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Image as Embodiment:
cross-disciplinary perspectives

A Research Symposium
at the Sainsbury Research Unit
for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas
University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK

9 – 10 November 2007

Symposium Abstracts

Suzanne Blier
Harvard University

'The Body Deformed: The Art of Politics in Early Ife (Nigeria)'

This paper addresses a corpus of ancient Ife sculptures showing an array of body deformities, among these painful congenital conditions and the ravages of disease. These remarkable works provide a striking counter-aesthetic to the larger and better known grouping early Ife sculptures conveying striking qualities of idealized naturalism. I will argue in my paper that these body deformity images (among these portrayals of severe obesity, elephantiasis testes, and syphillis) are identified with Ife sites (and individuals) long associated with Ife's autochthonous residents who were largely disempowered in the course of founding of Ife's second ("Odudua") dynasty. These arts offer provocative insight not only into the process of centralization and dynastic change here, but also serve to reify their disfranchisement of the center's indigenous inhabitants, while at the same time conveying to this group values of ritual primacy. Both are an important part of their identity still today.

The Allen Whitehill Clowes Professor of Fine Art and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, Professor Blier is also the Editor-in-Chief of an electronic media project at Harvard called Baobab: Visual Sources in African Visual Culture, which is an interactive database of images on African art and material culture. She has done extensive research in the West African countries of Benin and Togo. She is the recipient of numerous scholarly awards, including those from the John S. Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council, the Fulbright-Hays Award, the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, and the Seaver Institute. Professor Blier has been active in bringing African art into the mainstream of art historical study and has also curated a number of exhibitions on African art.

In addition to numerous articles, her recent books include: Art of the
Senses: African Masterpieces from the William and Bertha Teel Collection (2004), which she edited; Butabu: Adobe Architecture of West Africa (2003), co-authored with James Morris; and A History of Art in Africa (2001), co-authored with Monica Blackmun Visona, Robin Poynor, Herbert M. Cole, Michael D. Harris, and Rowland Abiodun. Additional books include the forthcoming Imaging African Amazons: The Art of Dahomey Women Warriors; African Royal Art: The Majesty of Form (Calmann & King, 1998); African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power (University of Chicago Press, 1995), which received the Charles Rufus Morey Award for distinguished book in art history written in 1996; and The Anatomy of Architecture: Ontology and Metaphor in Batammaliba Architectural Expression (Cambridge University Press, 1987), which was awarded the Arnold Rubin Outstanding Publication Award in African Art scholarship.

Professor Blier holds a Ph.D. in art history and archaeology from Columbia University, where she was also a professor.


Stephen Hugh-Jones

University of Cambridge

'Modelling bodies - creation and self-creation in NW Amazonia'.


Viveiros de Castro has suggested that Amazonians typically see creation as involving a transformation of cultural implements or institutions stolen, borrowed or otherwise appropriated from affines, enemies, trading partners and other forms of Other. In accordance with this, they often focus their artistic energies on the elaboration of trophies - body-parts, ceremonies, names, songs or design elements - taken from Others. Against this backdrop, the Tukanoan-speaking peoples of NW Amazonia stand out both in their elaboration of a range of highly-crafted ceremonial goods (gaheuni), many of which become treasured ancestral heirlooms, and in seeing such crafting as a model for divine creation.

Divine creators, whose bodies are themselves assemblages of artefacts, use such artefacts to engender artefact-like children. Only at the end of this creation process do objects give way to true human beings and fabrication to sexual reproduction. Following Gell's discussion of style, the formal correspondences between general features of social structures and the structures guiding the production of design elements, I suggest that there is a clear 'fit' between certain features of what might be called the Tukanoan 'object regime' and other features of their society and social structure, notably the emphasis on unilineal descent and heirarchy that marks them off from the more usual Amazonia pattern. However, the connections that Gell perceives between Marquesans' artistic style and their society and culture more generally are just that - formal parallels that Gell himself infers from his reading of ethnography rather than anything suggested directly by the Marquesans themselves. For the Tukanoans, I suggest that the fit between ceremonial goods and culture and society more generally is something that they themselves think about and elaborate. If Tukanoan mythology and other statements suggest that such objects embody their cultural values and ideologies in an explicit and conscious way, this raises questions concerning choice of materials and the reciprocal relations between people and the things made by them. It also raises questions about another form of wealth, items of Western manufacture which are indeed obtained from Others but nonetheless assimilated to the category of ceremonial goods.

