To hear the artists of Ethnographic Terminalia tell it, the discipline of anthropology is in a state of crisis. In the 1980s, “people started to talk about what you lose when you write about culture,” says Charlotte Bik Bandlien, which prompted a critique of the staid confines of academia. Ethnographic Terminalia offers an alternative way to study culture: through art. It purports to be art not just inspired by human beings and human culture, but art that can be seen as equal in rigor to traditional forms of anthropological analysis—hence the title of Ethnographic Terminalia’s exhibit at the Washington Park Arts Incubator, “Exhibition as Residency.” The question that this exhibit raises has radical implications: Why does academia, with its stuffy conferences and formal papers, hold dominance over research and intellectual thought?
Every artist whose work was displayed at Ethnographic Terminalia is a trained anthropologist seeking to break down disciplinary boundaries. Other than that vision, there isn’t much else that this uneven collective has in common. Drawn from around the globe, each artist presents a unique way in which art can conduct ethnographies and express the core tenet of anthropology—the study of human beings and culture—in new ways and to new audiences.
Zoe Bray, a trained painter and an anthropologist at the University of Nevada’s Reno campus, displayed three portraits at the exhibition. Her involvement with Ethnographic Terminalia came about due to what she calls her “frustration with rigid academia” and a desire to “break out of the mold.” However, her new approach is not rebellion for its own sake. Bray says her relationship with her portrait models was far richer and more natural than an anthropologist’s usual rapport with a subject, because people simply opened up to an artist more than an anthropologist’s open-ended, scientific, objectifying questions.
The EBANO Collective, based out of Portugal, sees art as a way to broaden the audience of anthropological research. “Work is usually site-specific, so we bring it inside the gallery” says Vitor Barros. In doing so, EBANO Collective questions what constitutes a legitimate space of expression. As anthropologists, they study the vexing paradox of migration: new opportunity coupled with the dangers of moving. Their piece is a tall wooden bookshelf-like structure with white heads sitting in water-filled jars on the shelves, like something out of a mad scientist’s laboratory. The higher shelves have heads directly on the shelf, sans jar, and perched at the top is the flag of the European Union. Barros explains that the artwork evokes the memory of immigrants who die in the Mediterranean Sea, whose hopes for opportunity were cut short by the perils of migration.
Charlotte Bik Bandlien sees her work as the natural extension of art incorporating anthropology, rather than the other way around. Her piece is “HAiK,” a fashion catalog featuring self-repair clothing items, or clothes that are meant to be continuously repaired by the individual and maintained for life. Engaging with the fashion design process is another way of analyzing anthropological material, she says, a way of recognizing that moments of ethnography exist beyond interviews and emerge naturally in social processes, like photographing a model. If it were anywhere outside of an anthropology-inspired art gallery, it would be an ordinary fashion catalog. In the context of this exhibit, Bandlien deliberately mimics the form of a catalog in order to question what constitutes ethnography.
The result of these and other artistic visions of anthropology is a wild conglomeration of ideas. To judge the exhibit on whether it achieves a seismic shift in an academic discipline is unfair; the exhibit sets out to express new ideas and challenge accepted notions, which it succeeds in doing.
But freeing ethnography from the insulated sphere of academic conferences raises new issues. An academic paper has a clear audience and sphere for discussion, but who is the target of an academic art exhibit? If the artists of Ethnographic Terminalia wish to make good on their hopes of expanding the audience of anthropology, they must make a concerted effort in doing so with the way their art is expressed.