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Vivid realms: the ‘experience’ of paint in relation to visual anthropology.


The human inclination to paint useful, beautiful and exciting images appears worldwide amid living persons being equally regarded as ‘image’ with the potential for further embellishment. Indeed, paint, make-up, jewellery and clothing are extensive, wide-reaching phenomena that transform (among other things) the sexual attraction and status of bodies. Focusing on ethnographic film in the search for an (artistic or scientific) ‘truth’, visual anthropologists ‘capture’ embellished bodies in cinematic images. The disparity between the embellished bodies of subject and viewer thereby determines an ocular differential ‘experience’. Thus, cinema and photography have become the ‘paint’ of the anthropologist: vivid realms of the painterly have collided into images ‘painted with light’ 1. Where texts lack colour, form and tactility, images provide. The medium of paint can therefore be seen to offer an ‘experience’ that awakens the viewer to the sensorial possibilities of the visual surface. Drawing on the recent support2 for sensorial readings of ethnographic film, the fragments of paint in this paper reveal the potential within ‘the visual’ to represent and evoke the sensation of touch. David MacDougall (1998:51) notes that when the blind recover their sight they are unable to recognise objects visually until they have touched them, therefore, our “experience of surfaces includes both touching and seeing, each deriving qualities from the other.” Similarly, Michael Taussig (1991:10), drawing on the work of Walter Benjamin 3 notes that tactility exerts a decisive impact on optical reception. In this way, seeing an object’s surface in a film/photograph evokes (not replicates) the viewers’ habitual experiential knowledge of that object’s texture. With this in mind, this paper considers four aspects of ‘experienced’ paint in relation to living persons: firstly, painted bodies ‘captured’ on film, secondly, persons made of paint, thirdly, painting peoples specifically for photographs, and, finally, painted film. BERGER & HEISENBERG

In the name of interdisciplinary experimentation and in order to provide a painterly ‘experience’ for the reader, these vivid realms will be explored via the theories of art critic John Berger and physicist Werner Heisenberg. Just as Pink (2006) argues for a more collaborative interdisciplinary approach to visual research, I suggest that academic boundaries be temporarily disregarded as mere human ruptures that deny fundamental humanistic comparisons. Luc Pauwels (in Pink 2006:21) notes that in crossing disciplinary boundaries, writers are in danger of ‘amateurism’ as ideas and techniques are exchanged or The conceptualisation of film as another form of painting was made popular by John Alton’s classic guide to the poetics of cinematography Painting with light (1949). 2 Discussed by Pink, MacDougall, Ruby, Grimshaw, Stoller, Ravetz, Edwards and others. 3 His 1930s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in particular. 1


borrowed without their full implications being grasped. While this is true to an extent, I argue that not fully grasping exchanged ideas may also prove a fertile landscape for innovative analysis and understanding: ideas and techniques can thus be adapted to explore specific images. In this way, concepts and theories from across all academic disciplines should be utilised in order to better understand the human condition.

Numerous writers have conceptualised the act of seeing in words, yet, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (a watershed in art and art historical theory) remains particularly powerful. Exploring the layers of meaning within oil paintings, photographs and graphic art, Berger argues that when we see, we are not just looking, but reading the language of images. Similarly, Jean Rouch’s treatment of film as text deliberately encourages multivocality with his ethnofictions enabling films to take on levels of meaning beyond the authors intentions (mirroring the shifts in meaning that occur when disciplinary lines are crossed). Citing Rene Magritte’s Ceci n'est pas une pipe as illustrative that words are in fact less ‘real’ than an image, Berger suggests that words can never undo our ocular world. Thus, he creates entire chapters from assembled images, proposing “each image reproduced has become part of an argument which has little or nothing to do with the painting’s original independent meaning,” (1972:21). This approach has strong parallels in the construction of films such as the Soviet Montage of Dziga Vertov, but also the ethnographic films of anthropologists (I use the term loosely) such as Robert Gardner and the MacDougalls. In this way, this paper includes photographs of peoples and paintings as meaningful to a discussion on paint in their own right, the words juxtaposing them (or not) ultimately influencing the readers interpretation. Moreover, the inclusion of these images places the reader in a direct, intersubjective relationship with the subjects as well as myself, the writer. Indeed, as 3

Marcus Banks (1990:19) and others have significantly noted, a film is a three-way encounter between subject, film-maker and audience: encountering this paper will be no different.

