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Appropriating the Exotic: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives

  • Overview
  • Programme
  • Speakers and Abstracts

A Symposium at the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas

University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK
8 – 9 October 2010
Venue Elizabeth Fry 01.08

This symposium provided the first comprehensive, cross-disciplinary study of the appropriation of the exotic in art and material culture as a cultural and material practice. The art-historical, anthropological and archaeological records abound with examples of objects, people, living creatures, materials and technologies that have been regarded as exotic, i.e. seen as imbued with special powers because of their external origins or foreign nature, and therefore have been subject to appropriation in a variety of ways in order to channel or control such powers. Examples range from the use of shells and amber in Palaeolithic personal ornamentation, to the importation of foreign materials and designs in early China, to Mande (West African) groups incising masks and other power objects with Islamic prayers.

While the term ‘appropriation’ acknowledges the rationale informing such practices, most research has focused on the political-economic circumstances that inform them. So far, little attention has been paid to appropriation as a cultural and material practice, and such practices have generally been considered misconceptions - ‘beliefs’ or ‘superstitions’. Likewise, the material and visual qualities that are handled, transformed or created in acts of appropriation have been considered arbitrary and therefore inconsequential for understanding appropriation.

Such specifics of material practices were a core focus of this symposium. It built on the growing attention in the social sciences and humanities to the way in which the material world is an active force in social life, and to the embodied nature of cultural practices. Speakers focused on the interrelatedness of cosmology, human agency, and material efficacy at given historical moments and situated these within political and economic contexts. They examined how and why Islamic prayers derived their efficacy when inscribed on polythetic power objects, why and how particular types of materials were used for personal ornamentation in Palaeolithic Africa and Europe, and what ends were pursued by high-status Chinese in adopting foreign materials and imagery.

The broad historical and geographical scope of the symposium particularly contributed to its innovative perspective. The commonalities between the material practices addressed, such as the transformation and display of foreign materials, the depiction and representation of self and other, the wrapping of objects and bodies, provided a unique opportunity to ascertain the efficacy of seemingly arbitrary materials, manipulations and transformations, and the way in which they enable, enhance or facilitate particular outcomes, while maintaining that these are historically situated and culturally specific.

As such, the symposium advanced our understanding of the embodied nature of culture and the efficacy of the material and visual world, while throwing significant and innovative light on a widespread cultural phenomenon that despite being extensively documented remains poorly understood.


8 October

1.30 - 2.10


Elizabeth Fry Foyer

2.10 - 2.20

Symposium Welcome

2.20 - 3.00

Mary W Helms: How Living Metal Can Nourish the Earth: Bronze Age Depositions in Cosmographical and Cosmological Perspective

3.00 - 3.40

Jessica Rawson: Beads, Bronze and Gold: Exotic Artifacts as Status Markers among Chinese Elites, 1000-650 BC.

3.40 - 4.20

Tea/Coffee Break

Elizabeth Fry Foyer

4.20 - 5.00

Colin Renfrew: Misappropriating the Exotic: The Lure of Diffusionism in Prehistoric Research

5.00 - 5.40

Helen Anderson: The Exotic in Mind: Shells, Teeth and Amber in Paleolithic Africa and Europe

5.45 - 6.45

Drinks Reception

SCVA WAM School area


Speakers Dinner

Please contact Lynne Crossland



9 October

9.30 – 10.10

George Lau: Others as Exotics: Warfare and Alterity in the Ancient Andes

10.10 - 10.50

Charlotte Townsend-Gault: The Internal Exotic: Indigenous Status in British Columbia

10.50 - 11.30

Tea/Coffee break

Elizabeth Fry Foyer

11.30 - 12.10

Debra Strickland: The Exotic in the Middle Ages: The Case of Ethiopians

12.10 - 12.50

Bodil Birkebæk Olesen: When Mansa Musa went to Mecca: Power Objects, Islam, and Human Agency in the Mande World

 12.50 - 2.00


SCVA Garden Restaurant

 2.00 - 2.40

Fiona Sheales: Wrapping and Ratification: Asante Appropriations, Displays and Exchanges of Textiles in a Pre-colonial Diplomatic Context

2.40 - 3.20

Steven Hooper: From the Deep Sea and the Deep Forest: Material Embodiments of Exotic Power in Oceania

