Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Asante princess on display

Part of my research into Gold Coast history - and an ever more important part - is the hunt for images. As such I started collecting historical postcards, depicting a multitude of images. Most recently I set myself to investigate the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924 and 1925, which has attracted a lot of attention from classic postcard collectors (which I am not). There are several publications about the postcards issued at the exhibition, a number which runs into the thousands. In these publications much attention is given to the printing particulars of the cards, especially the backs. I am more interested in the images on the front and the context - if any - in which the cards were produced. A larger project I am currently working on is the set of postcards produced by the artist Edith Cheesman for the Government of the Gold Coast, to accompany the presentation of that colony in the Empire Exhibition, and printed by the famous postcard printer Raphael Tuck & Sons (also discussed in an earlier blog). Some of the images can already be viewed via a menu option in the Gold Coast DataBase or by clicking here. The story behind the pics will follow shortly.

My latest acquisition comes from a series of three postcards from original photos, also printed by Tuck for the British Empire Exhibition. This series seems rather rare. The card I bought is the first one in the series, titled Princess Baa of Ashanti and her Husband. The other two, which I hope to find in the market at some point in the future, are Prempeh, son of the late King of Ashanti, and Gold Coast Africans in the Native Village at Wembley. The title of the last card clinches the essence of these three images. The three pics of African "natives" were a depiction of these people on display to the general public. Ethnology brought home, so to speak. In the late 19th and early 20th century the displaying of "natives" was nothing special; it occurred on a regular basis, and fitted seamless into the traditions of the - equally unquestioned - display of disformed people at fairs and circuses, and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

The photo of Princess Baa holds few clues as to where it was taken, and if she and her husband were actually at the Exhibition to show themselves off to the public. There is an indication that the photo was taken in Europe though (see below). Apart from the caption on the front of the card, there is no explicative text. I am not an expert on Asante history, and I do not know who Princess Baa is, or her husband for that matter. Maybe a specialist in the field can help me out here. The backdrop of the portrait shows a decorated wall and a door-screen, which could be either in the Gold Coast Pavillion of the Exhibition, or in Kumase or another Asante town. A postcard picture of the Asante Court at Wembley (see picture below) does not give any clues. The site Exploring 20th-Century London lists the same image, with a description positively stating that the couple is indeed photographed inside the "West African Pavillion" (sic), but without any evidence to that effect.

The husband is seated on a wicker chair - I assume it is a chair, and not an upturned basket - and faces the camera with a self-assured look in his eyes. He is dressed in cloth and slippers, and wears gold rings and bracelets, as well as some other accessories that befit his social status. How different is this for his wife, the main character in the caption, Princess Baa. She wears fewer accessories than her husband. The cloth is nice, but looks like it is draped in a hurry. She stands to the side of her husband, rather stiffly, legs slightly apart, arms hanging down, lips pressed closed, and awkwardly looking away from the lens. She definitely does not want to be there.

What struck me most in the picture is one specific detail: the princess's footwear. Rather than the traditional slippers, like the ones of her husband, she wears sturdy European walking shoes. Once spotted, it is a feature one can ponder over for hours. I can, at least. Was this a photo session at Wembley for which she had to come especially, and did she forget to take her slippers? Did she object to this picture taken from the outset, because she did not want to get out of her warm European dress in the cold London weather? Or was it an act of defiance against being turned into a circus attraction? It looks very much as if she is wearing stockings, although the image is not detailed enough to be completely sure about this. It would at least be a positive indication that the photo was taken in Europe. One would wish to be able to speak to Princess Baa about it all.

I wonder if there are any records or oral traditions about the scene and Princess Baa. Who was her husband? If at Wembley, why were they there? Another research project in the making...

Postcard info:
Princess Baa of Ashanti and her Husband. Raphael Tuck & Sons, Ltd., London. Printed in England.
Interior - Gold Coast Building - Wembley. Ashanti Court. Copyright Government of the Gold Coast. Raphael Tuck & Sons, Ltd., London. Printed in England.

M. Perkins & B. tonkin, Postcards of the British Empire Exhibition, Wembley 1924 & 1925. West Wickham: Exhibition Study Group, 1994. p. 88-89.

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