Stephen Hugh-Jones is Emeritus Research Associate at the Cambridge University Department of Social Anthropology and a Life Fellow of King's College. His research and publications have focussed on the indigenous peoples of NW Amazonia but with an emphasis on intra- and inter-regional comparison (Amazonia; Melanesia and Australia). The thematic focus has ranged from symbolism, mythology and ritual, kinship and architecture, the cocaine business and the articulation of different economic systems, alternative systems of education, though to work on ethnobotany and ethnozoology.

He is currently engaged on a study of ceremonial objects, visual display and ceremonial exchange that will form part of a wider study of NW Amazonia as a regional system. He also has research interests in Tibet and Bhutan and is currently directing a study of the Pad gling traditions in Bhutan.

Recent publications include 'The gender of some Amazonian gifts; an experiment with an experiment' in T Gregor and D. Tuzin eds.(2001) Gender in Amazonia and Melanesia; an Exploration of the Comparative Method. Berkeley, University of California Press and 'The substance of Northwest Amazonian names' in G. vom Bruch and B. Bodenhorn eds.(2006) The Anthropology of Names and Naming. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


Timothy Ingold

University of Aberdeen

'Why a meeting between art and anthropology should not be about images, objects and embodiment but about light, materials and growth'


'Image', 'embodiment' and 'materiality' have become key terms through which the relation between art and anthropology has been configured. I argue that these terms lead us to regard art in the way in which it is also typically regarded in art history, as comprising an assemblage of works that constitute the objects of analysis, rather than as a sister discipline that anthropology can work with in better understanding human experience. In 'image', processes of seeing are swallowed by things seen; in 'embodiment', processes of organic growth are swallowed by by bodies grown; in 'materiality', the flows and transformations of materials in making are swallowed by objects made. I suggest that the relation between art and anthropology might be reconfigured through a combined emphasis on the experience of light, the growth of living organisms and the properties of materials.

Tim Ingold is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. He has carried out ethnographic fieldwork among Saami and Finnish people in Lapland, and has written extensively on comparative questions of environment, technology and social organisation in the circumpolar North, as well as on evolutionary theory in anthropology, biology and history, on the role of animals in human society, and on issues in human ecology. His recent research interests are in the anthropology of technology and in aspects of environmental perception. He is currently writing and teaching on the comparative anthropology of the line, and on issues on the interface between anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture. His latest book, Lines: A Brief History, was published by Routledge in 2007.


Christian Kaufmann

University of Basel

'Wrapping it up – Embodiment as a process of creating, displaying, preserving, and deconstructing ancestral personality in Sepik art.'

This paper tries to answer the convenors’ questions by describing embodiment as a visual process in Sepik art (and beyond). A main step of this process consists in wrapping-up a body or its structural equivalent in order to configure a physical image. Behind the apparent image remain deeper images seen, or created and described in oral tradition, and which are specifically meant not to be entirely revealed. Three kinds of structural equivalents of ancestral bodies (or parts thereof) play an important role in Sepik art: carvings, ornamented ceremonial houses and masks. Another class, often overlooked because of its utilitarian value, consists of pottery vessels and clay figurines. The motifs applied to the skins of all kinds of bodies need to be studied both in visual as well as in linguistic detail in order to understand the processes of embodiment. As a whole, embodiment, at least in Kwoma as well as in Central Sepik art, is a process of evoking and hiding images, rather than of depicting and publicly identifying them.

Christian Kaufmann, Ph.D., has worked among the Kwoma people of the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea, as well as on the islands of Ambrym and Malakula of Vanuatu. He is a founding member of the Pacific Arts Association. From 1970 to 2005 he was Curator of the Oceania Department at the Museum der Kulturen in Basel. Among other projects he initiated and coordinated an international exhibition on the arts of Vanuatu (1996-1997). At the University of Basel he was lecturer for museum anthropology and art. In 2007 he was an A.B. Mellon Fellow in Art History at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Together with A. Kaeppler and D. Newton he published Art Océanien (Citadelles & Mazenod, Paris 1993)/ Oceanic Art (Abrams, New York 1997). In 2005 he co-curated the exhibition «Rarrk» John Mawurndjul. Journey through Time in Northern Australia at the Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland. In addition to the exhibition catalogue he is co-editor with Claus Volkenandt of "Art Histories in Context:John Mawurndjul between Indigenous Australia and Europe", Berlin (Reimer), in press.


