Conference Review: Visualising the Americas: Kent’s Third Annual Americanist Symposium, University of Kent, June 3, 2019.
What happens when you attempt to condense thousands of words, and years of research, into a single image? This was the challenge put to attendees of the Kent Americanists Symposium in June 2019 – to find and share the single image through which an entire wider discussion could be accessed. Throughout the symposium, a variety of images were presented to the attending scholars: from photography, to pointillist paintings, to portraiture. From these images, attendees would deliver a wider talk contextualising and expanding on their work. Nowhere was the potential for this approach better demonstrated than in the two keynote addresses of the Kent Americanists Symposium.
The keynote lecture was delivered by Professor Luciana Martins (University of London), and was entitled “Expanding the Field: Visual and Material Sources in Latin American Research.” Drawing on her upcoming book, which will formulate a visual archive of expeditionary travel in Latin America from 1850 to 1950, Martins’ project seeks to identify the agency that exists beyond the realm of authorship in the colonial archive. Martins’ wider text will consider three distinct forms of visual technology – drawing, photography, and filmmaking – all of which she incorporated into this single keynote.
Martins did an artful job of tracing the history of Kadiwéu art, or art produced by the indigenous Kadiwéu people of Brazil, across multiple modes and spaces – from their decorated faces appearing in artist-explorer Guido Boggiani’s journals in the late nineteenth century, to the use of their patterns in renovating the GDR Yellow Quarter in Berlin in the early twenty-first century. Boggiani was an Italian ethnographer who travelled throughout South America including Brazil, Paraguar, and Bolivia, to document the native populations there. Yet while including images such as Boggiani’s throughout her analysis, Martins kept the patterns of the Kadiwéu themselves at the forefront, highlighting how transnational and transcultural networks continue to shape the colonial archive. This included the significance of copyright law in these transnational exchanges, noting in particular the role that Sāo Paulo lawyer Alain Moreau played in ensuring copyright that recognised individual pieces of indigenous art. In this way, Martins’ paper traced the development of Kadiwéu art across multiple spaces, highlighting the increased international recognition of the art form, the recovery of artistic agency, and recognition of the unique local context.
The keynote was particularly noteworthy for its powerful use of original archival research and the sheer scope of artistic outputs considered, from exhibitions to journals to architecture. This keynote also benefitted from a vibrant Q & A session, in which the attendees of the Symposium were able to further explore the content of the presentation. The questions enabled Martins to further expand on the relationship between text and image in Boggiani’s journals, contemporary issues regarding removal of native artefacts from their communities for Euro-centric display, and Boggiani’s mysterious death at the hands of the native populations he was attempting to document in 1902. Martins’ keynote prefaced some of the major themes of the day, inviting the audience to consider the impact of colonialism on imagery, and the recovery of neglected histories through image analysis. This masterfully set the tone for the remainder of the Symposium.
The Kent Americanist Symposium was fittingly concluded by the Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies, Dr. Phil Hatfield. The Eccles Centre exists to promote the study of North America through collections at British Library. Through its extensive collection of books, manuscripts and, as demonstrated in this endnote lecture, photographs, Dr. Hatfield advocated for the rich material available within this institution. Hatfield’s endnote lecture, entitled ‘The “Patriotic Indian Chiefs”: Propaganda, Photography and Canada’s First Nations,’ spoke to the multi-faceted nature of both the days’ symposium and the Eccles Centre itself.
This lecture focused on the Canadian Colonial Copyright Collection at the British Library, which Hatfield described as a “funny idiosyncratic beast.” Every image in this digitized collection is a copyrighted piece of work sent to the British Library, as part of a desire to create an ‘Imperial Archive’ where copyrighted information could be stored in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, as this was both impossible to enforce and to organise, the archive was left untouched and un-curated for decades. The collection is raw and unaltered, with an incredibly broad range of subjects – from cats to railways to war. Indeed, the only uniting factor of these images was that their authors felt they were worth copyrighting.
It was within this context that Hatfield presented his selected image: “Patriotic Indian Chiefs” (1915) by Ronald R. Mumford. The image shows four Chiefs in a black car with a Union Jack flag on the bonnet, wearing headdresses and surrounded by ceremonial items. It makes for a startling and layered image. Hatfield probed the dearth of information and context surrounding both the image and the photographer, and he considered Mumford’s other images in order to speak to the prop-like way in which these indigenous people were used, reflecting the wider coercion and patriotism enacted on indigenous people during the Canadian war effort. By presenting this single image, Hatfield opened up a wider discussion that evoked transnational networks, indigenous identities, gender dynamics, issues surrounding agency and propaganda, and multiple histories in both Canada and abroad.
Considering Martin’s keynote and Hatfield’s endnote together clearly demonstrates the benefits of adopting a more image-centric methodology to Americanist research. By distilling research into a single image, and considering the history surrounding the image itself, forgotten and neglected histories can be exposed. Of particular note in both presentations was the role of copyright, and the power dynamics inherent in taking and seeking to own images. Who has the right to own images – a native community, or an individual, or an ‘Imperial Archive’? In addition, who has the authority to curate and dictate the form that an exhibition should take? Considering the transnational journeys of both Kadiwéu art and the Canadian Colonial Copyright Archive allows us to glimpse at a history of different perspectives across multiple countries, identities, and agendas.