06/02/2018 13:32 SAST | Updated 07/02/2018 10:29 SAST

125-Year-Old Images Of Charlotte Maxeke's Forgotten African Choir Found

A new exhibition in Johannesburg unpacks the archive of forgotten images.

Charlotte Maxeke, 1891.
London Stereoscopic Company. Courtesy ©Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
Charlotte Maxeke, 1891.

For 125 years, no one had seen images of the legendary African Choir – a little-known group of South African singers that included figures like struggle hero Charlotte Maxeke – but this week, the Apartheid Museum will reveal extraordinary Victorian-era portraits from their forgotten performances.

The African Choir 1891 Re-Imagined takes the form of a contemporary multimedia installation based on the African Choir's first tour to Victorian England in 1891, and features some contemporary reimaginings of their original performances by Tshisa Boys Productions – a creative partnership between composers Phillip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi.

London Stereoscopic Company. Courtesy ©Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
Charlotte Maxeke's sister Eleanor Xiniwe, was also a part of the African Choir

Sibisi explains that the extraordinary story of the choir had been forgotten to history books because the narrative didn't support the colonial narrative at the time, in which Africans were depicted as "noble savages", he says.

"South African history is now being debunked by contemporary South Africans. Like they say, 'history is written by the victors', and without pointing fingers, there are things not in the public domain because they [contradict] the victors' tale."

The choir's performances on tour were never recorded, although one of the concert programmes has survived. This gave Miller and Sibisi the freedom to reimagine the repertoire. Ultimately working with fifteen young singers in a series of improvised and collaborative workshops in Cape Town in 2015, they recreated the original repertoire.

London Stereoscopic Company. Courtesy ©Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
The African Choir consisted of 7 women, 2 children, and 7 men, most of them from the Eastern Cape. Paul Xiniwe, pictured here, was one of the male singers that toured Europe in 1891.

The project has been a personally rewarding one for Sibisi, who got his start in music in a choir.

"It was amazing for me to work on; a dream project really. My musical education started at the Drakensberg Boys Choir, so I'm a choirboy as well. It became a way for to revisit my own personal history, and the greater history of my country, which needs to be retold."

The exhibition of twenty large-scale portraits surrounded by a 30-minute immersive multi-channelled sound recording opens at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg on February 7, running until the end of March.