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  • Picturing a Colonial Past: the African photographs of Isaac Schapera
  • Françoise Ugochukwu
John Comaroff, Jean Comaroff and Deborah James (eds), Picturing a Colonial Past: the African photographs of Isaac Schapera. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press (hb $60–978 0 22611 411 8; pb $25 – 978 0 22611 412 5). 2007, 234 pp.

This unique book is a touching homage to Isaac Schapera (1905–2003), a South African-born anthropologist, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, who spent the first half of his life in the Northern Cape and Bechuanaland (the old Botswana) before resettling in London in 1950 and lecturing at the London School of Economics until 1969. He is presented as a man ahead of his contemporaries in his methods of investigation, whose writings – his Handbook of Tswana Law and Customs (1928) in particular – are still considered as authoritative in their field, and whose prestige in Botswana and South Africa remains undiminished. The book starts with a survey of the history behind the book and its journey from compilation to publication, followed by a brief presentation of Schapera’s life and a reprint of his preliminary report on his fieldwork (1933). This text, while outlining his methodology, ‘situates his camera work in the broader history of colonial photography and explores its complex relationship to his mode of producing anthropological knowledge’ (p. viii). Words then give way to a compilation of 136 photos, most of them taken in and around Mochudi during Schapera’s first major fieldwork (1929–34) among the Bakgatla of Bechuanaland. Those pictures, selected for their technical quality out of more than 400 photos held at the London Royal Anthropological Institute, are organized into chapters covering the years 1929–40.

A former student of British Social Anthropology’s founding fathers Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, Schapera distanced himself very early from his masters, preferring pragmatic ethnography to abstract theories. His photos record people’s material circumstances, practices and passions, details of village life, architecture and domestic activities, with portraits of adults and children at play and at work, initiation rites, local economy, the rainmakers’ art and communal activities. He lived among the Bakgatla, whose ways were already considerably affected by European colonial influences, for some 13 months in 1929–30 and often returned afterwards, achieving a sophisticated command of Setswana which allowed him to dispense with the services of interpreters. His photos cover the whole optical spectrum, from close-up to wide-angled shots, and the postures, eye contact, and absence of artificiality reveal a very personal bond between him and the Tswana, consisting of a mixture of trust, respect and familiarity. They also testify to his emotional engagement with his work, and to an aesthetic impulse seldom expressed in words; for him, the camera was ‘a visual notebook’, and photos a personal memoir, ‘an unadorned record of everyday life’ (p. 1) among the Tswana, and the best way of salvaging elements of a fast-changing culture. The closing chapter in particular, which offers a wider picture of changes in people’s life [End Page 628] at the time, is a credit to his open mind and interest in social change and cultural hybridity, which captured revealing details such as new European buildings, modern thatching methods and the rapid evolution of the clothing industry, from traditional and ritual attire to the missionary-influenced dress code. Prompted by the memorial ceremony held in 2004 at the London School of Economics (LSE) in honour of Schapera, the publication of this book offers us a work of art as well as a warm, simple and unconventional introduction to the old Tswana life.

Françoise Ugochukwu
Open University


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pp. 628-629
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