Pitt Rivers Museum Luo Visual History

Paro Manene: Exhibiting Photographic Histories in Western Kenya

Christopher Morton & Gilbert Oteyo

Forthcoming article in Journal of Museum Ethnography

Please do not quote without permission


This article is a first report on the series of photographic exhibitions, entitled Paro Manene (a Luo phrase that roughly translates as 'reflecting on the past'), organized and curated by us in Nyanza Province (western Kenya) during February 2007. 1 This travelling community exhibition consisted of a number of large printed panels that presented both photographs and text on Luo culture throughout the early twentieth century, based upon material from the Pitt Rivers Museum photograph collections. Close collaboration with both the National Museums of Kenya, the British Institute in Eastern Africa, and Luo community leaders, has meant that the project has been highly responsive to local concerns about accessibility, interpretation and sustainability. It was made clear to us by many Luo visitors that depositing digital and printed copies of the exhibition with Kisumu Museum (an outpost of the National Museums of Kenya) did not in itself constitute an effective legacy for the project for local communities. Although the travelling nature of these exhibitions was highly successful and is undoubtedly a key feature of engaging local communities with museum collections, it quickly became apparent that we had not given the same strategic consideration to managing the local demand for ongoing access to the material, or to developing relationships beyond the cultural sector, for instance with town councils, that are frequently considered more locally accountable as Luo institutions.


The Luo are the third largest ethnic group in Kenya, and live mainly in Nyanza region close to Lake Victoria (Victoria Nyanza). They are linguistically and culturally related to other Nilotic language groups of Sudan and Uganda, which makes an understanding of Luo culture an important adjunct to the Museum's ongoing research into the ethnography and cultural history of southern Sudan (http://southernsudan.prm.ox.ac.uk), since it is from this region that historians have traced their migration into Kenya (Ogot 1967). The Museum has approximately 130 Luo artefacts and 450 historical photographs. The two most significant sets of photographs, by E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973) and Charles W. Hobley (1867-1947) , are significant both because of the historical content of their visual record, as well as the relationship to their published writings on the Luo (Hobley 1903; Evans-Pritchard 1949, 1950). Both Hobley and Evans-Pritchard were interested in Luo political organization and culture more generally and for this reason photographed a number of chiefs and other leading individuals, as well as the material culture of authority, such as the tong or spears of clan leaders and founders. This interest shaped their photograph collections and makes them particularly significant for Luo historians as well as the families and communities photographed. Besides his portraits of local leaders and elders, Evans-Pritchard also took a number of photographs of a more quotidian nature, especially informal portraits of people whom he met incidentally and whose identities are only just emerging through field investigation.

Oteyo has worked on the Museum's Luo collections since 2002 when a British Academy small research grant enabled him to catalogue a number of ornaments. During a further period in 2004 he was able to catalogue the some 350 photographs by Evans-Pritchard and the smaller number by Hobley, and at this point developed the idea of exhibiting among the communities represented. At that point little funding was readily available, yet in the autumn of 2005 Morton's appointment as a Career Development Fellow at the Pitt Rivers Museum brought with it a small amount of research money that was quickly allocated for this project. In part we were both inspired by Cory Kratz's (2002) book that examines the politics and representational issues involved in exhibiting 'ethnographic' photography in Kenya and in America. We were both struck by the unfortunate story of how the Okiek community themselves never managed to make it to Nairobi to see Kratz's exhibition there, and resolved that Paro Manene would move between several venues in Luo country, to ensure that the two most important sets of Luo visitors - the elderly and schoolchildren - would have the most opportunities to see the exhibition.

Community experiences

The exhibitions were originally planned by us to begin in March 2006, with three local venues running for several days each, followed by a possibly extended run at Kisumu Museum, where the panels and other materials would be permanently deposited. Although this schedule was agreed to by the Curator in Kisumu, on Oteyo's arrival in Kenya he learnt that the Director of Regional Museums had overruled the Curator's decision, and ordered that the exhibition be postponed for several months, so as not to overlap with another exhibit then on display in Kisumu. Although the exhibition could have continued at the other local venues, collaboration with the Luo curator of Kisumu Museum was considered by us important in a number of ways and so new plans were drawn up for early 2007 to co-incide the displays with the migwena cultural festival held in Bondo each year.

