So I will just muse on what everyone else has been musing on: art and anthro, anthro and art, can we tell them together? Can we tell them apart?1 —Lucy R. Lippard
The complex relationship between contemporary art and anthropology, a theme increasingly addressed by artists, curators, and scholars since the 1990s, shapes the subject of The Sorcerer’s Burden: Contemporary Art and the Anthropological Turn. This group exhibition posits a fresh perspective by sidestepping both didactic ethnographic observations and well-trod artistic practices for artwork that is experimental, exploratory, and reflective of the present day. Many of the artists with work included are transnational and global, interested in cross-pollination and reinterpretation of identity and culture. Others are using a wide range of media in new ways to generate social and philosophical critiques that bridge contemporary art and anthropology.
Sourcing its title from a literary work of “ethnofiction” by the American cultural anthropologist Paul Stoller —the 2016 novel The Sorcerer’s Burden: The Ethnographic Saga of a Global Family—the exhibition eschews literalism or heavy-handed politicism (a format that seems exhaustive today), instead featuring works that are alternately imaginative, humorous, satirical, dark, melancholy, playful, enchanting, and mischievous. The allusion to magic and sorcery in the exhibition title likewise nods to an important early Western/non-Western hybrid art presentation, Jean-Hubert Martin’s 1989 Magiciens de la terre (or “Magicians of the earth”) in Paris—a phrase Martin used instead of “artist” and which, in the work of the artists at The Contemporary Austin, becomes a touchpoint for imaginative cultural critique. This exhibition’s subtitle references Hal Foster’s 1995 essay “The Artist as Ethnographer?,” in which he wrote of the problematic “turn to the ethnographic” in “quasi-anthropological” practices.2 The premise aims to tease out challenging issues related to race, colonialism, identity, religion, and politics, as well as potential for insight and fresh perspective in the unexpected intersections. Representing a wide range of media including painting, sculpture, photography, film, video, sound, and performance, and encompassing new commissions, site-specific iterations, and existing works, the contemporary artworks in The Sorcerer’s Burden share a commonality not only in their allusions to elements of anthropology, but in their exploration of the interplay between fact and fiction, ultimately questioning whether any field, media, or genre might propose to convey “truth”—a subject at the core of this exhibition’s intent.
As fields of study, art and anthropology—themselves widely divergent across geographies and societies—tend to have more in common than not, such as an intellectual foundation based on curiosity about culture, an impulse to collect, and a reflection of the human condition. In Western societies, the systematic accumulation and exhibition of objects considered to be culturally significant dates back to the Renaissance-era cabinet of curiosities, or Wunderkammer, collections intended to inspire and amaze. As early precedents for today’s natural history, anthropology, and ethnographic museums, these assortments of curios established a valuable ethos for the preservation of culture while laying the foundation for museums’ problematic colonialist impulse. The first art museums appeared by the late seventeenth century, offering the art holdings of the wealthy elites up for public consumption and distinguishing themselves from anthropological collections through their formal and aesthetic intentions.
More recently, the twentieth century has witnessed Western modern and contemporary art reengaging with anthropology. From early twentieth-century artists’ ideas of “primitivism” and the exotic, to the appropriated rituals of Surrealism, to Land art’s archaeological excavation, and later to the ethnographic turn in exhibition making, the two fields continue to make uneasy yet fertile bedfellows. Globalization, the rapid escalation of technology, and postcolonial discourse have rendered cultures and disciplines in close proximity to one another, disrupting the concept of otherness central to cultural critique and resulting in reflexivity and expanded dialogues across not only art and anthropology but the humanities and sciences more broadly. In the past several decades, as artists strive to adapt, invent, and stay relevant, they have adopted ethnographic methodologies and ambitions as creative tools. Notions of fieldwork—pioneered by the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski’s doctrine of “being there”—in which research, notes, and immersion in a community are prioritized as methods for cultural interrogation, have become widespread in contemporary curating and academia.
The Sorcerer’s Burden consists of eleven artists occupying The Contemporary Austin’s two sites, the downtown Jones Center on Congress Avenue and the fourteen-acre Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria. These contemporary artists, among many practitioners today who directly or indirectly reference or interrogate the intersection of art and anthropology in their work, include Ed Atkins (born 1982 in Oxford, United Kingdom; lives and works in Copenhagen and Berlin), Nuotama Bodomo (born 1988 in Accra, Ghana), Theo Eshetu (born 1958 in London, United Kingdom; lives and works in Berlin), Cameron Jamie (born 1969 in Los Angeles, California; lives and works in Paris), Kapwani Kiwanga (born 1978 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; lives and works in Paris), Marie Lorenz (born 1973 in Twentynine Palms, California; lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, and Austin, Texas), Nathan Mabry (born 1978 in Durango, Colorado; lives and works in Los Angeles), Ruben Ochoa (born 1974 in Oceanside, California; lives and works in Los Angeles), Dario Robleto (born 1972 in San Antonio, Texas; lives and works in Houston), Shimabuku (born 1969 in Kobe, Japan; lives and works in Naha, Japan), and Julia Wachtel (born 1956 in New York City, New York; lives and works in Connecticut and Brooklyn, New York). The exhibition installation is organized into four themes: Ritual, Magic, Myth—highlighting works that explore history and culture through the lens of storytelling, ritual, and spiritual practice; Farther Afield—a nod to the writer, curator, critic, and activist Lucy R. Lippard’s 2010 essay of the same name, featuring outdoor projects that revolve around site-specificity, fieldwork, community, and performance; The Spyglass of Anthropology—focusing on works that offer critiques of culture through self-exploration and identity, inspired by anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston; and Things—taking its title from Bill Brown’s 2001 “Thing Theory” and featuring works focused on material culture and appropriation.3
The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color, 272-page catalogue, co-published by The Contemporary Austin and Radius Books, Santa Fe, including a scholarly essay by Pesanti and guest contributions by Robert Storr, David Odo, and Julia V. Hendrickson. The catalogue also features a section titled Farther Afield—named for the essay by Lippard—with images, text, research, and artwork contributed by each artist and representing their inspiration and influence.
1 Lucy R. Lippard, “Farther Afield,” in Between Art and Anthropology: Contemporary Ethnographic Practice, eds. Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright (Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers, 2010; New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), 23. Citation refers to the Bloomsbury edition.
2 Hal Foster, “The Artist as Ethnographer?,” in The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology, eds. George E. Marcus and Fred R. Myers (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), 305, 302.
3 Brown points to objects’ “force as a sensuous presence or as a metaphysical presence, the magic by which objects become values, fetishes, idols, and totems.” See Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” in Things, ed. Bill Brown (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 5.
Text by Heather Pesanti, Chief Curator & Director of Curatorial Affairs, The Contemporary Austin.