Institute of Para-Enactment Research
Softcore Historicism and Embodied Heritage


The TransAnthropological,
and the Contemporary

Roger Sansi

in: Sansi, Roger. “The Trans-Anthropological, Anachronism, and the Contemporary.” In Across Anthropology: Troubling Colonial Legacies, Museums, and the Curatorial, edited by Margareta von Oswald and Jonas Tinius, 375–82. Leuven University Press, 2020. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv125jqxp.25.

While I was reading the chapters of this book, I attended the presentation of a film by Ariella Aisha Azoulay, Un-documented: Undoing Imperial Plunder (2019). Azoulay explicitly recognised her indebtedness to Statues Also Die, the 1953 film essay by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, undoubtedly a great work of art and a fierce critique of the colonial plunder of Africa. Yet Azoulay also found it problematic in retrospect; she did not agree with the grand opening statement of the film: “When men die, they enter history.

When statues die, they enter art.” Yet statues do not simply die, says Azoulay: “When they are uprooted from their communities in which they are made, when they are forced to leave the people to whom they belong and who belong to them, they are placed under death threat (…) And of course, it is not only they who are threatened with death. It is their people too.” (Azoulay 2019:122) In fact, her film, in her words, is an attempt to make coincide the two regimes that imperialism seeks to keep separated: the treatment of objects (as “well-documented”) and maltreatment of people (as “undocumented”).1 In other words, the claims for justice and restitution of post-colonial objects should be inextricably related to post-colonial subjects, the “undocumented”, the “illegal” immigrants that keep coming from the former colonies to their former colonisers (...).

Un-Documented: Unlearning Imperial Plunder by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay from IZK on Vimeo.

(...)What, then, constitutes the contemporary at a time of anachronism? There is a form of practice that claims explicitly to be contemporary: contemporary art. One of the questions that emerges clearly from this volume is that contemporary art is often summoned to confront, repair, re-arrange the problems of the colonial ethnographic collection, especially the problem with its anachronism. Contemporary art is seen to have the power of bringing the past to the present. In that sense, it establishes a particular relationship with anthropology, the discipline that is institutionally in charge of these collections. This book is making a bold argument by proposing that the problems and questions that historically, in modern times, would belong to the discipline of anthropology have expanded beyond it in a “trans-anthropological” uneasy encounter with artists, curators, and activists. The different conversations with curators in this volume show well the uneasiness of this encounter, in which curators often distance themselves from anthropology’s disciplinary claims of ownership. Situated within the field of contemporary art, many of these curators take a transdisciplinary or, perhaps better, anti-disciplinary approach. The claim for “the curator as ethnographer” made, among others, by Okwui Enwezor (2012) is part of a long list of “as”- forms of expertise and disciplines that contemporary curators can add to their “transversally agentive” practice, as this volume defines it: the curator as scientist, the curator as historian, the curator as … The extended field of the curatorial in which the curator takes the form and role of any other specialised expert is, for Irit Rogoff (2013), a manifestation of the epistemological crisis of our times – a crisis that the curatorial would be in a privileged position to address. For her, the role of the curatorial would be to bring together knowledges, sensibilities, and insights, assembling them, enacting the event of knowledge, rather than illustrating it (ibidem: 43). The act of assemblage, of bringing together, of enacting the event of knowledge, is to make it present, to make it contemporary. That is what the contemporary seems to mean: enacting an event that brings together difference.

Why does the “transversally agentive” curator come from contemporary art? First, because it is art that has vindicated its position in the ‘contemporary’, this horizontal space that brings together different knowledges. Modern art was built in radical opposition to disciplinary knowledge and practice, as an anti-disciplinary practice. In modern times, the anti-discipline of art was a prophecy of the utopia, of a future world where work and life would be reunited, where there would be no professionals or specialists but just people. Contemporary art has inherited the anti-disciplinary ethos of modern art, but it withdrew from its epochal ambitions and has redrawn its practice by addressing the here and now, the contemporary, not the future – the contemporary as a space in common, a space of “composition” (Smith 2016). As opposed to art, the concept of the contemporary in anthropology has only recently been used.

The post-modern self-critique of anthropology, as strongly formulated by Johannes Fabian (1983), questioned the “denial of coevalness” upon which classical modern anthropology was premised. Anthropology should be radically coeval and address the problems of and in its time. But only much later did anthropologists consider what would be ‘contemporary’. For Paul Rabinow and others (2008), a contemporary approach, or rather, an anthropology of the contemporary, requires an acknowledgement that the object of study of anthropology is no longer a given singular community, located in a singular space for a particular time, but an assemblage of different parts: people, places, objects, concepts, and agencies of different sorts that constitute contemporary assemblages. In these terms, they propose to replace ethnographic fieldwork with “assemblage-work”. This notion of assemblage-work is related to George Marcus’ para-site (2000), participatory spaces where multiple divergent agents and agencies discursively interact across geographic, temporal, and disciplinary boundaries. Working with this assemblage, the role of the anthropologist would resemble that of the curator (Elhaik 2016). And yet it seems that anthropologists are arriving late to the museum assemblage. Contemporary art curators have often already taken this “trans-anthropological” role.


︎︎︎Azoulay, Ariella. 2019. Potential History Unlearning Imperialism. New York: Verso.

︎︎︎Elhaik, Tarek. 2016. The Incurable-Image: Curating Post-Mexican Film and Media Arts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. This content downloaded from on Fri, 19 Nov 2021 13:53:37 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms The Trans-Anthropolo gical , Anachronism, and the Contem porary 381

︎︎︎Enwezor, Okwui, Mélanie Bouteloup, Abdellah Karroum, Émilie Renard, and Claire Staebler Eds. 2012. Intense Proximity: An Anthology of the Near and the Far [La Triennale 2012]. Paris: Artlys.

︎︎︎Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the Other. New York: Columbia University Press.

︎︎︎ Marcus, George E. Ed. 2000. Para-sites: A Casebook against Cynical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

︎︎︎ Rabinow, Paul, George E. Marcus, James D. Faubion, and Tobias Rees. 2008. Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

︎︎︎ Rogoff, Irit. 2013. ‘The Expanded Field’, in: The Curatorial: A Philosophy of Curating. London, edited by Jean-Paul Martinon. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 41–48.

︎︎︎ Sansi, Roger. 2005. ‘The Hidden Life of Stones: Historicity, Materiality and the Value of Candomble Objects in Bahia’. Journal of Material Culture 10(2): 139–156. ———. 2015. Art, Anthropology and the Gift. London: Bloomsbury.

︎︎︎ Smith, Terry. 2016. The Contemporary Condition. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

︎︎︎ Berlin, 2022

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