The exhibition venues of Lwak Catholic Church Hall (Fig.1), Bondo Town Hall and the Siaya Farmers Training Centre Hall (Fig.2) were all chosen due to their being in the main population centres of the area where Evans-Pritchard took many of his photographs in 1936. It had already been established in 2004 by Oteyo that a number of families connected to the photographs were identifiable in the area, and it was hoped that more would emerge in the process of exhibition. Since the area is often poorly served by roads and transport, and since many key informants are elderly, we felt it essential that the exhibition travel to several venues in the locality. Even so, the three days allocated for each exhibition was locally considered insufficient, given that it took several days for word to spread about the exhibition, a fact that resulted in people arriving to see the displays for several days after they had moved on. Prior to the exhibitions, announcements were made on two local vernacular radio stations, Radio Ramogi and Victoria Radio. Adverts were not placed in local newspapers since these are read by only a small minority of Luo people, whereas most families gather to listen to radio broadcasts and spread news about events by word of mouth. Exhibition schedules were also sent to local schools, colleges and churches, as well as other organizations. A number of flyers were posted in key positions in market villages, hospitals and public places.

As people arrived in the exhibition, a number of folders of copies of the photographs were available to browse through, and all were encouraged to leave comments in a number of notebooks, either concerning the exhibition itself, or about the imagery or information presented. The decision was made early on to provide the exhibition information and captions in English only, without Dholuo or Kiswahili translations. Few Luo are literate in Dhuluo, and it was felt by Oteyo that additional captions in Kiswahili would be unnecessary, as well as being unfeasible given the restricted space for text on the exhibition panels. Some visitors however did remark negatively on the lack of Kiswahili (although interestingly not Dholuo) in the exhibition, but it is notable that only one comment in the notebook was in Kiswahiki. Comments in these notebooks were frequently concerned with the need for local cultural institutions that might make copies of such archives available permanently. For instance, the Chairman of Bondo Town Council noted that "The exhibition has clearly shown that our (Luo) past can be reconstructed...We recommend as a community that a museum be set up to preserve the Luo culture." The District Cultural Officer in Siaya also sounded a note of frustration in his comment that "This is work in the right direction. We have a plot for a cultural centre but with no funds." It is quite clear that for most Luo visitors to the exhibition, the historical and colonial contexts of the making of the photographs (by an administrator and anthropologist) were relatively transparent. Perhaps not surprisingly, considering the way in which they were presented within a themed narrative of Luo culture, it was the potential of images as carriers of historical information that was foremost in people's concerns. As Michael Aird (2003) has discussed, people who have had little history accorded them will often 'look past' the problematic contexts in which the photographs are enmeshed, so strong is the desire to re-appropriate and reclaim the history within the image.

Visual homecomings

The term 'visual repatriation' has become increasingly familiar to those working with ethnographic archives in recent years, covering a wide variety of practices that all ultimately derive from the intellectual and moral imperative to open up Western archives to local communities, and often to take the initiative in doing so. Use of the term 'repatriation' however is somewhat disingenuous, since returning copies of old photographs does not involve a transfer of rights over the ongoing use or reproduction of imagery from Western institutions to a community, however much consultation and collaboration is entered into, and the power imbalance thereby remains unaffected. This understanding has emerged as museums increasingly regard historical photography as not just the artistic production of the photographer, but equally as a cultural production of the community represented.

At an early stage of the Paro Manene project a number of families were identified as relations of three Luo chiefs photographed by Evans-Pritchard in 1936. These families were revisited in February 2007 as part of the project, in order to elicit further information and to make a presentation of framed copies of Evans-Pritchard's photographs. It soon became clear that for the families of the three chiefs, this event was a highly emotional homecoming. When Oteyo visited the homestead of Chief Owuor of Asembo, he was introduced to his three surviving wives (he had ten in all), one of whom, Turfosa Omari (fig.3), was photographed by Evans-Pritchard on his 1936 visit since she had married Owuor earlier that year. Holding the framed portrait of Owuor she began to call his name and touch his image, saying that here truly was her husband returned, here was the man she had married. The framed photographs were then hung in the houses of Owuor's wives so that visitors could be shown them.

As men of status and relative wealth, Chiefs were able to marry more wives than most Luo men. The next family visited by Oteyo was that of Ezekiel Onyango, who had married nine wives. The household head was Charles Obewa, son of the third wife, who is here pictured (fig.4) with his son who bears a strong likeness to the grandfather in the portrait held between them. As with the family of Owuor, the portrait became the only treasured image of their relative, and was the starting point for many recollections. The portrait of Onyango is striking - he stands erect and to attention, with a cane held under his left arm, reflecting his rank as Sergeant. The final family was that of Jacob Odawo, who is pictured a number of times by Evans-Pritchard, presumably accompanying him and Archdeacon Owen on a number of occasions in his role as a Native Assessor (court interpreter and advisor on native custom), later becoming an Assistant Chief. Oteyo was able to meet a surviving wife, Gawdensia Anyango, who on seeing the portrait of her late husband, related how his involvement with Evans-Pritchard and other outsiders had led to his eventual demise when he was implicated in the disappearance of tong Alego (the spears of Alego, the clan founder of Alego Location in Luo country) and other sacred objects. The taint of his involvement with these matters never left him, and he lived in poverty later in life.


