Accepted Paper:

Voicing Silences in the Colonial Anthropological Archive  
Paul Basu (University of Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

Focusing on the physical type photographic portraits made by Government Anthropologist, N. W. Thomas, in West Africa in the early 20th century, this presentation discusses our filmic interventions addressing the 'absent voices' and 'silences' in the colonial anthropological archive.

Paper long abstract:

Over the past four years the [Re:]Entanglements project has been interrogating and intervening in the archival legacies of a series of surveys undertaken by the Government Anthropologist, Northcote Thomas, in Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915. This vast archive, including photographs, wax cylinder sound recordings, artefact collections, botanical specimens, fieldnotes and publications, was dispersed to different institutions and has lain dormant for over a century. Among these archives are thousands of physical type photographic portraits of men, women and children. Such photographs epitomize the violences of colonial race science, objectifying people, and treating them as specimens to be collected (vicariously, through photography) to be compared and classified. Some of those photographed are named, others represented merely by numbers. Their voices appear to be absent: silences in the archive. In this presentation I draw upon Tina Campt's proposition that such photographs have the capacity 'to rupture the sovereign gaze of the regimes that created them', and that if we 'listen to' them, rather than simply 'look at' them, we may discover that they are not silent at all. In the light of Campt's arguments, I discuss some of the filmic interventions we have conducted as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project as we have sought to 'unsilence' and 'voice' the colonial photographic archive through different collaborative strategies. Further details of the project can be found at

Panel P27b
Colonial Film Archives: Interrogations and Interventions
  Session 1