A Decolonial Approach to Historic Archives
In the last of the commissioned pieces for the Many Voices’ decolonisation project, researcher and ECA graduate Aayushi Gupta considers the ways in which archives continue to embed colonial narratives, and the importance of looking beyond the images presented to us.
A Decolonial Approach to Historic Archives
Images are not neutral. Images are highly political, contested, debated, and dynamic sites of social interaction and definition in terms of class, gender, sexual, and racialised identities. In the case of archives, the collation and curation of such highly political entities depict (and construct) social difference, naturalise social hierarchies, conceal authorship, and construct audiences. Because of this, interpreting an archival image demands a rigorous investigation of the conditions and circumstances under which an image is selectively introduced into an archive, the ways in which it is catalogued, preserved, used and repurposed, as well as an investigation of the power relations underpinning these decision-making processes. A decolonial approach to interpreting archival images entails this rigorous investigation. We need to not only look through images but also look behind, beyond, and around them.
In the online catalogue of Edinburgh College of Arts’ Rare Book Collections (housed at the Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh) is an image of two women. The names and narratives of these women have been erased by the anonymising caption of the image – ‘Chinese Ladies’. According to the catalogue, this image is part of an ‘elaborate’, ‘embossed’, and leather-bound album with ‘China’ tooled in gilt, and in addition to the image of ‘Chinese Ladies’ and similar studio portraits, the album includes images depicting British diplomat Lord Elgin’s military campaign (August – October 1860) in China, and views of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Macao. The catalogue also notes that most of the studio portraits in the album are attributed to Milton M. Miller (an American photographer who ran a photo-studio in Hong Kong between 1861 and 1864) and that the images from Elgin’s military campaign are attributed to Felice Beato (a renowned war photographer at the time who travelled with Elgin’s army).
From what the catalogue presents us, it appears that the ‘Chinese Ladies’ in the image are nothing more than props used by the photographer to contribute to a highly political project that sought to invite imperial expansion over the people and lands of China. The catalogue does not provide any information on the sitters’ identities and instead focuses on the producers of the photographic project. By privileging the producers in this way, the catalogue perpetuates what anthropologist Christopher Pinney argues is the dichotomy between ‘on the one hand, a complex Europe bearing the marks of an intricate history’, and ‘on the other, a non-Western sphere of uniformity, resulting from a lack of history’ (Pinney, 1997). It is, moreover, a deliberate choice; while the image was produced at a time when non-Western subjects were commonly represented and identified by a more generalised reference to their nationality or racial background, this maintained anonymisation of the ‘Chinese Ladies’ – and indeed other photographed subjects in the album – in a 21st-century archive is striking and uncomfortable. It is a glaring lacuna that not only indicates a lack of thorough historical contextualisation, but also a myopic approach towards what we deem worth researching and inscribing in the historical record. Our cataloguing strategies need a fundamental paradigm shift, as do our interpretive strategies.
In cataloguing images, we need to move beyond simply providing information that was collated at the time of acquisition and invest in regularly updating this information in line with continual research being produced around those images. In interpreting catalogued images, we need to beware that archives are not objective transparent windows into historical realities and that the images we consult have been made available to us through selective decision-making processes that are imbued with power dynamics. As such, we need to look behind, beyond, and around what is provided and listen to the narratives that are silenced.
A decolonial strategy would allow us to note that the leather-bound album with ‘China’ tooled in gilt – commissioned by Elgin – does not simply depict (as the catalogue informs us) but signifies Elgin’s diplomatic mission to China that went hand in hand with British raids and control of Chinese forts and towns. It would reveal the institutional framework within which photography was deployed as a political tool to advance the British-colonialist ideology, and how the image of the ‘Chinese Ladies’ does not simply depict the Chinese elite of the time (as the catalogue informs us) but, when read alongside other images in the album, acts as an important documentation of a people and society before the destruction that Elgin’s military campaign brought about. It might be impossible to entirely resurrect the identities of these women from the annals of history that did not intend to preserve them in the first place. Yet in reframing our understanding of the responsibility that archival records hold in producing and maintaining the narrative of power, we can at the very least interpret them in the light of the colonial legacy in which they were forged.