The Anthropology of Art Today | Nicolás Díaz Letelier Interviews Carlos Fausto

March 28, 2024

The Anthropology of Art Today

Nicolás Díaz Letelier, G2, Interviews Anthropologist Carlos Fausto (Princeton Global Scholar)


NDL: Carlos, welcome back! Having you here during the Spring of 2024 marks your fourth year at Princeton, as both a Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS) Global Scholar and a Visiting Professor at the Department of Anthropology. How does it feel to be back?

CF: It feels really good! It's about returning to a place where I feel comfortable and, at the same time, always challenged intellectually. I come from a different theoretical and even practical tradition. Our “crafts” are similar, but not identical. For me, this is tremendously stimulating.

NDL: During these years, you have taught three undergraduate classes at Princeton: Amazonia, The Last Frontier: History, Culture, and Power in 2021, along with Miqueias Mugge; Insurgent Indigenous Art in 2022, with postdoctoral fellow Maria Luisa Lucas; and Planet Amazonia: Engaging Indigenous Ecologies of Knowledge in 2023, also with Miqueias. This time, you'll be teaching a graduate seminar titled The Anthropology of Art Today. First, what led you to return to the intersection of art and anthropology, and second, what do you believe is the relevance of considering this interface during graduate training in anthropology today?

CF: My book Art Effects was published in 2020, but I finished writing it two years earlier. So, in a sense, my main investment in the Anthropology of Art has already been made. I’ve moved on, turning to other themes, including some dear to Brazil LAB's research lines, such as practices of forest making in the Amazon and the role of Indigenous knowledge in the current scenario of climate change. In another sense, though, I didn’t abandon the subject. I’ve just become more interested in exploring contemporary Indigenous arts, which had already been the subject of the course I taught with Maria Luísa Lucas. But more important, my collaboration with the Brazil LAB begin in 2019, when we organized a seminar on Amazonian Poetics, to which we invited the Indigenous artists Denilson Baniwa and the late Jaider Esbell. I feel now that we are opening a solo exhibition of Baniwa's work at the Princeton Art Museum (Art@Bainbridge), of which I am a co-curator, we have come full circle. So, there was nothing more natural than teaching a course on the Anthropology of Art at this time and including a session on emergent (and insurgent) indigenous arts.

As for the second part of your question, you’re highlighting the interface between arts and anthropology rather than the Anthropology of Art in itself. The latter refers to anthropological theories about art, whereas the former refers to the vast and uncertain field of potential interbreeding between these crafts. I myself have explored this field on some occasions in regards to photography, filmmaking and, less consistently, music. While doing documentary films together with Indigenous people, I knew that my practice was informed and inflected by my anthropological education. But I also knew that I was making cinema and not an ethnography. Or rather, I was also doing ethnography by other means, and these means implied other relationships, other voices, other sounds, and other bodies. The end result emerged from this myriad of relations and sensory qualities convoked and mobilized during the process of filmmaking. Is it art, is it anthropology? Does it matter?

NDL: In recent years, American anthropology has experienced a prolific and productive flowering, where thinking with and through artistic practices has opened provocative avenues of critical theorization, documentation, and communication. I'm thinking here, off the top of my head, of Julia Elyachar (2020) and Aimee Meredith Cox (2015), who have incorporated their experiences as trained dancers into the core of their thinking; in the proliferation of publishing spaces for acutely reflecting through what have historically been literary genres, means, and resources, in journals like Current Anthropology and Anthropology and Humanism; and in photography, in scholars like Jason de León (2024), who, like others, having previously collaborated with a photographer, in his most recent book he is himself the shooter, enabling a particular line of inquiry by virtue of it. How do you perceive this moment in anthropology, where artistic practices seem to enhance and critically participate not just as objects, but as means themselves at the heart of the epistemic project of the discipline?

 CF: I must start by stating my ignorance. I have yet to engage with the importantthe authors you reference. You know, “different traditions, different readings,” to paraphrase Marshal Sahlins. In any case, I think that the use of imagetic and sound resources as means to produce richer (and different) ethnographies is in our contemporary agenda. It’s certainly not new; one has just to think about the place of film and photography in the works of Mead and Bateson. The great difficulty is how to use images in a way that they really transform the final product. They cannot be a mere illustration of the text, nor a second language that runs parallel to the text but does not interfere intrinsically with the writing. In order for these media to affect our knowledge practices, we need a deep understanding of the image in its complexity. And anthropologists are not usually trained for this, unlike art historians. Perhaps this serves as still another justification for me to teach a course on the Anthropology of Art this semester in Princeton.

NDL: Besides your role as an ethnographer and scholar, you are also a photographer and filmmaker. Concerning the former, for example, in 2013 you exhibited the collection Nus et vêtus comme il faut at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, a photographic series stemming from your collaborative work among the Kuikuro of the Upper Xingu, in Brazilian Amazonia. And regarding the latter, you co-produced and co-directed the 2012 documentary As Hiper Mulheres [The Hyperwomen] in collaboration with Kuikuro artists. How has your ethnographic and academic practice informed your artistic work, and conversely, how has your artistic work pushed you to see your scholarly practice in a new light?