Pierre Lemonnier

Centre de Recherche et de Documentation sur l’Océanie, Marseille, France

'Relics, partible persons, and magical bundles. Objects in transformation among the Anga of Papua New Guinea'


Although they are commonly taken for granted, expressions such as “partibility” or relationality of persons, shell money “standing for” a person, or “equivalence” of shells and pigs are indeed pending questions in Melanesian anthropology. However, they are a source of inspiration that encourages us to analyze the mental and material processes by which the Anga of Papua New Guinea create, explain, and physically use the ritual artefacts in which they combine myth, ritual, and technology.

Both Ankave and Baruya sacred objects are transformations of the bundles used in hunting magic and both contain relics. But the presence of human relics in the Ankave’s sacred objects makes a huge difference in the objectification, “image”-making, materialisation, mise en gestes, etc. of their relations with the primordial beings.

Unlike Venus or Sun, human heroes may die and be cut into pieces for which people invent substitutes. The nature of these substitutes (human bones, but also animal parts or living plants), the imaginary scenarios that support them, and the ways people exchange these things may provide some clues about the difference between artefacts that are exchanged as if they contained/conveyed life-powers and (more) ordinary artefacts given to compensate life.


Pierre Lemonnier is a Director of Research at the CNRS affilitated Centre de Recherche et de Documentation sur l’Océanie, Marseilles, France. He conducted repeated field research from 1978 to 1982 among the various Anga people of Papua New Guinea and worked on numerous topics, including war and peace-making, and the anthropology of technology. In 1982, he chose an Ankave valley for long-term anthropological fieldwork, where he regularly returns. He is currently merging his two main fields of interest, the study of Anga ritual and that of material culture, by investigating the specific role of objects in the chaîne opératoire of ritual actions.

He has published several books on the anthropology of technics, among which Elements for an Anthropology of Technology (Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology, 1992); Technological Choices. Transformation in Material Cultures since the Neolithic (Routledge, 1993) and two books on Melanesia: Guerres et festins. Paix, échanges et compétition dans les Highlands de Nouvelle-Guinée (Ed. de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 1990); and Le sabbat des lucioles. Sorcellerie, chamanisme et imaginaire cannibale en Nouvelle-Guinée (Stock, 2006).


Howard Morphy
Director, Research School of Humanities, ANU

'En-Minding the Body — Yolngu art and the creation of self'


In this paper I will argue that the recent focus on embodiment in anthropology is a consequence of a history of neglect of the expressive, experiential and material dimensions of human existence, and an over-emphasis on social relationships and social structure as the determinants of human action. Embodiment has become too closely associated with the individual, and too separated from cultural and semiotic processes — social processes have become too embodied. The separation of the phenomenological from the semiotic threatens the whole enterprise of anthropology as the study of socio-cultural process and crucially often fails to reflect the conceptual categories of the societies being researched, doing an injustice to their sense of being in the world.

Anthropology needs to accept the complexity and relative autonomy of the factors that influence social life and motivate human action and associated value creation processes.

Mind and body are enfolded in Yolngu thought and in acting in the world, they are not separate but in dialogue. Embodiment and en-mindment are complementary processes, which are equally relevant to understanding how Yolngu sense themselves as being in the world and the kind of world they understand to exist. . The transmission of knowledge is central to Yolngu conceptions of how the world exists: thought and action were partners in the ancestral creation of the world and ancestral beings passed on that knowledge to the human beings who followed them. Yet ancestral beings also created sites that are expressions of their bodies. The djalkiri places, the reservoirs of ancestral power in the landscape, are equally sources of fertility and places of knowledge — thought is a procreative act. In art Yolngu are simultaneously involved in a process of constructing the world as mind and become part of the world through being incorporated within the ancestral dimension — paintings are thought and a means of passing on knowledge yet also when painted on the body make the person consubstantial with the ancestral dimension.

Howard Morphy is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Research School of Humanities at the Australian National University. He was previously a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. In his career he has moved between Museums and Universities: researching and curating collections, and organising exhibitions. He has conducted extensive fieldwork with the Yolngu people of Northern Australia, and collaborated on many films with Ian Dunlop of Film Australia and has curated many exhibitions including Yingapungapu at the National Museum of Australia. He has published widely in the anthropology of art, aesthetics, performance, museum anthropology, Aboriginal social organization, the history of anthropology, visual anthropology and religion. His most recent book Becoming Art: Exploring Cross-Cultural Categories is due to be published in December by Berg.


