'Siliva Zulu' at the Iziko Slave Lodge - a review, a response and a reflection

Posted on December 13, 2011


Housed at the University of Florence and at the Archivo Photographico Toscana, Italy is a collection of photographs taken by controversial anthropologist Lido Cipriani (1892-1962). Also sequestered in Italy is Siliva Zulu, a film directed by Italian filmmaker Attilio Gatti. Both were produced during a 1927 expedition to South Africa led by Gatti. The expedition team landed in Durban and made their way to Eshowe, in the heartland of the old Zulu Kingdom. Locals were engaged as actors and the film is one of the first to be made with an all black cast.

As neither the film nor the photographs had ever been shown in South Africa, the Italian Institute of Culture in Pretoria felt that it would like to share this heritage with its country of origin. So, as a way of furthering ties between Italy and South Africa, they proposed a co-operative project. A selection of prints were developed by Paul Weinberg at the Centre for Curating the Archive at the University of Cape Town and these, and the film, travelled to the University of Johannesburg at the beginning of 2011 and are now on exhibition at the Slave Lodge, Cape Town.

While the exhibition at UJ provided little contextual information, the Iziko curators were acutely aware of the problematic background behind the production of the film and the images. Cipriani, for example, was affiliated with the Italian Fascist movement and was one of 10 prominent scientists that assisted dictator Mussolini to develop his 'Manifesto on Race'. This document justified Italian colonialism and racial oppression. At the time of the expedition, Cipriani was a professor of anthropology at the Museum of Ethnology and Anthropology in Florence. On the trip his role was as team consultant and anthropologist and, while on location, not only did Cipriani advise Gatti and take photos of the people on and around the film set, he also recorded anthropomorphic measurements and made facemasks of living people, collected ethnographic items as well as human tissue for his 'scientific' studies on race.

The Iziko curators felt they could not put the material on display without providing contextual information that engaged the problematic background from which the film and images emerged. This was proposed and the Italian Institute agreed to the new inclusions. A series of text panels that present subjects such as colonial repression and representation, scientific racism and fascist propaganda in the 1920s and 1930s' became part of the Iziko installation.

The seductive and the reductive

Siliva Zulu, the film, is a romantic tale of love, witchcraft, betrayal and redemption set in a timeless African past. Cipriani's photographs, on the other hand, are created in a different mode. They cast people as objects of 'ethnographic' study, accompanied by descriptive captions written in the putatively neutral voice of the scientific journal. The subjects of the photographs become nameless 'types' engaged in timeless cultural and social activities. While the film was intended as entertainment, the photographs formed part of a 'serious' academic study with chilling consequences. These images and writings provided material that supported and justified Cipriani's Fascist and professional career.


Both the romance and the timeless primal past were far from the daily, lived reality of both the film crew and the cast. Cipriani, and the other expedition team members spent weeks with the 'Zulus' and most certainly knew them by name. Siphosa, who played the role of chief in Siliva Zulu was really a chief, but now engaged to play a fictionalised, trivialised and de-historicised version of himself. His full name was Chief Siphoso kaMbango kaGawozi kaSilwane ka Ndlovu kaKhuba kaSokhongwane kaMlaba kaMpungose, of the abakwaMpungose people who lived near the upper Mlalazi River, very near Eshowe. His grandfather Silwane, and great grandfather Gawozi, both lived in the reign of Mpande (1840-72). None of this information was documented or included by the Italian team. The heroine of the film Mdabuli Ngema who retains her first name in the film and in promotional material, was even given an Italian nickname, La Pergine, but its significance now seems lost.

