A multi-media exhibition, inspired by an anthropological archive, seeks a revision of history of time and place through related mediums of art, music and language. Agwu Enekwachi examines the contemporary significance of this more than a century old archive within a wider context of similar colonial-era collections.
About a hundred years ago (from 1909 to 1915), an anthropologist named Thomas Northcote working for the British colonial government toured Sierra Leone and parts of Southern Nigeria-known today as Anambra, Delta and Edo States. During this expedition, he took thousands of photographs, recorded several voices of indigenous people, wrote notes and collected artefacts including motley of everyday objects. Known as the Thomas Northcote archive, it has been stored away in Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the British Library and the Royal Anthropological Institute. The archive is a part of wider collections which number several million spread in Britain, France, Germany, Spain and other European nations who were major players of the colonial enterprise.
Today, far removed from their places of origin and contexts, these archives and collections are largely idle and lonely like unintegrated migrants. It is in this light that emergent museum researches, like Professor Paul Basu’s [Re:]Entanglements seek to reengage these objects in a manner that reconsiders their meanings to different stakeholders today. The exhibition [Re:]Entangled Traditions: Nsukka Experiments with an Anthropological Archive is the University of Nigeria, Nsukka’s leg of similar exhibitions held in Lagos, Benin City, and Freetown, Sierra Leone. It featured 21 artworks rendered in both traditional and contemporary mediums such as wood, discarded poly materials, digital painting, acrylic and oil on canvas, embroidery, batik and applique. Most of these mediums were not part of the range of media used in the areas covered in the archive when it was collected. The participating artists approached the archive according to their artistic sensibilities. For example, some used a combination of the elements of human portraits and Uli body decorative motifs, gleaned from the archive as a creative resource. Two of these artists namely Chijioke Onuora and Chinyere Odinukwe explored the various textures of Igbo culture in male and female fashion. The dress, cap and facial scarification are depicted with a fusion of Uli motifs in Onuora’s batik work titled Ezeana Obidigbo, 2019, while the allure of youth of a maiden adorned in her traditional apparel, coiffure and jewellery was portrayed in Odunukwe’s oil on canvas titled Akwankosa Achalugonwanyi, 2019.
Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi’s work titled Playing with Time and Memory and Jennifer Ogochukwu’s The Beauty within are paintings that explore the basic forms of Uli idioms. Already in practice long before the arrival of N. W. Thomas, Uli, a traditional Igbo body and wall decoration, has been adopted by Nigerian modern painters – mainly of Igbo origin-as part of their creative idioms – using modern mediums such as oil colour, acrylic, and embroidery to paint indigenous vocabulary. While RitaDoris Edumchieke Uba, a textile artist, created her works titled Igbo Kwenu and Ojionu using applique, which was in use as a technique for designing masquerade costumes at the time the archive was collected, Chukwuemeka Nwigwe made use of poly materials, a new media, to create two works titled “Eze Nri” and “Sacrifice”. These works portray the continuity and change in fashion over a period of time.
Chika Kanu’s work explores the hair traditions among Igbo men in communities visited by Thomas. The hairstyles appear different from their more conservative contemporary examples. The hairstyles show the transitions they have undergone over the years. Ugonna Umeike’s “Mbara Eze (King’s Square),” calls to memory the vicissitudes in architecture and lifestyles of people. But a far more poignant commentary among these contemporary artworks based on Thomas archive is Chukwunonso Uzoagba’s “Ogu Mnwere Onwe (Struggle for freedom)”. Uzoagba suggests that “the colonial contact that resulted in the production of the Thomas archive is nothing less than a struggle for power.” This and similar colonial archives and collections have underlying politics resulting in asymmetrical representations.
The ethnographic background of the Thomas archive, despite the passage of time still retains the dispositions of racial profiling upon which colonialism was built and sustained. Photography, as was deployed by Thomas at the time, was a tool in the hands of the colonial anthropologist. But there have been contemplations in recent times about the rightful statuses of the anthropological archives and collections. Among these resurgent concerns is the call by the President of France for an international conference on the return of African art and artefacts collected rather dishonestly during the colonial era. Some have argued that similar archives like that of Thomas Northcote should be returned to the countries where they were originally collected. Many African countries have continued these calls with sustained and intermittent echoes.
Some Europeans on the other hand favour the paternalistic argument that Europe should continue to keep what she ‘took’ from Africa because Africa cannot take care of such materials. In consonance with this argument are also some Africans who are equally genuinely concerned about the fate of such objects if returned to Africa, due to the generally poor conditions of museums and other cultural infrastructure in most African countries. They argue, like some Europeans that these collections-represent the continent culturally, out of Africa, irrespective of the manner of acquisition. Those who argue this way often ignore the sparks of cultural initiatives of some governments like Senegal and in recent times some individuals across Africa who are contributing to having African art heritage retained in the continent.
The [Re:]Entanglement project draws our attention to Clementine Deliss’ notion that “the greatest strength of a collection is in its mobility”. This is in contrast to the idea of a museum as a house of preservation and education. But the museum should indeed be more a place of innovation for even most dormant archives and collections in Europe or elsewhere, where they seem to have reached the dead-end of research. The [Re:]Entaglements project has yielded fresh insight and interesting outcomes, the kind of benefit an archive can be of.
Apart from the contemporary artworks, musical and linguistic interpretations created as part of [Re:]entanglements exhibition, there were other outcomes of lesser academic importance. Some of the photographs from the archive were of distant landscapes and persons, to which the anthropologist attached biographical notes, which provided the bridge across the blur and amnesia of time. Memories edited by time were amended by studying some of the photographs from the archive. Offsprings recognized their progenitors and the landmarks of their dwelling places. For example, land disputes resulting from shifting boundaries were settled with the evidence provided by the photographs from the archive. Most interesting was the disputation over aspects of the royal regalia of the Omu of Anioma. Revisionists contend that this line of prominent female leaders did not originally wear red. But when researchers from the [Re:]entanglements project visited with the photographs of the Omu of Okpanam taken in 1912 by N.W. Thomas, the dispute over the Omu of Okpanam’s right to wear the red cap was ended.
Writing about the [Re:]entaglements project in Thisday Newspaper of Sunday 22nd March 2020, one of the participants, Chinyere Odinukwe in an article titled “Decolonization in “Re: Entangled Tradition” suggested that there is decolonizing value in the project. While there are some interesting outcomes, especially in the aspect of reengaging history, the truth is that there is nothing decolonizing about Re: entanglements. The difference is that while in the 1910s, Thomas and his assistants in the expedition were mainly Europeans, whereas its revisit today has more indigenous people involved as either paid professionals or enthusiasts involved in yet another project that may yield international opportunities. To further understand that the [Re:]entanglements project is only but a continuation of Thomas’ expedition of the early 20th century, the grand finale of this project will be yet another exhibition and lectures in the imperial city of London, where the works will be later acquired and stored in addition to the original archive. The results generated from [Re:]entanglements will remain domiciled in the United Kingdom like its mother archive and will not be in Delta, Edo or Anambra in Nigeria nor Sierra Leone or indeed any other part of Africa.
Agwu Enekwachi is an Abuja based artist, art teacher and Culture writer. He is a PhD student in Art History at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.