African arts scholar and curator Christa Clarke was invited to the Tang Teaching Museum to review the museum’s holdings of art from Africa, a wide-ranging and eclectic collection comprising some 375 works. As well as advising the museum on the cataloging records for each object, Clarke studied in-depth a portfolio of ten hand-colored prints by South African artist Barbara Tyrrell.
The visually arresting hand-colored reproductions by South African artist Barbara Tyrrell record in glorious detail various examples of traditional dress of southern Africa from the latter half of the 1940s. Each print bears a title identifying the subject by ethnic group as well as gender, age, and/or social status. The portfolio—two sets of five prints—is accompanied by notes describing the dress and adornment and their relation to custom at greater length.(1)
These works are less familiar than the masks and figural sculptures that so often define “African art” for museum audiences. I am drawn to their hybridity and to the layers of historical complexity that they embody. They prompt questions that don’t lend themselves to straightforward answers. Are they art or ethnography? Do they celebrate traditional heritage or produce cultural difference? What do they tell us about the particular historical moment in which they were created? How can we view these works today?
Barbara Tyrrell (1912–2015) was born in Durban and raised in Eshowe, the colonial capital of the Zulu kingdom. Her family and the environment she grew up in kindled an early interest in Zulu culture and fostered her fluency in the Zulu language: she recalls the lifelong impact of witnessing local ceremonies at a young age with her father, a Zulu linguist employed by the Department of Native Affairs. Tyrrell also credits as an influence the work of her grandfather Frederick Fynney, who authored early texts on Zulu culture and notably accompanied the Zulu king Cetshwayo as his translator on his visit to England in 1882 to meet with Queen Victoria.
A high school encounter with Alfred Martin Duggan-Cronin’s The Bantu Tribes of South Africa, an eleven-volume series published beginning in 1928, sparked Tyrrell’s interest in studying traditional dress: “I discovered the fine series of books of photographs depicting the ethnic types of the ‘tribal peoples’ [ … I]n the Duggan-Cronin books I sensed the germinating of an impossible idea.”(2) After obtaining a degree in fine arts from the University of Natal and studying fashion in London, Tyrrell bought a 1934 Chevrolet van and began to travel around southern Africa, sketching and painting. She sent her initial studies of Ngwane women in the Drakensberg area to Killie Campbell in Durban, a well-regarded collector of “Africana.” With Campbell’s patronage, Tyrrell embarked on what would become her life’s work—recording different types of “tribal dress” from throughout southern Africa along with notes on their relation to traditional customs.(3)
The ten works in the Tang portfolio are hand-colored reproductions based on Tyrrell’s original watercolor and ink illustrations, 250 of which are in the Campbell Collections of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. These watercolors were developed as finished works from hundreds of preparatory pencil drawings, which she sketched during her travels between 1940 and 1960 in the present-day nations of South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. Describing her work, Tyrrell states, “Each of these tribal dress studies is the portrait of a real person drawn in his or her home environment and, wherever possible, in traditional posture.”(4) Tyrrell was respectful in conducting her studies: she was sensitive to the social mores of her subjects, communicated in Zulu when possible, and paid her models to sit for her. On her field sketches, she included the sitter’s name and careful notes about their items of dress.