Black Chronicles IV is an Autograph ABP touring exhibition curated by Renée Mussai, presented by the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre (VIAD) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). The exhibition will open at UJ’s FADA Gallery on 13 April and will run until 31 May 2018.
This stunning collection of rare images presents extraordinary stories of both ordinary and prominent black figures – artists, dignitaries, servicemen, missionaries, students, businessmen and international royalty. Black Chronicles IV includes portraits of key black South Africans such as Katie Makanya and Paul Xiniwe taken in London at the turn of the century. As members of the ‘African Intelligentsia’, these figures went on to become leading social activists and reformers. Alongside these notable personalities, the exhibition features portraits of such high-profile personae as Sarah Forbes Bonetta (protégée to Queen Victoria); Prince Alemayehu; and Kalulu, the ‘African boy servant’ (companion) to the British explorer Henry Morton Stanley.
Renée Mussai, Senior Curator and head of archive and research at the London-based organisation Autograph ABP, says that ‘the aim of the Black Chronicles series is to open up critical inquiry into the archive to locate new knowledge and support our mission to continuously expand and enrich photography’s cultural histories. Not only do the sitters’ visual presence in Britain bear direct witness to the complexities of colonial history, they also offer a fascinating array of personal narratives that defy pre-conceived notions of cultural diversity prior to the Second World War.
‘This collection discredits the notion that black faces in Victorian Britain were absent from the historical and visual record. The curatorial premise of Black Chronicles is to open up critical enquiry into the archive, continue the debate around black subjectivity within Britain, examine the ideological conditions in which such photographs were produced and the purpose they serve as agents of communication. At the heart of the exhibition is the desire to resurrect black figures from oblivion and re-introduce them into contemporary consciousness.’
A highlight of the Black Chronicles IV exhibition will be the inclusion of 200 images from leading African American scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois’s landmark collection of photographs, which he presented as The American Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition. These images have not been exhibited in South Africa (or on the African continent) before. The studio photographs, entitled Types of American Negroes, Georgia, U.S.A. and Negro Life in Georgia, U.S.A, show middle-class African American men and women, posing in Western dress. As such, they challenged the scientific ‘evidence’ and popular racist caricatures of the day that ridiculed and sought to diminish African American social and economic success. This remarkable collection can be read as the origins of a visual construction of a new post-slavery African American identity, providing extraordinary insight into the conditions and self-affirming expressions of black culture in the US at the end of the 19th century. These photographs present new knowledge – offering viewers alternative ways of seeing and thinking about black experiences in Victorian Britain and the US at the height of the colonial era.
‘We hope that the exhibition series will inspire people to ask questions, and to look closely, and critically, at the intimate connections between the visual, the history of the British Empire, through the presence of those photographed,’ says Mussai. She continues: ‘These “presences” are of course intimately connected to colonial and imperial politics. A citation in the exhibition by the late Professor Stuart Hall brilliantly states, “They are here, because you were there.” Hence in this fourth iteration of Black Chronicles in partnership with VIAD, we are connecting W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1900 Paris Albums with the 1891 LSC portraits of The African Choir, and other Black Victorian figures. Part of this re-framing is also a questioning – why it is only now – in the 21st century – that we are beginning to create a more inclusive visual portrait of a nation in the making…? Politics of access, gate-keeping and the marginalisation of histories are particularly relevant to consider here – as is the question of who is allowed to interrogate the Archive? – especially in the light of the emergence of decolonial work across the academy, the museum, etc.’
Another significant component of the exhibition is the sound and image-based installation, entitled The African Choir 1891 Reimagined. The installation comprises 16 individual photographic portraits of the original members of the African Choir, who toured Britain and the US between 1891 and 1893. The portraits will be augmented by a five-channel soundtrack of songs composed by Thuthuka Sibisi and Philip Miller as a creative re-imagining of the choirs’ 19th-century concert programme
Another significant component of the exhibition is the sound and image-based installation, entitled The African Choir 1891 Reimagined. The installation comprises 16 individual photographic portraits of the original members of the African Choir, who toured Britain and the US between 1891 and 1893. The portraits will be augmented by a five-channel soundtrack of songs composed by Thuthuka Sibisi and Philip Miller as a creative re-imagining of the choirs’ 19th-century concert programme. Made up of individuals educated at mission schools in Southern and South Africa, the choir included notable South African political activist and leader Charlotte Maxeke, who was the first black South African woman to graduate with a college degree, which she obtained from Wilberforce University, Wilberforce, Ohio, USA. By 1919, she was active in the South African anti-pass laws demonstrations, which led her to found the Bantu Women’s League, which later became part of the African National Congress Women’s League.
Previous iterations of Black Chronicles exhibitions have been showcased in such distinguished international venues as Rivington Place Gallery, London; the London National Portrait Gallery; the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery for African and African American Art (2015, Hutchins Center, Harvard University, Cambridge, MASS) and the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art (2016, Atlanta, Georgia). The profile and stature of these venues add to the already considerable provenance of the work.
In the build-up to the Black Chronicles IV exhibition at FADA, The African Choir installation showed at the Iziko South African National Gallery (SANG) (August 2017, Cape Town), and the Apartheid Museum (January 2018, Johannesburg). The South African Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) is funding costs associated with this travelling component of the exhibition, and UJ is providing funding towards the additional components of the Black Chronicles IV exhibition.