Art as Ethnography/Ethnography as Art
Location British Museum - Anthropology Library
Date and Start Time 03 Jun, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 4


  • Max Carocci (Chelsea College of Arts) email
  • Stephanie Pratt email

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Short abstract

This panel addresses the role of artworks as ethnographic resource in the age before photography. Raising questions about the objectivity of images from fieldwork diaries to scientific illustration, it examines pictures' accuracy as ethnographic documents and their reliability as forms of knowledge.

Long abstract

Sketches, drawings, watercolours, and paintings have historically been used to illustrate ethnographies and fieldwork notebooks. In this panel we analyse how illustrations can be taken as potential objective forms of knowledge, and how they can inform new understandings of the ways in which anthropologists visualise evidence, or picture the realities they observe. The proposed session gives an opportunity to scrutinise the claims made for images/pictures as purveyors of data. This may reveal important facets of the processes involved in memory retrieval and the act of seeing/observing central to the anthropological method. The panel aims at examining what is the role of artistic illustrations in producing anthropological knowledge especially when no other means of visual recording are available. Highlighting the nexus between the witnessed and the rhetorical, the panel's focus is the relationship between visuality and narrative in constructing ethnography. Frequently only complementary to text-based evidence, images produced by anthropologists raise questions about their value, reliability, authority, and objectivity. Given that all images inevitably rely on conventions of representation, the quality of information in anthropological illustration is dependent on effective utilisation of the prevalent conventions by the maker and the consumer of the illustration. Studying of these conventions allows us to work with them, to assess how well anthropological information has been conveyed, but also to look beyond them at the surplus every image necessarily brings with it.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Art at the heart of Anthropology: on the expression of anthropological insights

Author: Paola Tine (The University of Adelaide) email

Short abstract

This article provides an overview of the historical evolution of the visual anthropological discipline and it offers a proposal for the use of fine art, specifically painting, as a complementary method to express anthropological insights.

Long abstract

In recent years, following the example of anthropological and sociological studies, the use of visual methods for the observation and production of insights has become increasingly important in many other disciplines of social research, such as social work, social policy, health sector and education. But why can visual methods of representation be so useful in social research? This article provides an overview of the historical evolution of the visual anthropological discipline, and of the debate about the relationship between art practice and ethnographic research. It focuses on the role of art as a means of communication and, in particular, as a way of expressing inner feelings, emotions, and all those inexplicable states of mind known in philosophy as 'qualia'. The theory developed by Ricoeur on the application of text-interpretation methodology as a paradigm for interpretation in general in the field of social sciences, is used here to offer a proposal for the implementation of fine art, specifically painting, as a complementary method to express anthropological insights.

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Object Knowledge: India and the Indies in the Renaissance Collection

Author: Erin Benay (Case Western Reserve University) email

Short abstract

Although illustrated travelogues worked to create an impression of India and the Indies during the early modern period in Europe, this paper asserts that imported objects were just as important, if not more effective, for the manufacture of ethnographic knowledge about India and the New World.

Long abstract

Published in 1510, Ludovico de Varthema's colorful account of his travels in India were brought to life when the 1515 edition was illustrated with a series of woodcuts by Jörg Breu. Long regarded as a precursor to the modern ethnographic genre, Ludovico's text was arguably given greater authority with the addition of Breu's images, which served to render in visual terms what was otherwise left to the imagination. The fact that Breu had never traveled to India and was therefore himself not an expert witness, was apparently of no particular consequence for reader/viewers in early modern Europe, who likely assumed that his depictions of rice sowing or widow burning in southern India were ethnographically accurate. Prints by Albrecht Altdorfer and Hans Burgkmair similarly illustrate 'natives' of Calicut or Cochin, India with a combination of attributes—elephants, turbans, loincloths, bows, and feathered garments—but these images regularly included the costumes and customs of the New World. These texts and images worked in concert to create the Indian in the European cultural imagination. The collection of actual artifacts such as feather capes, ivory statuettes, or dyed textiles by European noblemen, however, arguably offered even more potent evidence of Indian culture than did two-dimensional texts or prints precisely because they could be handled and shared. This paper proposes that such imported objects became essential components in the production of proto-ethnographic knowledge about India and the Indies, and in turn worked on beholders as both art and ethnography.

