The African Choir was drawn from various mission stations and church choirs in the Eastern Cape, including graduates from Lovedale College. The original sixteen-member ensemble included seven men and seven women, plus two children. They toured Britain and the USA between 1891-93, ostensibly raising funds to build a technical college.
Choir members such as Charlotte Maxeke (née Manye), her sister Katie Makanya and Paul Xiniwe later became leading social activists and reformers in South Africa. They performed to great acclaim to large audiences in England, and before Queen Victoria in the summer of 1891. Their repertoire was divided into two halves: one comprised Christian hymns sung in English together with popular operatic arias and choruses; the other consisted of traditional African hymns, and some of the first originally composed hymns by South African composers: John Bokwe and the Rev. Tiyo Soga.
The Sound: The choir’s performances on tour were never recorded, although one of the concert programmes has survived. This has given freedom for the composers to re-imagine the repertoire. Working with fifteen young singers in a series of improvised and collaborative workshops in Cape Town in 2015, they recreated the original repertoire.
The Photographs: The visual component comprises twenty large-scale framed photographic portraits of the original members of The African Choir, enlarged as modern silver gelatin prints from vintage nineteenth-century glass plates. Photographed in July 1891 by the London Stereoscopic Company, these glass-plates were recently re-discovered by Autograph ABP at the Hulton Archive (a division of Getty Images) after 125 years and first exhibited to critical acclaim in 2014.
The Installation: Curated by Renée Mussai of Autograph ABP, this multi-media installation consists of the twenty large-scale portraits surrounded by a 30-minute immersive multi-channelled sound recording of a contemporary choir in the gallery space. The photographs are displayed in one discrete gallery room with its walls painted black, creating a powerful and intimate installation, echoing the 2016 London premiere, and associated Black Chronicles programmes presented between 2014 – 2016 in different iterations and venues.