Rediscovering the African choir that toured Victorian Britain

Between 1891 and 1893, members of The African Choir, a South African musical group, toured Britain to raise money for a technical college in their home countries to support the growth of the black workforce. The choir performed “to great acclaim and large audiences in the principal halls and for Queen Victoria at Osborne House, [a royal residence in the Isle of Wight]“, explains Renée Mussai, principal curator at Autograph. Shoreditch Art Gallery is renowned for championing photography that explores socio-political issues.

The choir had 16 members. There were seven women, seven men and two young altar boys, Albert Jonas and John Xiniwe. During this trip, portraits of the singers were made on glass plates, before the images were forgotten for more than a century. These included vibrant images of the two young boys, Albert and John, both short and thin with short hair, often laughing with each other and playing with props in baggy pants and shirts.

“The set was shot by the London Stereoscopic Company, which was one of the world’s very first commercial photo agencies, if not the very first, working much like Getty Images does today,” says editor Jennifer Jeffries. archival chief at Getty Images, noting that “a plausible explanation” for the images of the choir that did not make it into the history books is that they did not fit the unflattering narrative and stereotypes of Africans in the ‘era.

“Some members were graduates of the Alice campus of Lovedale College,” she adds. Lovedale College is a mission school in the Eastern Cape Province and today Alice is their most rural campus, focusing on agriculture. “It’s unclear who actually shot the set, but I think it may have been Reinhold Thiele, a German photographer, who was working for LSC at the time.”

But, despite having been mostly inaccessible for nearly 130 years, these images can now be found online as part of Getty Images’ Black History and Culture Collection (BHCC), an initiative that provides free access to a curated selection of nearly 30,000 rare images from Africa. and the black diaspora in the United Kingdom and the United States from the 19th century to the present day. Kwame Asiedu, project manager for BHCC, believes that if photos such as those in the archive had been available to him as a young boy, it would have helped him find solutions to the questions he had growing up about being a child. to be a black man in Britain. “Images are powerful,” he says. “I’m not saying that my questions would have been answered, but these images would have given me some comfort.”

What excites Kwame most today is how creatives and educators will use the BHCC to teach black people about their history. “Without these photos, you could not carry out certain projects. I used to teach at a Saturday school, and we would often find ourselves in a situation where we saw a picture, and we just couldn’t use them,” he says. “When you read why people want to use the collection, the projects they describe are vast and expansive.”

The photos of The African Choir are among the earliest BHCC photographs. According to Renée, the images were unearthed at the Hulton Archive, a division of Getty widely considered to be one of the oldest and most comprehensive archives of all time. They were found in 2014 as part of Autograph’s The Missing Chapter: Black Chronicles – a research program, a set of exhibitions and a forthcoming book. The glass plate negatives were among several others and wrapped in parchment paper.

“That’s one of the reasons they look so ‘contemporary’,” says Renée. “It is incredibly rare to be able to print and scan archival photographs from this era working with the original plate materials, as opposed to the more familiar, often faded, vintage sepia prints.” Therefore, photos could be reproduced in black and white at a high quality for Autograph’s Black Chronicles exhibitions. “The photograph itself is remarkable, as are the expressive faces of the models – looking closely, every detail is meticulously recorded, every pore of Eleanor Xiniwe’s beautiful skin is preserved under a microscope, every crease in the fabric of her draped garment and its registered headscarf for prosperity.” Eleanor was the wife of Paul Xiniwe, the oldest member of The African Choir and a member herself.

What also sets these images apart today is how the singers are depicted. According to Renée, although the portraits conform to certain conventions and stereotypes of the time, both in terms of Victorian studio portraits and depictions of black characters, “they also disrupt these ideas”, as shown in the photos of ‘Albert and John.

In one particular image, one of the boys sits in front of a large camera as if posing for a photo. At the same time, the other stands behind the camera as if taking a picture. Renée believes the image opens up a “wonderful and deeply contemporary urgent conversation about agency, subjectivity, performativity and self-representation”.

A boy is seated posing in front of a Victorian camera.  The other boy is behind the camera and gesturing as if he is about to take a picture
South African singers Albert Jonas and John Xiniwe, of The African Choir, at a staged photographic portrait session, 1891. The choir, made up of seven different South African tribes, toured Britain from 1891 to 1893 to raise funds for a technical college in their home country. (Photo by London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

According to the research, the photos were created “as promotional images to advertise the choir’s tour,” says Renée, which she notes national media shared with the public as singers dressed in “indigenous costumes “. “It was important to include the contrasting images of the individual members of the choir both dressed in what the managers and probably what the white audience saw as the expected ‘exotic’ outfits, but also in ‘alternative’ clothing that , again, were probably obligated to engage the public at the time,” adds Jennifer, the archive’s editor.

Fittingly, what they were wearing in these images also highlights the nature of their performances. Their shows were split into two halves. In the first part of the show, they performed African folk songs and compositions by South African musicians, the second – Christian hymns in English.

“The transition between the two acts was signaled by a change in costume – from ‘indigenous’ African dress to ‘local’ Victorian attire,” says Renée. “A sartorially and musically orchestrated transformation to illustrate a generative journey from ‘native’ to ‘civilized’ that was a common trope in popular 19th century ‘exotic’ entertainment. »

As uncomfortable as these problematic little details may be by modern standards, they highlight a largely unknown and multifaceted part of black British history in the Victorian era. The one that, at first glance, seems to have been made today. “They have the impression of belonging simultaneously to the present and to the past,” says Renée.

The next autograph book Black Chronicles edited by Renée Mussai will be published in 2023. Getty Images’ Black History and Culture collection is available on line.

Our groundbreaking journalism relies on the crucial support of a community of gal-dem members. We wouldn’t be able to continue to hold truth to power in this industry without them, and you can support us from £5 per month – less than a weekly coffee. Our members get exclusive access to events, independent brand discounts, newsletters from our editors, quarterly giveaways, print magazines and more!

Comments are closed.