Albert Eckhout's Tapestry "The Fishermen" (c. 1692 - c. 1723): Between Art, Ethnography and Diplomacy

Author: Bianca Schor (EHESS) email

Short abstract

Eckhout's works are among the oldest extant images of Dutch Brazil. Based on his drawings there, "The Fishermen" was woven for Louis XIV by the Manufacture des Gobelins. This paper examines to what extent this tapestry, made for diplomatic purposes, is a reliable body of ethnographic knowledge.

Long abstract

The painter Albert Eckhout (c. 1610 - 1666) was invited to Dutch Brazil in 1636 by governor Johan Maurits to observe and depict the local inhabitants, fauna and flora. After his return from Brazil, Maurits commissioned him eight tapestries to adorn the walls of his home in The Hague. In 1678, he presented the cartoons to king Louis XIV as a diplomatic gift. "The Fishermen" was made from c. 1692 to c. 1723 by the Manufacture des Gobelins in Paris, as part of the tapestry series "The Old Indies". It has been woven many times to meet a high demand in European courts.

"The Fishermen" is one of the first depictions of Brazilian natives fishing, hunting and picking fruit in a bountiful nature. It raises the question of how accurately Eckhout represented them, and whether his design contains ethnographic knowledge once turned into a decorative and diplomatic present.

Based on iconographic and archival research, this paper will first examine how Eckhout's artistic choices show through his account of the scene. The question of how this representation carried ethnographic data at a time when illustrations and their reproduction were essential in mediating knowledge will then be addressed. Lastly, the extent to which this knowledge translates into a diplomatic and decorative gift will be discussed. By analysing the circulation of Eckhout's design, from observation to a wall tapestry, this paper will assess the reliability of "The Fishermen" as a body of knowledge, and how it functions as a historical ethnographic document.

Images to take home: From self-educated art practice to artistic sponsorship and commissioned work

Author: Claire Brizon (IKG Université de Berne) email

Short abstract

Images from the 18th century are not only sources for historians and art historians, its could also be sources for the ethnologists. Therefore, in this paper, with three case study, I aim to show how images, from the 18th century, are also of importance in the field of Ethnology.

Long abstract

During the 18th Switzerland has no colony, no direct access to the sea and no international scientific navigation. Thus, there is not an official literature of expeditions, as in France with Antoine Bruny d'Entrecasteaux or in Great-Britain with James Cook. Nevertheless, Swiss people travelled all around the world - for their own business, serving foreign armies or diplomatic parties - producing images which describe the world, before the invention of photography.

Indeed, archives and museums in Switzerland have preserved sketches, diaries, aquarelles and paintings, from the 18th century, which describe nature, people, traditions and encounters. Who produced these images and in what contexts? And why would we integrate them as a scientific visual source for Ethnography while their producers were not professional artists but only travelers?

I distinct three types of images that I will organize in three parts: one from mandated draftsman with the illustrated diary of Christoph Van Graffenried, one from local artists sponsorship by swiss people with Polier paintings collection and at last one other from self-educated artist with the production of François Aimé Louis Dumoulin.

I aim to show, that these productions can be a visual source for Ethnography. While no other possibility existed to capture images, these productions are the reflection of the scientific culture of the images along the 18th century. Therefore, I argue it is of importance in the building of the Objectivity along the 18th century.

"Taken from Life": The Menominee Drawings of Antoine Marie Gachet

Author: Sylvia Kasprycki (Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main) email

Short abstract

This paper examines the ethnographic content of a corpus of drawings produced by the Capuchin Antoine Marie Gachet on the Menominee Reservation between 1859 and 1862. In particular, it explores the complex relations between these visual records, Gachet's texts, and the objects he collected.

Long abstract

This paper assesses the ethnographic information provided by a series of about forty-five drawings produced by the Swiss Capuchin missionary Antoine Marie Gachet during his sojourn on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin between 1859 and 1862. Only recently rediscovered, these visual documents add a fascinating dimension to the already impressive ethnographic record left by Gachet: a published account (1890), a collection of objects (donated in 1860 to the museum of his hometown Fribourg), and several linguistic works, including a Menominee grammar.

Executed in pencil and watercolor in a naive but lovingly detailed manner, the drawings depict traditional customs, economic pursuits, and perhaps most impressively the practice of Native Christianity. In addition, carefully labeled tables of objects---apparently illustrated as "type specimens" much in the same way that he recorded samples of fauna and flora---attest to Gachet's scholarly ambition in the documentation of cultural phenomena.

