Artefacts and visual systems in Oceania and America
Location SOAS Senate House - S108
Date and Start Time 03 Jun, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 3


  • Paolo Fortis (Durham University) email
  • Susanne Kuechler (University College London) email

Mail All Convenors

Discussant Ludovic Coupaye (University College London)

Short abstract

This panel explores the temporal dimension of artefact and visual systems in Oceania and the Americas. Focusing on notions of temporality and historicity embedded in the making, use and perception of images and artefacts it aims to unpack social transformations in indigenous lived worlds.

Long abstract

This panel seeks to explore artefact and visual systems and their temporal dimension in Oceania and the Americas. By considering the material and the visual as integral to lived experience we aim to focus on how specific practices and notions of temporality and historicity are embedded in the making, use and perception of images and artefacts. A number of recent ethnographic studies have shown that artefacts and images are indexes of social memory and tools for the transmissions of cultural and genealogical knowledge. Such knowledge and memory often refer to historical occurrences and periods of intense social change. We propose that studying artefact and visual systems in indigenous lived worlds is key to unpack the complex transformations that they have undergone in their past.

Building on pioneering theoretical elaborations on the anthropological study of art (e.g. Munn, Strathern and Gell) the panel seeks contributions from scholars working in Oceania and the Americas. In doing so, we wish to foster and renew a dialogue between ethnographic areas that have seen a sustained anthropological interest in indigenous arts. The aim is to highlight the importance of artefact and visual systems in studying issues such as, but not limited to, social change, cultural contact, creativity, style, historicity, temporality, Christianization and memory.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Asia-Pacific Legacies in Eastern Kula Ring Outrigger Canoes

Author: Frederick H. Damon (University of Virginia) email

Short abstract

This paper explores the outrigger canoe form that dominated the eastern half of PNG's Kula Ring. Although the Kula institution is recent, this paper argues the boat exhibits forces that were intrinsic to social life from China and the Austronesian expansion from 6000 years ago.

Long abstract

Derived from research extending from 1991 to 2017, this paper explores ideas carried in the structure of the anageg outrigger form that dominated the eastern half of the Kula Ring in Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Although the Kula Ring we have known over the last century probably dates to about 1400ce, it is part of a tradition that extends back to the origin of the Austronesian expansion out of Southeastern China 6000 years ago. This paper argues the structure and meaning of the anageg form must be viewed in the context of the sociality presented across the arc of this spatio-temporal axis: what forces became intrinsic to organized social life in this region? Two sets of facts lead to this conclusion. One draws from the boat's structure and operation in relation to ideas about stars. The other follows from the way the boat was fashioned out of and by landscape transformations etched into the Kula Ring islands in general and its eastern portion in particular. For the boat form is a condensed ensemble in a larger context. As is the case with local astronomical knowledge, this was not a singular landscape. Rather it was a product of ideas that run from at least China, by means of the Austronesian expansion, through and into very different socio-ecological circumstances. The necessary fashioning of a form to local circumstances is part of its essential meaning, a way of life precipitated in it and revealed through its very being.

Breaking A Copper in Public: A Technique for Distributing Surplus Value

Author: Charlotte Townsend-Gault (University of British Columbia) email

Short abstract

The 2017 public cutting of a high value Kwakwaka'wakw copper in Ottawa understood not as the display of a treasured object but a technique to release its enigmatic surplus

Long abstract

The form of a Kwakwaka'wakw copper is a challenge to materialist description. Since the Kwakwaka'wakw treat their coppers as animate, the English nouns 'object' and 'thing' only perpetuate the transcultural misidentification endemic to the history of Northwest Coast Native 'art'. At the apogee of the potlatch 'system', a chiefly copper is a store of value, both tangible and intangible. Its display enhances the power and status of its owner. Its rare, staged, breaking, shames a rival power. It does not destroy but activates, releasing surplus value, a sharp realization of cultural technique (Siegert 2015, Dick 2016). For over a century the ceremonies associated with masks, coppers and other regalia, were punishable offences under Canada's 1876 Indian Act. Simultaneously, the copper, central to debate about 'the gift', has been an artifact of anthropology's history: Boas, Durkheim, Mauss, Levi-Strauss, Godelier, et al. In 2016, retrieved from both transgression and discursive labours, named coppers were travelled across Canada by Kwakwaka'wakw leaders to be broken in confrontational public actions in front of the federal parliament in Ottawa. Although not without internal controversy, the technique was the pivot of events that combined political activism, and cultural transformation. Attention shifted from treasure to technique, what a break can do rather than what a copper is, revealing that surplus value can be released by a cut. When, in 2017, this performance of technique migrated to international art worlds in Kassel and Venice, its surplus value escaped the thrall of object display, and the misleading allure of art.