Glimpses of the close relationship between the expedition team and the 'Zulu' are evident. A posed photograph shows Cipriani standing close to a bare breasted Zulu woman clasping her arm tightly. Yet, in his anthropological writings about 'the Zulu' Cipriani makes no reference to the film project or that he knew the subjects of his study by name. In his professional work and writings they became de-personalised objects of anthropological and racial interest

It is not uncommon to have multiple narratives prevailing in ethnographic encounters between the 'observer' and the 'observed'. The Reverend William Burton who lived and worked amongst the Luba of Zaire in the early to mid 20th century wrote in three different voices - one as the objective anthropologist studying the natives, another as the proselytising cleric who conjured up stories of cannibals and savages to garner support and funds from church communities back in England but he also wrote about his experiences as a human amongst equals.

The exhibition - a curious disjunction

The text panels, film and photographs speak multiple visual and conceptual narratives in the shared frame the exhibition. However, the curators have split the exhibition space into two main epistemic zones that talk at each other across a divide - not only spatially, but also in distinctly different visual languages. The violence of thought suggested, and act recorded, in the texts panels are at odds both with their own aesthetic language and that of the film and the framed photographs and their accompanying labels.

The revisionist text panels line up on one side of the display. Facing these, floating from ceiling suspensions in the central space and mounted on the opposite wall, are Cipriani's ethnographic photographs, beautifully framed and accompanied by their reductive, incorrect labels. The text panels tell of a troubled history of fascism and racism but are accessed visually through an Art Deco style - the fashionable and glamorous language of the 1920s and 30s. Opposite, Cipriani's ethnographic images speak about of the historyless and the primitive in the seductive language of the black and white photographic print while the film is a commercial enterprise made for European entertainment.

Homi Bhaba speaks about the 'split space of enunciation' - the crisis suffered by the display of non-Western cultures in the episteme of a Modernist space. Few curators engaged this troubled zone. While the curators of Siliva Zulu have provided a conceptual background from which the material can be re-read, they have kept the canons of western display intact.

Archives such as these are precious but they require South Africa to find new ways of telling and portraying its own version of this history. In the words of Edmund De Waal - we must rehearse the world differently. To dissect and uncover the importance of the material as well as the racist dogma underlying it would require narratives and visual representations of a radically different kind. While this exhibition is a great step forward in providing previously occluded backgrounds, the intensity of the experience would have increased if the curators had managed to interface the messages of the visual and the textual so that the connections are not just cerebral but become embedded in the very physical architecture and language of the display.

Nessa Leibhammer is the curator of traditional southern African art at the JohannesburgArtGallery. She writes in her personal capacity.


Te Archival Platform asked the Iziko curatorial team to respond to Nessa's review. Commenting that the voice of the curators were 'perhaps a little lost', Lalou Meltzer, Iziko's Director of Social History Collections, writing on behalf of her colleagues says that,

"I think an important aspect of the exhibition - viewed as process - not merely as a finished 'art work' - was the self-reflexivity it entailed about our own collections and their history, its significance in terms of the history of museum practice in South Africa and at the SA Museum in former times. I don't think this aspect gets picked up in the review but for us as curators it was very important and reason enough to pursue the interpretation around the writing of the texts. It was a further statement to install in the Slave Lodge and not the Iziko SAM - this gives another context to the exhibition.

Another is our deep-felt wish to unpack our own collections and create exhibitions which allow our collections formerly separated under conditions of colonialism and apartheid to coalesce in different ways. To display together beadwork from KZN with our English-made spectacles and scientific instruments.


Wth regard to the exhibitionary 'divide' or 'disjuncture' that the reviewer speaks of, perhaps it is a false dichotomy to contrast the two parts? The photographs are not treated in this exhibition as the production of 'Non-Western Cultures' but as performance by the film makers, anthropologists and in a few cases the actors or people themselves. This was the point of the exhibition. On another level the approach which could be typified more as an exploration of the social history of the times both in South Africa and Europe. This of course is only one approach and the archive could have been represented in other ways by focusing more closely on the people depicted and the detail of African life. With regard to the Art Deco style - it was a visual language of entertainment, fame, 'spectacle' and glamour also under conditions of fascism and Nazism in Europe. Yet, there remains much more to debate in the regard. We did originally envisage a much more integrated exhibition of text and image with the individual labels taking up some of the issues. Constraints of space and perhaps too long texts prevented this. But, the physical divide is by no means absolute as all the display cases bridge the room and the first large picture with context is on the same side as the photographs.

