Rediscovered: Human rights activist Charlotte Maxeke was photographed in London during the African Choir’s tour of the UK from 1891 to 1893. Picture: SUPPLIED
Rediscovered: Human rights activist Charlotte Maxeke was photographed in London during the African Choir’s tour of the UK from 1891 to 1893. Picture: SUPPLIED

The story of the African Choir of 1891 has been quite widely chronicled. The amazing journey is written about in at least three books and is the subject of a theatre production, television documentary and growing academic research.

Jane Collins, a professor of theatre and performance at Wimbledon College of Arts, is the author of the theatrical production Umuntu, Ngumuntu, Ngabantu: The Story of the African Choir. She explains that after an African American group called the Virginian Jubilee Singers visited SA in 1890, members of choirs at mission stations in Kimberley and Lovedale were inspired to emulate them.

Author Veit Erlmann, in his book, South Africa and the West, wrote how this event "set the minds of black South Africans ablaze by evoking ideas of freedom and development".

A South African Jubilee Choir organised by two white professional performers and entrepreneurs, Walter Letty and John Balmer, was assembled. The choir was led by Paul and Eleanor Xiniwe and included the famous human rights activist Charlotte Maxeke (née Manye) and her sister Katie Makanya.

"The majority of the choir were educated by missionaries, who saw education as the means to enlightenment and freedom," says Collins.

Rediscovered: Choir leader Eleanor Xiniwe was  was photographed in London during the African Choir’s tour of the UK from 1891 to 1893. Picture: SUPPLIED
Rediscovered: Choir leader Eleanor Xiniwe was was photographed in London during the African Choir’s tour of the UK from 1891 to 1893. Picture: SUPPLIED

In 1890, a group of young people from Kimberley performed around the Eastern Cape and the following year, a tour was arranged to the UK.

Paul Xiniwe, "a black nationalist", invested some of his own money as well as funding from the church and possibly the government. The official mission of the African Choir was to raise funds for education, but it was also a commercial venture.

Their goals were not achieved, as Collins explains.

"They underestimated the inherent racism of the British establishment and the objectives of the imperial regime."

In London, the Stereoscopic Company arranged a photo-shoot of the choir and placed the shots in the Hulton archive, part of the Getty Image Library.

The images were rediscovered in 2014 by Reneé Mussai, a senior curator at London gallery Autograph ABP.

As part of a research programme, Black Chronicles/The Missing Chapter archive, the images were printed and exhibited at Harvard University in Boston and the National Gallery in London in the same year.

Mussai describes it as "significant not only for the history of photography in relation to race and representation — but also in the context of wider cultural histories on a global scale".

The Missing Chapter archive is founded on the ideals of the late professor Stuart Hall and explores the relationship between the British colonialists and colonised Africans.

"The explicit mission is to depict black people in Britain during the 19th century, and redress the visual record and re-insert black figures into a history of representation [that is] often unbalanced," says Mussai.

Individuals in the choir had different motivations for visiting the UK. When Maxeke left SA as a 20-year-old, "she wanted to raise consciousness about the plight of miners and conditions in the mines. In London and Manchester, she associated with many of the radicals and suffragettes," says Collins.

Maxeke was the first black South African woman with a degree; a US university awarded her a BSc in 1901. In 1913, she led the women’s pass law marches. She was a founding member of the Bantu Women’s League and the AME Church’s Widow’s Mite Society, which contributed enormously to education.

Sound artist Phillip Miller was inspired by the story when reading the book, The Calling of Katie Makanya by Margaret McCord. He recalls how Makanya, the song bird of the African Choir, was invited to return to London on contract and flatly refused. "This speaks to questions of alienation, displacement and being looked at as the other. Their experiences abroad were complicated, good and bad, a real human story."

Miller and his partner Thuthuka Sibisi, who worked with William Kentridge in Rome, partnered with Autograph ABP to create a sound installation reconstructed from a recital programme of the African Choir’s performance for Baroness Burdett-Coutts, a philanthropist.

Our idea was to imagine a sound world of the voices for the choir which examines its relationship to the ‘silence’ of the photographs
Sound artist Phillip Miller

"This programme was divided into two halves, a western section that included Christian hymns, classical music and popular arias, and traditional African songs, some written by important choral composers John Bokwe and Rev Tiyo Soga," says Miller.

The programme closed with God Save the Queen, which the choir performed on invitation to Queen Victoria at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

The sound installation was imagined as a counterpoint to the images and a "subjective revision of the original programme", as Sibisi terms it.

Together with 15 young vocal collaborators, Miller and Sibisi engaged in improvised and collaborative workshops in Cape Town during 2015.

The reimagined choir work-shopped and recorded four songs from the original repertoire in a capella style.

Rossini’s Cujus animam shifts across many genres, exploring the relationship of opera to choral music through barber-shop blues. A traditional Xhosa hymn juxtaposes male and female voices. Bokwe’s composition Ulo Tixo Mkulu is rendered and God Save the Queen shifts from a four-part harmony via a Norwegian improviser to a gospel and isicathamiya sound, with traces of imbongi praise poetry. A new soundscape called Footstamps was added.

"Our idea was to imagine a sound world of the voices for the choir which examines its relationship to the ‘silence’ of the photographs," says Miller.

Sibisi says time and place were brought to the fore by the collaboration between the sound and image — "giving voice to ghostly bodies".

The 30-minute sound installation premiered in London in 2016 alongside the enlarged modern silver gelatin prints of the portraits.

Eleanor Xiniwe is the iconic feature image of the selection. She is dressed splendidly with a look of resilience in her eye.

Maxeke is dressed in beads with an imitation cow-skin blouse. She looks bemused. A well-dressed Indian man in the group wears a head wrap.

"It not only humanises their presence, but firmly locates their story in the contemporary," says Mussai. "It opens up a new dialogue about the relationship between archive, sound and the visual in the present."

The installation opens at the Iziko National Museum in Cape Town and runs until November. It will then travel to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

A digital projection is hosted at Cape Town Civic Centre as part of the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape’s contribution to the Consortium for Humanities Centres Institutes annual conference at the Castle of Good Hope. Entitled The Humanities Improvised, it discusses the relationship of the humanities to arts and new technologies.

"Bringing the work ‘home’ to SA is profoundly meaningful. It’s coming full circle," says Mussai. 

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