3.20 - 3.40

Closing discussion

Chair: John Mack

Colin Renfrew, University of Cambridge

Misappropriating the Exotic: the Lure of Diffusionism in Prehistoric Research

The study of archaeology, not least the prehistoric archaeology of Europe, has been a cautionary tale, where the mirage of Ex oriente lux has not entirely lost its allure, even today, half a century after the radiocarbon revolution. There has certainly been an enduring tendency in the study of prehistoric Europe to ascribe nearly all innovation to external sources, usually distant sources, often located in the Near East. The grand diffusionist Sir Grafton Elliot Smith felt able to apply the principle at a world level ascribing the primary impetus of all civilisations to the ‘Children of the Sun’. And the ‘modified diffusionism’ of Gordon Childe ascribed megaliths, metallurgy, urbanism and much else to an ultimately Near Eastern source. The discoveries of Sir Arthur Evans in Crete at the end of the nineteenth century made Minoan Crete a preferred intermediary for the process of ‘the irradiation of European barbarism by oriental civilisation’, as exemplified by the temples of neolithic Malta or the ‘colonies’ of Copper Age Iberia. In 1938 Stuart Piggott proposed a Mycenaean origin for the early Bronze Age ‘Wessex Culture’ (and Stonehenge with it) on similar grounds. The radiocarbon chronology soon indicated otherwise. Yet at the same time, long distance trading contacts were extensive from very early times, as the extent of the obsidian trade firmly documents. Shells of the marine mollusc Spondylus gaederopus were extensively traded from the Mediterranean to Central Europe in the neolithic period. Later, the extent of Bronze Age trade in the east Mediterranean is richly documented by the Cape Gelidoniya and Ulu Burun wrecks.

How to find a safe middle way between the extremes of diffusionism and of scepticism?  I shall argue that modern characterisation studies offer a secure way of substantiating long distance contacts and hence of documenting the reception of the exotic.

Jessica Rawson, University of Oxford

Beads, Bronze and Gold: Exotic Artefacts as Status Markers among Chinese Elites, 1000-650 BC

The elite of the great Zhou dynasty (c.1045-221BC), who took over of the Yellow River basin from the Shang in the mid eleventh century BC, seem to have had very close links with the steppe. Their extraordinary decorated chariots and weapons all show similarities with steppe examples. However, it is the large numbers of bright red carnelian beads, which were strung with jades to make splendid burial dress, that suggest some of the closest connections with the neighbours of the Chinese on the borders. Under the Shang, beads of any sort were very rarely deployed. And, indeed, in the period after 650 BC beads were equally scarce. Only in the centuries 1000-650 BC did they appear on a large scale as adorning the highest elites.

The closet parallels to these beads have been found in Western Asia, at Ur and other sites in the region, dating from the third to first millennium BC. And there are traces of their transmission or imitation eastwards in the Caucasus, Kazakhstan, Gansu province and Inner Mongolia. Only a few beads from Mesopotamia may have made it to the Yellow River basin, but the fashion undoubtedly started there. The paper will consider the roles of the steppe peoples in the Zhou period and their other contributions to elite society in the early Chinese polities. Among these are other innovations, including new additions to the set of bronzes deployed in offerings to the ancestors and the use of new materials, especially gold and iron.

Mary W. Helms, University of North Carolina

How Living Metal Can Nourish the Earth: Bronze Age Depositions in a Cosmographical and Cosmological Perspective

The Western European Bronze Age is characterized by the practice of ritually depositing bronze objects in the earth. For most Bronze Age societies access to bronze artifacts also required acquisition of necessary metals from geographically distant sources. In traditional cosmologies both the realm of the earth or underworld and geographically foreign locales are understood to be supernaturally charged settings or other worlds. They’re part of the multidimensional cosmos that is the ultimate source of the life-giving energies that imbue all aspects and elements of human society and of the wider world. The mining of ores and the craft of metallurgy carry comparable connotations. It is further understood in many societies that people have a responsibility to help keep the cycle of life flowing throughout the cosmos and their own societies by periodically ritually rejuvenating or feeding the realms of the universe with appropriate life-imbued items. This paper interprets the Bronze Age acquisitions of metal from supernaturally potent geographically distant places and subsequent deposition of select metal goods into the life-giving earthly domain as one such activity.

Discussion will include what qualities of metal or of particular types of bronze objects might have helped to make them an appropriate vehicle for this purpose.