Amerindian shamanic iconographies (Lowland South America): a comparative study

Author: Pedro de Niemeyer Cesarino (University of São Paulo) email

Short abstract

This presentation will focus on a comparative research about drawings produced in Lowland South America, mostly in Amazonia. The aim is to explore common traits of drawings collected by ethnographers, by NGO workers or produced spontaneously by shamans and/or masters of verbal arts.

Long abstract

This presentation will focus on a comparative research about drawings produced in Lowland South America, mostly in Amazonia. The aim is to explore common traits of iconographic productions not necessarily related to individualized authorship and

the production of works of art, but rather to drawings collected by ethnographers, by NGO workers or produced spontaneously by shamans and/or masters of verbal arts. Although related to a classic ethnographic method employed by several researchers such as Karl Von den Steinen, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, B. Ribeiro, J-P. Chaumeil, A. Barcelos Neto and many others, the collection of such iconographic productions remains scattered and not very well known beyond their local contexts. The recent comparative efforts launched by the researches of Carlo Severi and Pierre Déléage and myself revealed some general traits associated to the logics of pictographic composition and to the

production of memory, as well as to the intersemiotic character of such expressions. Nevertheless, a wide range of comparative aspects (formal, plastic, ritual, ontological, temporal, among others) still need to be explored in order to reveal the singular aspects of such a complex and hybrid visual system. Departing from the material of Western Amazonian societies (Shipibo-Conibo, Marubo, Matsiguenga, Yagua and others) the presentation aims to explore such traits and to provide some reflections about the alleged absence of figurative and writing traditions in Lowland South America.

Producing indigenous memory via affect: Objects and places as links between lived and imagined temporalities in Bogota-Colombia.

Author: Maria Fernanda Esteban Palma (University of Pennsylvania) email

Short abstract

This paper explores how the recently self-recognized indigenous Muisca of the city of Bogota have created a long term collective memory using sacralized objects and places as powerful affective "links" between an imagined shared past and a present of struggle for survival.

Long abstract

Since the 1991 constitutional reform that recognizes multiculturalism among the Colombian population, five Muisca indigenous groups have formed from among the mestizo dwellers of the outskirts of the city of Bogota. This paper explores how things and locales recently incorporated to the Muisca cultural repertoire produce temporal linkages within the agentic assemblages in which the Muisca participate during ceremonies. I argue that these temporal connections occur via sensorial affectation, by triggering the production of affects and the linking of those affects with member's affective memories. By these means, a collective Muisca memory is produced and incorporated to members' sense of selves; a memory that not only refers to the short-term history of the groups since they became officially recognized, but also to an imagined, mythical past that is produced to meet the model of alterity that positions indigenous people as spiritual and ecological. In this case, an artifact called the poporo (a portable holder of seashells and coca leaves), and a place known as the cusmuy (a dark, circular hut used for ceremonies) stimulate the production of a temporal coalescence between an imagined, spiritual pre-Hispanic past that is recalled via affect, and a present of struggle to be indigenous in a mestizo social environment. For the Muisca, these two material items have become indexes of social memory that are recalled on a regular basis as a means to shape and strengthen the group's cohesiveness, despite of the ruptures generated by coloniality, Christianity, and four hundred years of mestizaje.

A meditation on time: learning to see in Amazonia

Author: Els Lagrou (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) email

Short abstract

The analysis of ritual song in huni kuin ayahuasca ritual serves as a starting point for the examination of huni kuin perception of time and of how pattern, figures and form reveal their concepts of relation.