Focusing on the complex relations and interdependencies between the different kinds of sources---texts, images, and objects---this paper attempts to delineate the specific assumptions and conventions of representation that (pre)determined verbal and visual expressions as well as the selection of artifacts, and to evaluate their respective merits, shortcomings, and potential for the production of anthropological knowledge. In the present case, it will be argued that the drawings may provide a link between written observations and actual objects by showing the latter in social interaction.

Ethnographical study of 19th century Kathmandu through Artworks

Author: Sanyukta Shrestha (yantrakala) email

Short abstract

Brian Hodgson commissioned local artist Raj Man Singh between 1844-45 to produce drawings which show daily life activities in Kathmandu. Henry Oldfield produced similar artworks between 1850 to 1863. The works of these artists is compared in this paper from the ethnographical point of view.

Long abstract

While the art and culture of Kathmandu valley was not documented until the first British publication in 1811, writings by the members of various British expeditions until the mid 19th century form the base for much of the early ethnographical study till date. While these publications often included a handful of landscape of the city landmarks, and limited portraits of the local inhabitants, it was not until the British resident Brian Houghton Hodgson commissioned local artist Raj Man Singh between 1844-45 to produce landscape drawings which are now preserved in London. Not only do these pencil sketches codify the local architecture from that period, they also depict the sociocultural setting through the daily life activities carried out by people who appear inside the frame of these artworks. They frequently project the general lifestyle of the era often illustrating the costumes and religeous objects, livestock and tools of farming, which, to be visualised from mere text accounts is impossible. The practice is further carried out by British surgeon Henry Osborne Oldfield during his stay in Nepal between 1850 to 1863. His works are in watercolour and look at the city and its lifestyle from an outsider's perspective. The relationship between these two artists and their breadth of work is comparatively analysed in this paper from the ethnographical point of view. It further illustrates the case studies of various local heritage sites and communal spaces with regards to their relevance in the present-day Kathmandu after the 2015 earthquake.

Illustration and Appropriation: The 'History' of the Bamum, c. 1930

Author: Simon Dell (University of East Anglia) email

Short abstract

This paper explores a suite of illustrations intended for inclusion in a history of the Bamum Kingdom of the Cameroon Grassfields. Here text and illustration are appropriations, and not just of alien formats and media but also of forms of presentation and visualisation.

Long abstract

Illustration may be a vehicle for conveying ethnographic data and has of course been used as such by anthropologists. Yet rather than consider how this has been done from the perspective of the anthropologist, this paper explores a counter example, of illustrations by an indigenous artist intended for inclusion in a history written by an indigenous author. Here text and illustration are appropriations, and not just of alien formats and media but also of forms of presentation and visualisation.

The case in question is that of a suite of illustrations intended for inclusion in a history of the Bamum Kingdom of the Cameroon Grassfields. The history, drafted by King Njoya of the Bamum over the period between c. 1910 and 1933, is itself an adaptation of oral histories and is in part a response to both the Quran and the Bible. The artist illustrating this work (probably working between 1927 and 1930) faced numerous novel challenges: to respond to a written text, to deploy degrees of optical naturalism, and to visualise a series of persons and events, including the ceremonies of secret societies which were not supposed to viewed, much less depicted. This paper will explore how these challenges were met, and how the illustrations mediate quite different forms of knowledge. In turn, this will lead to consideration of a larger question: why was illustration appropriated in the first place?

Pipestone Materiality and Meaning in the work of George Catlin

Author: Annika Johnson (University of Pittsburgh) email

Short abstract

Using George Catlin's manuscript on Native North American tobacco pipes as a case study (British Museum), this paper examines the artist's diverse representational approaches to documenting the primary medium of pipe carving — pipestone — and the blood-red stone's complex Indigenous associations.

Long abstract

For centuries, Native North Americans have carved figures from the living and spiritual worlds onto tobacco pipes made of pipestone, a soft red stone quarried in present-day Minnesota. For many, this vital material represents ancestral blood, an aspect that fascinated the artist-explorer George Catlin who claimed to "discover" pipestone in the 1830s. Catlin subsequently popularized pipestone internationally. Focusing on the artist's manuscript on Native North American tobacco pipes, this paper examines the diverse representational approaches Catlin took to documenting pipestone and tobacco pipes in his ethnographic drawings, paintings, and displays of Native pipes. His pioneering ethno-geological approach evidences his struggle to reconcile the materiality of pipestone across cultures: its use and Indigenous associations as well as its mineralogical properties.

