Switchbacks: Art, Ownership, and Nuxalk National Identity

By McGarry, Karen | Anthropologica, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Switchbacks: Art, Ownership, and Nuxalk National Identity


McGarry, Karen, Anthropologica


Jennifer Kramer, Switchbacks: Art, Ownership, and Nuxalk National Identity, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2006,152 pages.

Renowned by art dealers and museum collectors for its distinctive formal qualities, style and iconography, much of the art produced by Canadian indigenous artists of the Northwest Coast has been sought after and marketed as an "authentic" representation of indigenousness. Indeed, art has historically served as a powerful cultural identity marker (both internally and externally) for several Northwest Coast communities. For indigenous artists, however, the display and consumption of both historical and contemporary art by non-Native audiences is entangled with ambiguous sentiments and shifting discourses surrounding notions of both cultural revival and loss. As such, the production, exchange, commodification, ownership, display, and repatriation of Northwest Coast art have become politically charged and contentious issues.

In Switchbacks: Art, Ownership, and Nuxalk National Identity, anthropologist Jennifer Kramer explores these issues ethnographically among the Nuxalk of Bella Coola, British Columbia. "Switchbacks" is based on 16 months of fieldwork in Bella Coola, where Kramer conducted interviews and participant observation with artists, community elders, educators, chiefs and others involved in the production, distribution and repatriation of Nuxalk art. Inspired by her experience of driving along the treacherous, oftentimes inaccessible road into the Bella Coola Valley, Kramer adopts the metaphor of the "switchback" to refer to Nuxalk tendencies to oscillate between unifying, cohesive discourses of what she terms "strategic essentialism" (p. 50) and more fragmented, heterogeneous narratives in the production of a national identity. There is no definitive Nuxalk stance, for instance, on the commodification of art and her informants readily shift between these two extreme narratives of identity production depending upon context. At times, many Nuxalk declare that the conscious production and marketing of stereotypically "authentic" and "traditional" art styles for external consumption is necessary to both create and validate a sense of Nuxalk political autonomy on an international stage. In other contexts, however, they espouse a pejorative attitude toward the commodification of art, arguing that its display, whether in museums or on t-shirts, oftentimes overlooks the heterogeneity of artistic styles which results in the production of a monolithic Nuxalk "Culture" for public consumption. A key goal of Kramer's research, then, is to understand the varied contents within which these oftentimes conflicting discourses are produced and circulated for public consumption.

Analytically, Kramer's ethnography represents a detailed and welcome ethnographic addition to trends since the mid1980s which privilege an analysis of "the social life of things" (Appadurai 1986; see also Riggins 1994; Vastokas 1992). Many early analyses of Northwest Coast art were principally concerned with form, style, or function, and as such, they unintentionally dehistoricized art from the social lives of indigenous peoples. Early anthropologists like Franz Boas (1898) and Thomas Mclllwraith (1966), for example, were primarily concerned with the collection, documentation, and preservation of "traditional" art, and subsequent scholars conducted art historical analyses that centred upon analyses of the formal qualities of art itself. While such studies have some utility, they effectively decontextualized art from its processes of manufacture and use. While there has been a growing trend to study material culture as both socially constitutive and performative, it is still either frequently neglected by ethnographers, or relegated to the domain of archaeology or museum studies. There have been relatively few ethnographic analyses of such phenomena. Kramer's ethnography, however, makes the social lives of objects the central focus of her work. …

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