Editorial welcome

Why do people create and engage with things? What do specific material objects mean to different individuals in distinct socio-historical contexts? What happens to artefacts when taken from one place to another in terms of their meaning, value and impact?

This online resource presents case studies from around the world that address these and related questions. While some of the studies trace the circulation of specific imagery in contexts of global connectedness, others follow artefacts as they move across time and space and are appropriated by different social actors in concrete spatial environments. Power dynamics that influence the material production and social lives of artefacts, and that affect the possibilities and limitations of artefact-centred creative improvisations, are also under scrutiny.

Since the inception of CIM:Resource in October 2012, this series of entries has included such discussion topics as the phenomenon of light and designers in Sweden; the uses to which colonial-era silver coins are put in contemporary rural India; a painting by an Aboriginal Australian contemporary artist; and a shirt belonging to Ronaldo, given by the footballer as an offering to Our Lady of Aparecida, the patron saint of Brazil. Some of the studies examine objects that appear in galleries and museums; others with more everyday, otherwise unremarkable, items.

These studies therefore explore a growing diversity of people and things, and the interactions between them. While a variety of sub-themes tie specific cases together, in broader terms, CIM:Resource allows users to explore creative production and appropriation in interconnected fields of local, translocal and transnational activity.

Several entries reflect on the tense boundary between ‘art object’ and ‘ethnographic artefact’. Øivind Fuglerud, for instance, considers ‘Law Poles’, a work by the Australian Aboriginal artist Ron Yunkaport, which was exhibited at the Museum of Anthropology (MoA), Vancouver. The object, being sacred, would ordinarily be ‘dangerous’ if it had not been ‘made quiet’ prior to its display. And yet it is presented no differently from any other art object. Fuglerud investigates how the status of the work as art, religious or ethnographic artefact is never made clear by the artist or curator. This object reveals how ethnographic museums like MoA struggle to present pieces by contemporary artists whose understanding of art is informed by locally-specific notions of object agency.

‘Law Poles’ by Ron Yunkaport

‘Law Poles’ by Ron Yunkaport

The ways in which artefacts become entangled in religious practices and debates is another of our themes. Rhoda Woets presents an image of a television studio set in Ghana where a show called ‘The Pulpit’ is produced. This is a ‘Pop Idol’-type programme in which contestants compete as preachers and are judged by a panel of three Evangelical pastors, before being dismissed by an audience vote expressed through phone calls and text messages. Woets outlines the debate the programme raised in Ghana especially with regards to fakery and fetishism. The show was seen by some Pentecostals as privileging the carnal over the spiritual and thus of devilish provenance. This entry in CIM:Resource thus places the programme in a broader analysis of the role of mass media in Ghanaian Pentecostal Christianity.

The Pulpit TV studio set

The Pulpit’ TV studio set

Many of the entries discuss the responses given by artists, craftspeople and other cultural producers to ideas and experiences of a globalising world. Maruška Svašek looks at the masks used in a work of performance art by the US-based, Ghanaian-born artist George Hughes. She examines how Hughes deployed the masks in order to play with foreign stereotypes of ‘African-ness’. The masks were bought in a New York department store and their colour and material distinguished them from ‘authentic’ African artefacts. Svašek analyses Hughes’ use of the masks as a commentary on the inequalities that allow artists such as Picasso to draw from non-Western themes and not be totally defined by them, while Ghanaian and other non-Western artists are expected to work within a ‘culture’, and are thus denied the luxury of a global artistic subjectivity.

George Hughes masks

George Hughes Masks

The images and text presented here address the complex (and often surprising) lives of objects, entangled as they are in human social and cultural worlds.

Dr Amit Desai, Brunel University London, in collaboration with Dr Leon Wainwright at The Open University.

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Traditional Chikan Embroidery in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, North India

Tereza Kuldova

Traditional Chikan embroidery from LucknowTraditional Chikan embroidery from LucknowTraditional Chikan embroidery from LucknowTraditional Chikan embroidery from LucknowTraditional Chikan embroidery from LucknowTraditional Chikan embroidery from Lucknow

Images taken during the author’s fieldwork in Lucknow (2011)

These pictures show a system of production and its result: traditional handmade embroidery in North India. But who are the people involved in this system and how do the materials of production shape their relationships? What local connections does embroidery help to create?

Chikan embroidery is produced in the city of Lucknow, the capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. Although the geographical origins of Chikan embroidery are uncertain, most written accounts trace it back to East Bengal. Continue reading

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Chikan embroiderd sari from 1948: a biography

Tereza Kuldova

Chikan embroiderd sari

Close up of the two saris – the original from 1948 on the top, the new copy below

Chikan embroiderd sari

Mrs. Mangalik with a photo of Shri Ram Narayan

Chikan embroiderd sari

Mrs. Mangalik with the sari

Looking at these pictures we see an older lady dressed in an embroidered sari. But what is her relationship to the sari? What can the sari tell us about her, about the society around her and about the development of fashion and taste in India?

