Who sings the nation? Aesthetic artefacts and their ownership and appropriation
Location E
Date and Time 12th December, 2008 at 13:30


Nayanika Mookherjee (Durham University) nayanika.mookherjee@durham.ac.uk
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Short Abstract

This panel explores anthropologically how the idea of the nation is owned, appropriated and contested through various aesthetic artefacts and mediated by affective senses. This allows reflection on citizenship, ownership of discourses of identity and reconceptualises what constitutes property.

Long Abstract

The idea of a nation is a powerful concept through which claims of citizenship and ownership of discourses of identity are made. The intangible knowledge of the nation is kept alive by governments and communities through a range of aesthetic sources, namely memorials, museums, visual art, literature, songs, films, advertisements, landscapes and the heritage industry. Recently, the debate over repatriation of artefacts appropriated during contexts of imperialism has brought to the centre stage the issue of ownership of cultural property by nation-states.

Again, the representation of various conflict situations and contested pasts by governments and communities through various aesthetic artefacts seeks to evoke and regulate multiple senses. Through the acts of production, consumption and social participation in the aesthetic representation of these ruptured national pasts, the multi-sensorial responses of people enable them to contest and/or make claims of ownership on the idea of the nation, construct identity and citizenship.

The role of the affective senses in mediating the nation and its aesthetic manifestations is thereby crucial in identifying the role of the latter in political practice. This would highlight 'the limits of aesthetic interpretation, the workings of objects in practice, the relations between meaning and efficacy' (Pinney, C and N. Thomas. 2001. Beyond Aesthetics: Art and the Technologies of Enchantment. Berg Publishers) and the politics of postcolonial aesthetics. Finally, how do the sensorial engagements with the idea of the nation and its affective aesthetics create cosmopolitan citizens and allow a reconceptualisation of property and the relation between people and things?

[The panel draws from the title of the book by Judith Butler and Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak's (2007) Who Sings the Nation-State?: Language, Politics, Belonging. London and Kolkata: Seagull Books].

Chair: Howard Morphy
Discussant: Arnd Schneider

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Ownership and Appropriation of Artifacts: A Case Study of Recent Events in Bangladesh

Author: Lala Rukh Selim (University of Dhaka) lala_rukh_selim@yahoo.com

Short Abstract

The planned exhibition in France of the masterpieces from Bangladesh museums brought up issues of the status of artifacts as the identity and patrimony of a nation, ownership and appropriation. Showing them to the world, i.e. the west does not add worth to them but projects them as objects.


Bangladesh is a country with a multicultural and syncretic past reflected in its unique art. The Musee Guimet of France planned an exhibition of about 200 masterpieces from the five major museums of Bangladesh in 2007. The process began in 2005. Citizens filed lawsuits voicing their concerns about the terms of the contract and security measures. The Government formed an investigation committee, which reported diverse irregularities in documentation. Despite demonstrations and lawsuits, the second consignment left for the airport where two priceless sculptures of the fifth century were stolen. The process finally halted and the Bangladesh Government cancelled the show. The Cultural Attaché of the French Embassy audaciously said that the protesters against the show were behind the theft. This debacle brought up the controversy between the national and the universal. The protesters demanded cancellation of the show because of the risks they foresaw, the disregard for the constitution of Bangladesh, and international laws. The proposed benefit of the show for Bangladesh was image improvement by exhibiting its cultural richness. The objection was why it was so important to improve the image to the world, i.e. the west? The existence of the artifacts is most important, as they are not 'objects' but the patrimony of the people. They are most significant in their context and not empty museum pieces. They embody the highest achievements of a people and may not be 'used' or risked for any objective. Their existence continues to affirm the self-worth, identity and history of the people.

Epistemo-patrimony: Speaking, and owning, in the Indian diaspora.

Author: Christopher Pinney (University College, London) c.pinney@ucl.ac.uk

Short Abstract

Cultural rights issues in the Indian diaspora focus on claims to knowledge rather than claims to artefacts. The affective and material dimensions of this epistemo-patrimony are explored.


