The British School at Rome have uploaded a podcast of Zoe Cormack’s recent lecture in Rome. This marked the end of a seven month residential fellowship, during which Zoe was investigating the histories of collections from South Sudan in Italian museums.
The lecture provides an overview of some of the different ways African objects have entered Italian public and private collection from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. One part discusses the history and provenance of two collections that were made in South[ern] Sudan in the nineteenth century.
The first was made by Romolo Gessi – an Italian who served in the Ottoman-Egyptian Government of Sudan (or Turkiyya) as the Governor of Bahr el Ghazal between 1874 and 1881. The objects Gessi acquired, mainly at Egyptian Government stations and through chiefs and other intermediaries, are now housed at the Pigorini Museum of Ethnography and Prehistory in Rome. The title of the lecture comes from Gessi’s own description of his collection, which he said was made up of ‘an infinity of curious things’. Gessi is best known for his campaign against the Sudanese slave and ivory trader Suleiman Zubier, who he killed at Deim Zubeir (in western Bahr-el-Ghazal). Many of the objects were acquired in the context of this campaign. Suleiman’s own sword (taken as a trophy by Gessi) is now housed at the Civic Museum of Reggio Emelia.
The second collection from South Sudan under consideration was made by Giovanni Miani – a venetian explorer – during an expedition on the White Nile and around the area of modern day Juba in 1859-1860. This is one of the largest and most important historic collections of South Sudanese material culture in Europe. The lecture focusses on the objects in the Ma’di case (Ma’di speaking people live on both sides of the border of South Sudan and Uganda). Analysis of Miani’s published accounts and diaries has revealed that the Ma’di objects were acquired in the aftermath of a brutal attack (by the soldiers of an ivory trading company) on a village near the government station Labore. The Miani collection is currently on display at the Museum of Natural History in Venice.
The histories of both of these collections show how acquiring objects was deeply entangled with the violent expansion of the state and commercial networks in southern Sudan from the mid-nineteenth century. Zoe then raises the question of what these objects can also tell us about creative responses by South Sudanese people to new forms of military and political power. In the last part of the lecture, she talks about how these nineteenth century collections and their protagonists were given new significance during the period of fascist-colonial expansion in Eastern Africa.
Have a listen!