Tribing and Untribing the Archive

I recently attended this workshop in Johannesburg. See details below, Grant.

The Origins Centre at the University of Witwatersrand hummed over the weekend of 24 and 25 March during a workshop co-hosted by the APC initiative and the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG). The workshop on ‘tribing and untribing the archive’ brought together established and emerging archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, curators, visual artists and others contributing to an APC-JAG collaboration that focuses on the material culture archive pertinent to the Thukela-Mzimkhulu region(1750-1910), located mostly, but not exclusively, in collections.

Museums and galleries all over South Africa, as well as in many cities in Western Europe and North America, have long displayed African cultural artefacts as ‘tribal’ curiosities. Since the decolonization of Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, some of these institutions have graduated to displaying what their curatorial staff see as the more aesthetically pleasing of these artefacts as objects of African tribal ‘art’. Only a few move beyond historyless ethnographic perspectives and build cultural artefacts into displays where they speak as items made in societies with histories rather than just ‘customs’. The workshop had the specific aim of recasting such objects and photographs as archival items, that is, as items from the past that carry histories, and that come alive in the present as both sources in the business of rethinking the history of African societies in pre-industrial times, and as the subjects of archival histories. One of the central questions of the workshop was what happens when the historian starts with material objects as sources, as against documentary sources and recorded oral histories?

The workshop focused deliberately on the region that is now southern KwaZulu-Natal and the northern part of Eastern Province. This region lies on the margins of what, since the early twentieth century at least, have been widely seen as the ‘Zulu’ cultural area to the north and the ‘Xhosa’ cultural area to the south. Documentary records and recorded oral histories that respectively reach back 150 and 250 years indicate that the making of identities in this region has been a very complex process, with number of small groups sometimes falling under the political and cultural domination of larger ones like ‘the Zulu’, and at other times able to maintain a certain autonomy; sometimes setting themselves off politically and culturally against larger groups, and at other times aligning with one or other of them; sometimes declaring their allegiance to the colonial authorities in Natal (proclaimed a British colony in 1843), and at other times repudiating it.

What can a focus on the ‘archive’ of cultural objects and photographs that survive in museums and galleries tells us about the making of culture and of identities in a fluid situation of this kind? Where do the notions of ‘tribe’ and ‘tribal culture’, long established in Western thinking about Africa, rejected by many African and Western intellectuals since the mid-twentieth century, but now enjoying something of an official comeback in South Africa, fit into this kind of historical perspective? These were the big questions asked at the workshop. Contributors presented and discussed their draft papers and accompanying visuals with fellow researchers over the course of two days.

Framing the project, APC Chair Carolyn Hamilton noted how today’s understandings of the precolonial and colonial past are the products of complex historical processes which included the making of what is available to us as possible archives for enquiry into those periods. As articulated by historian and APC Honorary Research Fellow John Wright, the intention of the workshop and the book is the historicisation of those archives and the historicisation of our ways of thinking about the precolonial and colonial past. Fuelled by the productive cross-disciplinary synergies and intersections across papers, and lively discussions during the workshop, the contributors will rework their papers for an upcoming publication that forms part of APC’s ongoing project, Ethnologised Pasts and their Archival Futures.


The Workshop programme included the following papers:

Simon Hall and Gavin Whitelaw, ‘Archaeological contexts and social categories before the Zulu state’

John Wright ‘Making identities in the Thukela-Mzinmvubu region, c.1770 to c.1940: a historical outline’

Nokuthula Cele, ‘The historiography of the Kwamachi People: a frontier community between AmaZulu and AmaMpondo in the nineteenth-century’

Heather Hughes and Mwelela Cele, ‘“We of the white men’s country”: examining the making of the Qadi chiefdom‘

Sam Challis, ‘Re-tribe and resist: the deliberate ethnogenesis of a creolised raiding band in response to colonisation’

Norman Etherington, ‘AT Bryant’s map of the native clans in pre-Shakan times’

Jeff Guy, ‘The tribal history project 1862-1864’

Carolyn Hamilton and Nessa Leibhammer, ‘Salutes, labels and other archival artefacts’

Christoph Rippe, ‘The uncertainty in curation – ethnographic photographs and objects from the Mariannhill Mission in KwaZulu-Natal (1880s-1930s)’

Caroline Jeannerat, ‘Notes towards a paper on German missionaries and material culture from the Thukela-Mzimkhulu region, 1850 to 1910’

Andre Croucamp, ‘Imagining Natal by rail’

Sandra Klopper, ‘A man of splendid appearance’

Sandra Klopper, ‘Zulu dandies: the history and significance of extravagant hairstyling among young men from colonial Natal’

Jeff Guy, ‘A paralysis of perspective’

Anitra Nettleton, ‘Curiosity and aesthetic delight – the snuff spoon as synecdoche in some nineteenth-century collections from Natal and the Zulu Kingdom’

Catherine Elliott Weinberg, ‘“From Natal”: tracing the provenance of a selection of mid-nineteenth century Christy Collection objects at the British Museum’

Sara Byala and Ann Wanless, ‘Getting to know the Zulu in MuseumAfrica’

Sandra Klopper, ‘Nqaba’d izingubo:indigenous resistance to the adoption of European dress codes in early colonial Natal’

Hlonipha Mokoena, ‘“Knobkerrie” – some preliminary notes on the transformation of a weapon into a swagger stick’

Grant McNulty, ‘Archival aspirations and anxieties: contemporary preservation and production of the past in Umbumbulu, KwaZulu-Natal’

Nontobeko Ntombelo, A visual presentation on ‘Memorising Langa Magwa and Nicholas Hlobo’

source: Originally published on the Archives and Public Culture Gazette

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