“Your task is to prepare and deliver a ten-minute learning activity for your tutor group based around an object. You can approach this activity imagining your tutor group are your students, or as they are (a group of teachers from different disciplines and with different levels of experience); it’s up to you.”
While I was thinking about the objects in my household – or outside it – a sculpture at home came to mind, and the image persisted, so I pursued this focus. I picked the sculpture up from where it has sat for twenty years or so – which is a position on the floor in the hall as you come up the stairs you see it. I moved it to my kitchen table so that I could see it more or less at eye level, for a week or so, to let my eyes go over it and see what thoughts came to mind as I passed it every day. I’ve lost the paper which accompanied it as a wedding gift to me from close friends, but I remember something about it, which I will keep to myself in the learning activity. I gather that I should be the gatekeeper of the knowledge of the object in order for the group to look at the object without knowing its origin.
I thought I should choose something that provoked discussion around subjects that interest me – one of them is indigenous culture, and by association, post-colonialism. The very notion of anthropology (the study of humans and human behaviour and societies in the past and present, Wikipedia) and ethnography, (the scientific description of peoples and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences, Google dictionary) in the Western perspective on the Other is difficult enough, having evolved within the milieu of expansionist colonialism. Subsequently looking at the relationship between artworks of different cultures is a further complexity.
The eye of Western art is anthropological in its gaze upon the other (Clifford). Primordialism is associated with the most thoroughgoing rationalism and logocentrism when visited upon the third word subject. Yet, the story of modernization in postcolonial art is a story of the yoking of opposites in which the Enlightenment perspective is always underlaid by subterranean acts of atavism and brutality. In response to dominant narratives of modernity, postcolonial art draws on the codes of double and triple register so deeply and historically entrenched in the survivalist practices of the dominated (Gilroy). Culture, for these artists, is a crucible of encounter, a crucible of hybridity in which all of cultural form is marked by twinness of subject and the other.
Art and the Postcolonial Imagination: Rethinking the Institutionalization of Third World Aesthetics and Theory CAMERON MCCARTH Y AND GREG DIMITRIADIS ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, 31:1 & 2, Jan. – Apr. 2 2000
Initially I thought that having it and presenting it as the object of my – and subsequently, our attention – in this exercise that it may then put me in a certain light – which I wanted to avoid. So that became interesting and I want to examine some of those things – the concern with perception by my peers of me – I didn’t want to be perceived as a certain kind of white person who collects certain kinds of objects. We enter into the world of:
- the relationship between economies of different cultures and countries
- collecting art
- objects made specifically for sale ? or an object originally for the makers’ own cultural purposes sold out of that context and put into the economy of a gallery in a Western country
- symbology from another culture whose meaning or intent I have no idea of – (and do I have to know?)
- selling art in a gallery with provenance supports an artist – though if the artist didn’t get paid I wouldn’t know
How can we look at artworks made by peoples of different cultures?
The anthropologist James Clifford (1998: 224) developed a model that allows objects from traditional societies to be positioned in four ‘zones,’ based on the utilitarian or aesthetic purpose attributed to them, and on the degree of proximity to their original context of production. The ‘zone’ of ‘authentic artworks’ includes items valued by artists, curators and collectors; the ‘zone’ of ‘authentic artefacts’ comprises examples collected by researchers, held in historical and ethnographic museums; the ‘zone’ of the ‘inauthentic artworks’ includes falsifications; and finally the ‘zone’ of ‘inauthentic artefacts’ comprehends tourist souvenirs and mass-produced objects for everyday use. Clifford argues that an object can shift from one ‘zone’ to another, changing its value and status, which increase as it moves from ‘cultural artefact’ to ‘artistic object’ and from ‘inauthentic’ to ‘authentic.’
Ilana Seltzer Goldstein (2013) Visible art, invisible artists? the incorporation of aboriginal objects and knowledge in Australian museums DOSSIER: CULTURAL HERITAGE AND MUSEUMS PART 3: OTHERNESS http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1809-43412013000100019
Although I do love the sculpture, I would not necessarily choose to buy an artefact like this – it makes me feel uneasy, yet I want artists to be financially supported in their work. Looking at the artwork and knowing it came from a gallery tells me it might be in the “zone” of “authentic artefact” but it may well be an “inauthentic artefact” I wouldn’t be able to tell. Sculpture from the Sepik River area (an area of rich cultural activity) started to be carried away by Westerners since the 1960s and local people began making more.
But as I looked at it every day I noticed more, the material (carved hard wood –Papua New Guineans are famous for their knowledge and exploitation of trees, and carving traditions are highly developed across the Pacific region. The spirit of the tree that had to be cut down to make the carving will often transfer to the artwork that is produced: http://www.cultureofthecountryside.ac.uk/resources/carving-papua-new-guinea)
with natural colours, the texture, the uneven bottom of it so it doesn’t stand on its own easily, the design, and shells, all the physical properties of it, and the representation of a woman. But when I photographed her (I feel compelled to call her human, in an animistic way), I saw her anew. She’s tall and slender, she has markings on her face arms and legs, stands on a mound and her two hands each touch a centre of energy on her body – one hand at the heart and another on the pubis – and it wasn’t until I tried to imitate the stance (mimesis) that I realised that she has her left hand to her heart and not her right, as was instinctual for me, with the right handed. It actually jolted me a little to realise that I’d had this sculpture for so long and hadn’t ever noticed this, consciously. The act of observation, framing, focusing and photographing sections of her really did change my perception.
