Colonial Indexicality: Northcote Thomas and Kelani Abass – Molara Wood

At the beginning of September, I met up with the artist Kelani Abass at the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos, venue of the latest staging in a research project known as ‘[Re:]Entanglements – Contemporary Art and Colonial Archives’.

The exhibition was not due to open for some weeks; but on this day, Abass had come to take additional shots from the photograph albums of Northcote W. Thomas – the first ‘government anthropologist’ appointed by the British Colonial Office, over a hundred years ago.

Between 1909 and 1913, Thomas conducted a series of anthropological surveys in the Edo and Igbo speaking areas of what became known as Nigeria. The National Museum is one of the few repositories of the relics of that survey; the others are in the UK, notably the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and the National Archives.

And now, the [Re:]Entanglements Project is re-engaging with the Northcote Thomas archives in dialogue with the communities of their creation, and as mediated and reinterpreted by contemporary artists.

“It is a huge project. Other people are also working on it in Nigeria and the UK,” Abass had told me on the phone, ahead of our meeting.

The first [Re:]Entanglements outing in Nigeria was held in July 2019 in Benin City, in a group exhibition featuring 15 artists based in Edo State. The project will culminate in a major exhibition planned for the UK in 2020. For now, it was the turn of Kelani Abass, as preparations gathered pace for the berthing of [Re:]Entanglements at the National Museum.

We entered the museum, went past the inner courtyard to the outlying buildings – and parts of the complex that visitors seldom see, in a faintly communal architectural arrangement that allowed for a whimsical patch of pawpaw trees along the way. Finally arriving at the building hosting the museum’s archives, we met the librarian and archivist in charge of the department, Taye Pedro.

“A museum is a navigator of knowledge,” said Pedro, who readily engaged us in a passionate and involving discussion about the importance of archiving. Noting that many Nigerian visitors to the museum are unaware of the sheer scope of archival material housed there, he listed some items typically held, including: manuscripts, maps, documents, photographs and intelligence reports. “I call archival collection data,” Pedro said, adding that “handling” is of critical importance, owing to the delicate condition of the materials in question. He held up a copy of an April 1957 edition of The Nigerian Museum Journal (Vol. 57, No.1; reprinted from The Museum Journal) for our scrutiny.

The office was a fascinating space, with virtually every surface heaving with materials of historical and scholarly relevance. But one could also see hints of the limitations, and the daily challenges to the archivist’s work. Space is one: to me, it seemed unlikely that the archival section has been extended in years, and yet the material grows.

Storage capacity, equipment, enabling environment for the proper preservation of historical documents and objects, digitisation, not to mention continuous training of support staff – all seemed a genuine concern.

A large Map of Lagos dated January 28, 1919 (revised January 1924) has not been digitised and cannot survive much longer in its present condition. “I nearly cried,” on seeing the map, Pedro said. I expect he and his team do their best in the circumstances, but adequate funding as well as strategic and institutional support for important upgrades, appear to be lacking. “It’s a process,” the archivist said, as he headed out with us towards the main building, and to the N.W. Thomas archival albums.

These concerns are also reflected in the [Re:]Entanglements project, one of whose aims is to call attention to the need for better storage and conservation of the National Museum’s archival collections. Up the central stairway and past a large Enwonwu hanging without ceremony on a wall along a short corridor as though unaware of its own value, we met briefly with the museum’s curator, Omotayo Adeboye – from whose office the Thomas albums eventually emerged. The albums were moved to an airy room bright with natural light and overlooking the museum’s front courtyard – for the artist’s camera to capture the needed shots, and for my first encounter with the famous anthropological survey images.

We went through 11 albums on this day; the museum has about 16 altogether. The institution also houses similar photographic archives from the colonial era, from as far afield as Congo, Tanzania and so on. Arrayed in front of us were numbered albums from Thomas’s ‘Southern Nigerian Anthropological Survey Tours II and III’.

