Interpreting a Tatanua Mask

in Museum Worlds
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  • 1 University of Paris 1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne) bruno.haas@univ-paris1.fr
  • 2 Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität philipp.schorch@ethnologie.lmu.de
  • 3 Australian Museum michael.mel@austmus.gov.au
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Abstract

This article introduces the art historical method of functional deixis into the study of material culture in anthropology. Functional deixis begins with a thorough empirical description of communicative effects—visual and embodied—produced by a material thing on the beholder. It then proceeds by tending to a kind of formalisation that enables us, on the one hand, to sharpen our intuitive reaction to the thing and, on the other, to obtain detailed knowledge about the ways material things produce significance. Here, the method is applied to a tatanua mask originating from present-day Papua New Guinea and currently housed at the Grassi Museum für Völkerkunde in Leipzig, Germany. Based on a thick description, we propose an in-depth interpretation of the mask as a complex response to a fundamental injury, articulating a symbolic expression of grief (left side) with an iconic expression overcoming grief (right side) after a passage through a real word expressed through the front of the mask. In doing so, the article offers a tool to study with rather than a text to read off.

Contributor Notes

BRUNO HAAS is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris 1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne). He has written about the theory and history of images from the Middle Ages until today, German philosophy, and the philosophy of art. He is the author of Die ikonischen Situationen (Fink, 2015), Die freie Kunst (Duncker und Humblot, 2013), and Le beau et ses traductions (Éditions de la Sorbonne, Forthcoming), and he is the coeditor of Funktionale Analyse: Musik – Malerei – klassische Literatur (Olms, 2010). Email: bruno.haas@univ-paris1.fr

PHILIPP SCHORCH is Professor of Museum Anthropology at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, Germany, where he leads an ERC-funded research project entitled “Indigeneities in the 21st Century.” He is also an Honorary Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University, Australia. Philipp is lead coauthor of Refocusing Ethnographic Museums through Oceanic Lenses (University of Hawai'i Press, Forthcoming) and coeditor of Curatopia: Museums and the Future of Curatorship (Manchester University Press, 2019) and Exploring Materiality and Connectivity in Anthropology and Beyond (UCL Press, Forthcoming). Email: philipp.schorch@ethnologie.lmu.de

MICHAEL MEL completed a PhD from Flinders University in South Australia, focusing on Indigenous processes of teaching, learning, and performing in the Indigenous context of the Mogei in the Western Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. He was awarded a Prince Claus award from the Prince Claus Foundation in the Netherlands for his work in cultural communities. Michael is currently the Manager of Pacific and International Collections at the Australian Museum in Sydney, Australia. Email: Michael.Mel@austmus.gov.au

Museum Worlds

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