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"The Challenge of Indigenous Peoples" co-edited by Barbara Glowczewski and Rosita Henry | Jennifer Hays - 21 décembre 2011

Review of book co-edited by Barbara Glowczewski and Rosita Henry, The Challenge of Indigenous Peoples : Spectacle or Politics ? Oxford, The Bardwell Press, 2011.

List of contributors : Wayne Jowandi Barker ; Jessica De Largy Healy ; Barbara Glowczewski ; Rosita Henry ; Wolfgang Kempf ; Jari Kupiainen ; Stéphane Lacam-Gitareu ; Géraldine Le Roux ; Arnaud Morvan ; Martin Préaud ; Dominique Samson Normand de Chambourg ; Alexandre Soucaille ; Anke Tonnaer

The Challenge of Indigenous Peoples : Spectacle or Politics was originally published in French as Défi indigène (“Indigenous challenge” 2007) following a collaboration program that the editors, Barbara Glowczewski and Rosita Henry organized to support young researchers working in Australia. The book was released in English in 2011. The chapters in this collection link art, performance, political participation and identity through explorations of indigenous peoples creative expressions at local and global levels. Editor Barbara Glowczewski is Director of Research at the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale (CNRS/EHESS/Collège de France). She has worked extensively with indigenous Australians and is regularly involved with exhibitions of Aboriginal art. Rosita Henry is Associate Professor of Anthropology at James Cook University, Australia and a research fellow of the Cairns Institute. She is author of numerous articles on Indigenous cultural festivals and the politics of intangible heritage. The authors of the book chapters are anthropologists and artists who have been deeply involved with (or who are from) indigenous communities and working in a variety of contexts.

As the chapters of the book describe, indigenous communities face many challenges – is it possible to define what “the” primary challenge is ? The subtitle of this book “spectacle or politics ?” narrows down the topic to a more specific challenge confronting indigenous peoples : how to participate in a globalized world on equal footing, when this participation seems to demand that indigenous peoples simultaneously maintain “authenticity” and conform to the political, social, and communication rules of a very different cultural setting (whether this is a political setting, an art exposition, or the staging of a play). In a recent interview in Sorosoro, Glowczewski describes the subheading as a response to misconceptions about what it means for indigenous groups to “expose themselves in the public arena” (for example through art, music, drama and other performances, including political ones). For such peoples, she argues, the challenge is “to claim a right to existence by producing the image they wish to give of themselves, both as a cultural approach and as a political statement on self-determination.” This challenge is part of an ongoing process – Glowczewski describes changes in the participation of Aboriginal and other Indigenous peoples over the past twenty years as “a revolution in the history of contemporary art through tangible and intangible productions that carry a political message.”

This is a common thread of the chapters in this book – how Aboriginal communities in general, and in particular artists and performers, respond to the imposition of various colonial forms – of government, ways of living, of artistic styles and event organization – by adapting where necessary, re-casting into their own cultural models, and by resiting in creative and powerful ways – often through performance. In an environment in which avenues of cultural and political expression are severely limited, as for the vast majority of Aboriginal Australians, and where the limitations on expression are linked to other rights, including land rights, educational rights, language rights, and cultural rights – the very act of creativity becomes a message, and artistic expression becomes inherently political.