Conceptualising fieldwork as a set of fluctuating relationships between anthropologists and their ethnographic subjects, Arnd Schneider (2008:173) calls upon a metaphorical parallel with quantum physics. Simply put, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that it is impossible to know both position and momentum of an object simultaneously: “if momentum can be specified with absolute precision, the words ‘position of the particle’ simply lose all meaning,” (Walker 2008:1073). Thus, the observer affects the understanding of the observed and therefore, Schneider argues, this theory is comparable to the anthropologist’s proximity to and distance from an ethnographic subject. Ultimately, then, even if an anthropologist is ‘fully immersed’ in the field, they cannot know the ‘other’ as they know themselves. Further, Schneider notes that in German, the Uncertainty Principle is referred to as Unbestimmtheitsrelation (literally ‘relation of uncertainty’), but also as Unschärferelation (literally ‘relation of fuzziness, blurredness, or out of focus principle’). Applying these terms to the visualised paint in this paper, the reader’s direct and complete personal understanding of these images (in Heisenbergian terms) renders their understanding of the ‘other’ (be it another viewer, the artist or the subject) unfocused and blurred. Indeed, while there is universality to bodily sensations to a certain extent, the anthropologist can only wholly understand their own biological and embodied sensory perceptions. Therefore, reading visual and textual ethnographies should be encountered, analysed and, more importantly, enjoyed as individual experiences rather than expressions of wider cultural understandings. The images in this paper are consequently read in relation 4

to the image-maker and audience’s (reader/writer) uncertain proximity to and distance from the painterly subjects as a fluctuating three-way encounter. PAINTED BODIES ‘CAPTURED’ ON FILM

Robert Gardner’s poetic and artistic approach to filming the ‘other’ has led to great debate amongst anthropologists over whether the tensions between art and science can be resolved within ethnographic film. While Gardner is a self-proclaimed artist, Jay Ruby has been his harshest critic denouncing Forest of Bliss 4 “a jumble of incomprehensible vignettes that apparently are to be savoured for their formal content,” (1991: 12-13). However, writers on the side of art such as Carpenter (1989: 12) have argued: “Professor Ruby speaks of the need to ‘make films as a means to [sic] exploring important ideas in anthropology.’ The difference between ‘important ideas’ and ideas important in anthropology is often considerable. Don't blame Gardner for choosing the former.” Agreeing with Carpenter, I suggest anthropologists such as Ruby are fearful of art’s proximity to ‘scientific’ ethnographic practice as resolved in film. Gardner’s beautifully sensuous films evoke heightened impressions of presence, whether or not they are ‘ethnographic’ is a trivial question left to the individual viewer to answer.


1986 Robert Gardner film concerning Benares, India. Unlike Rivers of Sand, Deep Hearts and Ika Hands, anthropologist/co-producer, Akos Ostor, claims Forest of Bliss is based on six months of ethnographic field research. Gardner has made it quite clear that he views it as a personal film, not an ethnographic one. 5



