Decolonising the Colonial Gaze
This collection documents the work of a community-based partnership between the Antislavery Usable Past project and Yole!Africa in Goma and Lubumbashi. The project is based on an archive of photography produced by the British missionary Alice Seeley Harris during her time in the Congo Free State in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The project has used the visual archive as a basis for working with young people to explore the history and legacies of colonialism during the time at which the Congo Free State was under the personal ownership of King Leopold II of Belgium.
Defining what the ‘antislavery usable past’ of these images is raises questions of power and representation. Who gets to decide? The writing of history is a powerful tool – who is included and excluded from the story, indeed, who gets to write it in the first place, is a reflection of the inequalities of the society within which that history is produced. Working with a colonial archive in Britain - a former centre of empire - raises issues about who gets to access history. For formerly colonised people their histories, or at least the portion of their histories relating to the colonial experience, are often found in the archives, museums, and art galleries of the former colonising power. Alice’s photographs, for example, eventually became part of the archive of the British and Foreign Antislavery Society, which subsequently became the present-day NGO Antislavery International. The archive is held at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. For people resident within the former spaces of empire, the physical impracticality of visiting the collection means a separation from the objects, documents, and images which represent their past.
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