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University of Basel

Restful slumber – Latest in sleep research (01/2016)

The art of ethnography

Text: Samuel Schlaefli

Silvy Chakkalakal is studying the photographs and films of the American ethnologist Margaret Mead. Mead’s fieldwork in Samoa and Bali was not simply academic research, but artistic practice.

Dr. Silvy Chakkalakal.
Dr. Silvy Chakkalakal. (Image: University of Basel, Basile Bornand)

Silvy Chakkalakal’s unadorned office in the old university on the Rheinsprung is enough to dispel any naïve exotic fantasies that readers of Claude Lévi-Strauss or Margaret Mead may have about the ethnologist’s profession. There are no carved wooden masks, maps covered with handwritten notes, or research reports smelling of the tropics. On Chakkalakal’s desk sits a large computer screen, together with a pile of lecture notes in ring binders, some thick tomes of recent vintage, and a smartphone.

The only adventurous touch is a small plastic figurine of an archetypal beauty from the TV series “Game of Thrones”. “A gift from a student,” Chakkalakal says. In one of her seminars, she explains, she and her students analyzed image practices in contemporary television series, looking at the use of mythical creatures, zombies, and vampires as cultural models and forms of commentary on political, racial, and class issues. The 37-year-old specializes in this sort of cultural decoding of images.

Childhood as a site of projection

It was Chakkalakal’s curiosity, love of literature, and own experiences as the child of south Indian immigrants to Germany that first attracted her to cultural studies almost 20 years ago. “I have always been interested in making the familiar strange and turning the ethnological gaze on things we regard as mundane.” Her interest soon turned to the subject that would provide a focus for her research over many years: childhood. “It is one of the last great sites of projection of our time. In the discourses around it, we find every imaginable social aspiration, vision, and idea,” Chakkalakal explains.

Chakkalakal sees childhood as a purely cultural category that is deployed differently at different times and in different contexts in the pursuit of social agendas. Before long, she was carrying out her own fieldwork in the area. In interviews with parents from Berlin-Kreuzberg, she looked at the role of parenting practices in constructing the notion of the “foreign child”.

In her PhD, she deepened her historical understanding of the subject. While combing through the archives of the Deutsches Museum in Munich, she happened to come across Friedrich J. Bertuch’s “Bilderbuch für Kinder (Children’s picture book)”, an anthology of images for children that were popular across Germany between 1790 and 1830. These sought to explain the world to children using illustrations of the latest discoveries in botany, zoology, geography, and technology.

Chakkalakal set out to interpret the book from a sociological and historical perspective. She soon realized that the boom in children’s publications of this kind at the beginning of the 19th century was rooted in an emerging bourgeois view of childhood as a sensitive and formative period that determined one’s success in later life. As she sums it up: “The future was made contingent on childhood as a result of people’s desire to protect their own class interests.”

Photos, films, poetry, and music

Chakkalakal’s expertise in the interpretation of images has brought her from Berlin to Basel. A Swiss National Science Foundation joint project between the universities of Basel and Berne, involving cultural anthropologists and English specialists, is looking at the visual fieldwork of three celebrated American ethnologists. These scholars produced their ethnographies in the form not just of academic articles and books, but of photographs, films, poetry, and music. The project aims to discover how their artistic practice related to their practice as academics.

Chakkalakal is concentrating on the ethnologist Margaret Mead. Although millions of copies of her books sold in the 1930s and 1940s, exerting a powerful influence on subsequent generations of ethnologists, little research has been done up till now into her fieldwork using visual media. Chakkalakal has made two trips to Washington to look for pictures and films in the Mead archive in the Library of Congress, uncovering a vast amount of material.

In Bali alone, Mead and her husband Gregory Bateson took more 25,000 photos and shot 500 rolls of film during the 1930s. Chakkalakal has started to place this material within its historical context, a time when interest in other cultures was increasing sharply and ethnology was focused on preservation. Researchers were constantly filming, taking photographs, and making notes, as they suspected that this was the last opportunity to capture indigenous cultures threatened by extinction.

Interventionist anthropology

Mead also provides the inspiration for Chakkalakal’s own work. Throughout her life, the American ethnologist was involved in public discussions and fought against racism, eurocentrism, and traditional role models. “Today, too, cultural anthropologists often work on highly topical social questions that are discussed every day in the media. We must use our knowledge to intervene more actively in public debates,” Chakkalakal is convinced. She cites the example of the sexual assaults in Cologne and how they have been linked to recurrent racial stereotypes.

Recently, Chakkalakal has discovered museum work as a way of making her research accessible to a wider public. With the Johann Jacobs Museum in Zurich, she is currently cooperating on two exhibitions on the cross-fertilization between art and ethnology. Before then, she will be making two lengthy research trips to the USA to rummage through the archives and immerse herself once again in the world of Margaret Mead.

Silvy Chakkalakal studied cultural anthropology and comparative literature in Tübingen, London, and Berlin, gaining her doctorate from Humboldt University in Berlin. Her doctoral thesis, entitled “Die Welt in Bildern (The world in images)”, was published by Wallstein in 2014. She is a research fellow at the Center for Cultural Studies and European Ethnology and is currently studying the visual fieldwork of the American ethnologist Margaret Mead.

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