Charlotte Townsend-Gault, University of British Columbia, Vancouver

The Internal Exotic: Indigenous Status in British Columbia

In current discussion about the now widespread use, in various registers, of Indigenous motifs and materials in British Columbia, much attention is given to identity, less to status. “Exoticism’s power is nothing other than the ability to conceive otherwise”, Victor Segalen wrote in 1955. ‘Otherwise’ implies difference, distance and often difficulty, with ‘exoticism’ a value acquired because something is difficult to come by, being from outside. Internal exoticism sounds like a contradiction. Certain materials and technologies – the sheen of abalone shell ornaments, movement to the boom of the bent box drum, hide and cedar bark transformed to a soft and workable state – became difficult to get or to do, internally, caught up as they were in the prohibition of the ceremonies at which they would have been used (under the 1878 Indian Act) until 1951. Today their restoration puts a command of pre-modern technologies and associated materials, in many societies associated with high status, on display. It also puts First Nations at a distance, internally, from the non-Native population – a status-enhancing distance. Internal exoticism serves the Native cause in the power plays of the contemporary British Columbia Treaty Process (since1991). Taking the longer view it can work to reassert those status hierarchies that were upset but not demolished under colonial domination. The subtitle of Segalen’s Essay on Exoticism is An Aesthetics of Diversity. I argue that exoticism, much as he defined it, is better accounted for in British Columbia today as being in the service of the politics not of relative diversity, but of absolute difference, inseparable from the attempt to realise the potential of differential status.

Debra Higgs Strickland, University of Glasgow

The Exotic in the Middle Ages: The Case of Ethiopians

When applied to the Middle Ages, the term, ‘exotic’, is especially problematic as a pre-colonialist descriptor that carries both positive and negative connotations. From within the sizable realm of what medievals themselves considered ‘exotic’, the case of the Ethiopians emerges as perhaps the best illustration of the term’s conceptual complexity. By the later middle ages, ‘Ethiopians’ had accrued several different identities that together reveal the multiple cultural and political purposes exoticism served for their Western Christian creators. As the supposed inhabitants of the imaginary land whose name they bore, Ethiopians were imprinted with the wonder attached to a distant and vaguely delineated locale populated with fantastic men, monsters and marvels. As a discrete group witnessed in the literary Wonders of the East, they also shared in the imaginary anthropology of the Monstrous Races tradition. The symbolic meanings attached to Ethiopia and Ethiopians by early Christian exegetes eventually folded Ethiopians into other outside groups, such as Jews and Muslims, in later medieval works of Christian art and literature. In pictorial works of art, the defining visual characteristic of Ethiopians--black skin--is therefore an extraordinarily flexible sign. This paper will examine the ways black-skinned figures operate in a small selection of late medieval imagery in order to explain why medieval ‘Ethiopians’ must be evaluated within a complicated, conceptual matrix of exoticism, monstrosity, Christian belief, and ethnicity.

Steven Hooper, Sainsbury Research Unit

From the Deep Sea and the Deep Forest: Material Embodiments of Exotic Power in Oceania

During at least the last two hundred years a variety of artefacts have been highly valued in Fijian cultural practice. They are classified as iyau (valuables; things that are ‘brought’ on ritual occasions), and are usually paired during formal presentations with magiti (feasts; food that is brought on ritual occasions). Three sub-types of iyau can be distinguished: a long-standing core category of women’s products, including bark cloth, pandanus-leaf mats and scented coconut oil, which are complementary to the magiti of yams, taro and root crops produced by men. A second sub-type of iyau is composed of hardwood forest products such as canoes and yaqona (kava) bowls produced by specialist carpenters of external origin. A third sub-type, now considered ‘chiefly’ and the ‘most valuable’, is the tabua, or sperm whale tooth attached to a cord, used during presentation speeches. Images, necklaces and breastplates were made of ivory in the early 19th century.

In analysing a ritual sacrificial economy of artefacts, these categories of iyau and magiti can be linked to categories of person – women/men, and indigenous/foreign. This paper will discuss the ‘foreign/exotic’ nature of whale ivory and chiefs, and forest hardwoods and specialist carpenters in Fiji. The sea and the forest were sources of productive yet dangerous power in human affairs, and successful life depended on managing this external power through the manipulation of ‘foreign’ artefacts and persons in the context of sacrificial rituals. Similar, yet different, relationships embodied in sea and forest materials are characteristic of Austronesian-speaking peoples throughout Oceania.

