This contemporary multimedia installation is based on The African Choir’s first tour to Victorian England in 1891.
Seen for the first time in South Africa, it presents five songs recreated by the composers from an original nineteenth-century concert programme, along with twenty photographic portraits of the choir members rediscovered in London at the Hulton Archive after 125 years.
Featuring songs composed and arranged by Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi.
The African Choir
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.
Their concert repertoire was divided into two halves: one comprised Christian hymns sung in English together with popular operatic arias; the other consisted of African songs, including by South African composers John Bokwe and the Rev. Tiyo Soga. In line with the division in repertoire, the choir appeared for the first half of their performance in ‘traditional’ African costumes, before changing into contemporary Victorian dress for the second half.
They performed to great acclaim to large audiences, and before Queen Victoria in the summer of 1891. Choir members such as Charlotte Maxeke, her sister Katie Makanya (both née Manye), and Paul Xiniwe later became leading social activists and reformers in South Africa.
The choir’s performances on tour were never recorded, however written documentation has survived. This has given freedom for the composers to reimagine the repertoire from a present-day perspective. Working with fifteen young singers in a series of improvised and collaborative workshops in Cape Town in 2015, Miller and Sibisi have recreated the original repertoire based on surviving concert programme notes.
The visual component features twenty framed photographic portraits, enlarged as modern silver gelatin prints from vintage nineteenth-century glass plates. Photographed in July 1891 by the London Stereoscopic Company, these glass plates were re-discovered by Autograph ABP at the Hulton Archive (a division of Getty Images) after 125 years and 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.
The African Choir 1891 Re-Imagined connects the composers Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi with the curatorial research led by Renée Mussai as part of Autograph ABP’s ongoing 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 overlooked - intimately linked to wider politics of empire, expansion and imperial narratives.
The African Choir 1891 Re-imagined is a collaboration between Autograph and Tshisa Boys Productions. The project is made possible with support by the South African Department of Arts and Culture, the University of the Western Cape, and City of Cape Town.
The African Choir 1891 Re-Imagined was first shown at Autograph , London (2016). This installation premieres in Cape Town at SANG, before travelling 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), University of Johannesburg.
The audio CD was published by Autograph and Tshisa Boys in July 2017. Photographs were first exhibited in Black Chronicles II at Autograph, London (2014) presented in association with the Hulton Archive, a division of Getty Images. The accompanying Black Chronicles book will be published by Autograph in partnership with Harvard University’s Hutchins Center (forthcoming Winter 2017).
Original curatorial research was made possible by Heritage Lottery Fund (UK) as part of Autograph ABP’s archive programme The Missing Chapter (2013–16), led by Renée Mussai. Autograph ABP is supported using public funding by Arts Council England.
All Photographs: The African Choir by London Stereoscopic Company, 1891 Courtesy © Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Printed by Mike Spry Darkroom in 2014. All Songs © Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi. Sound recorded and mixed by Murray Anderson and Jethro Erick Harris at Milestone Studios, Cape Town. Footstomp mixed by Gavan Eckhart at Soul Fire Studios. Special thanks to Hulton Archive, a division of Getty Images; the fifteen vocal collaborators; Professor Tamar Garb; and picture researcher Jennifer Jeffries.
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