Untold Stories of Livingstone’s Crew

The David Livingstone Birthplace Exchange group (six participants from African, African Caribbean and South Asian backgrounds) have commissioned a film and a piece of music that creatively re-imagines the story of the 19th century explorer David Livingstone and the untold stories of his African crew members. 

The film, by artist Mara Menzies, and music, by Gameli Tordzro, founder, composer and Creative Director of Ha Orchestra and the AdinkraLinks Poetry Network, will be enjoyed for the first time at the David Livingstone Birthplace at a special Tingatinga Party event on Saturday 25th of June (as part of Refugee Festival Scotland). The Tingatinga Party will feature an afternoon of live music, art, film, food and storytelling.

The David Livingstone Birthplace (DLB) Exchange group is one of seven projects hosted at different museums around the UK as part of the Community-Led Collections Research Project, in partnership with the National Museum of Scotland and Royal Museum Greenwich. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. This unique project enables community groups to explore experiences of empire, migration, and life in Britain through their collections.

The DLB Exchange group who were recruited through an open call in December last year, brings together six participants to look at how creative responses to the museum’s collection can be used to speak to the different African cultures, communities, and individuals that Livingstone encountered and worked with and how these stories can be revealed through object research and creative practice.

The participants have selected objects from the DLB collection to expand upon and reveal new stories relating to Livingstone’s African crew members. As part of their research, the DLB Exchange group looked closely at a largely undocumented object in the collection, a fibrous urn belonging to Abdullah Susi and James Chuma. Starting their investigation, the group asked: ‘What can everyday objects such as a grain urn reveal about the experience of the African community groups and individuals that supported Livingstone?’

Susi and Chuma were two of Livingstone’s most valuable crew members, whose knowledge of languages and landscapes were pivotal to the success of his journeys. While there is limited knowledge of their story, the DLB Exchange group’s research, conducted through community members, academics and relevant industry professionals has shown that the object maybe made from coconut coir, a material frequently used in the shipbuilding industry of the precolonial Indian Ocean trade. This development has unearthed the strong possibility that the men may have emerged from the milieu of East African sea-faring communities, whose contacts with the West Coast of India were cultivated for many centuries.

Inspired by this finding, the Exchange group have commissioned award-winning performance storyteller Mara Menzies to reimagine Susi and Chuma’s story through film, set to be shown at the Tingatinga Party. The film will later feature as a permanent part of the exhibition at the David Livingstone Birthplace and will go some way towards highlighting the vital role of these individuals and correcting the false narrative that Livingstone acted on his own as a ‘lone hero’.

Further research led the Exchange group to study the many musical instruments in the museum’s collection, particularly focusing on a mbila (xylophone) which was made by the Chopi people of present-day Mozambique. The mbila is on display in the museum because David Livingstone witnessed performances on similar instruments as recounted in his book ‘Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and its Tributaries’. 

The group commissioned a musical response to this object from artist Gameli Tordzro. Tordzro has a background in teaching traditional African music and makes many of his own instruments.  As part of the commission, the group will film Tordzro discussing the construction of the instrument and the significance of the materials used to make it. This film will feature in the museum’s permanent exhibition, highlighting the ongoing significance of these objects for a wide audience.

Tordzro will perform the specially commissioned piece of music inspired by the mbila at the Tingatinga Party on 25 of June, at the David Livingstone Birthplace. Tordzro will also lead a story telling workshop and will be inviting the public to interact with the instruments at the event.

In organising the event the DLB Exchange group have been working closely with Congolese Community of Motherwell and Best Way Community Development. The Tingatinga Party will also feature live music from ‘The Gig Group’, a new band of Congolese musicians from the Scottish diaspora playing Afro-Congo, pop, Reggae, Seben/Rumba,

Afrobeat and more.

At the Party, visitors can also enjoy an art installation by artist Josie KO who is also a member of the DLB Exchange Group. There will also be the opportunity to try some Tingatinga glass painting on the day. Tingatinga art originated in East Africa and is characterised by a naïve style using bright colours and humour. Josie obtained her degree in Painting and Printmaking from Glasgow School of Art in 2021. She now continues to practice in Glasgow creating work which speaks towards Black histories and the Black presence in Britain. The sculpture is made using recycled materials from Circular Arts Network. 

The event will also celebrate the publication of a riso-printed zine, documenting the research and creative response of the DLB Exchange Group. Designed by Inès Gradot at Risotto Studio the zine will draw from the Tingatinga style, that was of particular interest to the Exchange Group. Visitors are also invited to enjoy Swahili food from East Africa! Pilau, chapati, mandazi, kuku choma (roast chicken), kachori, bhajia, vitumbua and peas in coconut sauce. Swahili cuisine is a mixture of Arabic, Indian and Bantu with lots of herbs and spices.

Alasdair Campbell, Community and Partnerships Officer at David Livingstone Birthplace said: “It’s been a huge pleasure bringing the DLB Exchange group together and being part of their journey researching our collection.”

“The group are incredibly talented and we have learned a lot from them over the last 6-months. We are so grateful for their generosity and dedication in bringing this vital project together and supporting our ongoing efforts to decolonise our museum. We’re delighted to be hosting the Tingatinga Party to celebrate the Exchange group’s achievements and share their important work with wider audiences.”

Josie KO, member of the DLB Exchange Group said: “Working with this group and looking at the realities of Livingstone’s story, has taught me about how racist narratives and colonial strategies have been implemented in Scottish history. What I have really enjoyed about this project is discovering the truth about David Livingstone’s impact and exposing the stories of the hidden African figures who were previously unknown to me.”

“Through our project it has been important to think about the crucial role that DLB holds in telling the untold stories of the African people who were part of David Livingstone’s journey. We were interested in how these stories can be used to consider Black Scottish history and to engage with the African communities who are living in Scotland in the present.  Our event is a celebration of African art, music, film and storytelling which invites attendees to consider David Livingstone and African creativity in contemporary ways.”

David Livingstone was a Scottish physician and pioneering Christian missionary with the London Missionary Society. From his humble beginnings working in the Blantyre, he became a life-long abolitionist and well-respected explorer in Africa. His extraordinary story transformed him into one of the most celebrated British figures of the Victorian era and his legacy lives on to this day, in Scotland’s lasting relationships with many African countries and in Black Scottish history.

The David Livingstone Birthplace Museum, located on the site of the former Blantyre Cotton Works, where David Livingstone was born and raised, has undergone a transformative refurbishment and reinterpretation project, gaining it a Museum + Heritage award nomination in 2022. The museum offers visitors a more in-depth perspective on the story of Livingstone, using its globally significant collection to reframe Livingstone’s achievements, his failures, and the opportunity his story holds to encourage a deeper understanding of marginalised histories and Scotland’s role in slavery and colonisation.

Tingatinga Party, 12-5pm, 25 of June at the David Livingstone Museum, Blantyre

https://www.david-livingstone-birthplace.org/tingatinga-party.html

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