George Agbo.

Onye Ilo na-akpọ (The Enemy Keeps Calling)

Northcote Thomas Record No.433 (British Library: C51/2671), recorded in Awka on January 25, 1911.

Northcote Thomas’s original recording of Onye Ilo na-akpo. Recorded in Awka, January 25, 1911. (NWT 433; BL C51/2671)

Lyrics in Igbo
Onye Ilo na-akpọ – Ojeme, Ojeme
K’lakụ nwa nna m, Igbo bụ Eze nwa nna m
Onye Ilo na-akpọ – Ojeme, Ojeme
K’lakụ nwa nna m, Odumodu nwa nna m
Onye Ilo na-akpọ – Ojeme, Ojeme

Lyrics in English
The enemy keeps calling
Clerk my brother, kingly Igbo my brother
The enemy keeps calling
Clerk my brother, Leopard my brother
The enemy keeps calling

The music is on D tetratonic mode in compound duple time; it is a repetitive call and response song. During the colonial era, people expressed their grievances through songs. The use of the word K’lakụ or ‘Clerk’ in the song indicates its connection with the colonial oppression of the Igbo people of Southeastern Nigeria. It is a song of praise as well as protest. The ‘Native Clerk’ was a controversial and ambiguous figure in the early twentieth century when Thomas recorded the song – they were local people, but also functionaries within colonial governance. It is a historical fact that Native Clerks took advantage of their positions and exploited the people to enrich themselves. We hear a statement of praise – ‘Clerk, my brother, kingly Igbo my brother, Clerk my brother, Leopard my brother’ – and a statement of protest – ‘The enemy keeps calling’. The people praised the Native Clerk, but referred to the ‘White Man’ as the enemy. In our discussions with elders, the dominant interpretation of the meaning of the song is that the British colonialists were the enemy that kept issuing instructions (the enemy that keeps calling). It would have been performed during moonlight dance.

Recreation of Onye Ilo na-akpo led by Goodness Okwuchukwu, June 2019. Video recorded by George Agbo.

Challenges and possibilities

The aesthetic value as well as the socio-cultural implications of Northcote Thomas’s recordings calls for further academic inquiry. Contemplating this remarkable sound archive has led me to ask many questions. Does such music still exist in Nigeria? How did people respond to such music at the time it was recorded and how might they respond to it now? How were these folksongs performed then? In what contexts are they performed now, if any? What about the influence of Westernization/globalization? What about the structural differences in tonality, harmony and rhythm when compared to contemporary interpretations of the folksongs?

The educational value of Thomas’s recordings is huge, especially as a body of indigenous instructional material amid calls for the decolonization of musical arts education in Nigeria. The records led me to consider how ordinary people responded to colonial oppression through song. The songs are an important historical source for understanding the experience of colonialism ‘from below’, and much more research of the kind we have begun here could be conducted in this respect.

One challenge I encountered in this research, however, is that many people here in Nigeria are seemingly either indifferent or ill-disposed towards these historical recordings. The task of finding local people to work with and reproduce the songs was not easy. Some people expressed that they were afraid of listening to the songs; some stated that they sounded frightening or esoteric; others said that it was the music of the dead. As a result they distanced themselves from any further discussion.

Furthermore, the present security challenge in Nigeria made people cautious when talking to me. In Nigeria today, a well-dressed young man moving from street to street, asking people for locations and begging them to listen to his music can be interpreted as a ‘419er’ – a fraudster. This is the situation of things; many persons ignored me because they thought I was on a mission to hoodwink them.

Despite all this, research for the [Re:]Entanglements project has spurred me to rethink my own Igbo culture and heritage, and to consider the important place of our indigenous music traditions in building national consciousness.

Thank you, Samson, for your inspiring and thought-provoking article and the brilliant research on which it was based! — Paul

All surviving recordings from N. W. Thomas’s four anthropological surveys are available at the project’s SoundCloud site. Do let us know if you are interested in translating, transcribing or recreating any of the tracks! We’d like to acknowledge the additional support of a small grant from British Library Sounds that has contributed to making this research possible.