The chapters in the first section of the book, The Paradigm of Indigenous Australians, focus almost entirely on Aboriginal Australians, and recount individual experiences with communities from different parts of the country (these include Warlpiri and Kukatja in the western and central desert, Yolngu and Yanyuwa, Garrwa, Mara and Kurdanji in Northern Territory, Kija and Yawuru/Djabirr Djabirr in the Kimberley, and artists from cities of the South). The chapters explore, among other topics, issues of agency and authenticity and the complicated negotiations that indigenous peoples undertake to achieve a balance. Can indigenous peoples maintain agency in arenas (political, or artistic) that are often highly circumscribed ? Who has the right to decide what is “authentic” and what is not ? How can indigenous peoples balance the demand for “authenticity” in the various markets and cultural and artistic spheres in which they are acting, with the need or desire to engage with a globalized world as equals and not only as “indigenous representatives ?” How does performance become a political arena – including at the community level ? The chapters by Tonnaer, Morvan, le Roux and Barker in particular address these issues. All of the chapters explore to some extent the imposition of colonial categories, institutions and values ; and the ways in which this imposition is contested, in myriad ways, by Aboriginal Australians. Lacam-Gitareu , for example, describes the imposition of a process of “sedentarization” by the Austrialian government – and the ways in which the young Aboriginal Australians maintain their mobility, and cultural identify, becoming nomadic in new ways and with shifting emphasis.

The presumption of a necessary dichotomy between “traditional” (i.e. “authentic”) and “modern” can present a barrier to indigenous peoples who wish to engage in the modern world but on their own terms, and for their own purposes. De Largy Healy describes a strategic use of “modern” technology in her chapter on her work with the Galiwin’ku Indigenous Knowledge Centre, which was established for the purpose of “the preservation and transmission of traditional knowledge” (47). She describes how the Yolngu used the digital technology for their own purposes of documentation and representation, and how these new media, and associated forms of knowledge, are layered onto existing cultural practices and interpreted within specific cultural contexts. Towards this purpose the Yolngu collaborated with an anthropologist (De Largy Healy) and benefited from her skill with the technology ; in turn, she describes the rich insight she gained through these cooperative efforts.

Préaud describes another collaborative relationship, between the Yolngu and Kija people, and director Andrish Saint Claire. In this case, the “technology” that people borrow is the narrative style itself, which allows the Aboriginal communities to construct dramatic devices that both conform to their own cultural performances, and still communicate a message in a way that can be absorbed by public “consumers.” Préaud identifies the way the drama becomes a part of a broader dialogue with the aim of changing relationships – an act of intervention, in the absence of formal bodies that can negotiate on equal levels in the political sphere.

The second section of the book, Interpretations and Reappropriation : From the Exotic to the Inalienable looks at similar issues in a wider context. The chapters by Glowczewski and Henry, Kempf, and Kupiainen analyze cultural and art festivals among Oceanian peoples in the South Pacific, and examine how participation in such festivals allow people to “creatively confront the contradictory social forces that affect their lives, by establishing networks of cultural exchange and by proposing alternative models of human sociality” (Henry, 248). The chapters by Soucaille and De Chambourg examine indigenous communities outside of Oceania, the Adivasi in India, and Khanti and Mansi in Siberia. And examine the connection between traditional games and performance and changing political contexts, and the specific ways in which these indigenous peoples use the spaces and platforms open to them to articulate political demands – as well as the limitations of these avenues of expression.

In her opening chapter, Glowczewski points out that the paradigm informed by “nationalism” and attached to the idea of boundaries between nations, groups and cultures is challenged by Indigenous communities today.

« A lesson from Indigenous peoples is that the meeting of the world of diasporas and contemporary technologies with very old ways of functioning that have produced many languages and life styles, can be mediated by underlying currents that traditionally connected people. It is thanks to these flows that cultural diversity could flourish – just like the biodiversity of the environment is preserved on the condition of its ecological dynamic connections. »

With observations such as this one, the editors and authors succeed in weaving together identity, performance, politics, with issues of global concern – the survival of the planet, its biodiversity, and humans as a species. This is a valuable book that opens up new ways for us to talk about cultural diversity and political participation of indigenous peoples.

Author of the book review : Jennifer Hays

Read more

An interview of Barbara Glowczewski on the occasion of the book’s publication on Sorosoro’s webiste

Read the presentation of Chapter 5 entitled "Two Intercultural Stagings with the Yolngu and the Kija : the representation of relations" by Martin Préaud

Personal web page of Barbara Glowczewski

Personal web page of Rosita Henry

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