Representing and Depicting Animals
Location SOAS Senate House - S209
Date and Start Time 03 Jun, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 4


  • Christopher Ward (University of Nottingham) email

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Short abstract

What does the depiction of the animal tell us about classification, interspecies relations and nature? This panel will seek to investigate how the mechanisms of knowledge in relation to the animal form can influence and sometimes challenge the relations between human and animal in unforeseen ways.

Long abstract

What does the image of the animal tell us of that animal? When does this physical and perhaps biological representation of the animal meet the actual physicality? Where and how does this physicality become subjected to efforts to meet the representation? And historically, what do the changing depictions of animals in artforms tell us of the cultural perceptions of animals?

Whether contemporary taxonomy or the Neolithic artwork which adorns cave walls, the depiction of the animal's form can be found throughout human culture and history. Despite technological improvements, the rendered image of the animal seems to be of importance to understanding the animal, and humanity's interactions with them. Do such mechanisms of the representation and classification of animals themselves have an unexpected effect, altering, displacing and even challenging inter-species relations?

For modern conservation, those studying the animal might enjoy the advantage of genetic analysis to aid and define species, but the taxonomic formation and differentiation remains important to understanding geographic and cultural movements. Do these classificatory efforts remain embedded in a pre-human conception or in an ahistorical perception of the animal? Does this representation itself represent an idealised notion of the "authentic animal", and perhaps an "authentic nature" as well?

This panel welcomes papers from all academic disciplines in relation to the representation of animals and will promote discussion of the effect of internalised perceptions on biosocial relationships. We hope to encourage participation in reflecting on what anthropology can offer to wider academic research and conservatory efforts towards the animal.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Boselaphus tragocamelus: India's Unholy Cow

Authors: Prerna Srigyan (Ambedkar University Delhi) email
Amit Kaushik (Ambedkar University Delhi) email

Short abstract

This paper aims to examine how the contestations presented by colloquial and scientific classifications of B.tragocamelus in India influence interventions by the state that have contradictory purposes in different spatial contexts.

Long abstract

Representations of female Bos taurus, called 'gai' in Hindi, as the 'holy cow' continue to influence nationalistic imaginaries in India in 2017, with increasingly violent overtures against those who are perceived as undermining this representation. In these rather volatile times, we focus our attention to another remarkable species whose colloquial association with B. taurus is of critical importance to understanding how interspecies associations are changing human-animal associations in India. Boselaphus tragocamelus, called 'Nilgai' in Hindi, translated as the 'blue cow', is an ungulate endemic to the Indian subcontinent, and as its habitat of deciduous scrub forests and grassy plains diminish due to increasing urbanization, it finds refuge in swathes of agricultural fields and waste-dumps and parks in Indian cities. Encounters with the Nilgai have thus produced contradictory interventions—even though protected by the Indian Wildlife Protection Act (1972) as an endemic species, a few Indian states have agreed to cull the species responding to their status as agricultural pests. In other states, however, Nilgai populations are actively managed by the state in urban parks as symbols of wilderness. In these spectrum of interventions, linguistic and visual representations of Nilgai with 'gai', or India's holy cow dictate the language of law and of popular media. We ask: What representations enable the association of B. tragocamelus with B. taurus in India? What can it tell us about how human-animal relationships are being envisaged as urban-rural gradients are increasingly disappearing in the Global South?

'I don't normally like dogs but I like your dog!' Canines imagined, re-imagined and experienced.

Author: Karen Lane (University of St Andrews) email

Short abstract

People have positive responses to a Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier. A sledging-dog video goes viral. Staffordshire Bull Terriers, 'the most unwanted breed', are re-branded with knitted Staffies. This paper explores the bio-psycho-social mechanisms that may account for these responses to canine images.

