The art and visuality of early contact between Europeans and Africans – Fellows’ seminar by Scott Nethersole

23 May 2023

“In 1462, the Portuguese explorer Pedro de Sintra encountered west Africans in the area of modern-day Guinea Bissau. According to the account published by the Venetian Alvise Ca’ da Mosto, their houses contained ‘wooden statues of idols’. Continuing further down the coast to the area of Cape Sagres in Guinea, he again encountered ‘idolaters … who worship wooden statues in the form of men’. What were these wooden, human-form figures? Why, in making sense of what he had seen, did he identify them as ‘idols’ and their owners as ‘idolaters’? And, crucially, what did the so-called ‘idolaters’ think of him, now that they had seen him?”

STIAS Fellow Scott Nethersole during his seminar on 11 May 2023

“My project, which is in its early stages, focuses on the art and visuality of contact between European navigators and people living in communities along the African coast. It asks a simple question: What were the visual consequences of direct contact between sub-Saharan Africans and Europeans between 1450 and 1550?,” said Art Historian Scott Nethersole of the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London.

Nethersole explained that from the latter part of the 15th century Europeans had seen people and places in sub-Saharan Africa and similarly Africans, living in coastal communities or along major rivers, had increasingly seen Europeans. The project focuses on the art and visuality of such contact in the years following the establishment of sea routes around Africa by Portuguese and Italian seafarers asking questions like: How did Africans and Europeans think about sight? What was the visual language of encounter? What trace of these encounters can be found in artworks? And what works of art were seen, recorded or ignored, either by Europeans in Africa, or by Africans in Europe, or generated as a consequence of such voyages that give insight into how the continent was understood in visual terms? Nethersole will also look for comparative examples of direct contact between cultures to relativise the Afro-European material and reveal the common structures that underlie contact.

“This was contact between two groups who don’t know each other,” he said. “They would have had some preconceptions but not established prejudices.”

He started with a personal story of trying to take a photo of the statue of Queen Victoria which still stands in front of the City Hall in Durban, South Africa. “A young black man walking past said: ‘I hate that bitch’. And although my interest is in the sculpture itself I found myself embarrassed to be seen as if validating the subject by taking a photo. It made me consider how a technology of vision – in this case, the camera – was understood differently by two people unknown to one another.”

In looking at this period of early European/African contact Nethersole hopes to approach the work from a connected or crossed history perspective bringing together the trajectories of both Africans and Europeans.

Although the wooden human form figures such as those described by Alvise Ca’ da Mosto have not survived, Nethersole pointed to examples including an ivory hunting horn commissioned by the Portuguese in Sierra Leone between the 1490s and 1530s that included European forms, words and coats of arms; salt cellars from Sierra Leone and Benin which were probably produced in Africa for the European market and depict the Portuguese, including their ships; as well as the more well-known, controversial Benin Bronzes which show Portuguese soldiers.

He also highlighted artworks made from African gold such as the Belém Monstrance created in 1506 which includes an inscription about the origin of the gold and is regarded as a sign of vassalage to the Portuguese crown; as well as prints and woodcuts by Hans Burgkmair dating to the early 1500s which include depictions of Algoa Bay and the Khoi inhabitants.

He pointed to rock art in Porterville outside Cape Town that provides a representation of ships displaying “detailed sensitivity to line and composition in which the shape of rock is used to represent the line of the ocean”.

All of this has highlighted some themes for his project including a focus on the familiar in the other; an indication of the importance of ships – both to the travellers and those on the coast; and, the emergence of changing perceptions of beauty. “There’s a focus on the beauty of the coastline,’ he said. “European art didn’t focus on landscapes until much later. So, the practical duty of looking for navigation points may have led to aesthetic shifts in what is appreciated as beauty.”

“But at this early stage these themes are fluid and undefined,” he added.

Destabilising the narrative

In the second part of his presentation, Nethersole focused on a case study – an event across seven days in 1497, when Vasco da Gama and his men encountered Khoi pastoralists near present-day Mossel Bay while attempting to erect a stone monument (Padrão) which resulted in the Khoi demolishing the structure in sight of the departing ships.

The events were recorded by a sailor and Nethersole emphasised that this single account highlights the fragility and materiality of the history especially as so much of the archive was wiped out by the Lisbon Earthquake in 1755. He has therefore used contextual information in the form of maps and artwork developed in the late 1700s by, among others, Robert Gordon (soldier, explorer and artist who is credited with having undertaken more expeditions than any other 18th-century explorer of southern Africa) as well as interactions with current Khoi leadership which has allowed him to gain some understanding of the different potential perspectives of the two groups.

He believes that what the Portuguese mariner saw as festivities and barter that went wrong, is likely to have had deeper ritualistic significance for the Khoi. Music is used by the Khoi for ritual celebration and what the Portuguese interpreted as trade may have been an offering. It’s also important to consider the role of water in the disagreement. “The Khoi words for place or settlement often have their roots in water/river. And their narratives include characters like the water snake and water maidens – common to many African traditions. The Portuguese helped themselves to water – did the particular spring have a sacred significance or was it about access to water more generally? Did the Portuguese have permission to take water?”

“We also have to consider the importance of the visual – the destruction of the pillar was dependent on the Portuguese seeing it if it was to have any symbolic value.”

“From the sailor’s perspective – they were initially welcomed, the trade caused tension and threat, resulting in an embarrassing episode. From the Khoi perspective – they were celebrating, making an offering of an ox to their guests, and were then insulted by the unprovoked aggression of taking the water and erecting the monument. For them the removal of the pillar was about a return to harmony.”

“Obviously this is hard to prove empirically but it destabilises the predominant narrative and offers an alternative.”

“The Portuguese expeditions at the Cape are almost written out of history. The Cape seems to have been a huge problem for them – they were not able to establish a colony here. South African history is only captured in detail from the Dutch colonisation in 1652 onwards which means that 150 years of contact is skipped over.”

“Research on a connected Africa in this period is definitely needed.”

But in discussion Nethersole pointed to the huge challenges in his work. “It’s a completely different point of departure. You are often working with small, very fragile nuggets. You can’t work from modern assumptions of what might have happened. I’m trying to use the past to shed light on the present but not conditioned by current thought processes.”

“It’s particularly difficult because of the problems in the history of this part of the world. I’m trying to do it without necessarily reaching conclusions. I aim to put different information alongside each other and leave it there. I recognise that this kind of knowledge is politically sensitive so doing it responsibly is important.”

“Some of my colleagues don’t believe this project can be done because of the lack of empirical evidence,” he added. “But I don’t believe methodological problems should be the reason we don’t do it.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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