Doing, making, collaborating: art as anthropology
Location Brunei Gallery - B211
Date and Start Time 03 Jun, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 3


  • Constance Smith (University of Manchester) email
  • Joost Fontein (University of Johannesburg) email

Mail All Convenors

Short abstract

This panel asks what art can do for anthropology, rather than what anthropological approaches can bring to an understanding of art. It will explore forms of collaboration between art and anthropology that foreground performance, practice, exhibition and event.

Long abstract

This panel asks what art can do for anthropology, rather than what anthropological approaches can bring to an understanding of art.

In recent years, a growing literature on questions of materiality, agency and the contingency of people and things has been reshaping the anthropology of art (e.g. Gell 1998; Ingold 2013). Much of this literature draws on a wider reconsideration of materials, things and stuff as vital and active in the world, rather than inert objects representative of human meaning (Latour 1993; Bennett 2009; Miller 2005). This work pushes debates around art objects and art practice beyond ideas of representation, ritual use or symbolic meaning and asks instead what it is that art does: how it mediates and transforms social relations in an ongoing - sometimes fraught - process.

Yet despite the renewed theoretical focus on doing over meaning, agency over representation, this has rarely translated into new methods or ways of working. Texts remain at the heart of the academic project, in which semantics, narrative and interpretation endure. Critical engagements between scholars and cultural actors such as artists and performers - for whom making and practice, as much as representation and narrative, are the everyday tools of sense-making - may re-energise debates about the relationship between art and anthropology.

This panel will explore forms of intellectual enquiry and collaboration that foreground performance, practice, exhibition and event. We invite proposals for papers exploring research-orientated, creative or curatorial collaborations between scholarship and the arts, in the broadest sense.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Remains, waste & metonymy: critical interventions into art/scholarship in Nairobi

Authors: Joost Fontein (University of Johannesburg) email
Neo Musangi email

Short abstract

This paper works towards an exploration of the uneasy yet creative analytical space between scholarship and the arts, by discussing an emergent collaboration between artists and scholars taking place in Nairobi (Kenya), around the themes of materiality and temporality.

Long abstract

This paper discusses an emerging project taking place in Nairobi (Kenya) which has sought to provoke new avenues of intellectual collaboration between artists and scholars around the themes of materiality, remains and metonymy. A key question is how an approach to stuff as incomplete and emergent offers critical scrutiny to the assumed finality, stability and comfort of 'objects', 'persons' and landscapes. Always 'in the making' remains, objects and materials often appear like unfinished biographies, symbols or narrations that promise but rarely deliver entirely coherent meanings, bounded entities and stable wholes. This indeterminacy can be creatively explored to reveal the excessive multiplicities of time, substance and space.

This project has involved three collaboratively-curated exhibitions under the banner of Remains, Waste and Metonymy. These have sought to explore the dependent-yet-fraught relationships pertaining to time and material substances/forms through shared relations of endurance/transformation in which people and things are immersed, from which they constantly emerge. The contention is that these questions may be best addressed through intellectual enquiry not limited to normative academic conventions, but rather through critical engagements between scholars and artists for whom performance and metonymy (as much as representation/ narrative) are the everyday tools of apprehension and sense-making. In examining this emergent collaboration this paper works towards an exploration of the uneasy yet creative analytical space between scholarship and the arts around the themes of materiality and temporality.

Making Bithooras

Author: Andrew Burton (Newcastle University) email

Short abstract

This paper explores a collaboration between a western artist and village women from Delhi. It considers the significance of 'bithooras', cow-dung stores as material vehicles for an experimental approach to generating new creative interactions based in a fast disappearing cultural tradition

Long abstract

The paper takes as its starting point a contemporary art/craft project held in the National Crafts Musuem, New Delhi in 2011. In this project Andrew Burton and a group of village women from Delhi collaborated to create of a group of bithooras, the first time such objects had been presented in a museum context. Bithooras are fuel stores of a unique form found only in Delhi. They are made entirely by hand, using only one material - cow dung, and without any mechanical intervention. Bithooras are constructed from thousands of ophlas, the hand-sized cow dung cakes which are widely used as fuel in northern India. The bithoora is completed once stacked ophlas have been clad with gobar - raw cow dung - and this cladding inscribed with patterns and designs.

