Portraying the Sarah Forbes Bonettas of today: African heritage in the 21st century

Posted on June 15th, 2016

This remarkable portrait series of Dagmar van Weeghel tells stories of African history and orphaned African children who need to survive without parental love, care, protection, and money. They live in a tough world where girls are especially vulnerable. But when given that one chance, these children can take on life and the world.

The recurrent theme in Dagmar van Weeghel's work is her interest in the African diaspora and African (post) colonialism and identity. After completing her studies in Film and Photography at The Dutch Film Academy (1998), she wanted to become a wildlife filmmaker and follow in the footsteps of Hugo van Lawick, the Dutch husband of British anthropologist Jane Goodall. Van Weeghel saw herself lying on a Landrover filming wildlife, but the reality in Zimbabwe proved to be a lot less fulfilling. Her films did not end up at National Geographic like she had in mind, but at local African schools. Here, a significant seed was planted. Her wildlife footage became a means of education for local children - something that fueled a fire in Van Weeghel.

In 2002, Van Weeghel volunteered at a Nature Reserve in Botswana, where she made her first educational children's film about plastic waste and its impact on the local environment and wildlife. In 2003, she initiated the NGO Nature for Kids. For her NGO she produced and directed a series of heroic nature conservation children films for a large African audience. In 2004, she started a project in Tanzania, where she made three funded films in the local language, with local people and a local crew. The films dealt with overgrazing, deforestation, and the Maasai- lion conflict. Nature for Kids developed a mobile cinema so the films could be screened throughout Africa. Her important message was that all children can make a difference in dealing with local environmental issues - they are the heroes of a society and they can change entrenched traditions.

Doing online research into colonial history in the collection of a South African museum, Van Weeghel came across the story and 19th C portraits of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, an African princess of the Egbado clan of the Yoruba people, who lived in what is now southwest Nigeria. Aged four, her parents and siblings were all killed in the 1847 slave raid by another Black King who made Sarah a captive. Two years later, British Commander Frederick Forbes bargained for her life and agreed to “give” her to Queen Victoria, as a present from “the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites.” The little girl was baptized and given the name Sarah Forbes Bonetta. Forbes wrote that “She is a perfect genius; she now speaks English well, and [has] great talent for music… She is far in advance of any white child of her age in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection…” Sarah was taken to England and met Queen Victoria in 1850 at Windsor Castle. The Queen was impressed by her intellect and one year later, she declared Sarah her goddaughter, paid her tutorial expenses, and young Sarah became a regular visitor to Windsor Castle.

Queen egg
Dagmar van Weegheel - Queen Dagmar van Weegheel - Egg

During Van Weeghel's time in Africa she has seen many ‘Sarahs’, girls who were orphaned and had to look after themselves in their communities. Van Weeghel wanted to do something for these girls and decided to portray the girls in an African orphanage in white vintage dresses, which also served as a reference to the story of Sarah Forbes. Van Weeghel thus photographed the Sarahs of this era, who sadly have little chance of being adopted at the ages of eight and up. By sharing their story, their dreams and aspirations, Van Weeghel hopes someone will notice the many Sarahs who are still waiting for that one chance.

New Jerusalem Children's  Home in South Africa

Van Weeghel also wanted to pay a photographic homage to the adult Sarah Forbes, who, as a child, had been given that chance but who must also have struggled with a life between two continents and multiple identities. The model is Kajote Barbara from Uganda, a true 'Sarah' herself, orphaned at the age of eight and going on to being runner up in Miss Uganda 2011. As an entrepreneur, she now lives in Belgium.

Dagmar Van Weeghel would eventually work with African communities for fourteen years, and she lived & worked in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Tanzania & Uganda for nine years. She now lives in the Netherlands with her African husband - and the African theme in her work continues. Her two new series in development, Nomads and Mombasa Blues, are about identity, black history and the African diaspora.

 Hedy van Erp, Guest Curator Identity Kit

With thanks to Dagmar van Weeghel.





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