Capturing the painted Borroro 5 on film, Deep Hearts describes the rainy season Gerewol when two competing lineages come together in order for a maiden of the opposing lineage to choose the ‘perfect’ male; the bull. In this way, the film points to the prevalent and confronting question of choice. It is therefore crucial that despite fearing the eyes 6 of others as instruments of envy, the Borroro choose to emphasise their own eyes with brightly juxtaposed yellows, terracottas and creams painted carefully onto skin; thus cultivating fear. In choosing to discuss paint in this paper, I note the painterly choices made by the men; the lines, dots, circles and colours but also Gardner’s choice to not only include but focus and zoom in on the tactile application of this paint 7 in both film and photographs. Indeed, as Berger (1972:2-3) argues “every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights.” In this way, the process of painting faces mirrors the choices involved in filmmaking. Moreover, in painting their faces the Borroro create a physical barrier between themselves and others; between genders, identities and ages. For a viewer of Gardner’s film and photographs there are now at least two barriers of artistry: the paint of the subject and lens of the filmmaker. A final barrier between subject and viewer/filmmaker lies in the concept of ‘deep hearts’, which Gardner informs the viewer is the utilisation of a metaphysical space in which to hide envies and fears. Something within the body, inaccessible to the film camera, these spaces must be painted with individual imagination only. While Deep Hearts offers the sounds and movements of these painted people with intoxicated swaying camera movements, Gardner also provides two photographic collections both in his book The Impulse to Preserve and in an online exhibition 8 that prove a tranquil parallel. Firstly, fifteen Polaroid images are accompanied by fieldnotes from the 23rd August 1978 in which he writes: “...A Polaroid made is most likely a photograph lost, so intent are the subjects on possessing them. I had the idea of doing a series on the male dancers to see if there was any agreement about what set of facial features defined the ideal Borroro...” (Gardner 2006:195). In this way, his approach seems uncharacteristically 5A

nomadic society located in central Niger Republic also referred to as Wodaabe Fulani. The Borroro also fear the mouth as it can impart malediction as well as benediction. They say, “the mouth can eat you,” and therefore greetings between lineages are ritual incantations that nullify the potential dangers of mouths. 7 Gardner took great delight in these painted peoples writing: “despite a great weariness from endless spectacle, what I saw got my full attention: accomplished males applying rouge and lipstick under a full moon...” (Gardner 2006:210). 8 Available at Accessed 15/4/2011. 6



scientific, regimented and formulaic, he captures the busts of these men at close proximity in a perfectly square format provided by the Polaroid. However, the images seem antiquated, perhaps sun-blushed in a milieu of saturated colour while their expressions display a subtle mixture of smiles and solemnity: evoking something beautiful, aesthetic, artistic. The second collection of photographs could almost be read as filmic stills from Deep Hearts, shot from varying angles with different levels of focus and proximity, Gardner cuts these images into a variety of formats and thus exercises a greater level of artistry. Moreover, unlike the Polaroids, these images show the physical application of paint, thereby evoking the sensation of touching skin with painted fingertips. The viewer of these photographs is thus brought into closer proximity with both photographer and Borroro through the exposure of their artistic choices.



On the peripheries of anthropology’s interest in Material Culture, persons made of paint are largely abandoned to art historians. However, Emil Nolde’s ‘ethnographic’ still lifes, inspired by objects in the Berlin ethnographic Museum, strongly relate to traditional anthropological topics. However, as George Marcus and Fred Myers have noted, “meanings of indigenous, traditional art change when local forms are commodified and brought into the western dominated international art world,” (1995:127). Abstracting ethnographic specimens from their original contexts and statuses, 9 Nolde exploits objects for their formal and expressive qualities. In this way, his work has been caught up in Primitivist discourse whereby difference is analysed in qualitative terms; labelling painted societies of the ‘other’ as antidotes to the fragmentation of industrialism and modernity. Jill Lloyd (1991:106) goes further, arguing “the impact of colonial rule, as Nolde experienced it, could make these very same societies appear as a grotesque caricature of western modernism,” thereby revealing the western viewer’s proximity to these images. Moreover, via repetition, variation and inversion of ethnographic artefacts Nolde sets up a mode of self reference whereby he distances the viewer further from the original subject but brings them into closer proximity with his own subjective vision. Indeed, his critique of materialistic values “also led him to attack the scientific evolutionary approach to tribal art that ignores its aesthetic potential,” (Lloyd 1991:101). This shift towards an aesthetic and ahistorical appreciation for ethnographic objects is echoed by Gardner’s artistic approach to visualised ethnography. Nevertheless, the persons visualised by Nolde are made entirely of paint, using deliberately naïve and childlike brushstrokes his expressive mark-making embodies a textural proximity with himself, as artist, for the viewer to ‘experience’. Looking once again to Berger: “...original paintings are silent and still in a sense that information never is. Even a reproduction hung on a wall is not comparable in this respect for in the original the silence and stillness permeate the actual material, the paint, in which one follows the traces of the painter’s immediate gestures. This has the effect of closing the distance in time between the painting of the picture and one’s own act of looking at it...” (italics added 1990:24).

