Historical 1891 performance re-created at Iziko

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The African Choir 1891 Re-Imagined is a contemporary multimedia installation based on The African Choir’s first tour to Victorian England in 1891.

Charlotte Maxeke (née Manye), The African Choir. London, 1891. By London Stereoscopic Company ©Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
Charlotte Maxeke (née Manye), The African Choir. London, 1891. By London Stereoscopic Company ©Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

The installation is at the Iziko South African National Gallery from 9 August to 13 November , with songs composed and arranged by Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi, curated by Renée Mussai.

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The African Choir 1891 Re-Imagined was first shown at Autograph ABP, London in 2016 and is a collaboration between Autograph ABP and Tshisa Boys Productions. It premieres in South Africa at the Iziko South African National Gallery on National Women’s Day and will feature guest presentations by the creators of the exhibition.

The installation features five re-created songs by the composers Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi, drawn from an original nineteenth-century concert programme. They are presented together with twenty photographic portraits of the choir members.

Drawn from various mission stations and church choirs in the Eastern Cape, including graduates from Lovedale College, the original sixteen-member ensemble included seven men and seven women, plus two children. They toured Britain and the USA between 1891-93, ostensibly raising funds to build a technical college. They performed to great acclaim to large audiences, and before Queen Victoria in the summer of 1891.

Paul Xiniwe, The African Choir. London, 1891. By London Stereoscopic Company ©Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
Paul Xiniwe, The African Choir. London, 1891. By London Stereoscopic Company ©Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Although the original performances were never recorded, composers Miller and Sibisi, working with fifteen young singers in Cape Town over a period of two years, recreated the repertoire and crafted a powerful and intimate sonic experience. In partnership with Autograph ABP; this has recently been developed into a CD.

The portraits of the choir members, made in July 1891 by the London Stereoscopic Company, are modern silver gelatin prints printed from vintage glass plates. The latter were rediscovered by Autograph ABP at the Hulton Archive (a division of Getty Images), after lying dormant for 125 years. The portraits were first exhibited to critical acclaim in 2014. Based on research to date, they represent the most comprehensive body of portraits depicting Africans in Victorian London.

This exhibition is a culmination of projects which connect the composers with the curatorial research led by Renée Mussai as part of Autograph ABP’s on-going Black Chronicles/The Missing Chapter archive research programme. Together, they form an artistic representation that humanises and gives voice to an important episode in both British and South African history long unknown by contemporary audiences, intimately linked to wider politics of empire, expansion and imperial narratives.

Eleanor Xiniwe, The African Choir. London, 1891. By London Stereoscopic Company ©Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
Eleanor Xiniwe, The African Choir. London, 1891. By London Stereoscopic Company ©Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

As part of its National Women’s Day programme and this exhibition opening, Iziko will facilitate a public discussion at the Iziko South African National Gallery on 9 August at 1pm. Curator Renée Mussai (Autograph ABP) and composers Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi (Tshisa Boys Productions) will present on their collaboration and other on-going research projects.

A site-specific, multimedia installation will overlap with the exhibition premiere at ISANG, as part of the Centre for Humanities Research’s conference (of the University of the Western Cape) taking place at the Castle of Good Hope. This digital installation will be presented at the Cape Town Civic Centre Main Concourse daily between 8am and 5pm. The Centre for Humanities Research will also host a composers’ introductory session at the Civic Centre Concourse between 5pm and 6pm on 10 August 2017.

  • Autograph ABP is a London-based arts charity that works internationally in photography and film, race, representation, cultural identity and human rights. www.autograph-abp.co.uk
  • Presented at the South African National Gallery (ISANG) by Autograph ABP and Tshisa Boys Productions, in partnership with Iziko Museums of South Africa.
  • The South African tour of this exhibition is supported by the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC).
  • On exhibition at the IZIKO South African National Gallery until 13 November 2017.
  • Following on the installations in Cape Town, the exhibition will travel to Johannesburg to the Apartheid Museum and the FADA Gallery, where it will be hosted by the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre (VIAD) at the University of Johannesburg.

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