Recently overheard in the gallery of the Pitt Rivers Museum was part of an earnest debate between two members of the public, which culminated in one person declaiming that all ethnographic objects should be 're-patronized'. This amusing slip could almost (if it was intended) be a very relevant critique of contemporary curatorial dilemmas. As far as 'visual repatriation' projects are concerned, there is indeed a danger of replicating and re-imposing Western curatorial and didactic structures, rather than enabling people to discover their own histories and meanings. Perhaps for the first time, Paro Manene was an exhibition of 'ethnographic' photography conceived and curated by an African researcher taking an archive home. Oteyo ended a recent seminar presentation in Oxford about the project with the thought that, although as a Luo he is in a privileged position in interpreting such collections to the Luo community, he imposed his own narratives and biases on the archive as much as any other researcher, regardless of their origin. We are not arguing that visual repatriation projects should be solely indigenous-led endeavours, which in any case would be wholly undesirable. Rather, we argue for the opening-up of curatorial agendas to include more capacity-building in places such as Africa, where little knowledge of ethnographic collections in the UK and elsewhere exists. If more collaboration with locally-accountable cultural institutions can be supported in the UK, then such knowledge will have a chance of filtering through to African students, who may then be encouraged to research material and visual collections in Western institutions.

The visual homecomings facilitated by this project were emotional experiences for the families involved. On the back of several of Evans-Pritchard's working prints are the scribbled notes 'Jacob wants', indicating that Odawo had requested copies at the time. Perhaps Evans-Pritchard did send him copies, but none had ever been seen by his surviving wife. The presentation made to his wife in 2007 goes some way to fulfilling this seventy-year old fieldwork promise.


  1. We are grateful to Paul Lane and the British Institute in Eastern Africa for the placement of Washington Ouma Ogutu as an assistant for the project. Ezekiel Ochieng Otiende and Perez Achieng also acted as research assistants to Gilbert Oteyo in Nyanza. We would also like to thank Mzalendo Kibunjia and Peter Nyamenya of the National Museums of Kenya for their collaboration in this project. We would like to thank Chris Wingfield who asked us to present our exhibition plans at the Museum Ethnographers' Group conference in Birmingham in May 2006, and to other members of the Group for their comments and encouragement.


Hobley, C.W. 1903. 'British East Africa: Anthropological Studies in Kavirondo and Nandi', Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland , Vol. 33, pp. 325-359.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1949. 'Luo Tribes and Clans', Rhodes-Livingstone Journal , Vol. VII, pp. 24-40.

- 1950. 'Marriage Customs of the Luo of Kenya', Africa , Vol. XX, no. 2, pp. 132-42.

Kratz, Corinne. 2002. The Ones That Are Wanted. Communication and the Politics of Representation in a Photographic Exhibition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ogot, Bethwell A. 1967. The History of the Southern Luo . Nairobi: East African Publishing House.

About the Authors

Christopher Morton is Head of Photograph and Manuscript Collections and Career Development Fellow at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. Gilbert Oteyo is an archaeologist and cultural historian, who has worked for the British Institute in Eastern Africa as well as the Department of Archaeology and the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. At the time of writing he is researching the history of cattle-keeping practices in Luo country, funded by the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum.


Figure 1            Paro Manene being displayed at Lwak Catholic Church Hall, 9-11 February 2007. Photograph by Washington Ouma Ogutu. Courtesy of Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

Figure 2            Paro Manene being displayed at Siaya Farmers Training Centre Hall, 15-17 February 2007. Photograph by Washington Ouma Ogutu. Courtesy of Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

Figure 3            Turfosa Omari (centre) and Dorina Owuor (left), two of Chief's Owuor's three surviving wives, holding framed copies of Evans-Pritchard's portraits, presented to them by Gilbert Oteyo (right) on behalf of the Pitt Rivers Museum, February 2007. Photograph by Perez Achieng. Courtesy of Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

Figure 4            Charles Obewa (left) with his son, holding a framed copy of Evans-Pritchard's portrait of Ezekiel Onyango, presented to them by Gilbert Oteyo on behalf of the Pitt Rivers Museum, February 2007. Photograph by Gilbert Oteyo. Courtesy of Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.