This sense of painterly texture closing temporal distances is prevalent and palpable: James Clifford similarly describes art as “human artistic creation transcending location and time,” (1988:242). In parallel to the proximity of the paint to the artist and viewer Nolde staged 9 For example, the male figure in Man, Woman and Cat (1912) is taken from a Cameroon throne and the cat is taken from the top panel of a carved Nigerian door. In this way, Nolde creates a surreal ‘double decontextualisation’. 11


ethnographic fragments into increasingly theatrical encounters lifted out of time and place, distancing the viewer form the subject and rendering the plurality of meanings increasingly blurred. Nolde (in Lloyd 1991:100) revelled in the idea that “the products of primitive peoples are created with actual material in their hands, between their fingers.� In this way, he understood native art to emerge from an organic, unmediated relationship between producer and product, capable of expressing subjective emotions in objective form. While he may well have enjoyed a close relationship with his materials, paradoxically, the majority of viewers now encountering his paintings, as in this paper, will observe photographed paint, thereby eradicating the temporal, textural proximity to the painter.


In comparison to Nolde’s ‘ethnographic’ still lifes it is worth considering the ‘bodymaps’ found at the Assembling Bodies 10 exhibition at The Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in Cambridge. Made in 2003 by a Bambanani women’s group in South Africa these paintings are part of a project documenting the lives of women with HIV/AIDS who successfully fought for access to antiretroviral drug therapies. These painted bodies can be viewed as individual visualisations, histories and understandings of bodies and disease. While the shadowy figures in the backgrounds illustrate bodies defined by their relations with others, there is a real sense of the viewer’s proximity to the imaged bodies; perhaps this is because subject and image-maker are one, rendering the intersubjectivity of the encounter less problematic. PAINTING PEOPLE FOR PHOTOGRAPHS

Hans Silvester’s photographs of the Surma and Mursi of the Omo Valley have not yet been investigated by academics in either anthropological or artistic disciplines. However,










colourful/textural paint, and especially the painted ‘other’. These beautiful images reveal the luxurious thickness of clay-like paints with striking clarity and are presented by Silvester in his 2008 Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa. This troubling ‘coffeetable picture-book’ provokes serious ethical and theoretical problems starting with the title’s bold use of the outdated trope ‘tribal’ and use of ‘Africa’ as an all-encompassing, generalised geography. Despite seeming somewhat aware of the practice of ethnographic fieldwork, stating: “anyone who has observed these people for any length of time will see that they are remarkably talented...” (2008:4) it is clear that Silvester has little knowledge of the peoples he has photographed. Particularly troubling are those images where flowers are placed in the subjects mouths: thus rendering the ‘other’ stereotypically silent. Stating: “paradoxically, encounters with outsiders have intensified the practice of body painting, at the risk of rendering it unnatural...” (2008:6) Silvester reveals a certain naivety, describing these fashion-paintings as ‘natural’, instinctive and spontaneous. Moreover, despite also acknowledging “the paintings have become a source of income for the tribes...” he fails to suggest that these people have painted and adorned their bodies with fruit and leaves expressly to be photographed: the more elaborate, the greater the sense of ‘other’. This is a far cry from the beautiful men in Deep Hearts seen actively painting themselves for a specific 10

