Shifting Sands

16 SAD_750-001-589Shifting Sands

The curator, Zoe Cormack, explains what lies behind the exhibition.

‘Photography was secondary to the research, and snaps were taken simply when it was convenient’ wrote the anthropologist Ian Cunnison in the introductory note to his collection of 621 photographs of fieldwork from Sudan, now housed in the Sudan Archive in Palace Green Library.

The creator’s idea that his ‘snaps’ were of secondary importance might seem like an odd place to begin a description of an exhibition of the photographs. But there is every reason to see beyond this modest turn of phrase. This exhibition, which highlights a small part of Ian Cunnison’s photography from Sudan, shows what we can learn from his unique and fascinating visual enterprise.

Ian Cunnison (1923-2013) is an important figure in British and Sudanese anthropology, in addition to his publications on Zambia and Sudan he was instrumental in establishing social anthropology departments in both Khartoum and Hull. His reticence over the value of his photography probably reflects the anthropological thinking of the time. He worked in the heyday of structuralism when anthropologists were more concerned with the deeper structures that underpinned the functioning of society – things that were not necessarily photographable (a point also made in Chris Morton’s study of Evans-Pritchard’s photography). His diffidence may also reflect a man who was modest about his abilities. But – modest or not – Cunnison was a skilled amateur photographer. The photographs currently on show demonstrate purposefully composed portraiture and a striking use of light and framing.

Cunnison was studying the political culture of Misseriya pastoralists. Shifting Sands focuses on mobility and community within a single nomadic camp. The photographs illustrate different stages of the annual migration, as the camp moves from the edges of the desert, to the lush pastures of Abyei: an areas which is now disputed, on the border between Sudan and South Sudan and claimed by both countries.  The selection on display includes photographs illustrating human relationships in the camp – in the context of the wider social and inter-ethnic networks with neighbouring communities – especially the Ngok Dinka in Abyei. Sudan was often thought of as a starkly culturally divided county, marked by conflict and slavery. This is partly true, but in these border communities it has never been the whole story. There is also a long history of complex interrelationships and mixed ancestry. Even slavery could be transformed into the bonds of kinship. Cunnison’s photographs destabilize a narrative of division.

His photography is remarkable for the personal stories it tells. This is almost a family photograph album (captured by a professional anthropologist), enlivened by the biographical information about the subjects of the photographs included in Cunnison’s ethnography. We don’t only look at these individuals; we know the songs they sung, the friends they had, their struggles and small disappointments. These are refreshingly ‘unexoticised’ pictures of daily life, indicating a familiarity between photographer and subject that make them quintessentially the product of a close ethnographic relationship. This relationship was poignantly marked when I learned from people who had known Ian Cunnison in Sudan that he and one of his closest friends in the camp, Sheybun, had (quite by coincidence) died on the same day.  There are three photographs of Sheybun in this exhibition.

These photographs are a site of cultural encounter and exchange. This is not only a story about members of the camp, it is about the process of acquiring anthropological understanding too. Our reinterpretation of them today shows this is an ongoing process as they generate (and we participate in) new understandings of meaning and new forms of knowledge. This is a visual contribution to the history and ethnography of border communities in Sudan and South Sudan.

Photographs take on different cultural and historical significance over time. This is powerfully the case with Ian Cunnison’s photography (and his wider corpus of work on the Misseriya). Since these photographs were taken the political situation in Abyei has violently transformed.  Civil wars in Sudan and unresolved border issues have devastated local relationships in Abyei. The Misseriya migration and their rights in Abyei go to the heart of the contested claims and political deadlock.

The current disruption makes these images of Abyei more entrancing. These pictures depict scenes that it is impossible to imagine today’s political climate. They show how tantalizingly possible a more peaceful relationship between the Dinka and the Misseriya in Abyei was in the 1950s; that intermarriage, political negotiation and peaceful sharing of land was possible, even after years of slavery; and that war in Abyei is not inevitable – its history is not only one of violence.

Shifting Sands: Babanusa to Abyei 1953/54 is at Palace Green Library 12 March to 1st April and The Oriental Museum  4th April to 5th October.

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2 responses to “Shifting Sands”

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  1. Shifting Sands: Babanusa to Abyei | Zoe Troy Cormack - October 6, 2014

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