ASA15: Symbiotic anthropologies: theoretical commensalities and methodological mutualisms

Art and medical anthropology
Location Room 10
Date and Start Time 16 April, 2015 at 09:15
Sessions 2


  • Elizabeth Hodson (Newcastle University) email
  • Ian Harper (University of Edinburgh) email

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Discussant Richard Baxstrom (University of Edinburgh)

Short Abstract

What is the relationship between art and medicine? Rather how do art and medicine meet at the surfaces of infective tissue, therapies chosen, consumed and denied, whether allopathic or complementary. Where does art supplement medical anthropology in understanding the therapeutic encounter?

Long Abstract

'I can’t understand why most people believe in medicine and don’t believe in art, without questioning either'. Thus began the blurb at the beginning of Damien Hirst’s 1992 piece Pharmacy. In this work, he sought to 'explore the distinctions between art and life, and the power given to pharmaceuticals by our unquestioning faith in them'. The question for this panel, therefore, follows on from this and asks for presentations addressing this interface between art and medicine. We are keen to move beyond the idea of art as a curative modality that supplants medicine, rather how do art and medicine meet at the surfaces of infective tissue, therapies chosen, believed and rejected, therapies consumed and denied, whether allopathic or complementary. Where does art supplement medical anthropology in understanding the therapeutic encounter? Proposals for artistic presentations covering the themes outlined will be very welcome, including the presentation of sound or digital material.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Comics as illness narrative: context, content and construction

Author: Josie Vallely  email

Short Abstract

What unique attributes do comics have that allows them, more so than other mediums, to make visible the experiences of individuals who are commonly excluded from wider social and political narratives of ill-health?

Long Abstract

Illness narrative in popular culture is dominated by rhetoric of the 'battle won with cancer' and the 'incredible-against-the-odds' story. These stories fuel "the almost total erasure of both the powerfully pervasive (yet 'mundane') experience of chronic illness" (Wagner 2000). It has been observed by scholars that comics have attributes that mean that they, more so than other mediums, could challenge this trend by " making visible the stories of individuals and groups who have largely been excluded from our social and political narratives" (Birge 2010).

In order to determine why comics' illness narratives have such potential, I consider three elements: their context, content and construction. What is it about their context - their industry, writers and history- that makes them unique in communicating experiences of illness? How does their content -typically autobiographical- foster a platform for 'truer' illness narratives? What is it about their construction, the stylistic devices unique to the medium, that give us new insight into people's health?

I conclude that by employing stylistic devices, narrative distancing, and a resistance to caricature, comics stand out as sophisticated purveyors of chronic illness narrative over other mediums and therefore steps must be taken "to contest doctors' and patients' biases against graphic stories—including the misperception that they are juvenile, simplistic, or frivolous." (Green 2010). They have potential to present illness narratives that are more truthful, less traumatising, and more autonomous than those presented in other media. Recent enthusiasm to introduce them into medical settings is admirable and necessary.

Anatomists' collaborations with artists: medical explorations in plaster, paint and mixed-media

Author: Elizabeth Hallam (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on medical anthropology and anthropological studies of material and visual culture, this paper analyses collaborations, in Scotland, between anatomists and artists from 1920 to the present. It considers how these collaborations have developed as medical explorations in a range of materials.

Long Abstract

Drawing on medical anthropology and anthropological studies of material and visual culture, this paper analyses practices in medical schools involving anatomists and artists. It focuses on collaborations between these practitioners in Scotland from c.1920 to the present, a period when historians of science have suggested there was a shift toward greater scope for openly imaginative involvement in empirically based scientific work.

At the University of Aberdeen three generations of anatomists collaborated with artists from Gray's School of Art in the same city. They cast bodies (living and dissected) in plaster to display the nerves, around 1920; they created an illustrated textbook of human anatomy working with drawings, watercolours and photography during the 1940s; and with students at Gray's in the 1970s they designed a memorial for people who donate their bodies to medical science. In the present-day context, contemporary works of art are exhibited at Aberdeen's medical school where, in the public entrance, artists' installations are viewed alongside anatomical models.

