Week 4: Ethnographic Societies – Static Rather than Dynamic

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Ethnographic societies are, in simple terms, modern day Neolithic communities. The Neolithic Era was preceded by the Paleolithic Era in Prehistoric Times, the main difference between them being the agricultural revolution where humans first began to practice horticulture and pastoralism–anthropologic terms for farming and herding. Read more about the Paleolithic Era here.

Short video by Survival International and National Geographic about future safety of an Ethnographic tribe in the Amazon.

A more recognizable description for ethnographic cultures is “primitive”; it’s unfortunate connotation wrongly suggests ethnocentric undertones–or that these communities lack, in one way or another, a certain sophistication modern societies supposedly have. In reality, the ethnographic societies of tropical Africa, the Americas, the South Pacific islands, and others, have stayed the same since neolithic times by choice; it’s not that they don’t have the skill or capacity to evolve as Western cultures have, but that they choose to perpetuate custom and tradition instead. (see more in this short video by Khan Academy)

Ethnographic art imaginatively reshapes nature rather than observing it like modern cultures have done. Unlike other cultures, these communities do not concern themselves with the physical world around us but with the invisible, intangible, realm of spirits. Outsiders can only really imagine what kind of reality these communities are experiencing. Furthermore, native and indigenous ethnographic cultures are thickly woven into their animistic religions. Animism is belief that all physical matter has spiritual matter and is focused on the supernatural phenomena that organizes it all. For example, you may have heard of Native Americans referring to a specific plant’s soul or spirit, which is part of a general Plant spirit, which is then part of a larger Life-type spirit.

Male Figure Surmounted by a Bird, from Sepik River, New Guinea. 19th-20th century. Wood, height 48″ (121.9 cm). Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis. University Purchase Kende Sale Fund, 1945. H. W. Janson’s History of Art for Young People. 4th ed.

In hope to appease these spirits into helping ethnographic participants, animists create artful guardian figures that will trap ancestor spirits–which are viewed collectively rather than individually. The heart of ethnographic art, music, dance, color, and culture comes from these ancestor rituals and is personified by abstract and dramatized physical symbols. For example, this New Guinea guardian figure is crafted to be an elaborate physical form where the head is enlarged, alien eyes are emphasized, limbs are out of natural place and shape, and along with the emerging bird, encompass what the ” ‘ otherness’ ” of the spirit world might look like compared to what the physical world is actually like. (Janson)

Others include this wooden mask from Cameroon, who’s facial features have not been rearranged but reconstructed to make a kind of “protective canopy” from its towering eyebrows. Like other African masks, it is crafted for “symmetry of design and the precision and sharpness of their carving.” Also, the mask made of bark cloth over a bamboo frame from the Gazelle Peninsula in New Britain is esteemed to represent a crocodile spirit in “nocturnal ceremonies by dancers carrying snakes.” (Janson)


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Mask, from the Bamenda area, Cameroon. 19th-20th century. Wood, height 26 1/2″ (67.3cm). Rietberg Museum, Zurich. E.v.d. Heydt Collection. Google Images

Mask, from the Gazelle Peninsula, New Briatain. 19th-20th century. Bark cloth, height 18″ (45.7 cm). Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City. H. W. Janson’s History of Art for Young People. 4th ed.

During rituals masks like these are worn to assume the role of a spirit because dealing with the spiritual realm as their physical selves wouldn’t be appropriate for these peoples. The abstract masks mark what is most likely the richest part of ethnographic art; they are made to be incredibly varied, large, and as far from a true depiction of what a physical body can realistically look like. Along with masks, the dance, music, and songs of rituals made to guardian figures are all purposefully dramatized to heighten the separation of the physical and what others may call “normal” world.

Today, we feel the same kind of real identity change in practices like using make up daily, or wearing costumes on Halloween, where we can temporarily feel like we actually are something different than our bare physical selves.

Lastly, most people may find that it may be hard to understand or relate to these modern day Stone Age cultures, but that’s not just because they are drastically different than Western societies. Ethnographic cultures are extremely secretive, and even anthropologists can have a hard time extracting more information than we already know about these peoples; it’s ironic that unchanged as they may be, the amount of information we have on what really goes on in ethnographic cultures doesn’t really change either. The mystery of the strict traditions experienced by the uninitiated can only add to the spectacle participants hope to reach in their abstract and colorful rituals.

S. W. L.

February 6, 2017


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