This will be a more personal narrative about an object, a narrative about an emotional bond to a sari, which has been a part of the wardrobe of Mrs. Mohini Mangalik since 1948. This narrative tells a different story of the importance of objects in our lives and their meaning. At the same time, it is a narrative of a particular location, both social and spatial, over time.  Continue reading

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A Chikan printing block and its story

Tereza Kuldova

Chikan printing block

Chikan printing block

We see a printing block, a page from a book, a block-maker, but is that all we see? If we relate these pictures to one another we see the dissemination of designs, from the hand, to the product which is then used by a printer to the final embroidery, and then reproduced in a book. This process is rarely straightforward. It is likely that the design has been copied many times by the time it reaches the page of a book (or this website): it was transformed, adjusted, or reworked by another block-maker, another printer, another embroiderer. It must have adorned saris as much as kurtis (shirts) in different colors and fabrics. Connect these three pictures and a story of the dissemination of designs emerges, a story of a world of relations.

This is again a different story of an object; it is in fact a story of the peculiar paths for the dissemination of designs and the serendipity of the intertwined lives of humans and objects. A businesswoman-cum-designer based in Lucknow, North India and working with production of high quality Chikan embroidery received an order in 2009 for a sari with a specific design. The order came from a Delhi-based designer, who sent a hand-drawn sketch of the design. Following the sketch, she had a block made by a local block-maker from which a sari was printed and embroidered in a rather standard manner. She then forgot about the order. And that is when I, an anthropologist with an interest in material culture and a friend, came into the picture.

Book page, block-maker

Book page, block-maker

Continue reading

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Kathakali in a London school

Maruska Svasek

Kathakali in a London school

Kathakali in a London school

In November 2011, a select group of pupils from Wanstead High School sat down on the floor of one of the school’s classrooms as Kalamandalam Vijayakumar (Vijaya), a Kathakali actor of Indian origins, laid out different parts of a colourful Kathakali costume (see photograph). His English wife Kalamandalam Barbara Vijayakumar (Barbara), trained as a Kathakali  make-up artist, commented on the meaning of the different costume sections, the elaborate sacred headgear, the pieces of jewellery and the facial make-up. The latter, understood as inherently part of the costume, consists of coloured make-up made from ground rocks and coconut oil that are painted on the actor’s face using centuries old designs. Specifically cut paper shapes called chutti are skilfully attached to the face using thick rice paste. In the laid-out costume in the photograph, the make-up was represented by a simplified two-dimensional design printed in the booklet ‘Kathakali Make Up. Designs to Colour’. This booklet, produced by Barbara as teaching material, had also been previously used in various workshops.  Continue reading

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Leaves and Weaves: The Trajectory of the Nagarathar Basket

Kala Shreen

A basket is a mundane item that I use to carry things when I go grocery shopping or for a picnic or take my lunch to work.  Is it?  How does something as common as a basket become more than just a basket?  To explore these questions further consider the continuities and changes in the production and consumption of the Nagarathar basket (kottan or kadagam).

Nagarathar basket filled with rice, coconuts, vegetables and fruits used during the gift-giving ritual called vevu in a Nagarathar marriage in Chettinad, Tamilnadu. (photo 1) by Dr.Kala Shreen

Nagarathar basket filled with rice, coconuts, vegetables and fruits used during the gift-giving ritual called vevu in a Nagarathar marriage in Chettinad, Tamilnadu. (photo 1) by Dr.Kala Shreen

The Nagarathars, also called as Nattukottai Nagarathars or Nattukottai Chettiars, are a merchant-banking community native to the villages of Chettinad, a region in Tamilnadu, South India.  They belong to the Vaishya caste under the Hindu Varna system[1] (comprising of the four caste divisions namely, Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra.)  Thurston’s (1987) volume on castes and tribes identifies 108 community names all over India ending with the suffix Chettiar.  Therefore, in order to avoid confusion with other communities that share the same suffix as Chettiar, in my work I refer to them as Nagarathars and not as Chettiars as in some works such as Hardgrove (2002). Continue reading

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An African Jesus

Rhoda Woets

Kobina Bucknor, title unknown (1968). Photo: Rhoda Woets

Kobina Bucknor, title unknown (1968). Photo: Rhoda Woets

This painting might come across as an interpretation of what an African chief looks like. But it is not. What is it then? The painter depicted Jesus Christ here as part of a series of the Stations of the Cross. This work was painted in 1968 by the painter and biochemist Kobina Bucknor in acrylic polymers on masonite board for the Christ the King Church in central Accra, Ghana, where it is still on display. As one Irish priest explained to me when I visited this church in May 2011, Catholic worshippers kneel in front of this painting to pray. And every year on Good Friday, the congregation moves along all the stations painted by Bucknor to sing and pray together in commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion.