'Making Bithooras' examines a perspective on collaborative working where participants are from contrasting backgrounds with few cultural or linguistic commonalities. Drawing together contemporary visual art and a traditional artisanal process, the project explores Indian and European sensibilities for the relationship between structure, material and pattern.

Environmental conditions in Delhi, and proposed restrictions on polluting activities, means that the continued existence of bithooras, by definition temporary objects, is threatened. Almost entirely un-researched in terms of their anthropological or cultural significance, bithooras are becoming increasingly rare, and at risk of vanishing altogether as the city expands. What role can contemporary art play in ensuring that a record is established, and further anthropological research encouraged into this distinctive example of cultural heritage?

Hopes and offerings in Chinese folk art

Author: Robert Layton (Durham University) email

Short abstract

Meaning and agency in Chinese art

Long abstract

Since 2005 I have been studying traditional ('folk') arts in rural Shandong Province, China with colleagues at Shandong University of Art and Design, to assess the context of traditional arts in contemporary China and their future potential. Two broad categories have become clear: the distinction between, on one hand, expressing hopes (xī wang, 希望) for a good life that carry one forward optimistically, seen in paper cuts, dough models and resist-dyed cotton and, on the other hand, making offerings (jì sì pin 祭祀品) to folk gods in order to achieve a wished-for outcome. This distinction relates to the question of agency in art. The expression of hopes does not entail that paper cuts decorating the house or dough models displayed at weddings, birthdays and other celebrations should have agency, but they must convey their meaning. However, the woodblock prints of protective door gods posted on courtyard doors, the print of the stove god in the kitchen, and the fortune gods displayed indoors, must embody the agency of the god in order to be effective. Such agency can only be acquired by 'inviting' the god to enter his poster through offerings and prayers. This does not, however, render meaning irrelevant. It is vital to address one's offerings and prayers to the right god, and this demands recognizing the iconography distinctive of each deity. I will outline how the two categories of art were adapted to express government policy after 1950, and how they survived the government's attempts to destroy folk religion.

Sensory Citizens: Senses, Sociality, and Citizenship in a Learning Disability Arts Workshop

Author: Thu Thuy Phan (University of Glasgow) email

Short abstract

This paper examines art as a conceptual and methodological tool to understand sensorial, embodied forms of sociality and engagement among artists with learning disabilities.

Long abstract

Although in the past decades the term citizenship has been deployed in British social policy to promote the social life of people with learning disabilities, it has been much critiqued for maintaining abstract, neoliberal, and disembodied conceptions community belonging. In this paper, I examine the doing, making, and collaborating in art as a conceptual and methodological tool to understand sensorial, embodied forms of sociality and engagement among artists with learning disabilities. Based on ongoing fieldwork at an art workshop with people with learning disabilities in Glasgow, I explore alternative, practiced-based, and embodied formulations of citizenship.

First, I argue that art as anthropology provides a conceptual tool to study sociality as mediated through the senses and the body, hence complementing disembodied and abstract accounts of citizenship. Particularly, I focus on the role of materials in enabling (artistic) choice-making, and I further highlight the web of responsibilities and relationships in which individualist, neoliberal citizenship ideals are actualised. Subsequently, I argue that approaching art as anthropology serves as a methodological tool that enables broader, embodied notions of engagement. This can generate theoretically and politically productive conversations in inclusive learning disability research, a field that is currently impeded by issues of representation and the primacy of verbalisation. For anthropology, a field that has thus far under-researched learning disability, it can help explore the process by which embodied communities emerge through the training of the senses.

