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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.