What immediately captures the eye is Jesus’ African appearance. He sits on an Akan [1]wooden stool which is reserved for noble people such as a chief or queen mother and wears an expensive hand-woven Kente cloth and royal sandals. The elongated neck is generally regarded as an Akan ideal of beauty. The figure is still well-recognisable as Jesus by his conventional gesture. The Africanisation of Christ’s features fitted in well with the amendments of the Second Vatican in 1965 that called for the appropriation of local cultural practices into the Catholic Church, a process often referred to as interculturation. The Akan symbols employed by Bucknor presents Akan objects and beauty ideals as part of a Ghanaian heritage, subscribing to political effort to formulate a national identity that transcended ethnic boundaries.  Continue reading

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Lines and Dots: Designs of Tamilnadu

Kala Shreen

What does the drawing of lines and dots (called kolam) mean to its creator?  Does it have a sacred value or is it decorative art?  What are some of its changing modes and contexts of production?

Nadu Veetu Kolam created with the traditionally used rice paste by a Nagarathar woman in Chennai (photo 1 by Kala Shreen)

Nadu Veetu Kolam created with the traditionally used rice paste by a Nagarathar woman in Chennai (photo 1 by Kala Shreen)

Continue reading

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Law Poles

Øivind Fuglerud

‘Law Poles’ by Ron Yunkaport

‘Law Poles’ by Ron Yunkaport

‘Law Poles’, or thuuth thaa’-munth in the Wik Aboriginal language of north Australia, is an art work by Ron Yunkaporta. In the form seen on this picture it was exhibited as part of the exhibition Border Zones at the Museum of Anthropology (MoA) in Vancouver BC in 2010.

Why focus on this work here? There are several reasons. One is that in interesting ways ‘Law Poles’ straddles the gap often perceived to exist between ethnographic object and artwork. The artist himself is the principal Song-Man and titular head of the Apelech clan of the Wik people of north Australia, and as such the holder of responsibilities for the Law Poles used by the Wik in traditional mortuary ceremonies. As a prominent maker of these objects Yunkaporta has played a leading role in expanding the role and location of such carvings. Yunkaporta began carving for exhibitions in about 1995, and is the first Apelech sculptor to contribute a set of contemporary law poles to a European collection—the Aboriginal Art Museum in Utrecht—in 2007. Continue reading

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The Pulpit: media and religion in Ghana

‘The Pulpit' TV studio set

The Pulpit’ TV studio set

Rhoda Woets

This picture does not show a church, nor a dark night club or an art installation that mocks Christianity. I took this picture in the commercial TV3 studio in central Accra on the set of a popular reality show named “The Pulpit.” The picture shows a stage set for a televised youth competition based on the format of the popular show Pop Idol. The Pulpit (“this is the way”), which was broadcasted live on Ghanaian television for 9 subsequent weeks in 2011, staged teenagers who mounted the glass pulpit to preach on a particular topic. Every week one teenager was evicted through votes from the jury (here called “the faculty”) as well as the general public who voted through text messages. Other means of income for the television station came from the advertisers in the commercial breaks as well as from sponsors. Gospel choirs warmed up the public with songs to such extent that, as the TV3 website stated, during the final “the auditorium was soaked with the Holy Ghost.” This shows how eager the producers of the show were to counter any accusation of fakeness or purely commercial interest. To keep the format as Christian as possible, the program chose a well-known pastor with a talent to entertain the public as the host. The set designer chose to use Christian symbols that speak to Christians of most denominations in Ghana: a conventional white Jesus and a plain cross. He did not use a crucifix, for example, as such a symbol would be rejected by a number of Pentecostal and other protestant believers. Continue reading

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Fantasy coffins in Ghana and abroad

Rhoda Woets

Funeral of Samuel Torto in Accra (February 2008) Photo: Rhoda Woets

Funeral of Samuel Torto in Accra (February 2008) Photo: Rhoda Woets

What is this? Is this an object at a pop-art exhibition? Or maybe a big toy-truck? It is neither. The picture shows a coffin at a funeral in Ghana’s capital city Accra. The Bedford truck coffin in this picture was commissioned by the family of Samuel Sojadi Torto who died in 2007 at the age of 80. His family had cleared one room of Torto´s house in one of Accra´s seaside neighbourhoods for the ritual that in Ghana is commonly known as the “lying -in-state ceremony.” This ceremony preferably takes place on Friday evening or, as in the case of Torto’s funeral, on Saturday morning.  When I attended the ritual as part of my fieldwork on contemporary artists in Ghana, Torto’s daughter led me to the room where his body was partly covered with a blue lace cloth and adorned with a golden necklace, golden rings and beaded bracelets. Continue reading

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