Elaborately carved pipestone tobacco pipes prominently feature in Catlin's pipe manuscript located at the British Museum. In schematized arrangements of pipes and embellished depictions of carved figures, Catlin made the first argument for Native pipe carving's status as an art form, and he attempted to establish its historical and formal development. Yet, ethnographic accounts of the stone's Indigenous associations complicate the artist's and more recent iconographic interpretations of pipestone carving. To discuss how Catlin configured knowledge of pipestone's materials and artistic properties, this paper will also consider a little known manuscript draft located at the New York Public Library. The inclusion of the artist's extant pipe collections (National Museum of Natural History and the University of Pennsylvania) will illuminate how his encounter with pipestone in the field informed his ethnographic representations.

“You have to be a draughtsman to be an ethnographer!” The legacy of Giuseppe Šebesta and the Trentino Folklife Museum.

Authors: Giovanni Kezich (Museo degli Usi e Costumi della Gente Trentina ) email
Antonella Mott (Museo degli Usi e Costumi della Gente Trentina) email

Short abstract

Giuseppe Šebesta (1919-2005) is the one modern founding father of Italian ethnographic museography, which he exercised particularly in the Alpine area. He was also an accomplished artist, and some interesting cross-fertilization between art and ethnography can be usefully detected in his work.

Long abstract

Distinguished Italian museographer Giuseppe “Bepo” Šebesta (Trento, 1919-2005), also in his time a cinematic documentarist, chemical analyist, designer, painter, potter, puppetteer, novelist, folklorist and ethnographer, is generally credited with having started a revolution in the Italian field of ethnographic museums, on the grounds of an unprecedented emphasis given to the analytical study of indigenous technology. In Sebesta’s ethnography, the ability to draw has thus an explicitly pivotal place, which he personally experimented in the course of important field campaigns such as that leading to the publication of the ASLEF, the linguistic atlas of Friuli by G.B. Pellegrini (1972), and the setting of the new “Trentino Folklife Museum” of San Michele all’Adige (1968). In the 50th anniversary of this important ethnographic institution (1968-2018), a general reappraisal of Sebesta’s method, which drew inspiration from both his close Bohemian forebears as well as from his contemporary Italian fellow artists of the futurist persuasion, such as Fortunato Depero, seems to be a worthy exercise. This will in fact bring to light an important episode, on a properly European scale, of a practical interaction between visual arts and ethnographic representation in the context of the making of a large, distinguished new museum. The presentation will offer a summary view of Šebesta’s work as artist, field ethnographer and museographer, against the specific cultural background of the north-eastern Italian borderland, and the ongoing debate on the purported role of ethnographic museums in the representing of national and local identities in the glocal world.

The View from the Beach and the View from the Bluff: Alternate Approaches to an Indian Battle Scene

Author: Candace Greene (Smithsonian) email

Short abstract

This paper contrasts Western and Native perspectives on illustration through alternate interpretations of a Plains Indian hide painting of a battle. Apparent similarity of Plains representations to Western art practice invites the application of familiar ways of knowing, obscuring Native intention.

Long abstract

While a growing body of scholarship has explored how Western images have influenced views of Native Americans, less consideration has been given to the ways that Western concepts of illustration have influenced how images produced by Native people are understood. Plains Indian pictorial art of the 19th century offers an excellent field to explore this topic. Works on hide and later trade materials provide representational scenes of action that superficially appear similar to Western art practice, inviting the application of familiar ways of knowing. Yet the two visual traditions differed in perspective and in purpose. Western images positioned the artist outside the event, looking at the Indian as "subject" or "sitter." In contrast, Plains pictorial art put the producer at the center of the scene, conceptually if not visually. It was an ego-centered art form, proclaiming "I did this."

This paper will explore alternate interpretations that have been offered for a remarkable Plains Indian shirt painted with a battle scene, details of which link it securely to American conflicts with the Arikara in 1823. The shirt has generated much discussion among scholars, producing narratives that illustrate the continuing power of Western perspectives in interpretation of Native images

Memories and Traditional Knowledge in the Art Work of Indian School Children

Author: Jacqueline Fear-Segal (University of East Anglia) email

Short abstract

A collection of drawings, created by nineteenth century Native American school children from different Native nations, will be interrogated to reveal evidence of their extensive cultural knowledge and to explore issues of memory, identity, and resistance.