 CF: The films I produced or directed with the Kuikuro and Parakanã peoples allowed me to gain access to other dimensions of their lives, and also to develop a certain phenomenological sensitivity that I lacked as a more structuralist-oriented researcher. On the other hand, I am above all an anthropologist and the way we script our films and how we edit them is informed by the process of anthropological research. Not surprisingly, one of our closest Kuikuro collaborators, Yamaluí, who has worked as a researcher with us since the early 2000s, has just written a biography of his grandfather based on his own research. The book will be published this year by one of the leading publishing houses in Brazil.

As for photography, it already looks different to me. The camera is a tool of instantaneous capture. You point and shoot, capturing an image in, say, 1/125s. There's no great dialogue between capturer and captured, as there is with a video camera. The short time of photography is distinct to the extended time of filming, in which a bodily and verbal dialogue can be established. That's why I haven't developed collaborative projects in photography. Of course, they are possible, and I do have a student who conducts a photographic project with the Yanomami. In my case, however, all my Kuikuro friends and I do is to reciprocally capture each other's images (with mobile phones, photography is everywhere). The capturing nature of photography poses certain problems down the line. Let me give you an example: I'm preparing a book with photographs I've taken over the last 35 years of research in the Amazon. Can I just make a collection of captures? How can I emphasize the relationality of these experiences? How can I reflexively conceive and convey my "place of focus" (my standpoint, my positionality)?

NDL: In Art Effects (2020), your last published book in English, you juxtapose back and forth a certain canonical tradition of Christian art with an Amazonian one, in which their theorizations and problematizations illuminate each other in order to bring forth the conceptual landscapes that sustain them. By means of both technical and conceptual junctures, you examine what have been historically key representational issues such as resemblance and likeness, and their creational symmetry in tensions like the one mediating anthropomorphism and transformation. With this journey in mind, what do you think ethnography in general, and anthropology in particular, can add to the study of artistic experience and expression, and to the conversation that adjacent disciplines like art history or aesthetics are pushing forward?

 CF: I think we have a substantive contribution to make to art history and aesthetics. First of all, we must endeavor to provincialize Western art, including Christian art before the era of art. Its obsession with iconism, naturalism and verisimilitude are characteristic of a specific civilization, forged in the encounter between Jewish and Greek traditions. The image regime of this civilization, with its obsessions, anxieties, and tensions, cannot be taken as universal, nor can it be projected in any simple way to non-Western arts. So, we can help to refresh and widen the scope of art history. Secondly, anthropology is an art of minority and subalternity. What we do best is to explore the fractures of the lived world, finding vitality in the fringes and margins of the system. We can certainly help traffic this vitality into the field of art and art history.

NDL: In a different vein of your work, I was revisiting my notes on your visual essay Amazonian House-ing, co-authored with Thiago da Costa Oliveira and curated in the 2021 Oikography Colloquy in Cultural Anthropology. It caught my attention that the key verb you use to describe the purpose of a project engaging with what we typically conceive as an artistic medium, such as photography, is ‘to document.’ Considering the longstanding centrality of representation in Western artistic expressions, practices, and historiography, as well as its presence in anthropological debates concerning praxis, what do you conceive as the political stakes that come to the forefront when the emphasis in your own scholarship is put on the act of documenting, and not just of representing?

 CF: My use of the term "documentation" probably results from a biograhical reason. Since the late 1990s, I've been working on projects of linguistic and anthropological documentation. More specifically, back in 2000, the Kuikuro invited me to develop a project for documenting all their songs and rituals in order to build an archive for themselves. I worked on this for 10 years, alongside the audiovisual training project, which was part of the documentation project. So, "documenting" is a verb that comes easily out of my mouth.

In the visual essay you're referring to, it was a photographic reportage on the housing changes in the city of Altamira as part of the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant. We wanted to produce a representation of this process, but first and foremost, we understood that it was necessary to document it. The displaced residents themselves wanted us to "document" what was happening to them. Or more exactly, they wanted us to produce a counter-documentation that would contradict the documentation produced by the construction company in the process of their eviction from their homes. Documentation was a field of dispute and contestation, a highly political category. So, I think it was the right term to employ.

NDL: With this in mind, and circling back to the beginning, what does the intertwining of art and anthropology offer in terms of intervening, and hopefully also complicating, disrupting, and sabotaging, the pressing political issues of a world that is actively shrinking?

CF: What a tricky question! I’d say that expanding the world today implies both fragmenting it and creating new "gluing" mechanisms. Let's take Denilson Baniwa’s artistic practices as an example. He fragments a universal art narrative, undermines colonial imaginaries and gives new meanings to a hegemonic national history. At the same time, he offers a healing process in which new relations can flourish. It’s a bit like a collage, in which fragments are brought together and glued, producing something new and expansive. I guess anthropology can also do this job of fragmenting and gluing at the same time. The postmodern gesture of fracturing no longer seems sufficient; today, we need new ways of reassembling the human and non-human world.