Wakulenko, I. (ed.) (2018) Group images of a female guardian sculpture from the Sepik River area, Papua New Guinea.
From our tutor’s lesson plan: “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 – on the floor in the hall as you come up the stairs. 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. I’ve lost the paper which accompanied it as a gift to me from close friends years ago, 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.
Wakulenko, I. (2018) Female guardian sculpture from Sepik River, Papua New Guinea.
I wanted to choose something that provoked discussion around subjects that interest me – one of them is Indigenous culture, and by association, post-colonialism. My reflections on the exercise follow beyond the bibliography below.
The very notion of anthropology (the study of humans and human behaviour and societies in the past and present, Wikipedia : 2018) and of ethnography, (the scientific description of peoples and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences, Google Dictionary: 2018) are difficult enough, having evolved within the milieu of expansionist colonialism. Subsequently looking at the relationship between artworks of different cultures, particularly between those of the coloniser and the colonised, is a complex task, as noted here by McCarthy and Dimitriadis (2000):
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.
The idea of a stereoscopic link between Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge is also proposed by Professor Margaret Jolly, (2007) and Tongan scholar Epeli Hau’ofa (1994) notes that the pervasiveness of the Western gaze is now being reflected back in part through the vision of other non-Western 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.
Initially, I thought that having and presenting the sculpture as the object of my – and subsequently, our attention – in this exercise, may put me in a certain light – which I wanted to avoid. So that became interesting and I want to examine some of those things – I didn’t want to be perceived as a certain kind of white Western person who collects Indigenous objects. We enter into the world of:
- colonialism and post-colonialism
- 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, and the idea of “authenticity”
- 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 to what degree? How would I know if the artist was paid?
Papua New Guinea (PNG ) has been the focus of different colonisers. It 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. PNG was exploited by British, German, and Australian interests in the 20th century, invaded by Japan, taken by the Allies and regained its independence only in the 1970s. West Papua was invaded by Indonesia in 1962 and now is under direct rule and is called Iryan Jaya by them, where it is considered by many western news agencies that Indonesia is implementing ethnic cleansing of the Indigenous peoples. It is not only Western colonisers who are invading, or have attacked Indigenous peoples and their cultures.
How can we look at artworks made by peoples of different cultures? Many groups don’t have the relationship with objects that we call art, as (Bolton : 2011) points out; “Art” is problematic because of the many debates on how aptly the English term ‘art’ (and its European language equivalents) can be applied to objects made and used by people who do not have a cognate term.
I looked at an interpretation by a Western anthropologist (Clifford) via a Western Professor of Art History (Seltzer Goldstein) on how “objects from traditional societies” may be regarded:
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.’
Although I do love the sculpture, I would not necessarily choose to buy an artefact like this. Its provenance makes me feel uneasy, yet I appreciate its aesthetic properties. I also want the artist to be financially supported in their work. Can I have any relationship to the artwork besides one of ownership? Looking at the artwork and knowing it came from a gallery and using the ideas posed above, that 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 of Papua New Guinea (an area of rich cultural activity) started to be carried away by Westerners in the 1960s and local people began making more, specifically to sell. Does that make it “inauthentic” and of less value, weirdly, to the foreign buyer, even though made by the same people, for the foreign demand? It seems that foreigners want not only to possess the objects that have value to the Indigenous maker and community, but outsiders want to appropriate the actual cultural impetus that maker has for producing it.
But as I looked at the sculpture every day I noticed more of the material.
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.
Culture of the Countryside (no date) Carving in Papua New Guinea. Available at: http://www.cultureofthecountryside.ac.uk/resources/carving-papua-new-guinea (Accessed: 1 March 2018).
I looked some more. The natural colours, the texture, the uneven bottom of it so it doesn’t stand on its own easily, the design of the markings, and the arresting eyes of cowrie shells, the brushstrokes, all the physical properties of it, and, obviously, saw it is a representation of a woman. But when I photographed her (I feel compelled to call her human, in an animistic way), I saw her anew. I noticed the proportions, that she is tall and slender, she has markings on her face arms and legs, she 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, being right handed. It jolted me to realise that I’d had this sculpture for so long and hadn’t ever noticed this, consciously. The act of active observation, framing, focusing and photographing sections of the sculpture really did change my perception.
As Helen Chatterjee (2010) 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
The energy centres in the body the sculpture touches calls to mind the Hindu, Buddhist & Jain tantric systems of chakras, points of focus of the subtle body sited in various points in the body explained by Fondin below.
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.
Wakulenko, I. (2018) Female guardian sculpture from Sepik River, Papua New Guinea.
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.
Is using systems of knowledge from other cultures a valid interpretation of foreign artworks? This is what Western scholarship is, after all.
How could Western critical thought help us in approaching this artwork.
Wakulenko, I. (2018) Female guardian sculpture from Sepik River, Papua New Guinea.
I read an article in Art Quarterly (Sweet 2018) 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.”
However there’s many meanings and events that no Westerner observing will know, unless, perhaps they are from that area of the Sepik, or are familiar with this type of sculpture. How can I know what the artist knows?