Long abstract

This presentation will explore ways in which drawings created by Native American school children can provide evidence of their extensive cultural knowledge and memories, despite having being subjected to a programme of Americanization. Schools for Native children were inseparable from the United States' broader geo-political agenda. In the final quarter of the nineteenth century, as Native lands across the continent were seized and incorporated into the American nation, Native children were enrolled in white-run schools in order to be transformed from "savages" into "civilized" individuals worthy of American citizenship. Carlisle Indian Industrial School (1879-1918) was the first government supported military boarding school dedicated to this task, and it was here that the blueprint for a federal system of Indian schools was laid down. Located in Pennsylvania, far from Indian Country, Carlisle's mission was to transport the students from their home communities and obliterate all elements of their traditional cultures, in order to re-educate them in the religion, beliefs, and behaviours of mainstream America. Students were enrolled for a period of between 3 and 5 years and during that time they rarely returned home. Yet despite the intense programme of Americanisation to which they were subjected, analysis of drawings created by Carlisle students from different Native nations often reveal detailed evidence of their traditional knowledge. Some of these surviving drawings will be interrogated in this presentation in order to explore issues of memory, identity, and resistance.

Keeping up with 'Apatto': Lieutenant John Caldwell and the Transatlantic Journey of his Collection

Author: Gabriella Wellington (Carleton University) email

Short abstract

This paper employs the iconography of an eighteenth-century European portrait as a means of nuancing established ethnohistorical understandings of the economic, sociopolitical, and cultural complexities permeating colonial-Indigenous interactions in pre-Revolutionary North America.

Long abstract

Taking an eighteenth-century Anishinaabe black-dyed hide pouch from the Great Lakes as its point of departure, this paper explores the complexities permeating colonial-Indigenous interactions in pre-Revolutionary North America, a geotemporal sphere that Richard White has seminally defined as 'the middle ground.' Employing objects of material culture, portraiture, and archival documents as primary sources, this paper employs a combination of art-historical, museological, and ethnohistorical methodological approaches to investigate the typology, function, provenance, and shifting cultural, social, and political contexts of the Caldwell pouch, as well as the various cultural mediations it has undergone from the time that Lieutenant John Caldwell collected it in the 1770s to the moment it entered the collection of Canada's then National Museum of Man (now Canadian Museum of History) in 1973. Central to this paper is a full-length portrait of Lieutenant John Caldwell, which portrays its sitter modelling his collection of Native North American finery. It is on the basis of a multifaceted formal and cultural analysis of this portrait, now in the King's Regiment Collection at the Museum of Liverpool, that I propose a new set of critical terms through which Caldwell's collecting activities are to be most accurately understood.

Graphically Speaking: the Pedagogy of Northwest Coast Native Prints

Author: India Young (Princeton University Art Museum) email

Short abstract

This paper explores the Indigenous pedagogy of Northwest Coast prints. Artists produce prints as part of traditional arts practices, which are inherently performative, to convey coastal values about heritage, history, spirituality, and politics to non-Native audiences.

Long abstract

Northwest Coast Native artists today are fond of saying, "Our language has no word for art." They continue to talk about how art used to be everywhere, embedded in all belonging and participant everyday. They point to the wealth of cultural practices that employ highly stylized objects. Halibut hooks, adze handles, spindle whorls, fishing weirs, and berry baskets combine function with form. These works may be construed as decorative arts until compared to those made for political and spiritual spaces. Frontlets, button blankets, dance screens, and raven's rattles are fashioned in the same ways and decorated with the same aesthetic principles. Yet, these objects convey specific kinds of knowledge or history within highly structured social contexts. To make use of any such object activates a performative assertion of a particular authority and such objects function to reinscribe common knowledge. On the Northwest Coast, objects carry meaning and are active participants in social constructs and contracts. This paper argues that Native art prints occupy a unique space as cultural conveyers. Coastal artists conceptualize how prints can be made to work for and with cultural worldviews. In developing the medium artists embedded prints within traditional arts practices to perform a specific function; prints communicate coastal values about heritage, history, spirituality, and politics to non-Native audiences. When coastal artists speak about the roles prints play in their practices certain key words reoccur, namely "education" and "cultural knowledge." This paper explores the Indigenous pedagogy of Northwest Coast prints.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.