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Contesting Art

MacClancy, J. (ed.) (1997). Contesting Art: Politics, and identity in the Modern World Oxford, Berg.

Anthropology | Identity | Culture | Ethnicity | Politics | Art

I was particularly interested in the first chapter and parts of the remaining chapters especially Anthropology, Art and Contest (MacClancy, 1997, P1-25). Anthropology is something that I have come across frequently in the past few years, however, I am unclear of its relevancy and application to my practice. One definition that came from the above book described:

Anthropologists are not only commentators on social lives, they are participants in them as well. They do not just observe the world they act in it and may attempt to ensure that their work has a reflexive effect on what they study

(Oxford Brookes University, 1997, p. 189 pp1).

This statement aligns with a recent discussion we had with the external examiner regarding the subjectivity of our practice. There is no such thing as an impartial observer. We are changed by what we observe, what we do with our observations and our actions can also effect changes in what we observe. I have come across something similar to this in organisational development in the Hawthorn Effect in simple terms a phenomenon where observation changed the behaviours of the observed.

University College London describes Anthropology as

the ‘study of humanity in all its aspects: from our evolution as a species, to our relationship with the material world, and our vast variety of social practices and cultural forms. (UCL - University College London, 1999-2015)’.

My practice certainly has some connections to anthropology, in addition, I interpret what I find out, establish connections and aim to communicate something about the topic or issue and create aesthetic responses to it.

I recently discussed my practice with an Ethnographer and his response was that my work has similarities to applied anthropology. Applied Anthropology is described as

a ‘complex of related, research-based, instrumental methods which produce change or stability in specific cultural systems through the provision of data, initiation of direct action, and/or the formulation of policy (Van Willigen, 2005)’

in other words the practical application of Anthropological theory. I’m not sure my work is as exact as in the field of Applied Anthropology, but my practice certainly has connections to the approach.

Another topic that was raised in the book was the topic of Ethnography. Ethnography is derived from Greek ‘ethnos’ as in folk, people, nation and ‘grapho’ as in I write, and is

the systematic study of people and cultures. It is designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study (Wikipedia, 2015).

There are elements of Ethnography in my practice as well, I have observed what is absent and what is present in the location of Rhynie in relation to Rhynie Man, from these observations I have identified there was a need for a presence in order for the community to link to the artefact and through a number of participatory events I have enabled conversations and events to take place that have raised the profile of Rhynie Man and established links with him, which longer term may help to support his return to the village and stewardship of his care in the future.

Although this book was published in 1997 and is almost 20 years old, it still holds relevance and is still referenced as a key text. MacClancy is now working as a Professor of Anthropology, Oxford Brookes University and has a particular interest in Sport, Food, Art, Ethnicity and Nationalism.

Issues such as contesting art are relevant today, there have been recent debates about the reburial of Richard III after being found in a carpark, and only last month artefacts from internment camps were withdrawn from auction (reported in the New York Times 16h April 2015).

The ownership and stewardship of artefacts will continue to be relevant and as communities (re)gain autonomy and strength in numbers towards taking action I would surmise that the occurrence of contest will continue to increase.

Ethnie’ are a kind of ‘chronotope’ of myth and symbols of communities, the symbolic and social capital of a group, their actualizations, reproductions and negotiations, the experimental basis of cultural recognition and intimacy. (Oxford Brookes University, 1997, pp. 87, 4)

To lose elements of their ‘ethnie’, for example myths, symbols values and memories, the community is at risk of losing what contributes to their kinship, religion or belief system. These things contribute to their distinctiveness, shared history and identity. As with the term chronotope; how time and space are represented in language and discourse, the notion of ethnie also has factors that represent the qualities of a folk, communities and a nation. This is a pertinent topic as Scotland moves forward from a referendum in 2014 and the recent governmental election where the colour of Scotland changed from red to gold with 56 out of 59 constituencies now being represented by the SNP.

This topic is interesting and could potentially feed into future projects. It could also be argued that it is relevant to the repatriation of the Rhynie Man symbol stone to Rhynie. I think the weight of argument is still in the favour of the council retaining Rhynie Man, however, I believe it would be a different situation altogether if the council wanted to take away an artefact that the community already had a connection with, it would be like France asking for the Statue of Liberty back. With this in mind the difference between these scenarios is that the community has a connection with the artefact. So by creating a presence and therefore the potential to connect to Rhynie Man, the weight of the community may increase over that of the Council, in simple terms, the quality of connection is critical. The question that arises from this discussion is does a creative community narratives with a participatory approach increase the connection a community can have with an artefact and can it lead to increased ownership, stewardship and potentially its return to the community.