I know, yet no-one else in our group (probably) will know that her function is of a guardian – something I remember from the accompanying piece of paper; an example of magical thinking, that in or attached to the sculpture there is an active protective 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 am tempted to think that the function of the sculpture as guardian worked for us. Rational thought would say otherwise, as illustrated by researchers Subbotsky and Qinteros (2002).
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.
Throughout these readings I thought about how to present the exercise. I would have the sculpture revealed at once standing in the middle of a table where we all sit in a circle around her. My phone is passed to each person who photographs the sculpture and talks about what they see, and how they interpret what they see, which I record separately. I produce a compilation image of the images and verbal responses that I can edit together as a record of our observations.
Learning aims are open and critical observation, communication and discussion on the creation and sales of indigenous artefacts, and how we can interpret or relate to them, as people from other cultures.
‘Anthropology’ (23 July 2018) Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropology (Accessed 26 July 2018).
(2011) ‘Framing the Art of West Papua: An Introduction’ The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 12:4, 317 – 32.6 Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14442213.2011.588591 (Accessed 30 July 2018).
Chatterjee, H. J. (2010) ‘Object-Based Learning in Higher Education: The pedagogical power of museums.’ University Museums and Collections Journal, 3: 179-181 Available at: edoc.hu-berlin.de/umacj/2010/chatterjee-179/PDF/chatterjee.pdf (Accessed: 25 May 2018).
‘Ethnography’ (15 July 2018) Google dictionary (Accessed 26 July 2018).
Fondin, M. (No date) What is a chakra? Available at: https://chopra.com/articles/what is-a-chakra (Accessed 1 June 2018).
Jolly, M. (2007) ‘Imagining Oceania: Indigenous and Foreign Representations of a Sea of Islands’. The Contemporary Pacific, Volume 19, Number 2, 508–545, University of Hawai‘i Press. Available at: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/5103222.pdf (Accessed 8 May 2018).
McCarthy, G. and Dimitriadis, G. (2000) ‘Art and the Postcolonial Imagination: Rethinking the Institutionalization of Third World Aesthetics and Theory’ ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, 31:1 & 2, Jan. – Apr. 2000 Available here: https://journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/index.php/ariel/article/download/34300/28336 (Accessed: 26 May 2018).
Said, E. W. (1979) Orientalism Vintage Books: New York
Seltzer Goldstein, I. (2013) ‘Visible art, invisible artists? the incorporation of aboriginal objects and knowledge in Australian museums’, Dossier: Cultural Heritage and Museums Part 3: Otherness. Available at: http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1809-43412013000100019 (Accessed: 17 March 2018).
Subbotsky, E. and Quinteros, G. (2002) ‘Do cultural factors affect causal beliefs? Rational and magical thinking in Britain and Mexico’, British Journal of Psychology (2002), 93, 519–543, The British Psychological Society. Available at: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/staff/subbotsk/Culture.pdf (Accessed 25 May 2018).
Sweet, M. (2018) ‘An object lesson in collecting’. Art Quarterly, Spring 2018, p30.
Reflections on the exercise:
On the day of presenting the exercise itself, annoyingly I had a technical fail of the sound recorder, (despite having tested it) which you just have to deal with, and stay on track. I still used the iPhone camera images which our group used to photograph the sculpture, and I constructed it as a collective image of the sculpture (see at top of page). As I was using my iPhone as camera I couldn’t use it as recorder. In retrospect I could have used someone else’s camera and used the app on my phone for recording sound.
I’d set up the table with the recorder to record half the “student’s” comments on one side while the other half were to observe, then to move the recorder to the other side and record the other half of the comments to utilise the 120 degree span of the twin stereo microphones. In feedback one person commented that they felt restricted by that instruction, but others commented that it was useful to have time to listen and then add new information. I acknowledged that the recording had failed, we just moved on and had open discussion on the object.
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 the analysis of the sculpture from the group was I think really 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. No-one in the group knew where the sculpture originated, not that my aim was to obfuscate, but to question what we can know from observation and interpretation.
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 identification and repatriation of artworks plundered by colonising powers. This is a topic being critically debated today between Britain and other colonial powers and those countries that had been invaded by colonisers. Invading and taking cultural objects from another nation and presenting them in a way that denies the culture and knowledge of the original makers in a foreign scholarly and economic system is indefensible, but arguments are always found by those in whose interests these acts are served – principally arguments that the coloniser is better at preservation and curation. Intercultural loans between museums is mooted as a way forward by many. However, there are those invaders who just annihilate cultural items that are not ideologically approved of, as ISIS destroyed in Syria, and Iraq, and the Taliban in Afghanistan, where destruction happens before any dialogue is possible.
The opportunity to actively engage with and respond to objects that my peers bought in truly made this session interesting, challenging and engaging. Many of us commented on how stimulating it was to be actively engaged in observation and interpretation, and knowing just how much we were engaged explained how exhausted we all felt afterward.
The UCL research carried out by Dr Helen Chatterjee et al found:
..”data collected between 2010 and 2012 revealed that a majority of students, across a range of disciplines, thought object-based learning was a more effective method of learning than a lecture or talk.”
University College of London Learning with our collections, Teaching and Object-Based Learning. Available here: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/schools/teaching-object-based-learning (Accessed 15 March 2018).