Long abstract

Strathern states that in Melanesia relations are made manifest through form. Forms, such as babies, yams and artifacts are the outcome of relations. In Amazonia, however, what is obviated through patterned form are relations themselves rather then their outcome. Pattern in Western Amazonia points towards an ontology of connectedness and towards the reversibility of all forms. Pattern registers movement and bodies are conceived of as immersed in a constant process of becoming. Patterns reveal, or suggest, the multiple fractal relations that constitute and connect beings, persons and collectives. Here I will explore how form reveals relations in Amazonia through the examination of the role of Figures and pattern in shamanistic ayahuasca song, the paradigmatic experience of becoming self through a controlled process of other-becoming. This case study serves as a starting point for the examination of huni kuin perception of time. The ritual is called nawa huni, a composed concept that unites the terms for self and other, showing how they constitute an interdependent unstable Figure. Nawa huni is a substance originated from the corpse of a human ancestor, who became Yube, anaconda-being, but came back and continued to be kin. The song guides the novice through a similar experience that connects one's embodied thoughts to the past as well as to the future, to the indigenous worlds of the ancestors and to the world of the white, and other manifestations of otherness, proposing, as in the case of anaconda-becoming, the possibility of becoming self by means of becoming other.

From gourd-people to arrow-people: Wixarika ancestors in the making

Author: Johannes Neurath (Museo Nacional de Antropología) email

Short abstract

The identification of people and objects is an important aspect of Mesoamerican ritual and its transmission. Focussing on Wixarika gourd-cups and arrows, I'll analyse processes of transformation and conflicting modes of relationship.

Long abstract

The identification between people and objects is an important aspect of Mesoamerican ritual and its transmission. In this paper I'll focus on Wixarika (Huichol) gourd-cups (xukurite) and arrows (+r+te), as well as on "gourd-cup-people" (xukuri'+kate) and "arrow-people" (+r+kate). Based on what might be called Wixarika recursive anthropology, I'll propose an analytical framework that avoids separating between concepts and practices, or between ritual agents, images and objects. Wixarika are born as xukurite. Practicing vision quest, sacrifice, and initiation, they eventually emerge from the gourd-cups, and become +r+kate, living ancestors. Both categories of object-persons are key to the maintenance of ceremonial centres that have been highly contested in the past. But the relation between gourds and arrows is always complicated. It is gendered, it expresses a contrast between exchange and free gift, and it implies a contested hierarchy, as well as conflicting discourses on ethnicity and engaging with non-Indigenous populations.

A painter’s approach of defining meaning and relevance of Native American Facepaints

Author: Silvia Bancroft-Hunt email

Short abstract

The painter’s approach is of fundamental importance here since similar conclusions could not be elicited through verbal enquiries, as expressed with the Blackfoot comment ‘Facepaint is not to explain in words,,if you can’t see it,,too bad’, which set the parameter for my investigations since.

Long abstract

Personal Facepaints of chiefs, prominent warriors and medicine men caught my specific attention. Initial visual analysis was concerned with Pawnee Facepaints (Caddoan speaking peoples) in comparison with those of neighbouring Siouan speaking tribal groups, followed by extensive further investigations of Facepaints belonging to peoples of other language groups i.e. Athapascan, Algonquian and Uto-Aztecan (Tanoan and Shoshone). Conclusions derived through visual analysis revealed that personal Facepaint concepts, the same as the order of ritual and relevant sacred ceremonial paints, a base concept that can extracted from their origin stories, as a whole, constituting a realistic concept of time-present in relation to time-origin, indicating to be anchored in genetic origin. It was possible to identify 5 different structural base concepts peculiar to and consistent within each of the language groups referred to above. Comparative evidence of present day Facepaints collected during field trips between 1977 and late 1990’s, revealed that the structural base concepts are persistent, defying language replacement.

The more complex part of these investigations were represented by the great variety of tribal colour systems which made the search for colour universals essential.

With conclusive research results in mind It is my intention to talk about differences in meaning and relevance of personal Facepaints composed of abstract geometric elements in contrast to pictographic narratives painted on chest/shoulders/arms, War-shirts, buffalo robes or a Warrior Society tipi, and a further contrast to the Paints for Battle received in a vision/dream, similar to Painted/Animal/Medicine tipis, painted with recognisable animal form elements.

Primeval skins: the smooth and the engraved surface

Author: Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin (University of Göttingen) email

Short abstract

The property of the skin of mythical beings, the yam and the crocodile, serve as keynote to which the the Abelam and the Iatmul (Papua New Guinea) continuously produce new aesthetic accords. Artists shape surfaces accordingly: either smooth and bright or engraved. Thus, surface design is a basic aesthetic principle.

