Tayo’s new work is based on the history of the Phrenology collection within the University of Edinburgh.

Tayo Adekunle, BA (Hons) Photography 2020, has been commissioned to create a project based on the history of the Phrenology collection within the University of Edinburgh.

Originally from Wakefield, West Yorkshire, Tayo is a British Nigerian photographer who works with self-portraiture. She uses her work to explore issues surrounding race, gender and sexuality as well as racial and colonial history.

This is Tayo’s first commission. Her work forms part of the online exhibition Mindshift: Confronting a Colonial Collection. The University’s Anatomical Museum holds one of the largest phrenology collections in the world. Now discredited, phrenology was a science of measurement which promoted a colonial agenda, situating Edinburgh as a centre for scientific racism in the 19th century. This exhibition of life and death masks, models, artworks and human remains, spotlights contemporary historical, scientific and artistic research into this colonial collection

Tayo says: “The revisiting of this collection addresses the troubled past that phrenology has, particularly in its links to slavery, and also in the bias that phrenology is known to have. I’ve been exploring lots of peoples stories and discovering things like non-white people being categorised as ‘African’ or ‘Asian’, as opposed to being given their own names and countries.

“Something important to me is taking complicated or academic information which can be quite tricky to read and making work that is more digestible, so people can learn about things in a way that isn’t intimidating.”

Tayo undertook research in the Collections over the course of summer 2021. She says: “I’m very interested in the links between phrenology and slavery. I’ve been reading a lot about Dr Charles Caldwell and George Combe who were two of Europe’s most eminent phrenologists. Caldwell was a physician and slave-owner who corresponded with George Combe, founder of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society.

She continues: “Caldwell and Combe were on opposite sides of the abolitionist movement, but despite this, the phrenological arguments made by slave-owners and abolitionists were remarkably similar. Caldwell’s beliefs, ‘that Africans have enlarged organs of “Veneration” and “Cautiousness” caused him to make the assumption ‘the Africans must have a master’.” Combe’s description of the ‘mild, docile’ and ‘tameable’ African temperament caused him to argue that this innate weakness meant society should protect them.

“Neither of these assumptions reflected well on African people. For example, if you were a white middle class man, your reading would be more favourable.”

Tayo’s work, Fitting the Character, explores how phrenology was used to confirm and consolidate certain prejudices present in the 19th century. Inspired by a quote by Frederick Douglass, “by making the enslaved character fit only for slavery, they excuse themselves for refusing to make the slave a freeman,” the work explores confirmation bias in phrenological readings.

She says: “Visually influenced by silhouettes in the Phrenology Collection, I used my own head measurements and passages from readings in texts such as The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany to illustrate the bias in phrenologists’ approach to assessing different people. The piece compares the difference in language used to describe white men and that used to describe black people.”


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