Kelani Abass: [Re:]Entanglements – Contemporary Art and Colonial Archives
In her essay Thatha Camera: Photographs from Bulawayo Townships, Zimbabwean novelist Yvonne Vera notes “The camera has often been a dire instrument. In Africa, as in most sections of the dispossessed world, the camera arrived as part of colonial paraphernalia together with the gun and the Bible … The photograph has often brought forth the most loaded fraction of time, a calcification of the most unequal, brutal, and undemocratic moment of human encounter.” The advent and rapid spread of the camera in the 1840s saw photography become an important tool for European colonialism under the guise of ‘anthropological surveys’. This aspect of photography in which the photographed subjects were at the mercy of the photographer and consequently unable to control the ways and manner in which they were represented was used in the furtherance and justification of the colonial enterprise playing significant roles in administrative, scientific and commercial ventures on the African continent.
These photographs constitute a part of archival materials today which tell a story of the African people viewed through the lens of Western imperialism and colonisation. What happens when these archival materials are re-engaged and interrogated in contemporary context in an attempt to understand their significance and possibly re-examine history?
This notion is at the heart of the collaborative exhibition between contemporary Nigerian artist Kelani Abass and the [Re:]Entanglements project aimed at re-engaging with an ethnographic archive – including objects, photographs, sound recordings, botanical specimens, published work and fieldnotes – assembled by the colonial anthropologist, N. W. Thomas, in his tours of Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915. The exhibition titled [Re:]Entanglements- Contemporary Art and Colonial Archives features new work by the artist in response to original photographic albums from Northcote’s tour of what is now Edo state in Nigeria. Featuring a selection of enlarged digital prints from the albums, 12 mixed-media paintings and a large scale ‘drawing’ produced with numbering-machine stamps, the works by Abass are grouped under two series with the collective title ‘Colonial Indexicality’ and are a testament to the artist’s dexterity with form and materiality.
On entering the exhibition area, a digital reproduction of a scene from Northcote’s album immediately reminds one of a similar photograph examined by Teju Cole in his essay, When the Camera was a Weapon of Imperialism. (And When it Still is). The photograph in the essay shows the colonial governor of Lagos at the time, presumed by the author to be John Hawley Glover seated under a large umbrella. On one side of the governor is another high-ranking colonial officer. On the other side is the Ijebu king, or oba, also presumed by the author as the Awujale of the Ijebu kingdom, Oba Ademuyewo Fidipote. Dozens of men sit in the foreground of the image while others form a horizontal line behind the oba and the colonial officers. The picture has a formal quality about it. A presentation of the colonial rulers, the traditional ruler and his subjects. In a similar fashion, the photograph in the exhibition shows a white man seated on a folding chair subsequently identified as Thomas Northcote. His head is turned, facing the imagined photographer while his body is positioned away. A man, presumably Nigerian stands behind him, adopting a military stance with his hands clasped behind his back and his feet pressed together in an attentive manner. Another man also probably Nigerian sits in front of Northcote with his head bent in concentration as he writes into a book. All men are dressed in English attire of long-sleeved shirts, trousers – or in the case of the man standing, shorts – and pith helmets, an accessory now associated with colonial attire. Many men – indigenous people from their attire – sit in a semicircle around the three figures with Thomas Northcote at the centre. The caption of the photograph reads: “Government Anthropologist at a Meeting of Chiefs to Discuss a Land Dispute, Neni, Present-day Anambra State”. The immediate power structure is evident. This European man, despite not being a colonial or traditional ruler is shown in a position of great influence over indigenous domestic matters. He is the centre of attention in this photograph. No matter the invaluable quality of Northcote albums to historical archives and contemporary re-engagement, it is from here, this position of power that we start the reading of the exhibition and the works presented.
Also situated in the first room of the exhibition space is a series of mixed media paintings produced by Abass using acrylic, oil and letterpress type. They are particularly striking because they replicate the archival texture of the photographs while retaining their painterly quality. Each canvas features a figure or a group of figures intricately painted in the lower right register. The figures reference actual photographic portraits taken by Northcote and are executed in a distinct realism consistent with Abass’ oeuvre. The forms are painted in monochromatic sepia and grey tones which reference the aging of the actual photographs and are laid against a background that imitates the yellowed paper notes that originally accompany a set of 5 photographs in each album page complete with distinct, almost illegible cursive lettering. Inset in each panel are letterpress type blocks with the corresponding number of the painted image.