Ruth B. Phillips

Carleton University, Ottawa

'The Necessary Ambiguity of Images:  Modalities of Embodiment and Intercultural Exchange in the Great Lakes Contact Zone'


Visual culture was a key site of cultural translation in the Great Lakes region of North America during the 17th and 18th centuries.  The active commerce in items of material culture that characterized the period put into cross-cultural circulation a diverse array of genres, ranging from woven shell wampum belts and silver monstrances to canoe models, tomahawks, and calumets, to treaty documents inscribed with both text and totemic animals. This paper asks what the French, Hodenosaunee, and Anishinaabe parties involved in these exchanges understood to be embodied in the material forms they presented to each other.  Because the political reverberations of these exchanges have not diminished over time, but have, rather, increased in strength in relation to postcolonial Aboriginal projects of recovery, a discussion of historical methodology must be a key component of the discussion. How can we best investigate issues of embodiment and imagery in historical periods whose belief systems– not only Aboriginal, but also European–  are temporally and culturally remote?  What is the evidentiary value of the material and visual deposits that have come down to us from the past, especially in light of the fact that the available texts were all written by Europeans? 

The paper maps an approach to such problems. I will outline a necessary historiographical component which traces the shifting understandings of Great Lakes Aboriginal imagistic systems and their materializations– in the writings of Jesuit missionaries, nineteenth-century cultural evolutionists, mid-twentieth century anthropologists, and recent students of cultural translation and traditional indigenous knowledge– and I will place these approaches in dialogue with the historical and art-historical literature on the ritual and visual culture of the French colonizers and missionaries.  I will also introduce the argument that is emerging from these investigations: that processes of translation in the realm of visual culture were– and are– enabled by a finely calibrated combination of referential indeterminacy and coincident specificity.  Put another way, translation intensifies the inherently slippery and unstable relationship of image and meaning.  Although this slipperiness is its enabling condition, translation also depends on the discovery of points where different meaning systems intersect and from which they proceed in divergent directions. Finally, I will consider the implications of this apparently paradoxical situation both for the descriptive vocabulary of art historical analysis (such as the use of standard descriptive terms such as ‘abstract’ and ‘figurative’), and for ongoing attempts to fix the ontological status of items of visual culture as ‘art’ or ‘artifact’– or something else.


Ruth Phillips is Canada Research Chair and Professor of Art History at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.  Originally trained as an historian of African art, she has devoted most of her career to the study of historical and contemporary Native North American art. She has also undertaken curatorial work and served as director of the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology from 1997-2002.  Her books include Representing Woman: Sande Masquerades of the Mende of Sierra Leone (1995); Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast (1998); Native North American Art (1998), co-authored with Janet Catherine Berlo; Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds, co-edited with Christopher B. Steiner (1999); and Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums, and Material Culture (2006), co-edited with Elizabeth Edwards and Chris Gosden. She directs the Great Lakes Alliance for the Study of Aboriginal Arts and Cultures (GRASAC), an international research collaboration involving indigenous communities, museums, and universities. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and is currently serving as president of CIHA, the Comité International d’Histoire de l’Art.


Allen F. Roberts
Department of World Arts and Cultures
University of California, Los Angeles

'From Photo to Icon, Saint to Self: ‘Haptic Visualities’ of Senegal and Mauritius.'


In 1913, French colonial authorities took the only known photograph of Amadou Bamba (1853-1927), a Senegalese mystic then under house arrest for suspected subversion. The photographer took no pains to create a legible image, and the portrait is remarkable for its obscurity, suggesting more that cannot be seen than can. As such, it lends itself to endless interpretation through a Sufi visual epistemology. Since publication in 1917, the image has led to an explosion of popular devotional imagery. It inspires by bringing to mind Bamba’s copious writings and poignant life lessons, but it does much more: it is an icon, an active presence through which the Saint conveys blessing energy called baraka to heal, protect, and promote all who come within sight of it. Bamba’s Mouride followers wear the image and place it in their living and work spaces. The photograph is haptic, for it engages the senses in visual processes that bring Bamba’s baraka to bear on adepts’ every waking minute as well as their dreams.