Long abstract

'That doggy looks like Sandy from Annie!' exclaimed a child excitedly to her mother as she saw my dog walk towards her. Many people have similar positive responses when they meet Torridon, a Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier, and I have explored elsewhere (Lane 2015) how inter-subjective inter-species relations enabled her role as my research assistant. But people frequently respond just as positively to her photographic image (and want to take photographs of her): what exactly are people responding to when they first see her image, either as photograph or vision before them? A video of a sledging dog goes viral on the internet and makes the national news - more than once and in different countries. The Blue Cross animal charity state that Staffordshire Bull Terriers are 'the most unwanted breed', due to their reputation as aggressive dogs. Meanwhile, Battersea Dogs Home responded to their rehoming crisis by re-branding, through an awareness and fundraising campaign promoting knitted staffies. What do the images of these animals tell us of those animals? What memories or emotional responses do canine images tap into? What personality traits do we ascribe to dogs when we first see their image? Why does a stranger say to me, unprompted, 'I don't normally like dogs but I like your dog'? This paper will explore the bio-psycho-social mechanisms that may account for these responses to canine images, drawing on ethnographic data from fieldwork and internet studies, and will consider what this anthropological enquiry may tell us of human-canine relations.

Naturalism, Animism and Disney Movies: A comparative approach on natural ontologies and representation of animals

Author: Luca Lo Scavo (Leiden University) email

Short abstract

"I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me" stated Terence in the ancient Rome. What is human and how a naturalist and animist ontology can contribute to define nature and interspecies relations? How do Disney movies shape animal classification and representation?

Long abstract

This paper provides an account of naturalist and animist ontologies in relation to the categorisation

and classification of what is human and what is animal. Naturalist cosmology implies shared

physicalities among humans and animals (shared biological structure) but different interiorities:

humans possess culture and morality, while animals do not. However, animism and perspectivism argue

for the opposite: shared interiorities, different physicalities. Being "human" or "animal" is only a matter

of "perspective" and one's subjective point of view. Therefore, by considering the case of cultural

representation of animals in Disney animated movies, I critically analyse the relation with naturalist

and animist ontologies. A superficial approach may confuse Disney animal representation with an

animist ontology, due to anthropomorphic and morally-aware animals. However, a closer inspection

grounded in Western-European historical literature will highlight the limits of such understanding.

Nevertheless, Disney representation of animals and animal-human relations - Disney effect, has crucial

implications in how new generations represent, think and reproduce their identity and their pets'

identity. Far from depicting a straightforward naturalist categorisation of animals, Disney movies

employ story-telling devices - like anthropomorphisation, in representing animal characters, that blur

the distinction between reality and imagination. Ethnographic findings from kindergarten children

question a clearcut naturalist classification of human and animal identities and relations and unearth

anthropological insights about the broader theme of environmental practices and relations.

PDF Download PDF of paper

Contradictions at zoo: Gaps between materiality and representations in the Paris zoological garden.

Author: Melanie Roustan (Museum national d'histoire naturelle) email

Short abstract

I will explore materiality at zoo 1) as material culture organizing space and norms, 2) as incorporation processes for people and animals. I will question art as a model paradigm for this cultural representation of nature - despite its explicit scientific rhetoric - and unfold its untold values.

Long abstract

During the past years, I have been leading an ethnographic fieldwork in Paris zoological garden (France), among visitors as well as professionals. This zoo is a legacy of 1931 Colonial exhibition and has been renewed in 2014. It is a part of the French national museum of natural history, which is my own institution.

On the basis of this in-depth inquiry, I propose to explore materiality from a double point of view: on the one hand, material culture organizing space and norms in the zoological garden, and, on the other hand, materiality as physicality, embodiment and incorporation processes not only of people watching at or caring for animals, but also maybe for animals themselves. I will question art as a model paradigm for zoological garden as a cultural representation of nature (landscape) as well as web of practices of conservation (biodiversity as heritage) - despite the explicit inscription of its discourses in scientific rhetoric.

The analysis of the gaps between materiality and representations will then reveal the untold part of the narrative of the Parisian zoo, which appears as a combination of old colonial and Christian views of wild nature to be discovered, domesticated, and even civilized, and of contemporary neoliberal considerations on biodiversity management and conservation based on endangerment, safety and security.