Notebooks and sketchbooks: on fieldwork, recordkeeping and knowing

Author: Constance Smith (University of Manchester) email

Short abstract

Playing with the multiple senses of 'to draw', this paper takes a methodological focus. It explores what the evocative and open-ended qualities of art practice might offer to anthropological fieldwork and forms of recordkeeping.

Long abstract

The question of how to 'do' participant-observation is one that has long preoccupied anthropology. Generally, it has been understood to combine various means of 'joining in' with forms of witnessing and scrutiny. Notes and interpretations on the process are recorded, mostly in words though also in photographs and film.

But what happens if we make drawings instead of notes? Could fieldnotes be replaced with fieldart? How would this influence the way anthropologists work and the kinds of knowledge we produce? How might we reflect on and use 'artistic' field recordings later on, when we seek to turn fieldwork into scholarship? Based on some experimental fieldwork in Nairobi and London, this paper explores what techniques usually understood to be part of art practice might offer to the anthropological fieldwork process.

Recent work in the anthropology of art, materials and things has foregrounded doing over meaning; agency over representation. In keeping with this ethos, I consider how this might translate into new modes of doing and recording anthropological fieldwork; methods that reach for the allusive, evocative and open-ended qualities of art practice, rather than the representational or explanatory narratives of conventional anthropological fieldnotes. Taking up ideas of knowing through doing (e.g. Marchand 2010), I also consider how this might shape post-fieldwork knowledge production. In this way, the paper plays with the multiple senses of 'to draw': not only the application of pencil to paper, but to pull along, to untangle, or to draw out - to illuminate or make manifest (Taussig 2011).

Interdisciplinary apprehension of technologies and architectures of dispossession and oppression.

Author: Annie Pfingst (British Institute of Eastern Africa/Goldsmiths University of London) email

Short abstract

Interdisciplinary archival, spatial, discursive and visual practice apprehends technologies of dispossession and oppression and suggests new forms of sense-making where spatiality, materiality, the discursive and visual intersect to disrupt and disturb certainty, linearity and authorial knowledges.

Long abstract

An interdisciplinary archival, spatial, discursive and visual practice apprehends the materiality of imperial debris and ruination (Stoler, 2013) encountered in the architectures and technologies of dispossession and oppression across emergency landscapes and geographies of resistance of both post-colonial Kenya and the settler colonial regime over historic Palestine. Creative research-orientated interdisciplinary practice asks what the architectures and technologies so encountered perform for the power of the state; how carcerality composes and re-composes geographies; and the ways that such contrapuntal readings, made possible where and when spatiality, materiality, the discursive, the archival and the visual intersect, act together to disrupt and disturb certainty, linearity and authorial knowledges.

The paper brings forward encounters with the remnants, material assemblages and spatial arrangements of sites of incarceration, interrogation and execution, of arbitrary arrest and collective punishment, of enclosure and erasure, and of bodies and bones scattered across carceral geographies. Photographic rendering of encounters sit in conversation with archival photographic records and literary cultural production. The paper considers what it frames as the event of the encounter, the performance of visual apprehension through exhibition and exposition, the visual and spatial encounter with the claims of the colonial archival record, and the ways in which intertwined and overlapping narratives render the contradictory past in the polyvocal present.

Drawing on situated knowledges, the paper suggests that both an autobiographical turn and a feminist mode of interdisciplinary inquiry places art alongside scholarship to render both new forms of sense-making and of practice itself.

Painting Knowledge, Writing Art

Author: Catherina Wilson (Leiden University) email

Short abstract

Co-creation is a knowledge production process. This paper analyses the painting performance held by an artist and an ethnographer in Congo in 2015 as an act of co-creation. It forces us to question the hierarchy between different types of knowledge production.

