Rhodes>History>Projects>The (In)Audible Past

The (In)Audible Past

The interdisciplinary project «The (In)Audible Past» critically explores sound archives located in South Africa and Namibia, as well as collections in Basel which connect Switzerland to Southern Africa, its political cultures and colonial past. Sound Studies have recently turned towards practices and cultures of recording and listening to sounds in the Global South. However, a concise theory of the sound archive as historical source, negotiating its role in stabilising coloniality but also its potential to unleash the process of decolonizing history remain to be established. Situated in an interdisciplinary field (History, Media Studies, Sound Studies) this collaborative project between Rhodes University, the University of Fort Hare and the University of Basel inquires into sound as a site of political and cultural struggle, social and identity formation. In challenging false dichotomies between the oral and the written, our engagements with these archives anticipate the sensitivity of the land on which the recording of sounds occurred. Acoustic archives evidence the cultural significance of constituting sound objects and categorising sound – as speech, poetry, song, or noise – and they highlight the deep social consequences of sound categorisation, which has historically tagged race and alterity, and produced segregated spaces of knowledge and belonging. Our project therefore explores sound archives in and from Southern Africa as part of a broader sensorial and media history. Three aspects determine the methods and expected outcome: Firstly, Southern African acoustic archives will evidence the socio-political and cultural significance of constituting sound objects, contingent on the historical segregation of languages, listening cultures and access to infrastructures. Secondly, the question of the registry of the archive links the audible to an order of classification, forming the politics of the archive. Thirdly, technology, as recording devices, formats of storage or media of transmission, provokes profound shifts in the sensorial and aural world. We consider these shifts and transformations to be part of situated local histories, which depend on the broader technological, cultural and aesthetic landscapes within which they occur. In negotiating approaches from History, African Studies, Sound Studies and Media Theory — as represented by the particular work of the participants of the project — we inquire into sound archives with a view to shifting attention away from orality’s literary or historical dimensions alone to theorisations of sound as a contested epistemological and cultural terrain, which was essential to negotiations of the relation between the modern and the colonial.


The (In)Audible Past Main Partners


South Africa

PI Prof. Dr. Helena Pohlandt-McCormick, Rhodes University

PI 2 Prof. Dr. Gary Minkley, University of Fort Hare



PI Prof. Dr. Ute Holl, University of Basel

Co-Investigator PD Dr. Lorena Rizzo, University of Basel


Additional Partners

• Dr. Martha Akawa (UNAM, Windhoek)

• Dr. Jeremy Silvester (Museums Association of Namibia, Windhoek; and Music Museum Omuthia, Namibia)

• Eduardo Mondlane University Maputo (Dr. Carlos Fernandes)

• Dr. Dag Henrichsen and Reto Ulrich (Basler Afrika Bibliographien, Basel)

• Dr. Giorgio Miescher (Namibia and Southern Africa Studies, University of Basel)

• Prof. Dr. John Mowitt (University of Leeds)

• Sinazo Mtshemla (archivist, NAHECS, University of Fort Hare, PhD candidate)

• Simon Gush (PhD candidate, University of Fort Hare)

• Dr. Craig Paterson (Postdoc, University of Fort Hare)

• Dr. Aidan Erasmus (Lecturer, University of the Western Cape)

• Dr. Lee Watkins (Director, Senior Lecturer in Ethnomusicology & Editor of African Music, International Library of African Music ILAM)

• Elijah Madiba (Digitising Manager, ILAM)


Last Modified: Thu, 13 Jan 2022 15:26:53 SAST