Friday, 25 February 2011

'Gold Coast Africans in the native village at Wembley'

Some months ago I wrote a blog on Princess Baa of Ashanti and her appearance at the Gold Coast Pavilion of the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924. The focus was on her demeanour and footwear: an Ashanti princess who clearly indicated she did not want to be in that photo, and her uncommon - though sensible - footwear accompanying her traditional apparel. In that blog I indicated the existence of two other postcards in the same series, Prempeh, son of the late King of Ashanti, and Gold Coast Africans in the Native Village at Wembley, and how the title of the last clinched the essence of the series and indeed the whole British Empire Exhibition. I can now present both these images, and reformulate my analysis of Princess Baa somewhat.

The card titled Gold Coast Africans in the Native Village at Wembley shows a group of Ghanaians dressed in cloth, in what can best be qualified as a semi-static action pose. The first two men visible appear to be dancing towards the camera, and on the far right, a third man seems to be moving out of the frame. The man closest to the camera is partly out of focus, because of his movements. Several others, including a man in uniform, stand still at the left of the picture, apparently looking on. The snapshot quality of the photo is enhanced by the fact that the framing is defective, with heads partly being cut off and a somewhat awkward composition of the group as a whole. Tuck's found the image interesting enough to make it part of a series for sale, however.

Curiously enough, the men looking on wear European footwear, just like Princess Baa, while the dancers wear sandals. It enhances the play-acting quality of the scene: the 'natives' are dressed up for the occasion, to perform a role and mimic their 'traditional habitat', but only up to a point. I think we can safely say that the picture of Princess Baa and her husband was indeed taken in the Gold Coast pavilion, as well as the two other pictures.

The third picture is a portrait of Prempeh, son of the late King of Ashanti, and shows a proud young man in traditional cloth and sandals, without any visible adornments, sitting on a dinner table or kitchen chair, in front of a doorway into one of the exhibition buildings. He looks straight into the lens, and seems well aware of his status and his position. In that sense, this portrait is the exact opposite of that of Princess Baa. The caption and identification of the portrayed man pose some problems. The last king of Asante was Prempeh I, who was ousted and exiled by the British in 1896, eventually ending up in the Seychelles. He was allowed back into the Gold Coast in 1924, reinstated as Kumasihene (king of Kumasi, capital of Asante) in 1926, and died in 1934. His nephew (sister's son) succeeded him as Kumasihene and became Asantehene as Prempeh II. It seems likely that the person portrayed here is this newphew and future Asantehene Prempeh II rather than a son by the same name. However, I am not an expert on Asante dynastic history, and additional information is welcome here.

Postcard info:
Gold Coast Africans in the Native Village in Wembley. Raphael Tuck & Sons, Ltd., London. Printed in England.
Prempeh, son of the late king of Ashanti. 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.