Available at Accessed 15/4/2011. 14


‘ceremony’, indeed, the Surma and Mursi seem highly influenced by what they perceive is visually expected of them; embellishing their bodies in an increasingly exaggerated manner. In this way, the case is comparable to Said’s Orientalist discourse illuminating the idea of Europe’s hegemony over the Orient as having “close ties to the enabling socio-economic institutions, and its redoubtable durability,” (1978:140). Nevertheless, it is the overwhelming tactility 11 of these images that makes them so seductive, increasing the viewer’s visual ‘experience’ and proximity to the subject’s skin while distancing them from the subject’s agency. Silvester proposes that “pleasing the eye takes second place to the pleasure of painting and being painted,” (2008:6) thereby engaging with the subject’s ‘experience’ of applying paint.




In contrast, the intoxicating photographs in elitist French art, fashion and gardening magazine Bloom may be introduced as an enlightening juxtaposition. The brain-child of Lidewij Edelkoort, Bloom flaunts a highly European ‘fashion aesthetic’ with edition titles such as Mother Earth, The Earth of the Matter, Gathering, Adornment, Paradise, Curiosities, Foliage, Eroticism and Enchanted these magazines exoticise and eroticise primitive aesthetics, often using the ‘other’ as backdrop for western fantasies. Nevertheless, in a manner similar to Silvester’s work, these images fail to filter through popular culture into academia. What Bloom provides is a visual aesthetic saturated in sensual experience beyond the visual: bodies are smeared with mud, honey and paint before being placed next to photographs of fruit and blossom. In this way, the ‘experiences’ of touch, smell and taste seduce the viewer. Yet, thrown in amongst this sensuality are images akin to postcards of aboriginals and native Indians removed from their homes and placed in constructed (and painted) studio sets; fetishising the painted and tattooed body. Discussing tattoos in relation to Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro, Vachhe (1996:215) notes “unlike any other image, which can be serialised and sold again and again since the advent of mechanical reproduction, the tattoo cannot be separated from the body, and for this reason, it asserts that the individual is unique...” Similarly, Silvester noted that the Surma and Mursi paintings were strongly connected to their nomadic lifestyles: “The body is seen almost as a piece of territory, with skin and flesh replacing the stone, ceramics and textiles typical of other cultures,” (2008:3). 18


While painted objects are somewhat permanent, the painted or tattooed body will undoubtedly disappear with time, soap or death. Perhaps it is this transience, this allusiveness that impels photographers to ‘preserve’ painted bodies. Once again, the viewer proves in proximity to the image-makers vision but endlessly distant from the almost nonexistent ‘model’ subjects whose bodies are treated as mere canvas.


In the 1970s Stan Brakhage and other filmmakers, such as James Herbert and Andrew Noren, intensified their explorations of cinema’s formal properties. Brakhage was among the first to physically alter filmstrip itself: painting, scratching and drawing directly on film surfaces he wrote: “I now no longer photograph, but rather paint upon clear strips of film – essentially freeing myself from the dilemmas of representation,” (in Scheunemann 2007:179). In this way, he realised Alden’s conceptualisation of film as ‘painting with light’; eradicating corporality, paint became his subject. Closely related to the abstract expressionist paintings of Pollock, Klein and Rothko, Brakage’s painted films reveal the texture of transient images with vigorously shifting forms and colours 12 encouraging the viewer’s awareness of their proximity to both subject and filmmaker; experiencing the bare act of perception.