There are undeniably, calls by Indians for the repatriation of objects (such as the Koh-i-noor diamond). Other objects have been repatriated and have been the centre of ritualized homecomings (eg. The return of Guru Gobind Singh's sacred weapons in 1966, which was documented by Mildred Archer). Nevertheless, what is most striking about the politics of ownership in the Indian diaspora is its focus on issues of knowledge and enunciation. Diasporic pressure groups are largely concerned with "knowledge" rather than "artefacts". This has been dramatized by recent controversies surrounding the work of scholars such as James Laine and Wendy Doniger. This paper explores the reasons for this and suggests that an affective and material epistemo-patrimony is articulated in these contests over enunciative authority.

Reclaiming the past: re-appropriation and the ethos of memory in post-authoritarian Chilean cinema

Author: Walescka Pino-Ojeda (The University of Auckland) w.pino-ojeda@auckland.ac.nz

Short Abstract

Chilean post-authoritarian cinema allegorizes a fragmented nation facing its own displaced affects and traumas, as well as its longing for recovery. Moreover, it has taken up the task of filling the gaps created by years of terror by imagining a possible continuation of socio-cultural projects forced to disappear.


In Chile, the return to “the democracy of agreements” settled between the military and the political elite, entailed not only the enforcement of the Amnesty Laws set up by the authoritarian regime, but also the imposition of strategies for reconciliation that attempted to regulate cultural memory through political means. The suppression of anti-capitalist cultural projects and individuals carried out by state-sponsored terrorism since September 11, 1973 has been continued by the four democratic administrations since 1990. Instead of resorting to political violence, however, these administrations have checked these endeavours by displacing or burying communal memory. Chilean popular art articulates this void and allegorizes a fragmented nation facing its own displaced affects and traumas, as well as its longing for recovery. Moreover, aesthetic languages, in particular film, has taken up the monumental task of filling the gaps created by 17 years of terror by imagining a possible continuation and evolution of socio-cultural projects previously forced, suddenly and violently, to disappear.

'Dancing off-stage: Nationalism and its 'Minor Practices' in Tamil Nadu, India

Author: Kalpana Ram (Macquarie University) kalpana.ram@mq.edu.au

Short Abstract

This paper examines the construction of Indian nationalism in and through dance, but from an oblique perspective: by examining forms that have never made it to the stage. What implicit constructions of aesthetics, the emotions, and of religion, can be found by exploring attam in Tamil Nadu?


'Attam covers an integral aspect of Tamil constructions of the body, a term derived from the Tamil verb meaning 'perform' or 'dance'. Yet it is not a figure on the stage of nationalism, either at the regional or national level. What does a phenomenological exploration of attam and of its unacceptability, reveal to us about the implicit aesthetics and affect that underlie the cultural practices that have been taken and recognized by the nation state as 'dance' in the twentieth century? Indeed, how does attam, which figures as in various states where there is no recognizable subject, challenge conventional understandings even of what it means to 'perform'?

'Never Again': 'Genocidal' Cosmopolitanism, Affective Citizenship and the Bangladesh Liberation War Museum

Author: Nayanika Mookherjee (Durham University) nayanika.mookherjee@durham.ac.uk

Short Abstract

This paper explores affective responses to genocidal exhibits in the Bangladesh Liberation War Museum. The role of cosmopolitan recognition is addressed to theorise what impact this has on the claims to Bangladeshi citizenship. This allows an exploration of the ownership of affect and the nation.


This paper seeks to explore the affective aesthetics that is generated through the perceptions of 'genocidal' horrors in relation to tropes like 'never again', accounts of sexual violence during wars, engagement with war memorials and museums commemorating such atrocities. The search for juridical and moral justice linked to events of conflict and violence in the 20th and 21st Century is aptly captured by the phrase 'never again' first evoked in the context of the Holocaust and thereafter articulated in various instances of conflict. The paper examines the cosmopolitan moral and aesthetic orientations through which such tropes come to represent the horrors of the Bangladesh War of 1971 in the case of the Bangladesh Liberation War Museum. Established on the basis of a template of Holocaust Museums the paper hopes to highlight the cosmopolitan connections implicit in the accounts of sexual violence and the representation of atrocities in this museum and its implications on Bangladeshi citizenship. Through a study of exhibits and visitors to this museum, the paper examines how links and identification with global 'genocidal' tropes arising from other instances of violent conflict - namely the Holocaust and Rwanda, alter the processes of ownership and appropriation of emotions towards, belonging to and claims on the nation-state. Does cosmopolitan recognition and linkages with such 'genocidal' horrors lead to the development of an affective, panhuman citizenship? What ethico-political implications does this have for engagements with instances of violence and conflict?