Long abstract

Among the Abelam and the Iatmul (Papua New Guinea), there are myths about how the yam and the crocodile respectively created the world. The skin of the yam and the crocodile serve as a keynote to which the Abelam and Iatmul continuously create new accords in different media of expression. Both the yam and the crocodile are conceived as eternal beings. Each generation of men thrive to identify with the primeval yam and crocodile anew by aligning their skin to theirs. The yam – a particular type of ceremonial yam which senior men grow every year – displays a skin “smooth, bright and shining”. It serves as a beauty ideal for the bodies of Abelam men. Smooth and shiny surfaces are also important in other fields of aesthetics, such as the gable painting of ceremonial houses and shellrings. By contrast, the Abelam’s neighbours, the Iatmul, align their (the men’s) skin to the “engraved” skin of the crocodile. According to this visual keynote, which is continuously pulled up to the present, senior men scarify the skin of young men with crocodile patterns. Iatmul artists produce a number of accords all consisting of the interplay between elevated and deepened surfaces (such as carvings). Thus, the Abelam and the Iatmul’s aesthetics differs fundamentally in the way they assess the quality of surfaces. However, they both take the primeval beings and the property of their skins as a visual keynote on which fundamental aspects of aesthetics are based.

This contribution draws on data collected between 1972 and 1983.

Materiality and exhibition of the book as a ritual artefact in the Northwest Amazon

Author: Samir R de Angelo (University of Sao Paulo) email

Short abstract

Based on the ethnography of a collection of books, the Indigenous Narrators of Rio Negro, published by indigenous authors from the Northwest Amazon, this paper presents the local conception of the book as an artefact and as an object of exhibition for the Tukano indigenous groups.

Long abstract

This presentation seeks to explain the complex transformations that the Tukano groups undergone during the period of colonialist intervention and how the book was appropriated by them and was given a new meaning. The interest in books is related to the progressive weakening of ritual practices condemned by the missionaries which created the context for the exhibition of the book as a ritual object. Considered as a living object, books are used both through their narratives and through their materiality as a mean for the transmission of the genealogical knowledge of the Tukano's clans. Much of the research on the phenomena of indigenous writing has focused on the content of texts. This approach fails to consider the meaning of the materiality of the book, treating it merely as support. This paper suggests that the visual, form and materiality are as important as their verbal content. Gell's theory of art turns away from semiotics and aesthetics and books are excluded from consideration because they are heavily verbal and Gell's argument is explicitly anti-linguistic. However his theory of art can be applied to books and his contrast between agency, on the one hand and semiotics and aesthetics, on the other, is related to the contrast between the material form and verbal content of books. Instead of opposing form/content and material/immaterial, it seems more appropriated to think the book as a condensatory artefact used both as an object of exhibition and as a mean to register their knowledge.

Stepping into Abyss. Image, Text, Temporality and Personhood at Yaxchilán Hieroglyphic Staircase 2.

Author: Hilda del Carmen Landrove Torres (National Autonomous University of Mexico) email

Short abstract

This paper explores the use of 'mise en abyme' in Yaxchilán Hieroglyphic Staircase 2 and it´s relation to ritual, temporality construction and personhood among the Maya of Classic Period (600-900 A.C.).

Long abstract

In Yaxchilán, Hieroglyphic Staircase 2 Step 7, there is an example of 'mise en abyme' as conceptualized by Gide and Dӓllenbach: a scale image within and image on the same subject. The repeated image is that of a human being (Yaxuun Balam IV) in ball player's costume ready to strike a ball that seems to contain a captive, falling from the stair. The scene, completed with two dwarfs on the right side, includes a hieroglyphic text.

In this paper, I will argue that we can considerer the use of this recursive device in Step 2 not limited to the carved image, but extended to the totality of the staircase with the other twelve steps that compose it and to the ritual act celebrated on it, a dedicatory secuence involving the sacrifice of a captive. This extension may be considered as different scales in the reenactment of the mythical episode described in the text of the image, where the first instance of 'mise en abyme' appears.

'Mise en abyme' has been studied in literature, visual arts, and also in the ethnographic field (e.g. Cesarino and Severi). In Mesoamerican Studies has been explored by Frassani for codex and ritual chants. Building on previous theoretical elaborations, i will explore this particular case considering both image and text as well as the plausible reconstruction of the original context to explore the construction of temporality and the concept of personhood among the Maya of the region around VII and VIII A.C.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.