AK de Morais and Sowparnika Balaswaminathan
April 17, 2017
Each year, CMA awards grants of $500 to students to support travel to present at the AAA annual meeting. This year’s Council for Museum Anthropology Board was pleased to offer travel award support to two students in the field who show creativity in their research approach, commitment to the field, and potential for broader impact in museum anthropology. They have shared their work for this month’s Section News.
AK de Morais is a PhD candidate in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, with previous degrees in Social Anthropology from the University of Cape Town. AK studies the visual and material culture of the British Empire in Africa, focusing on how ethnographic museum culture along the Cape-to-Cairo route and typological postcards have informed geographic, temporal and racial ideas of the African continent, and situating these materials as openings through which to see seemingly foreclosed futures.
Her dissertation project is an interdisciplinary analysis of imperial and anthropological region- and race-making, focusing particularly on their material manifestations on African terrain, in museums situated in and along the Cape-to-Cairo route and railway. Her dissertation thinks the Cape-to-Cairo route as significant for both enabling fantasies of the continent, and for how the infrastructure associated with it has enabled travel for scholars and tourists alike. African museums would come to be the primarily local sites through which the latter would come to “know” Africans, and African material culture the primary means through which the continent would come to be invented. Decentering anthropological text and African nations as the appropriate entry points for engaging with the continent, and the racial and spatial legacies of African knowledge formations, her project is instead oriented towards anthropological materials, broadly considered, and the region-making of the Cape-to-Cairo route and railway. Thus, her research is grounded in a study of museum exhibits, collections, expeditions and postcards, held primarily in the material culture and visual culture exhibits, collections, and anthropological archives, of museums of ethnology, ethnography, heritage and culture situated in several cities along the Cape-to-Cairo route. Her project explores how museum culture works with and resists incorporation into the place-making projects—imperial, transnational, and nationalist alike—that grand rail schemes evoke, raising critical questions about how the histories of travel, collection, cultural exchange and imperialism that have built the ethnographic museum as a concept and its exemplars across the Cape-to-Cairo route, have also built an idea of Africa.
Her presentation at the 2016 AAA Annual Meeting, Contingent Collection and Uncertain Objects: Thinking through the Smithsonian-Universal African Expedition, was drawn and developed from her introductory chapter to the dissertation, in which she unpacks the concepts and themes that ground her research and writing.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the proliferation of museum-sponsored expeditions that sought to collect footage, artifacts, and specimens to expand museum collections, and that necessarily met obstacles and challenges to their collection once in the field. These obstacles raise important questions about the African material culture accessioned from collecting expeditions, and held by research museums today, when the process of collecting has been at the least constrained, often haphazard. In this paper, I consider what such objects can still tell us, despite the uncertainties they concretize. I situate my discussions in the travels of one expeditionary group, the Smithsonian-Universal African Expedition. In August of 1919, the expedition arrived in Cape Town, to begin its traverse of the continent, to Cairo. With naturalists, cinematographers, directors and actors in tow, the group commenced a yearlong journey of scholarship, filming and collection that was, by almost all metrics, a resounding failure. This failure, unexceptional for its time, reveals entanglements with and amongst empires and imperialisms, which together signal the ways imperial practice was fundamentally concerned with the management of the contingent, unplanned and unexpected. I argue that these imperial concerns are most evident through the uncertainties in the objects collected, which open spaces from which the accidental, contingent and unintended can be grasped, and thus open too the pathways for imagining different postcolonial futures.
Sowparnika Balaswaminathan is an 8th year anthropology student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego. She studies South Asian art, artisans, museums, and ethical arts practice and has worked as an instructor of world history and argumentative writing. She is currently an Editorial Assistant for the journal, Latin American Antiquity. Her initial foray into anthropology was through working at an architectural and craft museum in Chennai called DakshinaChitra. Although her work at the museum was more on the side of art historical research and exhibition planning, she became interested in the lives and cultures of living artisan communities because of the museum’s prioritization of extant traditions over extinct practices. Currently in the process of writing her dissertation, Sowparnika continues her engagement with museum anthropology through spearheading a digital humanities project drawn from her dissertation research on South Indian artisans which aims to have a pedagogical focus.
Sowparnika’s dissertation research focuses on a contemporary sculptor community who trace their lineage, through caste and technique, to the medieval artisans of the Chola empire (9–13th century) in South India. The medieval sculptors made the South Indian bronzes such as the Nataraja, now found in older temples but also museums. The Government of India has been invested in the discourse over Indian art and craft because of their prominent role as artifacts of Indian culture and tradition and also because of the economic value they hold in terms of export and employment. The largest collection of the antique South Indian bronzes, also called Swamimalai bronzes after the current residential town of the sculptors, is at the Government Museum in Chennai, which has invested money and time in ensuring they have a separate “Bronze Gallery” under the purview of the Archaeology department. Through the exhibition and publications under the museum, there is a control of discourse on the bronzes, not to mention a control over the bronzes themselves. Sowparnika’s dissertation argues that when it comes to such discourses concerning traditional artisans (especially those who belong to an artisan caste) and their craft objects, the government and the artisans contest and negotiate narratives with different end goals in mind. While governmental institutions seek to shape political and economic values, artisans want to demonstrate an ethical position by conflating traditional arts practice with being a “proper” (good) person.
Sowparnika presented the paper, “Contesting Tradition: What is Visible and Valuable through Iconic Replication” in the 2016 AAA conference in a panel she co-organizes called “Value(s) and Replication: Evidence-Based Ethnography.” Her paper was about the iconic transactions between government museums in India, handicraft corporations that market replications of antique art, and living sculptors who create the replicas whole claiming a genealogical connection with medieval artisan communities. The South Indian bronze is a culturally significant heritage artifact for the Indian national consciousness with a history that begins in the 8th century. Various governmental museums and cultural organizations have utilized it to index India’s precolonial traditions. The Indian museums promote a narrative of tradition that is securely placed in the past by positioning bronzes as “archaeological” artifacts, cutting off living sculptors from accessing them. These sculptors residing in the Tamil town, Swamimalai, are an occupational community of artisans, some of whom trace their genealogical and caste lineage to the medieval bronzecasters who made the museum bronzes. Taking advantage of the economically thriving handicraft sector, the Swamimalai sculptors produce contemporary replicas of the antique bronzes and sell them as artistic and ethnic collectible objects, although the historical purpose of these idols has been to serve as deities in temples. Sowparnika’s paper examined the inherent contradictions of the government apparatus in its attempts to define “tradition” and the response from a traditional artisan community struggling to reclaim ownership over the same through the act of replication. Using Marx (1977) and Strathern’s (1990) notions of value as the visible, her paper used ethnographic evidence to showcase how museums circumscribe historical artifacts within their hegemonic narratives. She argued that bronzecasters make themselves visible (and valuable) through objectifying their labor by creating iconic links (Peirce 1932) with antique bronzes and thereby claiming a relationship with the medieval artisans and their bronzes.
This article originally appeared in Anthropology News. Contact CMA Secretary Diana Marsh at firstname.lastname@example.org.