Representations of Fallow Deer

Author: Christopher Ward (University of Nottingham) email

Short abstract

This paper explores the role that representation and classification has had for the European Fallow Deer. Following these species, this paper will discuss how classifications has informed and transformed interspecies interactions but also beyond the deer and into concepts of nature and wildness.

Long abstract

This paper will discuss the roles that representation and classification has had for a species of deer, the European Fallow Deer. That this species has characteristics that make it recognisable, allows the classifications to be tracked across history and conceptions. These representations across history, are interconnected with our understandings of them, and their apparent, if sometime enigmatic wildness.

In Britain this species of deer has been subject to huge efforts during the medieval era to import and then maintained within "emparkments" and forested areas. Being regarded as "ecological arks" or nature walled-in" these structures attempted to maintain a proper balance in order to preserve this species of deer. As such, the mechanisms of perceiving and classifying dangers, and markers of danger became of the utmost importance in maintaining a natural order that these deer-herds represented. This natural order became deeply tied to the families that held the lands, and allowed entrance into certain social circles.

So as to safeguard this natural order, the outcome of predation was recreated - to prevent overpopulation. This saw the removal of any abnormality or failures within the herd; and any manifestation of these mistakes would be regarded as evidence of a direct negative environmental outcome of mankind. So as to manage this classifications were necessary that would often place an idealised purity of the deer over the actual species. This paper will discuss the subtle interplay of conceptions of species from historical practices to the taxonomic efforts of modern zooarchaeological projects.

Akeley's Gorillas: dark apes in 'Brightest Africa'.

Author: Richard Crawford (University of the Arts London) email

Short abstract

Akeley's gorilla diorama at the American Museum of Natural History was, according to Jeannette Jones, designed to bring a vision of 'Brightest Africa' to visitors, but after Akeley's death the family dynamics of the group were changed by James Clark to represent the dangers of 'Darkest Africa'.

Long abstract

In her book, 'In Search of Brightest Africa '* Jeanette Jones proposes that Carl Akeley planned the gorilla diorama at the American Museum of Natural History in New York to offer the public a vision of wild gorillas living peacefully together on the lush slopes of the Kivu mountains in what was then the 'Belgian Congo'. She argues that this vision of peace and natural beauty reflected Akeley's idea of 'Brightest Africa' - a continent where explorers like himself, could still find places where mammals lived in harmony with their natural environment undisturbed by human interference. Having visited the American Museum of Natural History and seen Akeley's 'Gorilla' diorama at first hand, I would argue that whilst this vision is reflected in the finished diorama, the emphasise has been subtly shifted by James L. Clarke, who supervised its completion after Akeley's death. Under Clarke, more emphasis has been placed on the family dynamics of the gorilla group: whilst the females and juvenile gorillas are represented as resting or feeding, the old male has been posed in an aggressive posture, beating his chest as if to warn away an enemy. I argue that such a change of emphasis reflects institutional discourses of masculinity and a return to the narrative of 'Darkest Africa' in which wild animals constitute dangerous adversaries that test the courage of white explorers.

* Jones, Jeannette (2010) In search of Brightest Africa; reimagining the dark continent in American culture, 1884-1936. Athens. University of Georgia

Speculative Taxidermy: Vulnerability and Materiality

Author: Giovanni Aloi (The School of the Art Institute of Chicago) email

Short abstract

'Speculative Taxidermy' is defined by a deep investment in materiality devoted to the exploration of shared, physical and ontological vulnerabilities that haunt contemporary practices. Its capitalization on indexicality is intrinsically bound to biopolitics in the context of the Anthropocene.

Long abstract

'Speculative Taxidermy' is concerned with a range of contemporary works of art in which visible animal skin is critically employed as a defining indexical interface between animal, human, and the medium of representation itself. Approached in specific ways, preserved animal skin can unlock new ethical and political opportunities in human-animal relationships and convey the urgency of addressing climate change, capitalist exploitation, and mass extinction.