George Lau, Sainsbury Research Unit

Others as Exotics: Warfare and Alterity in the Ancient Andes

This paper examines how archaeology, given its virtues and limitations, might operationalise alterity as a meaningful concept. I first discuss its nested scales, that is, alterity as a serial process that can be said to reside at individual, family, community, regional and interregional levels.  Taking the 1st millennium AD cultures of northern Peru as the case study, the most overt idiom for materializing – and by extension for cognising – alterity was through warfare practice and cosmology.  Among the most highly elaborate articles and technologies of the cultures (Moche, Nasca, Recuay) were instruments and spaces made to discipline ambivalent others. At multiple levels, the alter, both endogenous and exogenous, formed sources of social capital.  Something of them could be internalised through social interactions (e.g., combat, capture, familiarisation, display, sacrifice) and mimetic representation.  While certainly not the only basis, alterity rooted in opposition, including native vs. foreign, keyed power relations and cosmological orders.

Fiona Sheales, Sainsbury Research Unit

Wrapping and Ratification: Asante Appropriations, Displays and Exchanges of Textiles in a Pre-colonial Diplomatic Context

During the early 19th century diplomatic relations between European trading companies and the peoples of the Gold Coast in West Africa were articulated, in part, by the appropriation and display of flags and the presentation of costly textiles.  On the 7th September 1817, the first Anglo/Asante trade treaty was formerly ratified at the palace in the Asante capital of Kumase by Thomas E. Bowdich, the leader of the British Mission, and Osei Tutu Kwame, the paramount chief.  Bowdich later wrote that at the ceremony the Asantehene appeared wrapped in European flags that had been sewn together.  Did the Asantehene present himself in this way in order simply to mark the occasion, or was this act of appropriation motivated by other considerations?

Drawing on the evidence provided in Bowdich’s published account and illustrations my paper will focus on answering this question by exploring it in relation to three other Asante practices: traditional cloth production, the ritual containment of powerful entities and the appropriation of the alien. By contextualising this extraordinary act this paper will demonstrate that the wrapping of the Asantehene not only had economic, political and spiritual dimensions but also concealed and revealed Asante ambitions, hopes and fears for the future.

Helen Anderson, University of East Anglia

The Exotic in Mind: Shells, Teeth and Amber in Palaeolithic Africa and Europe

The human capacity to adorn and embellish our bodies through the selection, manipulation and display of visually alluring or unusual natural materials is a practice that may have its roots up to 100,000 years ago in Middle Stone Age Africa. As modern humans migrate out of Africa and into Europe the selection of natural resources expands to incorporate materials from distant sources and exhibiting appealing visual qualities. Personal ornamentation is considered by many archaeologists as tangible signs of early evidence of symbolic thought and is closely linked with ideas of personal and/or group identity, ethno-linguistic groups and cultural entities. Often less explored is the rationale behind the types of materials selected for and displayed in such processes.

This paper will focus on the emergence and development of personal ornamentation in Africa and Europe, seeking to explore when humans first start making mindful connections between natural objects/materials and potentially a sense of the exotic, or a conceptualisation of power. In attempting to examine why particular natural resources such as marine shells, ostrich eggshell, teeth, claws and amber were selected for, I will consider such choices in cognitive terms. Our current understanding of how the visual brain works may inform our thinking about the potential cognitive associations between natural materials and concept formation, and therefore why some materials may have acquired symbolic status.

Bodil Birkebæk Olesen, Sainsbury Research Unit/Århus University

When Mansa Musa Went to Mecca: Power Objects, Islam, and Human Agency in the Mande World

The pilgrimage of Mansa Musa, king of the medieval empire of Mali, to Mecca around 1324 was documented by several Arabic chroniclers who marveled over the size of the pious Mansa’s retinue and his lavish spending of gold. Perhaps less known are the folk legends of the pilgrim Fajigi that emerged among the Mande – descendants of the empire – following the Mansa’s pilgrimage. According to these legends Fajigi returned from his pilgrimage to Mecca with the objects and esoteric knowledge of the jo societies, some of the most important Bamana-Senufo pagan cults.

The legends – still part of Mande historical consciousness – are a fascinating example of the accommodation that has taken place between indigenous religious practices and Islam as they co-existed in the region for centuries, and the way in which various Mande groups channeled the perceived power of Islam towards other needs and agendas. The molding of origins, the journeys to holy places and the acquisition of powerful objects and knowledge were but a few elements in the repertoire employed in this process. This paper considers the legend of Fajigi and other examples of the appropriation of Islamic elements in the context of the importance of magic and powerful substances in all realms of Mande life – from procuring offspring and livelihoods to sustaining and expanding political and military power – to discuss how and why the Mande so consistently turned to an encroaching religion for more potent solutions.