Art and Anthropology: Parallels in Practice

As part of my current thesis research in Queenstown Tasmania, I am interviewing Queenstown born local artists, newcomer artists and visiting artists in residence. When preparing for this process, I began to find myself comparing some parallels in practice between anthropologists and artists.

In practice, anthropologists extract meaning from an environment or group of people through observation and interview. In anthropological literature concerning interview technique, there is often an emphasis on constructing ‘extractive questions’. The data they collect is then often used to form an ethnography, which pays critical attention to the anthropologists’ observations. An artist that makes work in response to the dynamics of a particular locality and landscape similarly extracts meaning from their observations and develops a critical perspective on the world around them, producing artworks that represent that perspective. Ethnography and artwork are distinctly different products of this process, but both are unavoidably embroiled in the politics of representation.

This comparison may be easier to entertain for those who fall on the side of considering anthropology an art rather than a science, and those fully on board with the ethnographic turn. The relationship between art and anthropology is indeed often considered with the ethnographic turn at its center, with personal understandings, narratives and representations of culture being central to both disciplines.

There is a substantial amount of literature on the relationship between art and anthropology, including explorations of the fieldwork practices I began to describe above, and the implications of sensory ethnography as bringing the two fields into even more overlap. Sources I have found particularly useful are Schneider and Wright’s book ‘Between art and anthropology’ (2010), and an article ‘Archiving Epistemologies’ (Takagawara and Halloran 2017). Schneider and Wright present a series of ethical considerations that both artists and anthropologists face, and how they might learn directly from each other’s practices. The article cited conducts a direct dialogue between anthropologist and artist which sees them both listed as the authorship, and explores the direction in anthropology towards ‘explicative ethnography’ that can take ‘communicative visual, sensorial, and aural forms’ (2017, p.127).

As I write this I am doing my research while staying at a gallery that is hosting two artists in residence. They will stay here for a month, immersing themselves in local history, culture and landscape, with the obligation to produce a body of work during their stay that will eventually be edited, curated and shown at a gallery back in Melbourne. This reminds me of my own process of creating my thesis. I, too, will craft something from this place to be expedited back to a Melbourne audience, though academic in this case. It is with this speculative comparison in mind that I keep wondering: What are the future interdisciplinary possibilities that anthropology and art could produce? This is a question that I may not be able to attend to extensively within the scope of my small project, but I am excited to carry it with me into my future endeavors.


References:

Takaragawa, S. and Halloran, L. (2017) ‘Exploring the Links of Contemporary Art and Anthropology: Archiving Epistemologies’, Critical Arts: A South-North Journal of Cultural & Media Studies, 31(2), pp. 127–139.

Schneider, A & Wright, C 2010, Between art and anthropology : contemporary ethnographic practice, Berg Publishers.

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