Based on a resolutely nonanthropocentric take on the materiality of one of the most controversial mediums in art, "Speculative Taxidermy" relentlessly questions past and present ideas of human separation from the animal kingdom whilst situating taxidermy as a powerful interface between humans and animals, rooted in a shared ontological and physical vulnerability.

'Speculative Taxidermy' is therefore defined by a deeper investment in materiality; an investment devoted to the exploration of shared, physical and ontological vulnerabilities concealed by the naturalization of past human-animal institutionalized relationships that still haunt contemporary practices. In this talk, these themes are explored through the anthropomorphically modeled cowhides of Nandipha Mantambo and in the manipulated horse bodies of Berlinde de Bruyckere.

Mute polysemy: animals in exhibition narratives

Authors: Mariana Soler (Évora University) email
Maria Isabel Landim (University of São Paulo) email

Short abstract

Animal's narrative functions are analyzed in exhibitions in Latin-American natural history museums. About the evolutionary concepts, we notice animals lend their own structures for the illustration and demonstration of textually presented concepts, serving as proof of the reality and materialities.

Long abstract

Animals are polysemic entities. Represented for the taxidermy, imagens, videos or sounds, they are commonly present in natural history museums exhibitions. Until, animals are in different collections, and are resources for research in any researches, particularly, life science and evolution. Thereby, animals are boundary objects, between museology and zoology. So, in this research, we analyzed three Latin-American exhibitions. They are contemporary exhibitions (from 2000), and them narratives talk about evolution: "Las Aves" - Museo de Ciencias Naturales Bernardino Rivadavia (Argentina); "Tiempo y materia. Laberintos de la evolución" - Museo de La Plata (Argentina); e "Conchas, corais e borboletas" - Museu Nacional do Rio de Janeiro (Brazil). Heterogeneous collections and exhibitions resources demanded the development of an objective and replicable methodology for describing and analyzing, structures in: (i) data sheets; (ii) conceptual matrixes; and (iii) ground plan of the facilities. From these files, are identify 76 evolutionary concepts, and 11 common concepts among exhibitions. Those common concepts are useful for identifying the communicational function of animals, when we notice that crucial evolutionary concepts and the theoretical construction of narratives is restricted to the associated texts. Although zoological collections have been fundamental for evolutionary research, since the 18th century, themes as practices of science or biographies of the objects are obscure. Animals themselves lend their own structures for the illustration and demonstration of textually presented evolutionary concepts, serving as "proof" of the reality and materialities, restricted to its aesthetic appeal, three-dimensionality and capacity for public attraction.

Dharma and animal welfare

Author: Chow Wah Chan email

Short abstract

Using Venerable Hongyi's Animal Protection volumes, I demonstrate Chinese Mahayana Buddhism's concept of compassion and animals as fellow beings. Almost half a century after its publication, these ideas continue to resonate in the promotion of vegetarianism and animal welfare.

Long abstract

In 1929, a Chinese Mahayana Buddhist monk Venerable Hongyi (弘一法师)published the first volume of "Animal protection" (护生画集)paintings. This was the first of 5 volumes published over a 50-year period.

The volumes revolved around the central Buddhist theme of compassion to all sentient beings and animals are presented as fellow beings with feelings and intelligence to be treated with compassion.

Using the animal paintings in these volumes, I argue that while the concept of compassion to sentient beings remains unchanged, the activities and programs respond to social, cultural, and even technological changes to "update" the practice of compassion.

China became less Buddhist friendly after 1949, the last few volumes were sent to Venerable Hong Kiap (广洽法师)in Singapore who raised funds for its publication. As such, I will use Singapore as a site to explore how the values from the paintings continue inspire.

At the very public level, Venerable Hongyi's painting are reproduced and displayed at vegetarian restaurants to promote vegetarianism as an act of compassion to animals.

