By Nomali Cele
If you have wondered where black people’s representation is in Victorian times and the 19th century, here it is
The Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre (VIAD) housed in the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Johannesburg is the well-placed to house the “Black Chronicles IV “exhibition, which has recently landed in South Africa. The UJ gallery and research centre is all about expanding our understanding of evolving black identities.
“Black Chronicles IV ” is a touring photographic exhibition by Autograph ABP that features over 200 images that have been reproduced from WEB Du Bois’ iconic “American Negro” exhibition from the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Curated by London-based art historian, writer and curator, Renée Mussai, Black Chronicles IV features photographs of ordinary and well-known black people from across time including Previously, Mussai curated “Black Chronicles II,” which was critically acclaimed. In a note from the curator, Mussai writes, “The aim of the “Black Chronicles’ series is to open up critical inquiry into the archive to locate new knowledge, and support our ongoing mission to continuously expand and enrich photography’s cultural histories.”
In the lead-up to the Kaya Book Club discussion of “The Land Is Ours” we highlighted such black South African academics as Richard Msimang and Pixley ka Seme whose early education and careers involved going overseas either for university or to qualify to practice law. “Black Chronicles IV” features photographs of such black South Africans who went overseas at the turn of the 20th century, including Katie Makanya a performer and Paul and Eleanor Xiniwe, performers and hoteliers.
The African Choir, young South African singers that toured Britain between 1891 and 1893, are a big part of the “Black Chronicles IV” exhibition. The photographs, which had not been seen in over 120 years were first featured in Black Chronicles II in 2014, have come home and visitors to the exhibition can enjoy the history and beautiful photographs. The section of the exhibition featuring The African Choir features studio portraits of all sixteen (fourteen men and women and two children) members of the choir, including political activist Charlotte Maxeke!
According to Mussai, Black Chronicles IV is groundbreaking because of how far back the archive goes.”Based on current research, the portraits unearthed as part of Black Chronicles constitute the most comprehensive body of photographs depicting the black subject in Victorian Britain,” says Mussai in her curator’s note. The audio-visual installation, “The African Choir 1891 Re-imagined” alone is worth a visit. Most of the images in the exhibition are being seen in South Africa for the first time.
UPDATE: Listen to Kojo Baffoe share his thoughts on the “Black Chronicles IV” exhibition and interviews with several art practitioners involved in the exhibition on Life with Kojo Baffoe: