An exhibition exploring the visual history of Abyei, recently opened at the Oriental Museum in Durham. The curator, Zoe Cormack, explains what photographs can tell us about the history of this contested region.
Shifting Sands is an exhibition of Ian Cunnison’s photographs from Sudan, taken during his ethnographic research on the political culture of the Misseriya-Humr between 1952 and 1955. The Misseriya annual migration goes from the edge of the desert in Kordofan to Abyei, where Dinka communities plant crops and graze their own cattle. This region lies on what is now a contested international border between Sudan and South Sudan; Abyei is currently claimed by both states. As part of the peace process that led to South Sudan’s independence there was supposed to have been a referendum in Abyei to determine which country the region would join. This never took place, hampered by disagreements over who had the right to vote. In October 2013, the Dinka community held a unilateral referendum. The Misseriya refused to participate and the ballot took place before, on their annual migration, they had reached the contested region.
Ian Cunnison (1923-2013) was an important figure in British and Sudanese anthropology. In 1959, after his research in Kordofan was finished, he moved back to an independent Sudan with his wife, Sheila to set up the department of social anthropology at the University of Khartoum. Even after he had returned to England, to take up a position at the University of Hull, he remained closely engaged with Sudanese scholars. During his retirement, Cunnison’s study of the Misseriya took on an entirely new significance. His work was used by lawyers representing both Sudan and South Sudan on the International Tribunal at The Hague to determine the boundaries of Abyei. Cunnison himself was called to give evidence to the court; a sharp reminder that the political significance of academic research can change dramatically.
The exhibition follows the 1953/1954 migration of the nomadic camp of the Omda (chief) Hurgas Merida, with whom Cunnison lived during his fieldwork. The camp moved around 60 times a year; four modules of photographs show different stages of the seasonal migration between the Babanusa in the north, to Abyei further south. It is a sophisticated cultural means of exploiting Sudan’s extreme environmental conditions. Photographs of the migration are interspersed with portraits of members of the camp that explore relationships – both within the camp and between neighbouring communities – in particular the Ngok Dinka in Abyei. These are also striking pictures of everyday life, indicating a familiarity between subject and photographer, which make them quintessentially the product of a close ethnographic relationship.
The photographs tell a unique visual story of inter-ethnic relationships in this frontier zone. Through portraiture and ethnographic details taken from Cunnison’s published work, the exhibition explores these complex dynamics in the camp in the mid 1950s. One portrait that reveals the intricacy of genealogical connections is of a man called Sheybun, the half brother of Hurgus Merida (who was the leader of the camp). Sheybun was one of Cunnison’s closest informants and a good friend (there several photographs of him in the exhibition). Cunnison describes Sheybun as ‘fey’, a carefree and engaging character. Before Cunnison’s research Sheybun had divorced his wife, but he had had a change of heart and was trying to raise the cattle needed to remarry her. One of the people helping him was his mother’s brother, El-Ju, a man of Dinka parentage and one of Hurgas’ closest friends. Sheybun himself was half Dinka. As we learn from Cunnison’s ethnography, several members of the camp were the descendants of Dinka slaves, others where descended from free men who became associated with the camp.
Despite the evidence of a recent history of slavery between the Dinka and Misseriya, Cunnison’s photographs capture a time in Abyei that many remember as a time of peace. In 1951 Deng Majok, the paramount chief of the Ngok Dinka had been asked by the colonial government if the Ngok Dinka should join the Southern provinces. He decline and opted to stay in the administration of Kordofan. During this period, Deng Majok sat with Misseriya leaders on the El Fula Rural Council, which Cunnison described as ‘a sphere of apparently friendly and fruitful cooperation between the north and south of the county’. At this time relationships were relatively good; but the situation would change dramatically from the 1960s as civil war began spread into Abyei.
The last photograph in the exhibition is of men from Deng Majok’s court visiting the Misseriya Nazir Ali Nimir at a camp near to Lau (in the Abyei region). The Dinka visitors recline on deckchairs, while Misseryia men sit on mats on the floor. Cattle graze in the background and the Nazir studies a piece of paper. This is not the most visually stunning of Cunnison’s photographs, but it is one of the most lingering: a tantalizing reminder that workable local relationships in Abyei have, in the past, been possible.
Shifting Sands: Babanusa to Abyei 1953-1954 is at The Oriental Museum in Durham from 4th April to 4th October 2014.