In response to government's culling program, a Dharma inspired no kill shelter was established as a refuge for abused and abandoned animals.

While these activities might be similar to various animal welfare groups, it differs in that the participants are not driven by an affection for an animal but motivated by a sense of compassion for animals as follow beings to be care for, loved and protected.

When is Animal Cruelty Free Speech? Art, Violence, and Institutional Responses to Critique

Authors: Jan Dutkiewicz (New School for Social Research) email
Tania Islas (University of Chicago) email

Short abstract

How do art institutions engage with criticism of art that involves the use of animals? This paper shows how a number of institutions contest such critique, focusing on a recurrent defense of art as a unique realm of free speech that is beyond rational debate about its means of production.

Long abstract

This paper analyzes how art institutions and artists engage with criticism of art that involves the use of animals. It shows how artistic institutions contest critique from publics and activist groups, focusing on a recurrent defense of art as a unique realm of free speech that is beyond rational debate about its means of production. Based on an analysis of a series of cancelled (or allegedly censored) exhibits - "Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World" at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City (2017), a retrospective of the Viennese actionist Herman Nitsch at the Jumex Museum in Mexico City (2015), and shows by the French-Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed at the San Francisco Art Institute (2008) and the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin (2009) - it works through the arguments and (counter-)critical strategies deployed by animal rights activists, publics, and different art communities. The paper argues that under the guise of protecting free speech, art institutions and artists reify the content of art and actively refuse to engage in debate about its means of production, thereby curtailing when, how, and if conversation about the latter can take place. In doing so, it draws attention to a number of slippages, including an anthropomorphic one whereby works containing animals are defended as a representation of human society even as the rights of animals used in these works are deemed less important than the rights of artists to use them as a means of representation.

Artistic evidence of the occurrence of at least two taxa of horse in Bronze Age Egypt

Author: Marco Masseti (University of Florence) email

Short abstract

Several artistic documents dating to the Bronze Age testify the coeval occurrence in ancient Egypt of two different typologies of domestic horse, characterised respectively by the phenotypic patterns of the "oriental" and the "occidental" groups.

Long abstract

Many authors concur upon a division of all domestic horses into two main typologies. The definition of "oriental" or "eastern" indicates a large group of animals of which the Arab is the prototype, signifying type alone and not geographical origin. The other term "occidental" or "western" does not refer to all horses of European origin, but only to a certain group of animals distinguished from the oriental in terms of conformation. Several artistic documents dating to the Bronze Age testify the coeval occurrence in ancient Egypt of two different typologies of domestic horse, characterised respectively by the phenotypic patterns of the "oriental" and the "occidental" groups. This could provide evidence that the domestication of at least two different taxa of wild horse had already occurred.

Birds in the Prehistoric Visual Culture of the Southern Levant

Author: Ben Greet (University of Reading) email

Short abstract

This paper explores change in the representations of birds in the visual culture of the Epipaleolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze Age of the Southern Levant. It proposes that this demonstrative of a change in thought about birds, from a food resource to an attached to upper-class hunting practices.

Long abstract

This paper explores the representation of birds in the prehistoric visual culture of the southern Levant and how it reflects the changing relationship between birds and people across these periods.

The material from the Epipaleolithic and Neolithic emphasises the use of birds as a resource, reflecting a definitive hunter-prey relationship that existed during this period. The Bronze Age material then shifts slightly, with birds represented in a wider range of material (e.g. religious, domestic, or personal items). Several types of birds can also be distinguished within this material (e.g. waterfowl, birds of prey, and ostriches).

It is possible that this change in the bird-related material reflects both the creation of animal classifications in reaction to domestication and the movement of hunting to an upper-class recreational activity, rather than a method of gathering resources. While other animals were domesticated, birds still represented a mostly wild resource. Thus, representations of birds were an expression of the distinction between 'wild' and 'domestic'. Additionally, since much of the material was made from luxury items, we can link this portrayal of the 'wild' to the upper-classes and development of hunting into a recreational activity.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.