Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

The Enigmatic Patriarch of the Kingdom of Bamum

Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

The Enigmatic Patriarch of the Kingdom of Bamum

Article excerpt

What is the role and importance of photography in mission history? In the archival holdings of mission societies, photographs are usually treated as marginal matters. In fact, people concerned with mission history generally ignore visual sources.

In the course of recent work in the archives of the Basel Mission, my colleagues and I have sensed as never before the historical dimensions and significance of mission photography. We have discovered that our collection in Basel contains almost 50,000 photographs from the period of about 1860 to about 1945. A third of these originate from before World War I. We were quite unprepared to find such quantity and historical depth in our photographic collections. We were particularly amazed that as early as the 1850s the Basel Mission encouraged missionaries in training to learn photography.

Was the Basel Mission unique in concerning itself so soon and so long with photography? I doubt it. After learning of my work with the Basel Mission archives, the archivist of the Rhineland Mission informed me that it similarly had encouraged photography in Namibia in the early 1860s. In all likelihood, many missionary societies in the second half of the nineteenth century were involved in photographic documentation of their work. Visual records of Christian mission and the origins of indigenous churches that are hidden away in file cabinets and closets around the world await the appreciative eye and exploring mind of historians and anthropologists.

It was a nonmissiologist who insisted that we at the Basel Mission pay attention to our photographic materials. Christraud Geary, conservator of the photographic collection in the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., visited our headquarters in Basel in the early 1980s and asked the decisive questions. She arranged for twenty original Basel Mission photographs to be included in her 1988 Washington exhibition of German photography in the kingdom of Bamum during the period when Cameroon was a German colony (1884-1919).(2) Commenting on the work of Anna Rein-Wuhrmann, an early twentieth-century Basel missionary educator and photographer, Geary stated that Rein-Wuhrmann "transcended the prescribed relationship between the photographer and the photographic subject, and thus overcame the limitations inherent in the ethnographic way of picturing the 'other.'... [This] missionary teacher developed close friendships with the Bamum people.

In her photography she focused on people and their personalities, creating strikingly intimate images that are almost modern in their conception."

The uses of photographic sources for the history of missions are potentially legion. Take, for instance, the cover illustration of Anna Rein-Wuhrmann's 1925 book Mein Bamumvolk im Grasland von Kamerun, published by the Basel Mission. This is an account, in words and pictures, of her work as a missionary teacher in the girls' school she directed in the Cameroonian savanna kingdom of Bamum. The cover (inset) depicts the face of an elderly man. His expression, at least to my European eyes, is grim, suspicious, resentful, and perhaps sad.

The face on the cover was derived from a photograph of an elderly couple, reproduced opposite page 49 of the book. We learn from Rein-Wuhrmann's text that the couple's children had asked her to photograph their parents. When she was ready, the father, a high-ranking member of Bamum society, took over the only available chair and told his wife to sit beside him on the ground. The missionary protested and asked how many children this woman had borne her husband. He replied, "Twelve." The missionary insisted that it was fitting for such a worthy wife to sit beside her husband. The women bystanders applauded. The old man's sons protested. But the photograph was taken as the women wished.(3) The resulting portrait shows a man whose authority had been successfully challenged by an alliance between his own subordinate women and a foreign woman. …

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