Comparable to the flickering ‘salvage ethnography’ of Bill Morrison’s Decasia: A Symphony of Decay (2003). 20

In conclusion, vivid textural paints demonstrate the sensory and theoretical ‘experiences’ obtainable by the visual anthropologist willing to cross disciplinary boundaries. Using assembled images in the manner of Berger to create a visual ‘experience’


for the reader and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle 13 to consider the ‘experience’ of paint as encountered by the interchangeable proximities between viewer, image-maker and subject, this paper proves a necessarily fragmented exploration of paint’s ambiguous relationship with anthropology. I suggest that ethnographic photographs, films and texts, represent reconstructions of ‘reality’ akin to paintings. Therefore, following in Rouch’s footsteps, I advocate that future ethnographic projects not only embrace a multimedia approach through texts, paints, photography, video, annotated drawings, installations and so forth, but also involve the subjects in the creation of these ‘experiences’ in order for the them and the viewer/reader to be brought into closer proximity with the process of representation. Margaret Mead (1971:145) suggested we “stress the value of participant production of ephemeral things... emphasise the importance of painting for reproduction, rather than making exact reproductions...” In this way, surrendering to the notion that exchanging and interpreting ideas results in shifted meanings, collaborative ethnographies encourage an enjoyment of difference; promoting intersubjectivity over reflexivity as bodies worldwide continue to be embellished, painted and transformed into spectacle.

13 Via the notion of proximity to and distance from the ‘other’ (be it paint, image-maker or subject) the case studies in this paper document a small cross-section of possible encounters with paint: the painted bodies ‘captured’ on film in Gardner’s Deep Hearts and photographs move the viewer in close proximity to the visual choices made by both the Borroro and Gardner. Nolde’s persons made of paint distance the viewer from the original objects and subjectivities of their makers but bring them in close proximity with paint and painter. The Bambanani women’s medicalised self-portraits or ‘body-maps’, on the other hand, place the viewer in intimate proximity to the simultaneous subject and image-maker. Silvester’s photographs of the Surma and Mursi and the embellished bodies in Bloom magazine utilise the ‘other’ as backdrop for western fantasies; opulently artistic these people have been painted expressly for the purpose of being photographed thereby providing a visual ‘experience’ in close proximity to the subject’s skin and image-makers vision but distanced from the agency of the subjects. Finally, a brief look at Brakhage’s painted films (the only case study here not tied in some way to traditional anthropological subject matter) illustrates the viewer’s proximity to both subject (as mere paint) and filmmaker.


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Said, E. 2006 [1978]. Orientalism. In Art in Modern Culture: an anthology of critical texts (eds) F. Frascina, & J. Harris, 136-144. New York & London: Phaidon. Scheunemann, D. & Graf, A. 2007. Avant-Garde Film, Volume 23. Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi Bv Editions. Schneider, A. 2008. Three Modes of Experimentation with Art and Ethnography. In Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S) 14, 171-194. Silvester, H. 2008. Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa. London: Thames & Hudson. Taussig, M. 2000 [1991]. Tactility and Distraction. In Rereading Cultural Anthropology (ed.) G. Marcus, 8-14. Durham: Duke University Press. Vacche, A. 1996. Cinema and Painting: How Art is used in Film. London: The Athlone Press. Walker, J. 2008. Fundamentals of Physics. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons. Online Resources o Online exhibitions (Robert Gardner: Borroro male beauty and Robert Gardner: The Borroro – Gerewol and Yaki) of Gardner’s photographs which evolved from the making of Deep Hearts. Accessed 15/4/2011. o Robert Gardner’s website dedicated to illustrating “how the visual arts can contribute to an understanding of human beings.” :// Accessed 15/4/. o Site of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Assembling Bodies exhibition curated by Anita Herle, Mark Elliott and Rebecca Empson (10 March 2009 - 6 November 2010). :// Accessed 15/4/2011. Filmography o Brakhage, S. Hand-painted Films, 2000 (original films 1986-1995) o Gardner, R. Deep Hearts, 1981 o Gardner, R. Forest of Bliss, 1986 o Morrison, B. Decasia: A Symphony of Decay, 2003


Vivid realms: the ‘experience’ of paint in relation to visual anthropology.