Comparing Notes: Realising the Sacred and the Self in Art 
Anita Datta (University of Durham)
Alina Apostu
SOAS Senate House - S320
Sunday 3 June, 9:00-10:30 (UTC+0)

Short Abstract:

This panel explores the relationship between sacred art, personal belief and spiritual/artistic experience through comparative ethnographic and auto-ethnographic perspectives in relation to the same artistic stimulus.

Long Abstract

What/who does sacred art, in its most extended form, represent? In the relation between the spiritual individual and the entity to which he/she seeks to relate, art, in its sensorial and material forms, mediates, generates sacred presence (Meyer 2014), constructs and is constructed by (spiritual) selves (see Miller 2005). Indeed, to what extent can art mediate, alter or even realise our personal beliefs and spiritual experience of the lived world? This panel explores the relationship between spiritual disposition and the production and experience of art through ethnographic perspectives on sacred choral music in England. The approach proposed is unique in drawing together comparative perspectives on the same choir and field site from two anthropologists, one working from a classic 'outsider' ethnographer position and the other through auto-ethnography in dual role as professional musician and anthropologist. The discussion will explore these questions through comparing notes on the materials, histories, rehearsals and practices of making by which the representation of the sacred is realised in the self and the self is artistically performed in view of the sacred. We will supplement this discussion either by introducing another anthropologist/auto-ethnographer pair working on the same artistic context, or through a third perspective on Christian belief and experience of sacred music.

Accepted papers:


Alina Apostu

Paper short abstract:

This paper focuses on sacred music rehearsals as chronotopes wherein acts of negotiation between “performance” and “worship” emerge among choir members. Encompassing both narrative and sensorial dimensions, these acts of negotiation are productive in shaping the singers' religious and artistic experience.

Paper long abstract:

This paper presents the musical process of facilitating religious experience in a traditional

Anglican church in London and it is based on recently ended fieldwork. A less prominent topic in

(ethno)musicological or anthropological research, traditional Anglican music in the contemporary

church provides a rich ground for exploring how the sound choreography (the process of choosing

and preparing the music and the act of 'performing' it in a church environment), within a service

adopts and addresses notions of performance, audience, repertoire.

I follow the process by which the church sound environment is determined through the

choice of music (hymns, anthems, mass settings), the music practice adopted and embodied by the

choir and the sonic affordances of the church space. In particular, musical choices and

'performances', as part of the broader style of religious service, nurture spaces of debate about the

boundary between sacred and secular, notions of faith, personal and collective histories, religious

identities and expectations. Within this context, musical notions of performance, professional vs

amateur singing, style, expressivity are continuously interrogated by the choir singers through their

practice. Rehearsals and services convey moments of tension between, on the one hand, obtaining a

'professional' musical sound and, on the other hand, leading the congregation in a meaningful

worship whereby the two aspects appear not to be fully compatible. By looking at the structure,

content, technique and focus during choir rehearsals, I approach questions about the implications

for both musical performance and religious experience of the choices made by the singers in

addressing this tension.


Oluwafemi Ayodeji (Durham University)

Paper short abstract:

In this paper, I explore the key term pairings "gift/anointing" and "performance/ministration" as criteria for judging and categorising music ministers and their musical endeavours, as well as how these terms relate to the experience of sacred presence in Yorùbá Pentecostal Christianity.

Paper long abstract:

This paper promotes a fuller understanding of the perspectives fostered within Yorùbá Pentecostalism, particularly in relation to participants' understandings of the key term pairings "gift/anointing" and "performance/ministration" as criteria for judging and categorising music ministers and their musical endeavours. Amongst Pentecostals, these four terms permeate discourse relating to music and liturgical rites, with the following questions often arising: Is it better to be led by a gifted or anointed music minister? And should music within the church be conceived as performance or ministration? These debates directly reflect upon the importance Pentecostals attach to spirituality. Albrecht's observation that Pentecostals generally believe their main purpose for attending church is to have a personal encounter with God (1999, p. 142) is visibly projected in the services that I observed at the large and influential Mountain of Fire and Miracles church in Nigeria, with pastors often explicitly stating this goal to the congregation. All aspects of the service, including music, are designed to promote the need for the spiritual self to have a sacred experience. In this presentation, I will draw on interviews and participant-observation ethnography to discuss the dynamics, beliefs and meanings surrounding the aforementioned key terms within Yorùbá Pentecostal Christianity, especially as they concern music. I argue that although 'anointing' and 'ministration' are considered to be more spiritual qualifiers, it would be naive to assume that the other two attributes are not required for a spiritually satisfying worship experience.


Shreen Raghavan

Paper short abstract:

The paper examines the agency of the creators, sacred structures and symbols of the Aurovillean mandala in India and their mediation in the self-realization and transformative experiences of the pilgrims.

Paper long abstract:

Gell (1998) proposes a framework for analyzing art, which he terms as the Index (I), through its interactions with the Artist (A), the creator, and the Viewer / Patient (P). This model is used as a starting point for understanding the theurgic nature of the mandala at Auroville, India. The process of elucidation commences by analyzing the background and mystical experiences of its creators, Aurobindo Ghose and Mirra Alfassa; next, the artistic, architectural and arboreal forms of the Aurovillean mandala are examined; finally, the spiritual experiences of both Aurovillians and pilgrims are investigated, providing emic and etic perspectives respectively. The paper seeks to link the three entities - Creator, mandala and pilgrim - via a common denominator of congruent Self-realizing experiences, in the 'abduction' of the mandala's agency. First, the case facts are presented which serve as data-points for the Gell framework. These data-points are then hermeneutically mapped on to religious literature, exegeses, theories and research findings on the mandala / sacred art / initiatory rites (Gonda 1965, Bühnemann 2003, Van Gennep 1960, Sanderson 1984) to distil the underlying affective process. Pilgrim experiences at another sacred site are compared with those at Auroville. Finally, facts, theory and hermeneutics together serve to affectively link founders, mandala and pilgrims, establishing the 'union'. The author also shares his auto-ethnographical perspective.