“This is what inspires my paintings,” Abass said of pieces he had been working on, for the best part of a year, for the exhibition. The goal, he explained, was “to represent the images and the text.” Since every Northcote Thomas image has a unique number and is indexed for cross-referencing, text becomes integral to the artist’s response. To the cursory viewer, numbers almost replace the names of those depicted in the photographs, in a sense, becoming markers of identity in themselves, imposed or otherwise.

The interplay of text and images has long been embedded in Abass’s own studio practice, as a means of exploring personal and larger histories. Born into a family of printers, his previous exhibitions – including ‘Asiko’ (Calendar Series), ‘Man and Machine’ and the Casing History series – meld mechanical processes, text and images into richly textured paintings layered with history. [Re:]Entanglements places the artist in familiar territory, therefore.

The late Bisi Silva, founder of the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Lagos, was to have been involved, and ultimately, was the link to project coordinator Paul Basu – Professor of Anthropology at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). “The Prof. went to the CCA and saw one of my works and said, ‘This is what I’m looking for, when it comes to contemporary artists interpreting [Thomas’s] works into conceptual art pieces’,” Abass told me.

Upstairs in the museum, he selected seven of the albums – those from which he hoped to photograph specific images. He and Pedro ferried the selected albums down to the inner courtyard (the one known to most visitors at least; the National Museum is in fact a place of many courtyards, as I discovered on this visit), so the shoot could be done in the best light. Although we were not in direct sunlight, the sun nonetheless infused a certain unwanted quality into the images as seen through the artist’s camera; and so, back up we went to the airy room filled with light. As Abass knuckled down for the painstaking process of photographing the images and with the archivist attentive and assisting every step of the way, I waded through the survey images.

Album 2 came with the stamp of Philip Dollman Lantern Slide Maker & Photographer, Wellesley Road, Gunnersbury, London. How did the albums come to be part of the museum’s archives? One label informs that: “This volume has been lent to the Lagos Library by the Nigerian Government.” The trail ends there.

The albums were produced to withstand the test of time, but a century is a long time. They are now fragile, with some of the pages coming loose from their binding. Again, the need for proper storage, preservation and digitisation.

Thomas’s survey cut a swathe through the social history of the people in the areas he visited – towns and villages in modern Nigerian states including: Anambra, Ebonyi, Delta, Rivers and Edo. The photographs cover subject areas including: topography, market scenes, shrines, festivals, masquerades, ornaments, pottery, sculptures, and facial scarification patterns. The hairstyles are a revelation and deserve a study of their own.

Kelani Abass’s response to the N.W. Thomas archive was unveiled in the ‘Colonial Indexicality’ exhibition which opened on September 21 at the National Museum. 12 mixed media paintings present figures from Thomas’s images to us anew, on ‘aged’ canvas mounted on board, and with corresponding numbers to the actual photograph incorporated into each piece. Text is a significant feature, replicating the anthropologist’s handwriting and recording numbers and names.

“Many of these names are in Benin to this day,” artist Victor Ehikhamenor remarked as he viewed the works.

In the second room of the exhibition is the ‘Stamping History’ series of five drawings based on images from the albums. The viewer sees the shadowy image – almost like a film negative – from a distance, only to get close and be stunned by the realisation that the drawing was done with numbers stamped by a hand numbering machine. Over 80,000 such number combinations were stamped onto five drawings.

As for archival photographs shot by Abass in the museum weeks earlier, some of them made it into the exhibition as large digital prints of Northcote Thomas’s images as he had created them. Two of the albums, laid open in showcases, sit as centrepieces in each of the two exhibition rooms. They are a totem to resilience against the odds. And on the pages, an invaluable resource about life as once lived in parts of this country, albeit through the colonial gaze. The albums and the exhibition are a remarkable glimpse into the past, a dialogue with history.

([Re:]Entanglements – Contemporary Art and Colonial Archives is at the National Museum, Lagos, until October 27, 2019.)

Molara Wood is a journalist, critic, art editor and fiction writer based in Abuja.

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