We are deeply interested in what the reviewer refers to as a future visual and narrative language for South Africa? We look forward to having discussions about this, and establishing if and how this has been tackled in exhibitions in South Africa, what legacies we have derived from displays of southern African art/ethnography in galleries and museums in South Africa and how we can part of a process of developing new museum languages of visual and textual expression and communication. We note in this regard with interest a forthcoming discussion at CAS.

We are glad the exhibition Siliva Zulu - Silent Pictures, Telling Stories is being given coverage on your platform and welcome the opportunity for discussion.

Lalou Meltzer, Gerald Klinghardt and Fiona Clayton, Social History Collections department, Iziko Museums.


Information boards, placed within the exhibition space provide context for the photographs by Cipriani in the exhibition Siliva Zulu. These boards introduce the work's genesis in capitalism by illustrating the commercial film's enlisting of an anthropologist as consultant, the historical climate both South Africa and Italy, as well as the presentation of the wider trajectory of the career of its maker and his associations with Mussolini's fascist regime and racial sciences. This highlights an issue I have come to grapple with in relation to the circulation/presentation of historic photographic material in exhibitions, and the rise of discourse as the centrepiece of visual exhibitions.

Siliva Zulu unmistakably responds to the rise of discourse and caters to the conditions and demands of our times. It does this successfully by actively negotiating the visual aspect as well as the discourse aspect of the exhibition. It is this success that makes me feel uneasy as I begin to worry more about the grip of visual studies on photography as an exhibition medium and the demands it places on photographic presentation.

The concept of the image/photograph as text from which history can be read or inscribed is rather unsettling. I would like to interrogate the status of the image or a photograph -, is it for viewing or is it for reading, or both? I find current trends emphasise the reading at the expense of the viewing. Within visual studies discourse the tropes of the camera as a gun has become rife. The camera as a gun is a popular trope across the genre of visual anthropology and visual studies and it has seen many manifestations in print. In South Africa its epitome is expressed in the book The Colonising Camera , where the blame of the violence inherent during the conditions that gave rise to the photograph are dumped exclusively on the camera. Historical inscription is therefore privileged over the photographic medium's neutrality, what ever that neutrality might be.

I am not suggesting that the discourse should not be given space, but rather am questioning the weight discourse receives and the pressure it puts on curatorial decisions...questioning its move from being additional material that supports the exhibition, to being the dominant narrative of the exhibition, reducing the photographs to an illustration.

In the exhibition Siliva Zulu the bigger portion of the visual space is given to the contextualisation boards while the photographs, although occupying a bigger space in square meters and laid out beautifully receive less visual space. It is spaced out in a grid formation over 3 blocks giving the frame within a frame view that encourages multiple visual narratives to be seen at one time, while the large boards occupy a full wall, towering over the images. They are presented in a colour heavy, pop art or Art Deco like style that detracts attention from the more classically presented black and white photographs.

The contextualisation of the film, as well as the placing of the anthropologist within a popular visual studies discourse, unintentionally places the photographs within photography's encounters with racial sciences as it has become popular with exhibitions of this nature. As a result the curators are cornered into disclosing the biography of the photographer within the frame of physical anthropology and racial sciences instead of within its own paradigm. I cannot help but attribute the inclination to frame the anthropologist in this manner by explicitly elaborating on racial sciences when the photographs in question are of a different genre , to the need to conform to the popular tropes of the visual studies discourse that paints the camera as dirty.

