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Rediscovering the African choir that toured Victorian Britain

Getty has released thousands of images of Black people for free in order to unearth our histories for a new generation.

09 Sep 2022

London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Between 1891 and 1893, members of The African Choir, a South African musical group, toured Britain to raise money for a technical college in their home country to support the growth of Black labour force. The choir performed “to great acclaim and large audiences at major venues and for Queen Victoria at Osborne House, [a royal residence in the Isle of Wight],” says Renée Mussai, the senior curator at Autograph. The art gallery in Shoreditch is renowned for championing photography that explores sociopolitical issues.  

The choir had 16 members. There were seven women, seven men and two young choir boys, Albert Jonas and John Xiniwe. During this trip, portraits of the singers were made on glass plates, before the images were forgotten for over a century. These included vibrant images of the two young boys, Albert and John, both small and slim with short hair, often laughing with each other and playing with props in slacks and loose-fitting shirts.

“The set was shot by the London Stereoscopic Company, which was one of, if not the first-ever, commercial photographic agencies in the world – working much like Getty Images does today,” says Jennifer Jeffrey, senior archive editor at Getty Images, noting that “a plausible explanation” for the images of the choir not making it into history books is that they didn’t fit the unflattering narrative and stereotypes of Africans at time.

“Some members were graduates of Lovedale College’s Alice Campus,” she adds. Lovedale College is a missionary school in the Eastern Cape Provicence and, today, Alice is their most rural campus, focussing on agriculture. “It’s unclear who actually shot the set, but I feel it may have been Reinhold Thiele, a German staff photographer, who worked for LSC at that time.” 

But, despite being mostly inaccessible for almost 130 years, these pictures can now be found online as part of Getty Images’ Black History and Culture Collection (BHCC), an initiative that provides free access to a curated selection of nearly 30,000 rare images of African and Black diaspora in the UK and US from the 19th century to today. Kwame Asiedu, project manager for BHCC, believes that if photos such as the ones in the archive were available to him as a young boy, it would have helped him find solutions to questions he had growing up about being a Black man in Britain. “Images are powerful,” he says. “I’m not saying my questions would’ve been answered, but these images would’ve allowed me to find some solace.”

What Kwame is most excited about today is how creatives and educators will use the BHCC to teach Black people about their history. “Without these photos, you wouldn’t be able to do certain projects. I used to teach in a Saturday school, and we would often end up in a situation where we’d see a photo, and we just couldn’t use them,” he says. “When you read why people want to use the collection, the projects they describe are wide and expansive.” 

Photos of The African Choir are some of the earliest photographs in the BHCC. According to Renée, the images were unearthed at the Hulton Archive, a division of Getty widely considered to be one of the oldest and most extensive archives of all time. They were found in 2014 as part of Autograph’s The Missing Chapter: Black Chronicles – a research program, set of exhibitions and an upcoming book. The glass plate negatives were among several others and wrapped in parchment paper.

“This is one of the reasons why they look so ‘contemporary’,” Renée says. “It is incredibly rare to be able to print and digitise archival photographs from that era by working with the original plate materials, as opposed to the more familiar vintage, often faded sepia-toned prints.” Consequently, the photos could be reproduced in black and white to a high quality for Autograph’s Black Chronicles exhibitions. “The photography itself is remarkable, as are the sitters’ expressive faces –when looking closely, each detail is meticulously recorded, each pore on Eleanor Xiniwe’s beautiful skin is microscopically preserved, each crease in the cloth of her draped garment and headscarf recorded for prosperity.” Eleanor was the wife of Paul Xiniwe, the most senior member of The African Choir and a member herself.

What also makes these images stand out today is how the singers