In this first series and in the photographs referenced by the artist, there is a distinct naming and identification of the subjects represented. The original photographs by Northcote are numbered and the yellowed notes that accompany a set of five photographs that complete an album page feature these numbers with a corresponding description written by Northcote himself. In Colonial Indexicality 1427 (2019), a man is half-clothed with only a wrapper around his waist and a beaded necklace on his neck. The man is shown with only the upper half of his body visible to the viewer and he wears what seems to be a haughty smirk on his face as he faces the viewer and what we imagine as the photographer, considering the painting is a reproduction of a photograph. We immediately recognise this figure from the authority exuded in the portrait. This man is important. The background against which the figure is laid contains a list of five numbers, two of which bear corresponding text. The description that corresponds to the number in the painting title identifies him as ‘Okwo, Chief,’ which gives the viewer more insight into his identity and social standing. Another painting by the artist features a woman with a wrapper tied around her chest, beads worn on her neck, wrist and forehead. The woman is shown with a child in her arm and looking directly at the viewer. The painting however does not give as much information as the first. Titled Colonial Indexicality 456, the corresponding text to the number reads as ‘Woman, baby’. This practice of matching the numbers noted in the painting titles to their corresponding description constantly reminds the viewer of the scientific, clinical and borderline impersonal methods by which these people were photographed, documented and classified for colonial purposes.
It is interesting to note that despite the extensive and rather detailed work produced by Northcote Thomas during his tours, his surveys were considered a failure by the colonial authorities who felt that the information he gathered was of little practical value in colonial governance and his project was subsequently discontinued. However, despite the colonial context in which these images were made and their subsequent failure under this same context, they remain a rich archival record of a period in Nigeria’s history. It is this history that the exhibition aims to explore and re-engage in the works of Kelani Abass. How then do we read into the personality of the figure both as a photographic subject and a painted subject? What does the artist want us to see that might not be easily conveyed through the photographs? There is a feeling of dual immortality that comes with viewing these images as photographs and paintings. A reminding of a forgotten and steadily disappearing history in its tangible and intangible forms. The paintings on view reproduced photographs which at a glance show signs of fading and erasure. A commentary on the precarious state of archives – which are an important part of visual history – in contemporary Nigerian society. An exercise in rememory, reconstruction of a past reality. The paintings presented in this exhibition seem to confront and subvert the colonial gaze traditionally associated with these images and present them to a local audience as vestiges of a collective history without ignoring the context in which they were made. In the exhibition text, principal investigator of the Museum Affordances project (of which the [Re:]Entanglements project is a part) Paul Basu notes, “…Many such archives date to the colonial era. They are not innocent traces of the past, but are entangled – and entangle us – in difficult histories and distasteful ideologies”. In negotiating the future, we can hardly ignore the past.
An interesting motif that runs through the exhibition is the use of numbers both as an anthropological and artistic tool. In this exhibition, numbers serve to annotate and delineate in the works of Northcote and Abass respectively. Used primarily for indexation and documentation in Northcote’s photographs sound recordings, artefact collections, botanical specimens and indeed every page of fieldnotes, the artist has employed numbers – which apart from indexing, conversely contributed to an erasure of identity – to emphasise identity and recreate form. In his second series ‘Stamping History’ located in an adjoining room of the exhibition space, the artist uses a numbering machine to generate images drawn from the photographic archives. The result is an intricately layered collection of five images done in a collage of nine sections each. From a distance the photographic images are seen, but on closer inspection, the image is broken down to its component, sometimes overlapping parts, much like pixelating digital images. While the artist’s use of numbers reference and mirror Northcote’s obsessive use of numbers and bureaucratic procedures of colonial research that reduced individuals to numbered racial or tribal types, it also aims to create a visual narrative of layers of time, space and identities.
While [Re:]Entanglements- Contemporary Art and Colonial Archives does not aim to revise history or subvert the context in which the original photographs were made, it does bring to the viewers’ attention the importance of the historical archive in the preservation of a cultural heritage and collective national consciousness. In re-engaging these archives, Kelani Abass leads the viewer through the performative act of remembering, and of exploring memories from the past in negotiating a possible future.
December 13, 2019
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