Long abstract

Co-creation is the act of creating knowledge together. Art and anthropology are different ways to understand and interpret the world. They both entail processes of knowledge production/creation. Focusing on method, this paper describes the collaboration between a Congolese painter, Sapin, and a Belgian ethnographer in academic research. Inspired by the personal narrative of Mr. Henri, the painter and ethnographer decide to document Mr. Henri's life and through it, reconstruct a small chapter of the history of his town. Adding to previous ethnographic research, the painter and the ethnographer hold a painting performance in order to collect (other type of) data. A painting performance consists of one or more painting sessions in a public place that attract passers-by. Through his brushstrokes, Sapin tells a story and elicits reactions from the public. The canvas becomes, as such, a tool of communication and exchange. It is a method for data collection. Meanwhile the ethnographer observes, participates, interviews, converses and helps to organize the painting sessions. Through co-creation, art contributes to the arsenal of methods in ethnographic research. Co-creation also forces us to question and rethink the value of and hierarchy between different types of knowledge production. Finally, while underlining the importance of the process, co-creation leads to different types of research output (in this case academic, artistic, written and painted) and is able to disseminate knowledge beyond the walls of academia.

Case study of a collaboration - Atlas: MATRIX

Authors: Francesca De Luca (Universidade de Lisboa - Instituto Ciencias Sociais) email
Helena Elias (University Lisbon) email

Short abstract

A presentation of the Atlas: MATRIX*, a site-specific installation born from the collaboration of an artist and an anthropologist, opens up for new reflections on research processes, collaborations and the subtle and intricate ramifications of colonial legacies in Lisbon.

Long abstract

In 2017 Lisbon-based EBANO Collective hosted the first international encounter of #Colleex, a network for ethnographic experimentation and collaboration, in the Tropical Garden of Lisbon, with the intent to raise awareness on the unproblematized colonial past in which the garden is imbued.

Atlas: MATRIX was a site-specific installation developed for the occasion by the authors of this presentation, an anthropologist (member of EBANO) and an artist that individuated in the matrix - an object or concept from where something originates - a common element of their different research paths, one focusing on archives of maternal bodies in Lisbon, the other on material structures that originate shapes and modulate or domesticate tridimensional surfaces. A reflection on the multiple declinations of the matrix, from the uterus of mid-19th-century midwifery to the fragments from which ceramic objects may take shape, from geological structures to architectonic models, set the base for the installation.

Combining original artistic objects (ceramics) and experimental fieldwork's devices (pregnant belly casts) with materials from the Tropical Garden partly archived (maps and soil charts from ex-Portuguese colonies), partly abandoned in the colonial pavilions (drawers, colonial woods), the installation enabled the spectators to play with the elements to create new narratives and explore multiple declinations of the matrix, while highlighting the subtle and intricate ramifications of colonial legacies. In this presentation, we propose to reflect on our collaboration that put into dialogue the materiality of the data with the research processes, bringing the audience as active participants of the work-in-progress.

Dynamogram of Puerto Casado - On visualising knowledge in an interdisciplinary research project on the history of an abandoned factory in Paraguay

Author: Valentina Bonifacio (Ca' Foscari University of Venice) email

Short abstract

Situated at the crossroad between art and anthropology, the exhibition "Destiempo: Dynamogram of Puerto Casado" is the result of a one year collaboration between an anthropologist, a Paraguayan curator, a group of Paraguayan artists, two designers and the inhabitants of Puerto Casado.

Long abstract

Though as a platform for storytelling, "Destiempo: Dynamogram of Puerto Casado" is a constantly transforming exhibition on the history of a company town in Paraguay that is part of a wider anthropological research project on that same history. It is the result of a one year collaboration between a visual anthropologist (me), a Paraguayan curator, a group of Paraguayan artists, two designers and the inhabitants of Puerto Casado. While traveling in between Paraguay, New York, and Venice, its content has slowly adapted itself to the wider context where it was taking place. Inspired by Michael Taussig's well known definition of the mimetic faculty as a way of knowing, one of the aims of the exhibition was to explore the production of knowledge at the crossroad between art and anthropology. In particular, I will discuss in detail how the work of the six artists and the co-curator ended up shaping my own anthropological writing and the research more in general.