Actualized Affinities: The Nation's Memory as Accumulating Artifacts and Appropriating Aesthetics from the Times of Reconstruction

Author: Timothy Luke (VPI&SU) twluke@vt.edu

Short Abstract

This paper will re-examine the aesthetics of presenting various historical artifacts, cultural documents, and ideological narratives at three museums tied to the African-American experience, the Confederate States of America, and the Old West. It asks how these exhibits echo or fabricate the myths that cast the Civil War and its aftermath as a second founding of the USA.


This paper will evaluate the aesthetics of presenting historical artifacts, cultural documents, and ideological narratives at three regional museums in the USA as efforts to "reconstruct" the nation after the Era of National Reconstruction (1865-1877) following the War Between the States. That war and this historical turn of events often are seen as a "second founding" of the USA, and this interpretation is reflected directly in the museum exhibits analyzed in this study. The three museums under analysis here will be the National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center in Dayton, Ohio, the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. While allegedly about the past, each of them also embody very contemporary cultural, economic, and political tensions in the USA during the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Dis-possessing the Past: Contesting sites of sacrifice in post-apartheid South Africa

Author: Lindi Todd (University of Technology, Sydney) lindi.todd@uts.edu.au

Short Abstract

By examining affective responses to a planned artistic appropriation of a historically significant site in post-apartheid South Africa, this paper explores the process of relating the 'nation' to stories of the past and resulting contestations to this process.


Stories of the nation unite and divide: those who are perceived or who perceive themselves authorised to speak from those who are not, those who belong 'within' from those who fall without. Within the context of the completed Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and the move to rethink the history of the Anglo-Boer war more inclusively beyond purely 'white' South African involvement, stories, narrations and memorialisations of the past had come to play a significant role in the government's projections of a new and reconciled South African nation. Within these projections, a recurring theme had been the need to create a common stock of stories about the past within which the country's people would find their voice and so identify with the newly united 'nation'.

This paper explores the limits of this process, focusing on responses catalysed by a planned artistic appropriation of a Fort of symbolic importance to the Afrikaner resistance. Affective responses to the appropriation limited its aesthetic relevance and drowned out the possibility of its further interrogation. The event transformed the site of conflict into a site of contestation over who could claim ownership of its past sacrifice and who was so authorised to tell the stories of the Afrikaner present. This case reminds us of the fallacy of believing in the existence of a detached history into which detached subjects are willing and able to insert themselves. Significantly, it considers the implications of dis-owned histories on its possessors and their relationship to 'nation'.

Building a "Taj Mahal" in Peppermint Grove: contesting notions of belonging in an upper-class suburb

Author: Jessica Kops (University of Western Australia) winterlove@gmail.com

Short Abstract

This paper analyses local contestations over a contentious residential development in Perth: a ‘Little India’ on the Swan River in Peppermint Grove. The proposed development has ruptured the social fabric of Perth’s elite, revealing the processes of inclusion and exclusion in this prestigious locale.


This paper sets to look at local contestations over a controversial residential development in Perth, Western Australia. Pankaj and Radhika Oswal are in the process of constructing Australia's most expensive residence, a 'Little India' on the Swan River in Peppermint Grove. The distinctive Indian architecture coupled with the sheer scale of the development, worth over $70 million, has elicited strong responses from the local community and has attracted significant media attention over the past year. In an Australian architectural landscape that is strongly reflective of assimilationist tendencies that masquerade behind a multicultural façade, the construction of a 'little India' in Perth's most exclusive suburb has torn through the social fabric of Perth's elite.

The Oswal construction project has been the subject of much speculation, gossip and media coverage because it touches on so many contentious issues - superwealth, multiculturalism, the changing structure of the Australian upper class and the social impacts of the resources boom in the North-West of Western Australia. The media coverage surrounding the Oswal construction project in Peppermint Grove is illustrative of processes of inclusion and exclusion within Perth's social elite. These processes are dynamic and are contributing to the changing face of the city's high society in a time of economic prosperity. Contestations over what, or what is not, an appropriate home to build in Peppermint Grove point to broader anxieties over the power and the value of consumption as a means of expressing social status, class, ethnicity and wealth in an anxious nation state.