Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Post-Authenticity: Dilemmas of Identity in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Post-Authenticity: Dilemmas of Identity in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Article excerpt


This article draws upon some recent repatriation claims for Tasmanian human remains in British and European museums to examine debates concerning the authenticity of identity in the 21st century, and to reflect on the construction and representation of Indian identities in the colonial period. I discuss how authenticity can be seen as a process, used instrumentally, rather than a static quality, focusing on how authenticity is asserted, negotiated, performed, or rejected through social and political interaction. The negotiations of the Tasmanian Aboriginal groups for recognition of their status as authentic Aborigines provides a kind of prism or lens through which we can take a fresh view of the competing claims to authorship of India's filmic heritage. [Keywords: Authenticity, repatriation, film, human remains, colonialism, identity, archives, India, Tasmania]

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Introduction-Contemporary Tasmanian Authenticity

In the article that follows, I present two main case studies that at first glance would appear to have little to do with one another. Certainly, there are few, if any ethnographic linkages between a recent set of moderately high profile human remains repatriation requests made by Tasmanian people, and scholarly discussions of Indian cinema in the colonial period. Yet, my intention is to show that analysis of the former through the (by now) relatively familiar paradigm of what one might call "the authenticity debates" (see Theodossopoulos' introduction to this collection for an overview) provides a new-and anthropological-way to think about the latter. In particular, I wish to assert that some of the discussions of colonialism, nationalism, and visual representation in colonial India by post-colonial film scholars considering colonial period film texts may reflect a series of unconsidered assumptions about authenticity that only an anthropological approach attuned to the "authenticity debates" can identify. In turn, this analytical maneuver may reveal some implicit assumptions about "authenticity" within the anthropological debates.

In March 2006, the Trustees of the British Museum agreed to repatriate two "ash bundles" (containing the cremated remains of Tasmanian Aboriginal people who died less than 1,000 years ago) to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Inc. (TAC). The bundles

were acquired by George Augustus Robinson in about 1838 (Robinson having been appointed as conciliator of Aborigines in Tasmania in 1828). They were taken at a time when the Aboriginal population of Tasmania was suffering greatly from the impact of the European settlement, resulting in substantial population loss. The bundles entered the collection of the British Museum only later via the Royal College of Surgeons in 1882. (British Museum 2009)

The TAC had, in fact, apparently made several earlier attempts to have the ash bundles repatriated, dating back to 1985, but these could not be taken up, according to the Museum's web announcement, until the UK law changed with the passing of the Human Tissue Act in 2005, thus granting the Trustees the right to de-accession such objects (British Museum 2009). However, a report on the bundles commissioned from an external expert for the Museum (Besterman 2005) pointed out that there were some issues to be addressed before any repatriation could take place: first, that the Tasmanian Aborigines of the 19th century were "heterogeneous, with beliefs, customs and practices that varied in detail between, and were distinctive to, each Aboriginal group in Tasmania" (Besterman 2005:7); second, that in the present there are (or were in 2005) three "Tasmanian Aboriginal Elders Councils, and eight recognized Tasmanian Aboriginal Communities" (Besterman 2005:9); and third, that it is assumed by some that the Tasmanian Aborigines had "died out" in the second half of the 19th century, not least thanks to the repressive measures taken by conciliator Robinson. …

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