From Africa to Peckham: how we decolonise culture by rehumanising people




[Re]Engtanglements, Author provided




It’s an extraordinary collection of portraits from Nigeria and Sierra Leone taken between 1909 and 1915, when Britain was at the height of its empire. The archive shows a vast array of faces – of women, children and men – some distant, some suspicious, some proud, some confused, some joyous. Most are photographed against a canvas backdrop, some with number boards above their heads, all of them silent.

Many of our museums and archives are filled with such traces of Britain’s colonial past, and exist as troubling presences in our public institutions. Many of these collections illustrate the way academic subjects such as anthropology, geography, linguistics and botany are entangled with Britain’s colonial history.





British anthropologist Northcote Thomas.
Royal Anthropological Institute, Author provided




For decades, much of this material has remained hidden, its access largely restricted to academic researchers. There has been a reluctance to confront these relics of outmoded and objectionable ideologies. Now, amid renewed calls to “decolonise” our cultural institutions, there is a desire to open up the colonial archive to new forms of scrutiny.

I have been leading a collaborative project called [Re:]Entanglements, which exemplifies this new spirit of openness through art, film and community engagement.

The project explores this remarkable photographic archive of people’s faces, as well as recordings, artefacts, botanical specimens and fieldnotes – the legacy of a series of anthropological surveys funded by the colonial governments of Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the first two decades of the 20th century. These surveys were led by Northcote Thomas (1868-1936), the first government anthropologist to be appointed by Britain’s Colonial Office.

Reframing the past: art, outreach and fieldwork


On the one hand, [Re:]Entanglements seeks to better understand the historical relationship between anthropology and colonialism in the early 20th century. On the other, crucially, it is exploring the significance of these archives for different communities in West Africa and the UK today.

The research team has retraced Thomas’s survey itineraries in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, bringing back copies of photographs and sound recordings to the descendants of those surveyed over a century ago. It has been a privilege to witness people listening to the voices of their ancestors and seeing the faces of their great-grandparents, often for the first time.





Nigerian artist Kelani Abass’s mixed media work that uses Northcote Thomas’s survey material.
Kelani Abass, Author provided




The project has also established collaborations with contemporary artists in West Africa, inviting them to respond to the archive and illuminate its underlying politics through their work. The Igbo artist, Chukwunonso Uzoagba, for example, has restaged one of Thomas’s photographs of a traditional wrestling festival as a contest between an indigenous wrestler and Thomas himself, representing the struggle between colonised and coloniser.

Another artist, Kelani Abass, has produced a series of 17 mixed-media works called Colonial Indexicality based on the albums of Thomas’s photographs that we discovered in the National Museum in Lagos. These are the only surviving records of Thomas’s surveys in Nigeria.

Abass’s work captures the fading textures of the archive and the bureaucracy involved in documentation, and stands as a visually arresting comment on the fragility of memory. It also lays bare the paradox of colonialism as a force that both destroyed traditional ways of life and preserved them.







The view from London


Other forms of public engagement with this project have been taking place in the UK as well. A young people’s initiative at the South London Gallery, for example, includes an exploration of Peckham’s many connections with Nigeria and Sierra Leone across the generations.

Another initiative resulted in the film I made with Chris Allen of production company The Light Surgeons. Called Faces|Voices, the film has just won the best research film prize for 2019 at the Research in Film Awards (RIFA).

Although researchers have written a great deal about the politics of representation of African people, in Faces|Voices we wanted to explore a wider range of responses to Northcote Thomas’s photographs – particularly among British people with an African heritage.





A British woman looks at an image of a Nigerian woman from a 1911 colonial survey in the film Faces|Voices.
[Re]Entanglements, Author provided



We invited a number of people from across London – some with direct links to the places in which Thomas worked, and some engaged in community education, activism or the reparations debate – to confront some of the more problematic images produced by the English anthropologist. These colonial-era portraits sought to document the physical characteristics of people belonging to different ethnic groups.

For many, these epitomise the violence of colonial science, treating individuals as specimens to be collected, sorted and categorised into racial or tribal types. They make up about half of around 7,500 photographs that Northcote Thomas took in West Africa.





Woman and child photographed in Southern Nigeria in 1911.
NW Thomas, Author provided




Since the many West African faces photographed for Thomas’s archive have no voice, we can only guess what the experience of being photographed by this pith-helmeted anthropologist may have been like. Was it violent or humiliating? Was it an amusing distraction from everyday chores? Was it empowering? What can we read in the mute expressions of those photographed?

In Faces|Voices, we find that the same photograph seen through different eyes can elicit quite different responses. Where one person sees coercion, another detects merely boredom. The crushing experience of colonial oppression is discerned in one subject’s expression. Optimism and resilience is read in another’s.

It is clear, then, that the “meaning” of these photographs has as much to do with what the viewer brings to the image as what the image presents. Perhaps most surprising is the sympathetic view of the face of Northcote Thomas himself. While for one viewer the image of Thomas exemplifies the “stiff upper lip” of a British colonial, others remark on what they see as kindness, integrity and humanity.





Young woman photographed by Northcote Thomas in Southern Nigeria in 1911.
NW Thomas, Author provided



As the legacy of a colonial project, the capacity of these photographs to unsettle us is beyond question. But our film Faces|Voices also complicates any simple reading of these images beyond the idea of “colonised” and “coloniser”. There is laughter too in the colonial archive, and the voices of the black British people in the film articulate a need for us to re-humanise the subjects of Thomas’s photographic portraits.

