When Do Ethnographic Objects Become Art?

When researching reviews of the Fiji exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre, I came across an article in Apollo Magazine, (which included a preview of the Fiji exhibition), entitled “When Do Ethnographic Objects Become Art?” By Nicholas Thomas. He describes how in the 1960s and 70s, anthropologists “well aware of the stimulus provided by African, Oceanic and native American works to various of the great 20th-century modernists objected to the treatment of these works as art, exemplified by the deliberate highlighting of aesthetics and form in the sparse displays typical of many north American art galleries “. Instead, ethnographic museums chose to display objects differently. He notes that the aesthetic qualities of particular pieces were not necessarily emphasised and that the works were presented in relation to culture, society, belief and ritualistic use.

He then describes how this approach was also criticised as leading to Western art galleries being reserved solely for Western art and in some way discriminating against art forms from other cultures.

Thomas points out that “it is not unusual for famous works of art to have had many lives” i.e. different uses and significance attached to them over time. He also suggests “that the old opposition of art and ethnography was superseded from the start: like any other artists, indigenous makers were acting within a certain milieux, responsive to the demands and interests of their clients and communities, but also inclined to experiment“.

Reading this article was like fitting in to place another piece of the jigsaw called “What is Art”. It broadened my view of how objects from different cultures can be seen both in terms of their original use but also as objects of artistic creation or stimulus to others.

The article is at: