World History Sources Logo
Finding World Histoy Heading Graphic

G. I. Jones, Photographic Archive of Southeastern Nigerian Art and Culture

John C. McCall, Southern Illinois University

Reviewed by:
Eric Allina-Pisano
Colgate University
October 2003

This site consists of approximately 350 photographs of artwork from the Igbo-speaking regions of southeastern Nigeria. A link to the author’s home page offers additional web resources that complement those available here. The bulk of the images depict masks, pots, drums, and carvings. A great number of the photographs show masks in use, worn by Nigerians as they participate in dances, festivals, and initiation rites.

The photographs are a small sample drawn from the archive of G. I. Jones, a South African-born British colonial officer and anthropologist. The photographs, taken in the 1930s, date from his 20-year tenure in the British Colonial Service as an Administrative Officer in Nigeria. Jones later lectured in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge for 25 years. The site contains a 500-word biography of Jones’s professional career; this constitutes the only substantive text on the site. There are five links to additional websites that contain images of African art. The bibliography refers almost exclusively to African art; non-specialists will benefit from additional resources in African history and West African ethnography.

The sheer number of images may be somewhat overwhelming, particularly because the site lacks a search function and the main index groups the photographs into 11 categories based on specific Igbo subgroups. This organization may be initially daunting for viewers unfamiliar with the ethnographic geography of southeastern Nigeria. However, one needs only a modest intrepidness and the index will quickly deliver the images, which are distinguished by their size, brightness, and clarity. The images are all black and white, which may disappoint viewers more used to the full range of living color common to many online resources, but the photography is exemplary from a technical standpoint. The indexes are easily navigated and load quickly.

The site describes itself as a “research resource” for those personally or professionally interested in the art, history, and ethnography of southeastern Nigeria. It is also a valuable resource for those interested in the history of photography in Africa. The majority of the images are shot in-situ, rather than in a museum, and this is one of the site’s great strengths. There are only a few instances in which the controlled environment of a museum shot would make it easier to discern the finer details of the elaborately designed and intricately decorated artwork. Many of the photographs show masked performers amidst their audience, graphically representing the interaction between art form and viewer. For the most part, the images are refreshingly free of the uncovered female torsos so common to much of the period ethnographic photography.

Some captions are too brief, such as the image labeled merely “A mask called ‘Government.’“ The mask appears to be that of a European face. The person wearing the mask is dressed in white and stands with arms akimbo, sporting a cane and wearing the pith helmet favored by British colonial administrators. Clearly the mask represents the “Man on the Spot” who so often embodied colonial government to African communities. But a viewer hungers for more information on the context in which the mask was worn and especially on how audiences received it.

An image titled “Christian grave with angel“ neatly captures the limits and the possibilities the site offers. The image shows a life-size statue wearing what appears to be a pith helmet, perched atop a grave and looming over an angel. The combination of cultural symbols raises tantalizing questions about the impact of Christianity on local cosmologies—questions that the four-word caption cannot hope to satisfy. Nevertheless, the photograph represents a kind of spiritual syncretism common all across the continent, and could open a discussion of how people in Africa and elsewhere negotiated their encounter with Christianity as they selected, incorporated, and expressed new religious ideas within local idioms. There are other excellent examples of cultural assimilation, such as an image titled “Train juju“ that depicts a train “made by the people of Nike in honor of the railway that runs through their land.”

The broad range of material culture that the images represent make them a powerful resource for classroom use on topics including indigenous religions and colonialism. The site could serve as an excellent companion to Things Fall Apart,1 a work taught in a number of historical fields. Achebe’s descriptions of Igbo religion and culture are some of the book’s most gripping passages, yet many students struggle with their cultural unfamiliarity. The photographs of masks, drums, and shrines show them as part of people’s lives rather than as exoticized artifacts. As such, the site succeeds in putting a human face on what might otherwise be, for most students in the western world, very unfamiliar ethnographic details.

1 Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Anchor Books, 1994).

finding world history | unpacking evidence | analyzing documents | teaching sources | about

A project of the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University,
with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation
© 2003-2005 center for history & new media