Getting ready to head to EPIC 2007

EPIC 2007 webpageIts that time of the year, and I am writing as a way to procrastinate finishing my PowerPoint for EPIC 2007, a conference being held in Keystone Colorado for people doing ethnography in industry contexts. I am on a panel called Engaged Clients: Stories of Collaboration on Thursday afternoon.
I’ll post pictures as I get the chance!

A Great Day for the Anthropologically Minded

When understanding culture is your abiding interest and passion, everyday is a good day to be an anthropologist, however yesterday supplied us with some particularly exciting media happenings.

First of all, news broke that during his appearance at Columbia University, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad had let it be known that there are no gay people in Iran. This is an exciting development for anthropologists wishing to study one of those ever elusive “purely heterosexual” societies. Now, if anyone knows where we can find a matriarchy (or maybe the missing link?) I’ll be ready to retire. This news also prompted giggling around the country as various sassy pundits (including on the local San Francisco dance music radio station – FM 92.7) suggested helpfully some version of the idea “Well, maybe they just keep their gays in public restrooms — you know, like the Republican Party does over here.”

Last night viewers were treated to an indigenous awareness one-two punch on Comedy Central.  First up was Bolivia’s President Evo Morales on The Daily Show. He spoke (through translation) about how his election proves that people of diverse backgrounds (he is of indigenous Native South American descent, specifically Aymara) can become leaders in today’s world. Stewart replied in a stage whisper that it was not so much so here in the U.S..  Regarding our election process: “it’s rigged” he confided to Evo’s amusement.

Those with the stamina to stay awake were able to watch Stephen Colbert interview K. David Harrison, the author of When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. Ever the perfect ethnocentric foil (really, he puts the Cultural Evolutionists of the 19th century to shame with his flawless application of the concept at every turn), Colbert prefaced his introduction of the guest by proclaiming the good news to English speakers all over the world: “We’re winning!”

If you like your culture commentary with an American media infusion and a dash of ironic truthiness, then yesterday was surely a great day to be anthropologically minded.

An Ethnography of the African Art Trade

Wooden vigango statuesMonica Udvardy from the University of Kentucky is involved with the repatriation of stolen vigango statues from US museums, to their owners in Kenya. Vigango are funerary statues which are typically removed (with or without the permission of the owners) from hillsides in Kenya, into a thriving local art market, and on to North American museums. Her story involves field ethnography, teaching, activism, and the ethics of both anthropology and business. More importantly, it raises questions about how established antiquities laws are used to protect the often poor farmers who create and erect the statues in the first place. Udvardy as an ethnographer who began her involvement with the Mijikenda in the 1980s, and actually photographed statues which were later stolen. Two of these statues turned up in US museum collections in the 1990s.

Wooden vigango statues are typically three to five feet high, and are created by the Mijikenda people of Kenya as memorials to their ancestors. They were created both traditionally, and as Udvardy’s research describes, in modern times. In other words, they are living and breathing expressions of Mijikenda culture.

By the 1980s, a market for the statues was developed in the West. In response to financial incentives, statues began to show up in Mombassa markets, and from there entered the western art/antiquities world. How they got from the homesteads of their creators, and into the market was a matter for dispute until Udvardy documented that the two statues “donated” to American museums in the 1990s, were originally stolen from particular homesteads in Kenya in the mid-1980s.

There probably thousands of vigango statues which arrived in the west since the 1980s. The emergence of this market also correlated with an epidemic of vigango thefts from the typically poor villages where the statues were originally erected. By the 1990s, the statues were considered art, and marketed as such in the California art gallery of Ernie Wolfe and others.

There are a number of excellent resources available on the web about the trade in vigango statues, including a 2003 article by Udvardy and her colleagues in the American Anthropologist “Cultural Property as Global Commodities -The Case of Mijikenda Memorial Statues” at . More recently there have been major stories on NPR, the Christian Science Monitor, and other media outlets about how two American museums have dealt with the need to return looted statues, consistent with the requirements of international and national antiquities laws.

Providing a context of sorts are the protestations of the most important vigango dealer, Ernie Wolfe, from Los Angeles. Wolfe was interviewed in 2006 by Marvin Anderson, a reporter from the Black College Wire. Wolfe uses a mix of economic and anthropological language to justify the vigango trade. Irrespective of Udvardy’s evidence of routine theft from rural homesteads, Wolfe claims that the statues were abandoned as part of the slash and burn agricultural cycle. Therefore he reasoned, the statues had no economic value to the owners, and could be brought into the international art market. To complete his justification for the trade, he points out that with the introduction of modern medicine, the statues had lost their utility for healing.

However, Wolfe’s type of reasoning reflects an overly simple understanding of property rights rooted in utility and the marketplace. Both traditional and modern law recognize that some things are sacred, and therefore cannot and should not be traded. For example, headstones from Arlington National Cemetery are off-limits from the marketplace. And as the Getty Museum in Los Angeles recently discovered, so are some ancient statues recovered in Italy. The victims in Kenya of such theft are of course are much less powerless than the Italian government. But under Kenyan and American law, vigango statues stolen from Mijikenda homesteads have similar legal protection.

Ethnography.com shows up in interesting places

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The post about the Human Terrain System showed up in this thread on the Small Wars Journal. So here is what is interesting to me. On their search box, look up anthropology or anthropologists (make sure you click the button to just search the journal and not the web) and you will see a lively discussion about the role of anthropologists in war and the abuses in the past. This is not anthropologists talking about it, but military and military interested folks talk about OUR contribution (or lack thereof) in that field. When people talk about you, it means you matter. Thats good.

Quick what do you think of when I say “Sloan Valve Company”?

This is not a trick question, just my very unscientific survey of passive brand persistence:

Please put your answers in the comments
No Googling! Lets just see what comes up as a top of mind response
If you want to add the information, age and gender could be interesting.