The trope of the camera as a gun in the discourse of the colonial plundering of Africa is pegged on the idea of anthropology and racial science's anthropometric photography as a dominant genre, were the search and the capture of physical types in photography is likened to the search and capture of a lion by a hunter who shoots, stuffs and preserves the animal as proof of his exploits to show off or compare with his peers. This is sustained by the fact that anthropometric photography emphasised the scientifically accurate rendition/capture of a subject on paper in a way that an anthropologist working in the field of racial sciences could gain “accurate” measurements of the body parts for comparative studies with other body parts rendered on paper in the same way. In essence the genre of anthropometric photography expressed a standardised format that used the camera in a specific way and catered to a specific group of specialists.

It is conceivable, as the information board on Cipriani's career illustrates, that some racial science photographs were made during the course of his consultation for the film, of which he doubled as his official fieldwork for his professional career, the complication for me arises because those anthropometric images are not the ones on display. The images on display are of a different genre and are a far cry from racial sciences. Obviously I use the term science loosely, to differentiate between what can be termed hard sciences and soft sciences- the difference between quantitative science and qualitative science.

The genre in question falls within a movement in anthropology that became popular in the 1910- 1960 period, although there is no clear name for this genre, ethnographic photography might be a good start. The genre arises out of the London School of Economics lead by Malinowski and his peers, which included a great number of South African anthropology's ancestors who practiced the same kind of photography here in South Africa that later influenced the likes of Ernest Cole.

This generation of ancestors had become tired of the racially inclined anthropology that had dominated their seniors and were more inclined to the social and cultural aspect of anthropology and over time it gave rise to the branch of social anthropology or cultural anthropology as distinct from physical anthropology or archaeology, taking the theory of structural functionalism as its starting point. What was important about this group was their approach to the method of using the camera. Where anthropometric photography depended heavily on the tripod, rigid compositional conventions, studio set ups and the bulk of their photographs being sourced from third parties, the group in question handled the camera with less rigidity and their composition was more in line with what we might today call snapshot or reportage photography, leaving the studio and tripod convention behind in favour of environmental photography where the subject in situ counted more. The most important aspect of this group was that they undertook to produce the photographs themselves, and took a great deal of photographs, and included a large amount of these photographs in their monographs. Anthropologists using anthropometric photography mainly published their reading of the photographs rather than the photographs themselves- the popularity of the physical type genre as a popular medium came from photos studios as a response to a trend in public consumption and mainly circulated outside of the racial science paradigm.

Obviously the advances in photographic equipment had a great influence on the style of 1910 group's photography, but the weight of its distinctness still remains with their imagined objectives. Their objectives were to document culture as it was, in context and in relation to other structures of the community as opposed to the solid blank background studio approach found in anthropometric photography.

This 1910 approach was to later be accused of perpetuating an ethnographic present that locked the subjects in a time warp. But even this criticism is inaccurate because the presence of the original photographic archives, as opposed to the single often cropped published photograph, offsets the very idea of perpetuating an ethnographic present - the archive's preservation of the wider context is proof of time passing, and this is found in the form of the full negative and the film roll (contact sheet) in the archive. The photograph as it is used in one particular moment (the published image) should be thought of as separate from the photographic object as it changes meaning over time (the whole ensemble of images, the full negative as well as the original print). This concept is illustrated on the information board by showing the published ethnographic photograph consisting of just the characters of Siliva Zulu as well as showing the succeeding photograph of the film crew and anthropologist together with the cast in the same setting, offsetting the published image's academic authority that frames the subject as a uncontaminated specimen of time unchanging.

Cipriani's photography falls in the time period when this genre of photography within anthropology had not completely replaced the former and he, as explained by the information boards and seen in the photographs on display, practiced both.

The main concern for me is the weight of discourse within the curatorial process, particularly when the dominance of one narrative can suggest/present/insert an inappropriate contextualisation for the curatorial project. Siliva Zulu is an exhibition about a particular kind of photographic genre, but yet, in its contextualisation, it is assumed to conform to a different convention even though it did not. This move, in its presentation of historic or anthropological photographs is not unique to Siliva Zulu, but forms part of an ever-increasing trend in the rise of visual studies discourse in exhibition making.

George Mahashe is an ARC columbarium fellow at UCT reading for an (MA[FA]).