While it is crucial that we confront the difficult histories embodied in such archives, it is important that we do so attentively, mindful of their complexities and contradictions.The Conversation

Paul Basu, Professor of Anthropology, SOAS, University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Labels

Amanda Palmer Amazon ambient Andrew Elias andy warhol animal farm anna freeman anonymous Anthropocene Anthropology Anxiety Archaeology aristotle arse art art news Art therapy Arthur O'Shaughnessy articles artists Arts Arts funding artzine ash audience australia avant garde Axwell babel bacon Bacteria bame bangalore Barnabe Barnes bat bats BBC BBC charter BBC licence fee BBC television Be Bop Deluxe beer bengaluru Berlin Berlin Wall Bhutan bigotry Bill Nelson Billy Bragg billy childish Bird conservation Birds Black academics Black history Black History Month 2019 black lives matter blinded by the light blue light Blur Boards Bob Dylan Boris Johnson bow box sets British art British Empire British Museum Bronze Age Byron Camper Van Beethoven cartoon Cate le Bon cats cds charity charlie chaplin Cheese Cheesemaking childhood rhyme choir Christina Rossetti christmas cinema Classical music Climate change clothing Clubs Cold War collage colonial Coming up for Air Community competition Composition Coolio coorg Coronavirus Courtney Barnett covid-19 COVID-19 lockdown COVID-19 recovery creative industry creativity Cultural institutions culture curator curious Curious Kids D H Lawrence dale harding dance Dance music Darren Hayman David Bowie david hockney death declan welsh deliveroo democracy Desert locust destruction Diet digital Digital archives DJs Dominic Cummings Dóra Maurer Doris Day download Dr Johnson dream Drenge drums Dumfries dundee Dylan Thomas e-book E. E. Cummings East Germany ECO economics economy Edgar Allan Poe Edna St Vincent Millay Edward Lear electronic Elizabeth Barrett Browning Employment English language Ensemble environment Epicurus Erasure Eric Ravilious Esra Furman essays Ethnic minorities European Research Group Evelyn Ida Morris exhibition extinction rebellion Ezra Furman facebook fashion Federico García Lorca Feminism Feminism and art festival film folk fontaines dc Fontaines DC Food Food science foot artists France free free russia Future GDP gender inequality George Gascoigne George Harrison George Orwell Gig economy Glasgow Global perspectives Grammar Grayson Perry green issues grenfell Grime grotesque handel happiness Harry Graham hate Heatwave heaven 17 heritage heroes history hogmanay Hollywood homeless Homer Hot Chip humour if you feel it it's real iggy ignorance illustration Inclusive Music Making india indian Indie music Industrial Revolution instagram Interdisciplinarity international labour day international workers day interweb Iron Age Isolation Italy ITV Jack Peñate James Joyce James Taylor janey godley jazz John Cooper Clarke John Keats john Lennon John Linney Journalistic ethics Judi Werthein kara walker Karl Marx Karnataka kat himmel Katharina Garrard (no relation) Katherine Mansfield Keep the Aspidistra Flying keith haring Ken Loach Ken Sprague kensington Kenya Khalil Gibran labour Lamb Language Laurie Anderson les dennis Lewis Carroll lgbtq lgbttqi lights live performance lockdown Locusts london love lucy spraggan lyrics Mae West Malcolm X manchester Martin Niemoeller Marvin Gaye Matthew Arnold may day Maya Angelou McGonagall Meat Meat eaters memorials mental health messiah MGM Michael Sailstorfer Milk Milton mind MISSY HIGGINS Mistakes Mobile apps modern Monty Python moon Museums music music hall Music therapy music venues Musicals my map mysore mysuru nanohour national gallery of scotland National Orchestra For All neil finn news nhs norfolk norwich Nostalgia Not sure if it's a poem novara media Ocean Colour Scene of course older age Older people Oliver Herford Opera Orchestras For All Ensemble Ornithology oxfam pain Paramount Pictures Patrick Staff Paul Garrard Paul McCartney Pay gap peace Pensions financial planning people people power perception Philip Larkin photo photography photos picture pitchfork podcasting podcasts poem Poet Laureate poetry Political accountability Political communication Political journalism politics Pop music poster pottery poverty Primal Scream print printing prints Psychasthenia public domain pubs Purple pussy riot quote Race racism radio rainbow Raves Relaxation religion research Retirement Rewilding Richard Hawley Ringo Starr Robert Burns Robert Frank Robert Herrick Roman Empire Rose Finn-Kelcey Roy Lichtenstein Rudyard Kipling Rutles salad sandalwood satire sayings science scooty Serpentine sex Shakespears Sister Shelley Shocking Blue Sierra Leone silvery tay sin Sixties Sixties culture sketches Slave Trade Sleaford Mods snippet Snow Patrol social media socialism soundscape sparks Species reintroductions springsteen stained glass Stanley Spencer Steve Knightley Stewart Lee stratford-upon-avon streaming Strypes stuff Swinging Sixties Switzerland Sybil Andrews Sydney Smith taking back control tapes tate tay Techno music Telegram Tennyson the arts The Beatles The Clergyman's Daughter The Jam The National Gallery The Only Ones The Pocket Gods Theatre thing tips toilet humour tories traffic trains Transatlantic slave trade Trumbull Stickney trump Turner Prize twitter type Uber UK comedy UK culture UK economy UK election 2019 uk music UK politics UK pop music UK theatre UKIP understanding Unemployment unfinished unions Universities unknown author US movies valie export Van Gogh Veganism Vegetarianism Victorians video Vijaya Vitthala Temple vinyl Voter registration Voting W B Yeats wanted war Wassily Kandinsky water Wellbeing Welsh poetry Wendy Cope West Germany Wetlands WH Auden whales WhatsApp Wildfire Wilfred Owen William Blake William Shakespeare William Wordsworth Wilson Keppel and Betty Wolfy O'Hare women women academics Women in film woody guthrie Wordsworth working from home yeah yeah yeahs Young Composer Youth Orchestra Zero-hour contracts Zoom
Show more