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Picturing a Colonial Past

The African Photographs of Isaac Schapera

This volume presents for the first time the selected photographs of the renowned British anthropologist Isaac Schapera (1905–2003). Taken between 1929 and 1934, largely during his earliest work among the Kgatla peoples of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), the 136 images in this selection reveal an emotional engagement and aesthetic impulse that Schapera seldom expressed in his writings. Covering a broad spectrum of daily activities, they include depictions of everything from pot making, thatching, and cattle herding to village architecture, vernacular medicine, and rainmaking ceremonies. Visually fascinating and of exceptional quality, these images capture the uniqueness of an African people in a particular time and place. They are contexualized and their significance explained in Jean and John Comaroff’s insightful introduction, while Adam Kuper’s illuminating biographical sketch of Schapera provides new insight into the life of the photographer. Picturing a Colonial Past reveals not only a rare side of old Botswana, but also of one of the most famous anthropologist who worked there.

234 pages | 139 halftones | 8 1/2 x 9 1/2 | © 2007

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Art: Photography

History: African History


“Isaac Schapera’s photographs magnificently capture everyday life among the Kgatla at a period of great social change through a seemingly artless focus on artifacts and architecture, dress and deportment. In their introduction, Jean and John Comaroff—Schapera’s most outstanding successors—provide a scintillating and thought-provoking portrait of Schapera as ethnographer and photographer. This splendid volume will be a most valuable resource to anthropologists and historians and a source of illumination and enjoyment to readers interested in southern Africa.”

Shula Marks, School of Oriental and African Studies

“These spectacular photographs reveal a much more complex Schapera than his writings allow and provide a more complete and aesthetically charming supplement to his work. The combination of clear, insightful, and entertaining scholarship—written by some of the foremost anthropologists of the region—and stunning photographs makes this a highly original and important book with a wide appeal. Readers will gain a better understanding of the history of anthropology as well as visual anthropology and African studies.”

Robert Gordon, University of Vermont

"This is a wonderful book for lovers of Southern African cultures, as well as for students of classic ethnography and visual culture. . . . There is much value in the aesthetic beauty of these photographs, reminding us that cultures reassert their values in a wide range of contexts."

Nancy Howell and David Lee | Journal of Anthropological Research

Table of Contents

Editorial Note 
Isaac Schapera, Two Portraits of the Ethnographer      
Letter from Chief Linchwe II of the Kgatla       
Introduction: The Portraits of an Ethnographer as a Young Man / Jean and John Comaroff        
Isaac Schapera (1905–2003): His Life and Times / Adam Kuper         
The Bakgatla Bagakgafêla: Preliminary Report of Field Investigations, 1933 / Isaac Schapera    
African Images: The Photographs of Isaac Schapera in Bechuanaland and Elsewhere, 1929–1934

1 Motse: The Architecture of Village Life         
2 Mo gae: Domestic Scenes    
3 Ditshwantshó: Portraits        
4 Bana: Children, at Play and Work     
5 Bogwêra: Initiation Rites       
6 Tiro: The Work of Production          
7 Moroka: The Rainmaker       
8 Kgotla: The Public Sphere    
9 Banna ba ditshaba: Others  

Notes to the Photographs        

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