As Helen Chatterjee notes:
Object-based learning in higher education draws on many of the learning strategies already known to inform students, including active learning and experiential learning
HELEN J. CHATTERJEE (2011) Object-based learning in higher education: The pedagogical power of museums
The energy centres in the body the sculpture touches calls to mind the Hindu Buddhist & Jain tantric systems of chakras:
Second Chakra: The Svadhisthana chakra is our creativity and sexual center. It is located above the pubic bone, below the navel, and is responsible for our creative expression.
The Fourth Chakra: The Connection Between Matter and Spirit. Located at the heart center, the fourth chakra, anahata is at the middle of the seven and unites the lower chakras of matter and the upper chakras of spirit. The fourth is also spiritual but serves as a bridge between our body, mind, emotions, and spirit. The heart chakra is our source of love and connection.
I was reading an article in Art Quarterly that recalled Baudrillard’s Le systeme des objects (1968) which seemed like a useful way to help look at this object together, and made me wonder if Clifford had based his zones on the values of Baudrillard.
“Jean Baudrillard identified four kinds of value that an object can accrue. Two simple and two strange. The first is functional value – a measure of an object’s usefulness…. Next comes exchange value – the economic worth of an object….. The last two, though, are more occult. Baudrillard wrote about the symbolic value of an object. If you received a tie or a pair of shoes for Christmas, then you also received a symbol of your relationship with the giver… Fourthly, Baudrillard also proposed that objects can possess a sign value – which is derived from a thing’s relationship with other comparable things.
Matthew Sweet (2018)
However there’s many meanings and events that no one observing will know about its function unless they are familiar with this type of sculpture.
I know, yet no-one else in our group (probably) will know that her function is of a guardian – something I remember from the piece of paper; an example of magical thinking, that in or attached to the sculpture there is an active force. No-one else (definitely) will know that I was carrying her wrapped up in newspaper and string over my shoulder on the way passing though Madrid very early one New Year’s Day when we were robbed at gunpoint by a very unpredictable nervous man. Of course I think that the function of our guardian worked for us both, and as she was closer to me I didn’t have the gun pointed at me and I didn’t loose my passport – the protective spirit was active and protected me.
Indeed, the contemporary Western culture is based on the strong belief in the universal power of physical causality—a belief which is supported by the whole system of education. Yet, an average individual living in this culture, under certain conditions, does not act differently from the individuals who still live in a magic-tolerant culture.
Coming back to the problem raised in the Introduction, we can conclude that, according to the results of this study, individuals do ‘give up’ their magical beliefs and practices as long as their official culture becomes dominated by the belief in scientific rationality. Being quite evident in the individuals’ verbal responses, this ‘surrender’ affects the individuals’ behaviour only to a certain extent. At a certain level (i.e. in the conditions in which the individual is strongly personally and emotionally involved), the individual can deviate from the beliefs of technological civilization. When acting at this level, a person can retreat into practices (like magic) that are viewed as ‘left behind’ in history by the person’s official culture and education.
Eugene Subbotsky and Graciela Quinteros (2002) Do cultural factors affect causal beliefs? Rational and magical thinking in Britain and Mexico British Journal of Psychology (2002), 93, 519–543 © 2002 The British Psychological Society http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/staff/subbotsk/Culture.pdf
Papua New Guinea was visited by Russian anthropologist Miklou Miclay in the 19th century – who was one of the first anthropologist to refute the profoundly racist idea that different peoples were of different species. My father retraced his footsteps and visited the place Miklou Miclay lived, and produced a book about that journey. PNG was exploited by German, British and Australian interests in the 20th century, invaded by Japan, retained by the Allies and regained its independence in 1970s. West Papua was invaded by Indonesia in 1962 and now is under direct rule and is called Iryan Jaya where it is considered by many western news agencies that Indonesia is implementing ethnic cleansing of the Indigenous peoples.
Indigenous and foreign representations of the place and its peoples are now not so much separate visions as they are “double visions,” in the sense of both stereoscopy and blurred edges. Foreign knowledges of the Pacific have both used and aspired to eclipse indigenous knowledges, as is obvious from the earliest forms of ethnology in the region. Indigenous visions have, since the late eighteenth century, been challenged and partially transformed through encounters with the imagined cartographies of travelers, missionaries, traders, planters, and other agents of colonialism, capitalism, and development. As Tongan scholar Epeli Hau‘ofa has suggested (1994), outsiders’ representations of the Pacific matter not just because of their geopolitical and discursive hegemony but because Islanders have, in part, come to see themselves through the Outlanders’ lenses. Imagining Oceania: Indigenous and Foreign Representations of a Sea of Islands
Margaret Jolly. The Contemporary Pacific, Volume 19, Number 2, 508–545 © 2007 by University of Hawai‘i Press.
Through all this meandering I thought of the exercise. I would have my sculpture in the middle of a space where we all sit in a circle around her. I pass my phone to the next person who then photographs her and says something about her which I record. We end up with a round image of her and verbal responses that I can stitch together.
I hope we can exercise team working, observation, communication, discussion on the creation and sales of indigenous artefacts and how we can interpret or relate to them.
In the exercise itself I had a technical fail of the sound recorder, which you just have to deal with and stay on track, but we still had the iPhone camera images which everyone used to photograph the sculpture, and I was able to construct as a collective image of the sculpture (see above).
I think in retrospect that I’d put too many demands on the task for 10minutes as I wanted the group acting as my ‘students’ to take time to look, but within the constraints the analysis of the kind of sculpture from the group was I think fruitful. How do we interpret other cultures’ art objects? We look at the materials, the markings, the stance, size and other observable phenomena, yet we can’t know more without other kinds of knowledge, cultural knowledge.
Is determining provenance, and collecting of art objects of other cultures itself an act that arises from colonisation? It’s conversely certainly a post-colonial act in terms of repatriation of artworks plundered by colonising powers, currently critically being debated today between Britain and those countries it invaded as a coloniser.