This session of the Archival Encounters lecture series focuses on affective archives, witnessing and repair, featuring a talk by Professor of Anthropology Deborah A. Thomas, followed by a conversation with curator and researcher Nydia A. Swaby. In her talk Professor Thomas presents her recent filmic and scholarly work drawing on her latest book, Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, Witnessing, Repair, in which she pulls from visual, oral historical and colonial archives to trace the long-term legacies of the plantation system in Jamaica, and in post-plantation societies more broadly. The lecture is followed by a dialogue with Nydia A. Swaby, who also presents some of her creative practice around transnational Black archives and diaspora in response to Thomas’s work. 


Deborah A. Thomas is the R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology, and the Director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania.  She is also a Research Associate with the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre at the University of Johannesburg.  Her recent book, Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, Witnessing, Repair (2019), was awarded the Senior Book Prize from the American Ethnological Society in 2020, and was also the runner-up for the Gregory Bateson Prize in the same year.  She is also the author of Exceptional Violence:  Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica (2011) and Modern Blackness:  Nationalism, Globalization, and The Politics of Culture in Jamaica; and co-editor of the volume Globalization and Race:  Transformations in the Cultural Production of Blackness (2004). Her articles have appeared in a diverse range of journals including Cultural Anthropology, American Anthropologist, Radical History Review, Anthropological Theory, small axe, Identities, Interventions, and Feminist Review.  Thomas has also co-directed and co-produced two documentary films:  BAD FRIDAY:  RASTAFARI AFTER CORAL GARDENS, which chronicles violence in Jamaica through the eyes of its most iconic community; and FOUR DAYS IN MAY: KINGSTON 2010, which explores the effects of the “Tivoli Incursion” in May 2010.  Thomas is also the co-curator of a multi-media installation titled Bearing Witness: Four Days in West Kingston, which opened at the Penn Museum in November 2017.  Thomas edited the journal Transforming Anthropology from 2007-2010, and currently sits on the editorial boards of Social and Economic Studies and Anthropological Theory.  From 2016-2020, she was the Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association.  She has served on the executive boards of the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (ASWAD), the Caribbean Studies Association, and the Society for Cultural Anthropology.  Prior to Thomas’s life as an academic, she was a professional dancer with the New York-based Urban Bush Women.  


Nydia A. Swaby is a black feminist researcher, writer, and curator based in London. She has a PhD in Gender Studies [SOAS], an MA in Women’s History [Sarah Lawrence College], and a BA in Anthropology and African American Studies [Rollins College]. Her practice builds on theories of racial, gendered, diasporic, and queer formation, black feminism, black studies, and her previous experience working at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.  She is a member of Feminist Review’s Editorial Collective and co-edited a recent issue on feminist, queer, and diasporic archives, published in July 2020. Her writing has been published in Africana Heritage, Re/Visionist, Symbolism, and Feminist Review and she’s currently writing a monograph, tentatively titled Becoming with the Archive: A Research Memoir, that interweaves personal narrative and family history with research in archives in Jamaica, the United States, and the United Kingdom. She’s the Curator of Learning at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, where she works with academics, curators, artists, and writers to develop a multi-disciplinary, practice-based research and learning program.