Replies to questioning looks

19 Sep 2018

As a seminar project, ethnology students at LMU took a plunge into the archives of Munich’s Five Continents Museum. They emerged with fascinating ethnographic photos – and findings that place their subjects in historical context.

To understand the content of a photograph, one must understand the context in which it was taken. Nine students of Ethnology at LMU have had the opportunity to delve into the archives of the Fünf Kontinente museum in Munich – and selected historical photographs taken in the field by ethnologists, explorers and colonial administrators, or in commercial studios between 1862 and 1956. Many of these images can be quite disconcerting to us today, and they raise lots of questions. In the course of a seminar project, the students who chose the images set out to research their backgrounds and dug up some intriguing stories.

Queen Emma. Photographer: Menzies Dickson (1840-1891). Honolulu/Hawaii, prior to 1872. Museum Fünf Kontinente, Inv.Nr. 92-421 N [17]

Queen Emma was a member of the Hawaiian aristocracy, and was brought up by her aunt, who had married an Englishman. In 1856 Emma married King Kamehameha IV. However, throughout her life as Queen, she was subjected to biting criticism from other members of the royal household because one of her grandfathers was also English. Silke Tauber, who lived in Hawaii after graduating from high school and has spent time there during her studies, has this to say about the image: “I find this photo particularly interesting because nothing about it conforms to the usual Hawaiian stereotypes – natives in grass skirts proffering garlands of flowers. It is in fact an example of the photographs that were customarily used as visiting cards at that time, showing Queen Emma, a royal personage, dressed in the Western style.” Pictures like this were subsequently acquired by many European collectors.

To provide further context for this image, Silke also studied photographic portraits of Hawaiian women who did not belong to the indigenous aristocracy: “These photos are often annotated with comments like ‘splendid specimen’ or ‘father half-breed, mother pure-blooded’. These inscriptions reveal that collectors categorized these women within the pseudo-scientific and now long discarded typologies of their time, and demonstrate that the photo of Queen Emma is quite exceptional.”

In accordance with legislation passed in 1959, when Hawaii became the 50th state of the US, the population is still being officially classified into ethnic groups.

Photographer: Eduard Gangl. PoPo, Gulf Province, British New Guinea, 1927-30. The woman on the right is thought to be Fenja (Feodosia) Gangl. The figure on the left has not been identified. Museum Fünf Kontinente, Inv.Nr. FO-107-1-46

Silvia Lamprecht researched the context in which this photo, taken in what was then British New Guinea, was made. It depicts three aboriginal inhabitants of the island, who are flanked by two Europeans in summer dresses. But that is not all the photo has to say. Silvia discovered that it was probably taken on the occasion of a theatrical performance.

“The photographer in this case, Eduard Gangl, was originally from Bohemia. He joined the Anglo-Persian Oil Company as a drilling specialist, impelled by curiosity and a sense of adventure, and the picture was taken in Southern New Guinea, where the company was prospecting for oil,” Silvia explains. “Anglo-Persian recruited local people as workers. They were brought to the company’s settlement, where they remained for a year. In effect they served as forced labor. The colonial government had imposed a poll tax on indigenous groups who continued to live ostensibly independent lives. The aim of the tax was to compel them to earn money, thus bringing them into the labor force and making them more amenable to administrative supervision.”

Gangl, however, felt himself responsible for his workers’ welfare. He organized sporting activities and put on plays on work-free days, partly in order to forestall disputes and conflicts between members of different kinship groups. “The photo was probably taken as a memento of such a – no doubt well-meaning – event, which was organized entirely by the European employees,” Silvia says. As such it cannot be seen simply as a typical example of colonial arrogance: “In hindsight, it is all too easy to assign the roles of victim and perpetrator. But we still profit today from colonial structures that discriminate against native peoples and deprive them of a voice in their own affairs, while we – at best – strive to be open and friendly to individuals in the interests of peaceful coexistence.”

Little Crow’s Son Wo-Ne-Na-Pa (One Who Comes in Sight). Photographer: Probably R.N. Fearon. Fort Snelling Prison Camp/Minnesota, 1863/64. Stereophotograph, Museum Fünf Kontinente, Inv.Nr. 3138

In the 19th century, a large market existed for photographs of the landscapes and inhabitants of the North American interior. Many of those that survive, like this one, are stereophotos taken from slightly different viewpoints. This technique was intended to give a more realistic impression of Indians and buffalos on the prairie to viewers ensconced in their own sitting-rooms. Ethnology student Alena Vodde chose to study 3D photos from the Museum’s collection. “With the aid of a stereoscope,” she says, “viewers could set off on a journey to a strange land without leaving the comfort of their armchairs and – in the period of the medium’s greatest popularity – at little cost. Thanks to the efforts of galleries and publishers, stereo images in the form of postcards and trading cards became immensely popular.”

The bourgeoisie in Europe was fascinated by such exotic images, which of course further increased demand. Alena’s research revealed that, in all probability, the photos were marketed commercially without the knowledge or permission of their subjects. The idea of a copyright in photos was still unknown.

This image of Wo-Wi-Na-Pe, a member of the Santee Dakota, was certainly taken without the subject’s permission. It was made in a prison camp in Fort Snelling, where over 1600 Dakotas were incarcerated. “The camp was set up at the time of the Dakota War, which broke out partly in response to infringements of treaty commitments by the US Government. During the winter of 1862/63, between 100 and 300 internees died of disease owing to the poor living conditions in the fort – including women and children who had taken no part in the fighting.”

Sumô Wrestler, Photographer unknown. Tokyo/Yokohama, Japan, 1880-1910. Hand-colored albumen print, Museum Fünf Kontinente, Inv.Nr. FO-22-1-41

Johannes Bächer set out to find souvenir photographs from 19th-century Japan in the Museum’s archives. Toward the end of the century, the Land of the Rising Sun was regarded in the West as an unspoiled paradise and became one of the period’s most enchanting ‘faraway places’. “Contemporary photographers were only too happy to confirm this perception,” says Johannes. “As clever businessmen, they focused on samurais and geishas as ideal motifs that corresponded to the conventional clichés.” Sumo wrestlers were another favorite subject. And the sumôtori shown here is an undeniably imposing figure, and is still capable of holding the attention of the modern viewer.

“What is remarkable, however,” says Johannes, “is that these clichés are now as potent as ever. This explains why such images appear to us to be readily comprehensible, and convey an immediate impression of ‘Japan’. But this is Japan as we wish to conceive of it and experience it – a version of Japan that never really existed, either then or now. This underlines the extent to which our image of Japan has been influenced by artists, and how tenacious a hold such stereotypes can have on our imaginations.”

For the practical/seminar in “Ethnographic Imagery and its (Re-)Presentation in Museums”, the collaboration with the Museum Fünf Kontinente – formerly the State Museum of Ethnology – proved to be a very happy one, as it enabled the students to transfer their theoretical knowledge directly into practice. “The seminar was designed to combine theoretical engagement with ethnographic photography with research on hitherto neglected materials, and the practical presentation of the results in an exhibition,” explains lecturer Anka Krämer de Huerta, who led the seminar together with Paul Hempel. “Writing texts for exhibitions is a very good way of learning how to express scientifically correct statements in language that is readily understandable to the general public and is entertaining to read.“ and the young creators of this exhibition have certainly met these demanding criteria.

Source: Philipp Thalhammer / LMU

The exhibition “Fragende Blicke” is on view until 30. June 2019 in the Museum Fünf Kontinente (Maximilianstr. 42, Munich).

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