The paper asks how anatomist/artist collaborations have developed as medical explorations in materials from plaster and paint to mixed-media. How have the material processes and products involved in such alliances shaped the teaching and display of anatomy? In what ways have these collaborative practices, and the relationships they entail, changed over time? How have perceptions of art and medicine been formed through these ways of working? How is art used to help form the current public face of anatomy and the medical profession?

Greys Anatomy: diagramming the body

Authors: Ian Harper (University of Edinburgh)  email
Elizabeth Hodson (Newcastle University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper will focus on a comparison between the illustrations and text within Gray's Anatomy from the point of view of an artist and medical anthropologist originally trained in medicine, and for whom this text was foundational in learning anatomy.

Long Abstract

Grey's Anatomy was first published in 1858 by Henry Gray and illustrated by Henry Vandyke Carter. In this paper we shall be looking at how the visuals relate, interpret and add to the text. We shall address the following issues: How do the text and drawings convey the subject and what lies at the specificity of each? Are they oppositional? Are the drawings merely illustrations or do they provide a more nuanced and workable understanding of the human body? Do they function in a different didactic way than the textual descriptions, and if so, how? What parts of the human anatomy is the focus of the drawings and what do they not show? Is there a concern for surface and how is the three dimensionality of the body rendered? How do they structure the body? How do medical students and professionals work with the text/diagrams?

We focus on the significance of the fact that they are drawings and not photographs, and ask if we can talk about the importance that this particular medium of art has for conveying such information. We reflect on how rendering the body through lines and contours aid our understanding of its form and the ways the body works, and how the space within the body is conveyed.

Beyond the social skin: the healing art of body painting

Author: Kate Nialla Fayers-Kerr (Universite Libre de Bruxelles & University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

A medical ethnography of body painting teaches us a great deal. It sheds new light on the anthropology of the body, it unites issues of ecology, health and creativity and it shows that art can generate pragmatic solutions while scientific fields can be creative.

Long Abstract

What can we learn from a medical ethnography of body painting? For the agro-pastoralist Mun (Mursi) of Southwest Ethiopia, body painting is the cornerstone of their preventive and curative healing practices. In trying to understand why and how, it generates several theoretical insights. Firstly, it unites two sub-disciplines -the anthropology of body arts and medical anthropology—both of which have generated innovative ideas about the body. By bringing these two areas of anthropology together, new perspectives about 'the body' arise; in particular, in this paper I develop ideas about the body ecologic (Hsu 1999, 2007, 2009) emerging from medical anthropology. Secondly, it brings together art, healing and local ecology—emphasising the symbiosis between all three. After all, the substance of body painting is the earth. However, the substances of body painting have often been overlooked by anthropological studies, unlike archaeological studies (Boivin and Owoc 2004). Finally, it explores medicine as an art, rather than as a science, and reveals that art can be a creative way to find pragmatic solutions for living healthily.

Sensing cellular debris: traces of a Soviet method in a Tanganikan laboratory

Author: Ann Kelly (King's College London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper analyses a microphotograph of a mosquito dissection to explores the influences and affective resonances of Soviet tropical medicine in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Long Abstract

To an entomologist it is a powerful image: a series of well-demarcated bumps along the oviduct indicate the mosquito's advanced age and by extension, her proficiency to transmit malaria. The clarity of the microphotograph also represents a considerable technical achievement: exposing the scarification within the ovary—the 'Detinova technique'—is a procedure few have been able to master. Tony Wilkes, an entomologist trained by the Tatjana S. Detinova during her tour of sub-Saharan Laboratories in 1962, was a notable exception. The image, taken by Tony in 1962, indexes a series of fragile relationships between vector biology and malaria eradication, between knowledge practices of the East and West, and between the art of seeing and the craft of making visible. This paper amplifies those resonances, not merely by contextualizing the image within socio-material practices of vector biology, but by reinterpreting its historicity alongside the traces that science in 'Tropics' leaves behind and the losses, pleasures, failures, and desires these leftovers relay.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.