An exhibition exploring the legacies of colonialism in the present through the re-engagement with an early anthropological archive gathered in West Africa

[Re:]Entanglements: Colonial Collections in Decolonial Times” was an exhibition at the Museum Of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge that ran from 22nd June 2021 to the 20th April 2022. The exhibition re-engaged and interrogated a remarkable ethnographic archive and featured a collection of films by The Light Surgeons created in collaboration with the lead researcher and anthropologist Paul Basu.

These audio-visual works included the short film “Faces | Voices”, winner of the best research film award at the AHRC film festival in 2020, the film “Unspoken Stories”, created in collaboration with Storyteller Olusola Adebiyi and the film “Lines, Faces, Fragments”, a portrait of artist Ozioma Onuzulike. The exhibition also featured a dynamic projection that displayed a feed of ongoing research and fieldwork from the wider project.

The [Re]Entanglements project reunited a vast collection of objects, photographs, sound recordings, and botanical specimens assembled by the colonial anthropologist, N. W. Thomas, in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915. This exhibition juxtaposed these historical archives and collections with a collection of contemporary responses of West African artists and diaspora community members’ responses to this material.

Drawing on several years of fieldwork in West Africa and work created for a series of smaller exhibitions in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, this exhibition brought together a diverse collection of stories and themes from the project’s research with objects and images from the collection to pose a series of difficult questions about the legacies of colonialism in the present.

This project was rooted in the concept of reigniting archival affordances and sought to better understand the historical context in which these materials were gathered to re-think their significance in the present. It asks what they mean for different communities today, what actions they make possible and how might we creatively explore their latent possibilities in the present.

This exhibition was the culmination of a three-year-long research project funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council entitled ‘Museum Affordances’, led by Professor Paul Basu at SOAS University of London along with several other academic and cultural partnerships in the UK, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and beyond.

These include the various institutions across which this ethnographic archive has been dispersed, including the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the British Library Sound Archive, the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Royal Anthropological Institute, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the UK National Archives.

This project also led to the production of a feature documentary film entitled “Ichi: Marks In Time”, co-directed and produced by Paul Basu and studio creative director Christopher Thomas Allen.

Professor Paul Basu is now based at the Pitt Rivers Museum and School of Anthropology at the University of Oxford.

Exhibition Documentation Credits:

Creative Direction:Christopher Thomas Allen & Paul Basu
Production Assistance:Malcolm Liston
Camera: Christopher Thomas Allen
Editor:Christopher Thomas Allen
Music:Ikenna Onwuegbuna
Sound Design:Tim Cowie

Related Projects: