A monastery’s mission to record

2011-04-25 00:00

CHRISTOPH Rippe, a doctoral student in cultural anthropology at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University in the Netherlands, is currently working in the archives of Mariannhill Monastery, near Pinetown, researching the many photographs produced there from the 1880s to the 1930s, when the monastery ran a fully fledged photographic studio.

In the late 1890s this studio, then run by Brother Aegidius, produced an album of ethnographic photographs depicting the local Zulu people that found its way into the collections of ethnographic museums all over Europe. It was this album that triggered Rippe’s interest in the monastery and its photographic record. “I wanted to do an internship at the Ethnology Museum of Leiden thus fostering a long interest I had had in ethnographic photography.”

The museum purchased an album of photographs — 156 in all — from Mariannhill in 1899. “In 1897 Brother Aegidius sent out letters to ethnographic museums in Europe, making them aware of the album,” says Rippe. “He produced a standard set accompanied with a pamphlet giving a detailed account of objects, the ritual practices depicted, along with the Zulu names for objects depicted in the photographs.”

Rippe says that when the studio and publishing press at Mariannhill began working in 1882, it proved to be just the right moment. “The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 had fostered a great interest in the Zulus in Europe.”

“Most major museums in Europe have Mariannhill collections — in Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, even Hungary.”

Although Brother Aegidius was a self-taught photographer, photography had been part of the Mariannhill Mission from the very beginning when its founder, Abbot Francis Pfanner, established the monastery in 1882. “There had been two photographers preceding Brother Aegidius,” says Rippe. “Pfanner brought a photographer with him from Europe and another who joined the order later was a professional photographer.”

Brother Aegidius, who died in 1921, ran the studio for over 30 years. Two years after his death Brother Leonard was brought out from Germany to run the studio, which remained active until the beginning of World War 2. After the war there was little point in reopening the studio as photography had become a widespread activity.

But how did photography become such a significant activity — in what was primarily a monastic establishment — to the extent of establishing a studio complete with painted backdrops for people to pose against? “Pfanner realised things were not quite working out the way he intended,” says Rippe. “He had to adapt to local conditions if his mission was to survive. So he started a third order, a lay order. Members of this order didn’t have to obey the strict rules. And Brother Aegidius was one of these.”

While working on a Masters degree, with the album as his subject matter, Rippe delved into the history of Mariannhill and his research provided evidence of many more photographs than the 156 in the album. “They were only a small part of the collection,” he says. “It was much more extended than I had anticipated. And these photographs were not just ethnographic photographs. They were used as propaganda and to raise funds for the mission as well as to foster an interest in vocations. They were quite successful in that regard.”

Having realised the extent of the photographic record produced by Mariannhill, Rippe realised he had to conduct research in situ. “Only that way could I find out where the photographs came from and about their sociological and ethnographic context. Also what local people and others at Mariannhill might know about them.”

Rippe first came to Mariannhill in 2007. “Everything was in the archive, which meant I could compare what was there to the existing prints. I also read through all the many writings of the various missionaries — it was quite time-consuming but every now and then I would come across a mention of the photographic studio and what they were doing there.

“In 2007 there were also still a handful of people who remembered the experience of being photographed, or the history of their relatives shown in the photographs.”

Rippe’s research has taken him to other archives such as the Campbell Collection and Museum Africa which contain images from Mariannhill. “Photographs were produced at Mariannhill with a multi-purpose intention: ethnographic photographs to sell to museums, but also for propaganda purposes. They show black South Africans either portrayed in traditional attire or Western dress. They wanted to show a ‘before-and-after’ image as evidence of their impact as missionaries. Other ethnographic photographers would eradicate modern details to make their photographs more ‘authentic’.

“A large section of the Mariannhill photographic archive is devoted to children being educated, playing sport, often with nuns and brothers and priests. Again, this is to show evidence of the missionaries’ impact for change.”

As well as Africans there are also a few photographs of white people, some studio portraits of families and children, as well as some military figures taken during the South African War (1899-1902) when there was a large military camp at nearby Pinetown.

Rippe has also collated reports from outside the monastery, accounts from contemporary newspapers that reported the first arrival of the missionaries. The monastery was also visited by the likes of Mark Twain, Henry Rider Haggard and Mohandas Gandhi who also left written impressions.

Whereas Rippe’s masters focused on the earlier album his PhD looks at the whole collection. “I’m trying to concentrate on parts of the collection, looking at the photographs in terms of Zulu identity, as private histories and memoirs, how the monks perceived themselves. I’m also comparing the work of Mariannhill with other missions and photographs of the area.”

“I’m also trying to get a feel for what went on in the studio. Brothers Aegidius and Leonard sent out letters that I found in collections overseas saying what the studio had and what it could supply. If, for example, scholars wanted illustrations for a paper or an article they would write to the monastery asking ‘what do you have?’”

Rippe’s research at Mariannhill coincides with a growing local interest in the monastery and its various mission stations. Steve Kotze has promoted the idea of “mission tourism” and his CD Hidden Treasures provides a vivid David Rattray-style telling of the Mariannhill story with a special focus on Centocow Mission near Creighton. Michael Green’s novel, For the Sake of Silence, winner of the 2009 Olive Schreiner Prize, chronicles the story of the Mariannhill order in the 19th century. “Green, like me, is interested in the historical phenomenon of Mariannhill and its huge impact on the area,” says Rippe. “He’s also exploring issues of history versus fiction.”

Rippe calls his approach to history via photographs “historioscopy”, a variant of historiography, the study of how history is produced in texts. “You can do the same with photography — investigate how the past has been captured and constructed with the help of photographs. Of course, you can’t ‘capture’ the past. All photographs are interpretations. People often think photographs are factual representations of the past, but they are not.”

• Do you have any early photographs of relatives produced at Mariannhill (1880s-1930s), or any information on old photography of the Pinetown-area that might help Christoph Rippe in his research? You can contact him at 079 553 7916 or e-mail christoph.rippe@gmx.com

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