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Five Days of Intensive APC activity in London and Cambridge

1 Feb 2017 - 10:15
Professor Carolyn Hamilton presenting at the conference “South Africa: 3 Million Years of Art? Reconsidering Ontologies, Technologies and Agents”.
Professor Carolyn Hamilton presenting at the conference “South Africa: 3 Million Years of Art? Reconsidering Ontologies, Technologies and Agents”.

From the 27th to the 29th October 2016 four APC associated scholars—Carolyn Hamilton, Mbongiseni Buthelezi, Nessa Leibhammer and Catherine Elliott Weinberg—joined a group of international and other South African scholars in London and Cambridge for a number of events linked to the British Museum’s major autumn exhibition “South Africa:  The Art of a Nation” that opened to the public on the 27th October.

The exhibition was curated by two in-house British Museum curators, John Giblin and Chris Spring. The curators’ stated aims were to engage Britain’s problematic colonial legacy and to expand the public’s knowledge of South Africa. A further aim was to decolonise the collections at the British Museum by juxtaposing contemporary and historic artworks so as to ‘challenge early ethnographic collecting practices’ (see John Giblin quoted in review by Corrigall).  Ambitious in its range and time span covered, the exhibition includes one object that dates back 3 million years (the status of this item as artwork is, however, contested), rock art, objects from Mapungubwe, items collected during the colonial and apartheid era as well as contemporary works by artists including Kentridge, Sibande, Sibidi, Bester, Siopis, Davis and Nel.

While neither the exhibition nor the accompanying catalogue included input by South African curators or scholars, this was well represented at the linked conference “South Africa: 3 Million Years of Art? Reconsidering Ontologies, Technologies and Agents” conference,  a collaborative event organised by the British Museum and the University of Cambridge.

The conference kicked off on the opening night with short presentations by six of the delegates, each speaking to an object selected from the range on exhibition. Two APC scholars participated in this panel. Carolyn Hamilton revealed the distressing and inspiring aspects of power and status pertaining to the brass izingxotha or armlets awarded by Zulu kings for bravery. Evidence points to the fact that izingxotha, such as the three in the British Museum collection on exhibition, were most likely robbed from graves or taken off bodies on the battlefield. The 1836 portrayal of the Zulu king, Dingane, in dancing and ordinary dress by Allen Francis Gardiner is featured on the exhibition. Mbongiseni Buthelezi raised a concern voiced by contemporary generations of Zulu-speaking South Africans who ask what their ancestors might have looked like. Few images of leaders made at the time they were alive exist, one of which is this portrait of Dingane. As it is the only extant image of Dingane, it is reproduced, referred to and used repeatedly as evidence of his appearance however poor or misleading the depiction may be.

APC contributions to the conference included: Mbongiseni Buthelezi’s presentation on the oppression of the Ndwandwe in favour of a Zulu-centric identity in an apartheid homeland; Catherine Elliott Weinberg turned the focus back to the British Museum collections where she discussed their ethnographic holdings with particular attention to ten objects collected by Garnet Wolsely said to have belonged to Ceteshwayo and taken after the battle of Ulundi; the many aspects of archive and the rules of practice that give shape to what can, and cannot be said were Hamilton’s concerns; while Nessa Leibhammer spoke on how light in 19th, 20th and 21st South African two-dimensional imaging impacts significantly on what the image communicates.

The third linked event was a launch of the new double volume book by the APC, Tribing and Untribing the Archive: Identity and the Material Record in Southern KwaZulu-Natal in the Late Independent and Colonial Periods, edited by Carolyn Hamilton and Nessa Leibhammer. The book was launched on the 27th October, at a wellattended reception at the Museum of Archaeology
and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, by eminent Professor of Historical Anthropology, and Director of the Museum, Nicholas Thomas. Thomas described the publication as an ‘impressive’ and ‘major new book’ with an ‘exciting set of theoretical perspectives that have wide relevance beyond South Africa’.  He further asserted that the collaborative, multidisciplinary nature of the work, rather than a single author book, is the way forward in that, while unsettling, this strategy is fertile and ‘reaches across and beyond familiar boundaries’.  He commented on the serendipitous nature of the launch of the book at the conference and highlighted how the arguments set out in the book converged strikingly with concerns with which he and his colleagues at the MAA were currently engaged him.

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We reproduce Thomas’s welcome address here:

I am delighted to welcome participants in the conference, The Pasts and Presence of Art in South Africa, to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The event, convened by the McDonald Institute and the British Museum, has been supported by the Smuts Fund, Cambridge’s Centre for African Studies, and the McDonald— and it’s brilliant that their support brings so many South Africans to Cambridge and London for the conference, and to the BM’s South Africa: art of a nation exhibition. The show is, I think, formidably impressive. Like last year’s Australia: Enduring Civilisation—by the way, the double entendre of that title was intended and may be equally relevant to South Africa - the exhibition exemplifies an exciting and new readiness at the BM to relate great collections from the past to provocative and unsettling contemporary art, and to the challenges of the present that those works respond to and reflect upon.