Mary Nooter Roberts and I have conducted research with and about Mouride visual culture for nearly fifteen years now, and our traveling exhibition and book, A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal (2003), are capstones of the project. In 2003, we visited a community of South Asian heritage in Mauritius that has converted to the Senegalese Sufi movement, and discovered a compelling cross-cultural comparison to Mouride haptic visuality in the devotions offered to Shirdi Sai Baba (1840-1918). Shirdi Sai defied religious nationalism by refusing to divulge if he was Muslim or Hindu, and the visual culture of his movement reflects such hybridity. Like Bamba, Shirdi Sai is primarily known from a single photograph, and followers use the image to take darshan to see and be seen by Baba, following Hindu visual practice. But such images may also spontaneously produce ash on their surfaces, and following Sufi instrumentalities, the ash is removed for use as a talisman. Mixed with water and imbibed, it provides radical embodiment tantamount to transubstantiation.

Elements of these ongoing comparative case studies will be presented for discussion.

Allen F. Roberts is a socio-cultural anthropologist teaching in the Department of World Arts and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He specializes in francophone and swahiliphone Africa, with primary research in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Senegal and brief projects throughout the continent. His writings and museum exhibitions concern cultural history, local-level politics, visualities, art and material culture, and religious practices.


Mike Rowlands

University College, London, UK

'Touch and Display in Curating Bamoum Pasts'


Our conventional understanding of display – ie to present – to bring forward into view - conveys also a distrust of what lies behind the impression. In the last four years, four new palace museums have been opened in the Grassfields of Cameroon, that exemplify this convential sensorium of the museum ie a scenography of glass cases,spot lights,captions and a catalogue. The things are exhibited in a setting that is quite unlike the buildings of the palace in which they are kept, and quite unlike the way they are normally displayed. But there again, the argument can be turned upon its head : if the job of the fon(king) is to appropriate the resources and the powers of the outside world, then is it not also his job to appropriate the concept of a museum since it belongs with the power and the fashions of the’ white’ and of modernity, since there is a global trend to patrimonialize “traditional” heritage? Then, in appropriating a museum, the fon is just doing what he has always been meant to do. This mirrors another convention of display – that of ‘things of the palace’ – collections held by the ‘kings’ in their palaces to be seen when visiting and at ‘annual festivals’. Things that only the fon can touch, must be seen and , in some cases , their contents dispersed. The differences between these sensorial experiences – and the fact that they are accompanied by at least another – around ornamentation – is the focus of my paper. I want to argue that containment, iconclasm and order ostensibly relate these differences in display, not to the act itself but how they are posed in a temporality – a sense of long- term time, idealised succession and maintenance of order.


Mike Rowlands is Professor of Material Culture at UCL. . His research interests are in material culture, cultural heritage and temporalities in the long term . He has carried out fieldwork in the Cameroon Grassfields over a 25 year period and more recently has been working on ideas about contested pasts in Mali. Recent publications include Social Transformations in Archaeology (with Kristian Kristiansen) , Handbook of Material Culture (with Chris Tilley et al) and Heritage and Memory in Africa (with Ferdinand de Jong).


Anne-Christine Taylor
Musée du Quai Branly in Paris

'Arts of the mind in Amazonia'


This paper will centre on some of the cognitive dimensions of Amazonian ‘art’ – in other words, on the mental (and ultimately social) processes triggered by certain kinds of images. It will begin by identifying widespread formal features of Amazonian artefacts - the highly schematic character of figurative images, the prevalence of complex geometric patterns, the importance of bodily decoration – and then focus more narrowly on the style and function of body painting. Finally, it will outline some hypotheses on the link between native Amazonian visual practices and oral traditions.

Anne-Christine Taylor is currently head of the department of research and higher education at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. Affiliated to the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) as a Director of research, she is an anthropologist whose work has focused on indigenous cultures of Western Amazonia. She has conducted extensive field-work among the Jivaroan groups of Ecuador. Her principal research interests lie in the field of kinship, native forms of historicity and indigenous conceptions of subjecthood, feeling and thinking. Her recent publications include ‘ Qu’est-ce qu’un corps ? with E. Viveiros de Castro, S. Breton, M. Houseman, M. Coquet & J-M. Schaeffer (Flammarion-Editions du Musée du Quai Branly, 2006, 215 pp), La guerre en tête, with S. d’Onofrio, Cahiers d’anthropologie sociale, L’Herne, Paris 2006 : introduction et « Devenir Jivaro. Le statut de l’homicide guerrier en Amazonie », pp. 67-84, 5. « Sick of history : Contrasting régimes of historicity in the Upper Amazon », in C. Fausto & M. Heckenberger, eds., Time and Memory in Indigenous Amazonia, University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2007: pp. 133-168.



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