Visual Ethnographies of Displacement and Violence: Land(e)scapes in Artists' Works at Thupelo Artists' Workshop, Wellington, South Africa, 2012

By Gibson, N. Jade | Critical Arts, October 2013 | Go to article overview

Visual Ethnographies of Displacement and Violence: Land(e)scapes in Artists' Works at Thupelo Artists' Workshop, Wellington, South Africa, 2012


Gibson, N. Jade, Critical Arts


Abstract

This article draws together processes of art-making and academic ethnographic writing, It does this by including artists' written comments on the personal and self-reflexive processes of artwork construction, as well as images of artworks, within academic discussion, in relation to emphasising the 'turn' within ethnography towards a more sensory, creative, emotive, embodied, interactive and performative approach. Consequently, the article functions as an exploration and illustration of what might constitute 'ethnography' in contemporary art, and art in ethnography, considering claims to similarity between the two. The focus of this multilayered article is on depictions of cultural, historical and corporeal violence in relation to land(e)scapes and self/culture/place and displacement, through the contributions of five artists who took part in a Thupelo International Artists' workshop (emphasising the exchange of ideas, techniques and collaboration). Nineteen artists congregated in an isolated forest area in Wellington, South Africa, including the author in her capacity as both anthropologist and artist. Despite their different backgrounds, the artists drew on similar modes of working within visual 'auto-ethnographies' of socio-cultural displacement, in relation to collective violence, histories and conflict, operating as both ethnographers and archivists. Ultimately, through a consideration of overlaps between art and ethnography in relation to the works and auto-ethnographies depicted, it is suggested that this article, in occupying the 'space between' the disciplines, may also operate as an artwork.

Keywords: anthropology, artists, auto-ethnography, colonialism, displacement, ethnography, gender, identity, landscape, memory, South Africa, Thupelo, violence, visual art

Introduction: the ethnographic turn in contemporary art and shifts in ethnographic writing and methodology

A growing body of theoretical work within art and anthropology argues that contemporary artists and anthropologists use similar methods and approaches (Calzadilla and Marcus 2008; Campbell 2011; Desai 2002; Downey 2009; Foster 1996; Kester 1999; Schneider 1996, 2008; Schneider and Wright 2006, 2010; Wright 1998), in which artists are argued to draw upon methods such as participant observation (Foster 1996) and anthropologists to increasingly engage with experimentation and creativity (Wright 1998). Recent gallery exhibitions, such as 'Ethnographic Terminalia' (Brodine, Campbell, Hennessy et al. 2011; Campbell 2011; Errington 2012) and' Secrets Under the Skin' (Havana, Cuba 2010/Anchorage, Alaska 2011), (1) have deliberately worked across categories of anthropology and art to merge the disciplines within a material, visual domain.

Such overlaps have led to questions about the extent to which art and anthropology are the same, and the extent to which they are different. It has been argued that art might, at times, employ a pseudo-ethnology (Foster 1996), rather than engaging with serious ethnographic methodology. However, others suggest that the main difference might be based more on the contexts of exhibition, the discursive spaces and the strategies of legitimation, in which anthropology sites itself more as a science and thus holds a privileged position (Wright 1998: 20), and they argue that art can be as legitimate in its representation of other cultures as already academically established written and visual discourses in anthropology (Schneider 1996). Perhaps the main concern should be, as Arnd Schneider (2010: 13) proposes in his research on 'hybrid' works (merging art and anthropology), 'how artistic practice can extend anthropological knowledge, and vice-versa'.

However, inasmuch as art has undergone an 'ethnographic turn' (Foster 1996), ethnography has also experienced its own turns and shifts, which leads to questions as to what 'serious ethnographic methodology' might be. Emerging from a self-reflexive turn in methodology, in which critical thinking on ethnographic writing emphasised multi-sited and more experimental modes (Clifford and Marcus 1986; Marcus 1998; Marcus and Myers 1995), there has been a shift to autobiographical/auto-ethnographic as well as evocative ethnographic writing, with an emphasis on the 'self' as a key writing device--as 'multiple, socially embedded and emergent, and thoroughly implicated in processes of learning, becoming, experiencing and remembering' (Collins and Gallinar 2010: 14; see also Jackson 1986; Phipps 2010; Skinner 2010). …

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