In this museum, we care for expressions of human creativity from the past, but are concerned above all with their present significances - for students, researchers, curators, artist and communities, for audiences here and elsewhere - and the conceptual and social issues that they raise. We inhabit a time of seeemingly growing and increasingly dangerous political turbulence. In the higher education and cultural sectors in which we work, there is renewed, sometimes bitter contention around art, history, collections, museums, identity and education.

Here in Cambridge, a student-led campaign has advocated the return of a Benin bronze cockerel from the college to which it was gifted, not quite a century ago, by a participant in the 1897 punitive raid - surely the most notorious of all colonial appropriations of African art. Museums and universities will be stronger for engaging with debates of this kind and the opportunities for dialogue they throw up, as well as the real tensions they expose. Not only because it’s never enough to be reactive and defensive. Rather because we can extend our own engagements, deepen our understandings of the collections we care for, and foster discussion mindful of the contradictory complexities underlying apparently simple issues, maybe even point towards paths to reconciliation.

The questions framing The Pasts and Presence of Art in South Africa are ambitious, exciting and urgent. The same can be said of a major new book, the imminent publication of which we celebrate, this evening. I am the person here least qualified to comment on Carolyn Hamilton and Nessa Leibhammer’s remarkable two-volume work, Tribing and Untribing the archive, subtitled Identity and the material record in Southern Kwa-Zulu Natal in the late independent and colonial periods. But it’s clear even to me that the book offers remarkably rich and specific discussion of particular artefacts, the formation of particular collections, histories of encounter and of ‘tribing’ - the formation and reification of identities in the context of colonial intrusion and governance - generating what they refer to as a ‘pernicious combination of tribe and tradition’ that has pervasive and deeply seated legacies in the present. Equally importantly, the book proposes a broader, exciting set of theoretical perspectives that have wide relevance beyond South Africa, and they concern the ‘archive’: the ‘material record’ of the title, richly conceived not as an inert repository but a dynamic formation, undergoing losses and gains of all kinds, susceptible to continuing reclassification and revaluation. These arguments converge very strikingly with reflection upon the constitution of collections, and museum collections particularly, that colleagues here at MAA and I have been engaged in. What museums contain are not just masses of individual artefacts, any more than nations are made up of masses of individuals or square kilometres. Nations are constituted out of institutions of governance and forms such as citizenship, and the shadows of it available to migrants and refugees, they are made out of internal and external relationships, they are contested narratives. Absurd as the analogy may appear, collections are similarly made up out of principles of exclusion and inclusion, relationships of many kinds, and identities and narratives that are certainly contested. They are like layered archaeological sites, marked by erosion and accumulation. The work of their investigation and critique is challenging and fascinating, it speaks to the present in multiple ways, and its potential is powerfully exemplified in Tribing and Untribing the Archive. I’m glad that Nessa Leibhammer’s participation in a joint fellowship programme, Art and Museums in Africa, convened by this museum and the Centre for African Studies over 2012-13 enabled her work towards the book to be advanced, and I hope we can continue to support partnerships of this kind with South African colleagues.

A final thought. Academics are routinely ranked and rewarded for single-author books and articles. On my quick count there are nineteen contributors to this impressive work. Here, we launched a comparable exploration of our Pacific collections a couple of weeks ago: Artefacts of Encounter* had about seventeen contributors, I think from seven countries.

There is a growing sense that the most innovative, cross-disciplinary, culturally and politically critical scholarship is tested and realised through partnerships of this kind, that connect scholars across many disciplines, artists, curators, community members, customary experts, as well as, more obviously people from different countries and institutions. Such meetings and collaborations throw up genuine tensions and difficulties that are challenging, even sometimes impossible, to fully understand and resolve. This may be the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology but it feels sometimes as though it should be called the Museum of Difficult Histories. The new style of collaborative, perhaps unsettling, certainly fertile engagement, which reaches across and beyond familiar academic boundaries, marks both Tribing and Untribing the Archive and ‘The Pasts and Presences of Art in South Africa’; this way of working is surely the future: the kind of knowledge that archives, collections and museums are best placed to explore, negotiate and exhibit to the broadest publics we can reach. I’m delighted that MAA is contributing to these encounters and conversations, and hope that we can play a part in extending them: please revisit this museum and continue to work with us.

* Nicholas Thomas, Julie Adams, Billie Lythberg, Maia Nuku and Amiria Salmond (eds.), Artefacts of Encounter: Cook’s voyages, colonial collecting and museum histories (Dunedin: University of Otago Press / Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2016).