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Visual Anthropology

  Visual (from Latin visus, ‘sight’) anthropology includes a number of relatively recent and diverse interests concerning the visual dimensions of human behaviour: it is generally agreed by anthropologists that vision is not simply about the objective sense-experience of the world. It is customary to think of vision as being patterned by the brain, but this is dependent on learned codes which themselves are determined by cultural ideas about vision. Anthropologists have approached this topic in other societies through a number of inroads: an investigation into how sight may be culturally encoded; in terms of what people say about vision; through a consideration of visual media, such as drawings, paintings, sculptures, architecture, personal decorations, masquerades, films and so forth. Such artefacts are vehicles of social ideas and values that inform on the aesthetic domains of a particular person or community, as well as serving some practical usage within it, such as political and ritual purposes.

Visual culture within the Abelam community of New Guinea, for example, centres on the elaborately painted façades and panels of ceremonial house fronts associated with the tambaram cult. Only initiates of the cult are tutored into recognizing the forms and their significance. On the other hand, the anthropologist Anthony Forge remarked on how he had to instruct Abelam people to interpret photographs—not a visual medium that they were familiar with. The visual arts for the Abelam people meant a different way of seeing related to their experiences with the tambaram cult. This example serves to illustrate the point that vision involves elements of socialization of learned codes.

The Hindu idea of darshan in devotional cults interprets vision as an objective force, which can mingle both the god\'s and the devotee\'s vision. Vision is conceived as so powerful that it can leave the body and, if combined with malicious sentiments, which need not always be conscious, could do harm to the person the gaze is directed at.

The concept of the ‘evil eye’ appears in various forms around the world. Among the Muslim people of North Africa, amulets of the hand of the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad or pieces of decorated blue glass are used to avert the invidious gaze of the ‘evil eye’. In the Mediterranean countries, the ‘evil eye’ can be diverted if it is tempted by sexual desire, and an appropriate gesture is believed to deflect its force. To this end, a phallic amulet was once worn as a protective talisman.

Other interpretations of artefacts or symbols may be more complex, for they do not always signify a particular meaning in a straightforward manner. Whereas different senses of aesthetic appreciation and a series of styles in particular artefacts may be noted, they are articulated in a different register to the language we use to describe them. Various theories seek to address this central problem concerning the relationship between the visual realm and its meaning articulated in language. Some have likened the visual arts to poetry or music for they all avoid literal descriptions.

The visual medium of film has now become an established part of anthropological enquiry. Pioneering work was done by Robert Flaherty, who screened his film on North American Eskimos, Nanook of the North, in 1922. Ethnographic film is usually the name given to the genre of films in which anthropological films about another community are made. But this is a restrictive term, for anthropologists have employed a wide range of films and film techniques that defy attempts at categorizing. Films made by indigenous members of a society are particularly illuminating if one wishes to find out about their social lives and thoughts, provided within which is an arena for considering concepts of visuality. Hindi popular film is a prime example of indigenous film-making that provides an insight into different visual conventions, informing on such themes as religious views, kinship relations—particularly that between the mother and son—archetypes about women, caste issues, urbanization, nationalism and ambivalent views about the West—a place admired for its technological achievements, but also characterized as morally licentious. RK

See also beauty; nature/culture; space and time; symbols; tourism; Westernization.Further reading Karl Heider, Ethnographic Film; , Robert Layton, The Anthropology of Art; , P. Mayer (ed.), Socialisaton: the View from Social Anthropology.



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Other Terms : Parapsychology | Representative Theory Of Perception | Ethnocentrism
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