Painting People as Part of Anthropology: Experimenting Practice in Public Settings

Author: Zoe Bray (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) email

Short abstract

This article reflects on my experiences, as both an anthropologist and a painter, of depicting the portraits of volunteer models, in various public settings, as part of a curatorial experiment on the process doing visual anthropology today.

Long abstract

This article reflects on my experiences of painting the portraits of volunteer models, including other anthropologists, in various museum and other public settings. As a social anthropologist and a painter, I often paint the portraits of individuals whilst 'out in the field' as another way of doing ethnography. In the process, the model and I get to know each other better, and the portrait emerges as a collaboration, and as an alternative form of (visual) thick description. In recent years, I have demonstrated this pratice publicly, as a way to invite more people to directly witness the process of depicting a live human-being on canvas and think about its implications for anthropology. This article discusses these experiences in light of the current transformation of anthropology as a co-production of knowledge utilizing interdisciplinary approaches including art, and in the context of public settings, including museums displaying traditional and conventional representational forms. I reflect on how the experiment possibly emerges as an aesthetic performance in its own right, bringing the acts of doing anthropology and art together.

Shock, wonder, and the moral of shared spaces in an art and anthropology encounter

Author: Luciana Lang (University of Manchester) email

Short abstract

In August 2017, an art and anthropology installation in a public park aimed at promoting empathy towards the non-human and introducing the theory of Perspectivism to park goers. This paper looks at the mixed reactions to the 'immersive experience' this interdisciplinary collaboration produced.

Long abstract

In August 2017, an art and anthropology installation was created in a public park in the south of England with the aims of promoting empathy towards the non-human and introducing the theory of Perspectivism to park goers. Reactions to the 'immersive experience' this interdisciplinary collaboration produced were mixed, raising ethical questions around oppositions such as public versus private, copy versus fake, and art versus life. From a political perspective, the experience highlighted how shared spaces can become ideological arenas. It also shed light on the moral geography that determines the type of interventions that can be held in public spaces. Drawing on literature on sensuous experience (aesthesis) and representation, this paper explores the potential and limits of conveying anthropological theory through sensory methods, and its political/ethical implications. It engages with early anthropological incursions into the epistemological potential of 'performing ethnography' (Turner 2004), such as those by Franz Boas and Frank Hamilton Cushing, to argue for "thick participation" (Gerd Spittler) as an ethnographic method. It concludes that much can be learned from mixed media methods, and from the tensions that such bricolage may engender.

"Let's do an art show?!" Anthropological insight from an artist-led ethnography

Authors: Sveta Yamin-Pasternak (University of Alaska Fairbanks) email
Igor Pasternak (University of Alaska Fairbanks) email

Short abstract

Co-authored by a cultural anthropologist and a multi-media artist, this paper describes a framework for doing artist-led ethnography. It is based on the research in anthropology of food and shares the experience of creating a collaborative art installation with members of our host communities.

Long abstract

This paper suggests a framework for doing artist-led ethnography. It outlines the methodology and theoretical insights emerging in the course of two ethnographic investigations, both focusing on the knowledge, skills, values, practices, and experiences surrounding food. Both investigations take place in the process of preparing an art installation, which the authors, who are a cultural anthropologist and a multi-media artist, produced collaboratively with the advisors in our host communities. At the core of our approach is working toward an art show on a topic that speaks to a local lived experience, has a materially expressed dimension, and is of mutual interest to the researchers and community members. What we are learning is that while providing a prolific mode for ethnographic engagement, a jointly conceived art co-production fuels a certain form of agency. This agency enhances the critically minded involvement by those known as informants or consultants, or by other terms used in different traditions of ethnography. Alongside the social and historical insight at local and regional levels, the ethnography generated through this process enables a broad anthropological reflection on individuality and universals in aesthetic expression. While our research focuses on food and is set in the Circumpolar North (one investigation is taking place in the Indigenous communities of the Bering Strait region, whose livelihoods rely heavily on hunting, and the other is in an immigrant farmer settlement in subarctic Alaska) we posit that the described approach is broadly implementable in the study of material practices and their surrounding social contexts.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.