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UWC’s Centre for Humanities Research hosts Professor Derek Peterson

Author: Aidan van den Heever

The University of the Western Cape’s Centre for Humanities Research (CHR) hosted the world renowned academic and historian Professor Derek Peterson of the University of Michigan.

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(Published - 4 October 2019)

Peterson has for several years worked with colleagues to digitise an important collection of 70 000 photographic negatives held by the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC) in Kampala.

This work led to the exhibition: The Unseen Archive of Idi Amin: Photographs from the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation, the findings of which Peterson presented as part of a two-day International workshop in Visual History at the CHR, on UWC’s campus on Thursday, 3 October 2019. This exhibition opened at the Uganda Museum in May 2019 and consisted of 150 images chosen from the much larger collection held by the UBC, displayed together with a selection of sound and film material.

“We have digitised 25 000 negatives and in May 2019 we opened an exhibition at the Uganda Museum which consisted of 150 images. Many of the photographs taken were intended to show Amin’s development projects to transform the infrastructure of Uganda’s economy,” Peterson told Thursday’s workshop.

In the first year of Idi Amin’s rule in Uganda, photographers developed 14 000 negatives. By contrast, between 1971 and 1979 there were 60 000 negatives produced annually. There was a huge expansion of the photographer’s workload during that time.

“In the 1970s the photographers worked meticulously at developing and storing photos, the Uganda government spent quite a bit of money on their archives - very few of those photos were ever printed,” he said.

“Why were these photos never seen? Taking photos of Idi Amin was a dangerous task. Photographers over the course of the 1970s were the subject of unwelcome attention from Amin’s police and thugs. One photographer was executed for taking a picture of an Isreali hostage being kept by Idi Amin’s government.”

The categories of photographs the archiving uncovered during Idi Amin’s rule included those related to achievement, those evidentiary in nature, campaigns and candid photographs that were taken at events of Idi Amin and his generals. A substantial amount of photographs fell into the candid shots category, commandeered by people who were close to the government and who made photographers capture their private activities.

Peterson said it was important to bring across the message that the exhibition didn’t offer an uncritical view of Idi Amin’s history.

Peterson is a professor in the History Department and the Department of Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan. His scholarly work is about the intellectual and cultural history of eastern Africa. He is a Fellow of the British Academy.

Professor Patricia Hayes, the Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation SARChI Chair in Visual History & Theory at the CHR, said Peterson was a long time colleague and collaborator of UWC. “He has been involved in a very large undertaking in Uganda over the last 10 years to figure out ways to deal with archives of governments and other bodies that had ended up in a state of neglect.

“The current government of Uganda is not interested in posterity. They represent themselves as making a clean break from the past. The project of re-engaging the photographic archive is actually resurrecting ghosts. Professor Peterson spoke about the set of controls that need to be put in place, to prevent the misuse of the Idi Amin archive, that has now come back into the public domain,” she said.

Hayes explained that UWC had a long partnership with Makerere University in Kampala and that many graduate students from Uganda enrol for the African Programme in Museum and Heritage Studies offered by the UWC History Department, in partnership with the Robben Island Museum.

“We currently have one of the Directors of the National Museum of Uganda, Nelson Abiti, who is doing his PhD here. It is an opportunity for UWC’s internationalist responsibility, as an institution of higher learning, as a cosmopolitan institution, a welcoming institution for the best minds in Africa, to come here and showcase the richness of their archives. We believe the University has an important role to play in providing archival repositories for many of the activists in Africa who have collections,” Hayes said. ​

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