The text is edited by Jeremy MacClancy, at the time, Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University. The series of chapters came from a series of seminars entitled ‘Art and contested Identities’ which took place in 1994 as part of the Identity and Ethnicity seminar series.

The book asks more questions than it answers and presents the discourse topics as starting points for further research and discussion. I found myself hunting online and in other books for further information after most sentences. There are comprehensive notes and references which helped with clarity and context as well as pointing the reader towards further research.

It is a huge topic, I’m interested in Art as property and am reminded of painting, sculpture and ceramics (Hungry) being used as propaganda. There were also issues of the changing nature of perception over time which could also be said of Rhynie Man – initially perhaps a statement, advert or marker but also now a totem of new beginnings, economic development and self-determination?

I’m still unsure about where Rhynie Man sits in these debates, is this project part of the commodification of art question? And am I comfortable with this. Do using him as a tool for raising awareness and familiarity degrade his image? Politicising of artefacts, do I agree with this? Am I contributing to it? I don’t have all the answers.

I also realise that the simple act of getting school pupils to send a symbolic Valentine Card to Rhynie Man could be seen as a political act. There are also parallels between some of the issues surrounding Rhynie Man for example his return, should it be to a museum in Huntly or to Rhynie itself?

Art as property. Art objects are things, and as such may be possessed until relatively recently the question as to whom these possessions belonged was regarded by curators of Western Museums as unproblematic. (Oxford Brookes University, 1997, pp. 16, 4)

One example of a similar situation was from Cameroon, East Africa. After negotiating the return of Afo-a-kom from the US the authorities wanted it to return to the capital, the locals were adamant that it should return to where it came from. The two were inseparable.


My search for cultural difference for towns within the AB54 area the argument for finding artefacts is gaining weight.

Art becomes, partially by default, a key means of proclaiming continuing cultural difference…….art as a major contemporary site of cross-cultural contest. (Oxford Brookes University, 1997, pp. 2,2 & 3)

Also there were examples of integrating people’s embodiment of a place in their responses:

This particular event (Yirrkala bark petitions, 1963) exemplifies an increasingly common, increasingly significant occurrence – the use of art objects for contestatory purposes in the multicultural milieu we now participate in.

This example involved the Yirrkala people of Australia framing the request with symbols and markings that demonstrated and explained their understanding of the area in their own terms, their heritage, knowledge and connection.

Yirrkala bark petitions.jpg

Figure 2 - Yirrkala Bark Petitions - 1963 (AIATSIS, 2013)

There are potential links to Scotland from these studies, for example; the ‘ownership’ of land, common ground, travellers and the loss of their traditional practices. This links into work of Andy Wightman, and Land Matters; land reform and the history of feudal law, the improvements through to the class system. These similaries are not necessarily applicable to this project, but potentially starting points for future work and exploration.

Above all we have to remember that

Anthropologists (and artists!) are not separate from their home societies. They and their discourses are component parts of them. (Oxford Brookes University, 1997, pp. 21,3)

I think this is an important fact to remember and I can see this demonstrated in the relationship of Rhynie Woman to the village of Rhynie. The artists are influencing and changing perceptions as well as creating conditions of and support for change. Find the artists in the community and gain their support in moving the project forward…

AIATSIS. (2013). Online exhibition archives. Retrieved from AIATSIS:

Art-Law Centre - University of Geneva. (2012). Art-Law Centre - University of Geneva. Retrieved from Arthemis:

Oxford Brookes University. (1997). Contesting Art - Art Politics and Identity in the Modern World (Vol. Ethnicity and Identity series). (J. MacClancy, Ed.) Oxford and New York: Berg.

UCL - University College London. (1999-2015, ). UCL Anthropology. Retrieved May 26th , 2015, from University College London:

Van Willigen, K. S. (2005). Applied Anthropology: Domains of Application. Westport, Conn: Praeger.

Wikipedia. (2015, May 17th). Ethnography. Retrieved May 26th, 2015, from Wikipedia:

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