Man – Object – Jaguar / Project Description
An Approach to Perspectivism
“The objects in the depot are alive!” – This assumption suggests itself when visiting the South American ethnological collection of the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem, for the stored ethnographic artefacts are made almost exclusively of (formerly) living material. They are part of the close connection between humans and their natural environment. However, the transformation of “nature” into “culture” is by no means a one-sided affair: wearing feathers or masks and the use of utensils such as shaman’s stools or rattles effect a power of transformation that can grant people entrance to the world of animals or animal spirits.
The basic principle of perspectivism is that all things were originally sentient, connected by a shared culture. The difference lies merely in the outer shell, the “natures”, and thus in the perspectives. Objects in the museum that are treated as supposedly cultural-historical evidence often assume the status of subjects possessing agency in the indigenous ontologies of the Amazonian lowlands.1 Hence, only a small mental leap lies between the insight that things are alive and the theory of perspectivism.
Despite the great relevance to ethnological museums, these approaches do not play a role in exhibitions. This may have to do with the difficulties of an adequate conveyance of theoretical discourses that are, for the most part, only held among circles of experts.
In the Humboldt-Forum, we would like to face this challenge in the future and present the South American ethnographic artefacts under the title “The Life of Things”. This includes attempts such as perspectivism, which are treated in the sense of the writing culture paradigm as subjective approaches to indigenous ontologies. Moreover, we want to avoid stripping the objects of their magic through prosaic ethnological theories.
The idea for the Lab project “Man – Object – Jaguar” resulted from the search for a corresponding form of presentation. As a consequence of the representation-critical basic attitude, the realization was conducted from the outset in cooperation with the artist Sebastián Mejía, who in earlier works has dealt with changes in perspective and the “humanity” of animals (e.g., “Es geht auch anders”). The project was additionally conceived to include the reception by certain target groups and to change specific aspects during the course of the exhibition. The experienced Eta Boeklund office was commissioned for this task.
From the Idea to its Realization
In realizing the idea in the form of a spatial installation, ethnological theories were to be brought to light along with the extent to which museal interpretations often deviate from indigenous realities. The aim was to draw a picture that does not play with exoticism and jungle fantasies, but utilises an analytical approach.
Sebastián Mejía and I viewed the collection several times and came upon the shaman’s stool in the shape of a jaguar2 as the suitable object. Theodor Koch-Grünberg had acquired it from the Yekuana in the region of the upper Orinoko in 1912. Along with other utensils and ritual songs, these kinds of stools are (to this day) at the service of transforming their owners into other forms of being, as the collector describes in his travelogue.3
Sebastián Mejía sought to create an environment for presenting the shaman’s stool that would visually convey the perspective of the jaguar. Using surveillance cameras integrated as elements of the show, the perspectives are reversed: upon entering the exhibition, the visitors were filmed by a camera and projected onto a drawn basket pattern of the Yekuana4 on the opposite wall. The second camera was positioned in the eye of a huge drawn jaguar. The visitors recorded from the perspective of the predator were projected onto semi-transparent curtains that simultaneously served as room dividers. On one curtain, a herd of peccaries was depicted, because: “Conversely, animals do not see humans as humans. The jaguars see us as prey, for example, as a kind of wild pig, or more precisely, as peccaries.”5 The other curtain was penetrated by an arrow directed at half height to the beholder and additionally emphasized the image of the human as prey in the eye of the jaguar.
The stool was not placed centrally in the room, but on a plinth under the stairs behind several Plexiglas panels. These were partially embellished with scratched drawings depicting a shaman sitting on the jaguar stool, smoking a cigarette and turning into a jaguar. This visual comment on the object made its original use comprehensible for the visitors. The moment of transformation itself was shown on the middle one of the five panels with the picture of a jaguar. The two adjacent panels depicted the smoking shaman looking in different directions. The backdrop of the room was a drawn river scene.
At the opening, the wax-cylinder recording of a Yekuana shaman’s song was played. As with other aspects, the sound concept changed during the period of the exhibition.
Guide for Further Reflection
In retrospect, the idea of visualizing changes in perspective in an exhibition appears more complex than expected. The threshold to engage with it was (unintentionally) high; many visitors immediately left the installation without having actually entered the room or read one of the texts. The images they were confronted with were too disconcerting: instead of being able to view “foreign” objects in display cases, as is customary in museums, the visitors saw a distortion of themselves, while the only “ethnographic” object was virtually hidden.
Admittedly, there was a lot of room for imagination. A fact that perhaps appealed especially to children, for according to the accounts of the “live speakers”, the guides of the Humboldt Lab, the installation went down just as well with them as with the expert audience. Was it an exhibition only for young visitors and ethnologists?
Personally, I evaluate the installation “Man – Object – Jaguar” less with regard to the polarized reactions than with regard to the process of development, realization, active reception, and change, which was accessible for the interested public. In my view, this process and particularly the inclusion of different and also unusual perspectives are the actual results of the Lab project; something that can also be applied in this manner to more permanent exhibitions.
1 Cf., for example, Fernando Santos-Granero (ed.): The Occult Life of Things: Native Amazonian Theories of Materiality and Personhood. Tucson, Arizona, 2009. The probably best-known theorist of perspectivism, Viveiros de Castro, mainly focuses on the relationships between humans, animals and spirits (see, for example, Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4). The authors in Santos-Granero’s reader go beyond this interconnection.
2 Jaguar stool, wood, length: 66 cm, height: 23 cm, Inv. no. V A 61093.
3 See Theodor Koch-Grünberg: Vom Roroima zum Orinoko. Schilderung der Reise. Berlin 1917
4 According to David Guss (To Weave and Sing. Art, Symbol and Narrative in the South American Rain Forest. Berkeley, CA 1989), the Wajas (basketwork plates) of the Yekuana Indians, whose power had to be placated by ritual songs, reflect their entire conception of the world. The pattern displayed in the exhibition symbolizes the struggle between good and evil.
5 Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: Une figure humaine peut cacher une affection-jaguar. Réponse à une question de Didier Muguet. Multitudes, 24-1, 2006.
Dr. Andrea Scholz has been a research assistant at the Humboldt Lab Dahlem since March 2014. She studied ethnology, sociology and took Romance studies in Bonn, Germany, as well as conducted research in Mexico (2004) and Venezuela (2007 - 2009). The theme of her dissertation was the recognition of indigenous territories in Guayana/Venezuela, which was published in 2012 under the title “Die Neue Welt neu vermessen” ("Surveying the New World Anew"). During the course of her field studies and internship at the Ethnological Museum (2012 - 2014), Andrea Scholz has intensively dealt with the material culture of the Guayana region.
Sebastián Mejía (*1980 in Columbia) lives and works in Düsseldorf. He studied art from 1999 to 2004 at the Universidad Javeriana, Bogota, Columbia, and from 2007 to 2009 at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste Dresden. His objects, photographs, videos, and installations are experimental arrangements. Exhibitions at, among others, Künstlerhaus Ziegelhütte Darmstadt and ZKM Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, as well as the art fairs Scope Miami Art Show, Volta, New York, The Others Art Fair, Turin, and Preview, Berlin.