'Interrogator of archives' Temi Odumosu to join faculty

Temi Odumosu
Temi Odumosu

Temi Odumosu spotted the cast-iron bank in an antique furniture store in Copenhagen. Made in China, the bank had an onyx-black face, kinky hair and an exaggerated grin, wide, with cherry-red lips and impossibly white teeth. It was a modern replica of the popular “Jolly (N-word) Bank,” a kids’ plaything at the turn of the century. Place a coin in the hand, the figure throws it in the mouth and the eyes roll backward.

The bank was “haunting” the store, says the art historian and curator. “I was deeply disturbed by it.” Disturbed, then enraged, then the scholar in her kicked in and she started asking questions. How had the cast-iron object migrated from the Jim Crow toy culture in America to Denmark? What were children learning from the crude representation? Who made it? And, disconcertingly, why was there still market demand for such racial memorabilia denigrating Africans and African Americans?

Odumosu brought the bank and the load of difficult questions into her various classrooms, including at Malmö University in Sweden, where she is a senior lecturer in cultural studies. Students were profoundly affected. “People say, ‘Oh, the bank is so innocent. But things change when you get up close, start to unravel its past and see the biased design logic in such a clear way,” she says. “Once you see that faulty logic, you can actually intervene and shift perspectives.”

Odumosu will be joining the iSchool in January, bringing to the UW her expertise in colonial archiving and archives, representations of African-descendant peoples, and the digital afterlives of slavery in the cultural commons online. She’s excited to work collaboratively with new iSchool peers. “Even though my iSchool interviews were all virtual, I could feel the cohesion among the faculty,” she says. “I had a sense people really like one another and are genuinely interested in each other’s work.”

A self-described “interrogator of archives,” Odumosu will be deep diving into special collections at the university, local museums, and other cultural heritage institutions, investigating material that helps to tell more nuanced and dignifying stories of the African diaspora. “Archives are not easy spaces, but they can provide openings to make contact with people and lifeways that have been forgotten or ignored.”

Odumosu holds both a master’s and doctoral degree from the University of Cambridge. Her Ph.D. thesis became the award-winning book “Africans in English Caricature, 1769-1819: Black Jokes, White Humor.” It contains detailed analysis of satirical prints circulated among elites at the time that featured a motley cast of characters (from servants to royalty) who were part of a growing British empire under the shadow of the transatlantic slave trade. The comic imagery was brutal, and Odumosu ruled out using some of the most painfully racist images.

This refusal to reproduce is part of what she calls “an ethics of care” — a resistance to trading in pain and humiliation. It is critical in a digital era when a disturbing image can be instantly uploaded and the material used in ways that institutions never expected, she says.

“She is able to bridge the theoretical with the practical in a way that few scholars manage.”

As a curator, Odumosu is bold and creative, comfortable with experimentation and eager to communicate research outside of the academy. She and her collaborators have used augmented reality, media projections, film programs, sound installations, mobile apps and performance art to spotlight unfinished colonial histories for the public.

“She is able to bridge the theoretical with the practical in a way that few scholars manage,” says colleague Susan Kozel, professor of philosophy, dance and media technologies at Malmö University. “Further, she can engage in politically charged atmospheres in a way that feels generous and, when necessary, uncompromising — because at times she knows all of us can and should do more, or do what we do differently.” 

Odumosu was born in London to parents who migrated from Nigeria in the 1970s. When she was a child, her mother made her and her siblings a set of dolls representing all the different tribes on the African continent. “My parents did a good job of creating positive imagery for us growing up in a socially polarized England at the time,” she says.

Then she moved to Denmark. “It was a bit like travelling back in time to a country where racist terms are still used in everyday language — a country that puts personal freedom above political correctness.”

She is currently working on a research project exploring the colonial entanglements of Nordic countries that have seen themselves as innocent in these histories and shrouded their participation in the slave trade in silence.

Says Odumosu: “It is these gaps, misrecognitions and silences that we are working to transform.”