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Interview with the Curator: Fabricating Power with Balinese Textiles

Urmila Mohan, our founding editor, discusses her new book and exhibit, Fabricating Power with Balinese Textiles.


MLA citation format:
O’Dell-Chaib, Courtney
“Interview with the Curator: Fabricating Power with Balinese Textiles”
Web blog post.Material Religions. 29 January 2018. Web. [date of access]

Fabricating Power with Balinese Textiles
Exhibition On View: February 23–July 8, 2018
Bard Graduate Center Gallery: 18 West 86th Street, NYC
Curator: Urmila Mohan
Bard Graduate Center/American Museum of Natural History Postdoctoral Fellow in Museum Anthropology

Mohan is a 2016-2018 Postdoctoral Fellow in Museum Anthropology across the American Museum of Natural History and the Bard Graduate Center and her research focuses on objects as a way to understand people, and their religious beliefs and cultural values. This exhibit builds a story around Balinese textile objects as ceremonial and ritual objects, collected by the anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson during their research in Bali (1936-38) and currently housed at the American Museum of Natural History. Other objects in this exhibit are from prominent museums such as Brooklyn Museum, Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Fowler Museum at UCLA, and Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, as well as generous private collectors.

Fabricating Power with Balinese Textiles
MR: How did you become interested in Balinese textiles?
UM: I researched religious clothing among the “Hare Krishnas” (also known as Iskcon) in India for my doctoral studies in anthropology at University College London. Textiles were always at the back of my mind and the CFP from Bard Graduate Center (focused on South East Asia) gave me the opportunity to extend two of my interests, cloth and religion into a new geographical area. I chose Bali because I have always been interested in that island and Balinese Hinduism, and the project had to involve objects at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), New York. The latter has a collection of ritual cloths collected by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in Bali (1936-38) that became an important part of my project.
MR: What do you mean by, Fabricating Power?
UM: Western scholars and artists like Mead and Bateson converged on the tropical island of Bali, Indonesia, in the first half of the 20th century attracted by its unique culture and vibrant artistic practices. My exhibit and the accompanying book (published by Bard Graduate Center and University of Chicago Press) consider the making and use of textiles as processes of fabrication of objects and people. Ceremonial objects with spiritual power operate within a unique Balinese Hindu cosmology and textiles, in specific, are agents as well as symbols of cultural resilience and continuity. Deriving their aesthetic and ritual powers from techniques of fabrication and use in various lifecycle ceremonies, the exhibit’s textiles also serve as records of an important period in Balinese and Western history. Drawing on information from the 1930s, such as the Mead archives at the Library of Congress, and subsequent research, I present an overview of Balinese textiles and encourage visitors to consider the value of these objects as they are made and used today.
MR: What is important about materiality/material religions to you? What does a focus on materiality/material objects allow you to do/explore as a scholar of material culture and religion?
UM: I focus on objects as a way to understand subjects, that is as a way to understand people and in some cases, specifically, how their agency is enhanced or limited by materials, substances and objects. My ideas are influenced by my anthropological studies at University College London which has a thriving material and visual culture department, and more particularly by the Matière à Penser group (one of the main reasons I started the Material Religion blog) and the work of associated colleagues (Douny and Naji 2009). Material religion allows me to combine the insights drawn from social sciences and material culture and bring that into the study of religion with ideas of praxis, agency, ritual efficacy etc. I recently co-edited with J.-P. Warnier an exciting special issue of “Journal of Material Culture” that explicates the idea of religion as a bodily AND material practice that makes religious subjects.
Figure 1 Weaver working on a continuous warp loom. Tenganan Pegeringsingan, Bali, 2016. Photo by Urmila Mohan.
MR: What can these textiles teach us about Balinese Hindu cosmology?
UM: A majority of the Balinese population practice a unique form of Hinduism that, while having historical roots in the Siwa-worshipping sects of South India, has been transformed into a composite belief system that embraces ancestor worship, animism, and magic. Apart from Siwa, the Hindu deities Wisnu and Brahma are also worshipped, and Balinese paintings often illustrate the stories of these deities. Man is a microcosm (buana alit) within a macrocosm (buana agung), and bodies are made up of the same five elements (pancamahabuta) that constitute the earth. The three levels of visible and invisible existence—that is, the human, the divine, and the demonic—may be expressed and felt in virtually every medium, including textiles.
Cloth should feature more prominently in the anthropology of Balinese experience, since the bodily and material are intertwined. In anthropological studies, cloth is considered as skinlike because it has a similar function of wrapping and containing the body, mediating the movement of substances, both visible and invisible, between the internal and external. In contexts that can be ritualized (ranging from weaving cloth on a loom to protecting one’s body for a rite of passage), textiles and people, objects and subjects, are coproduced by actions. In a toothfiling (a rite of passage from child to adulthood), for instance, people using the cloth object are affected and transformed by it in some way because it offers protection during a liminal phase. Just between these few examples we can understand weaving (and its products) as generative and transformative activities.
Figure 2 This Balinese youth is protected by a geringsing cloth during a toothfiling ritual. Ubud, Bali, 2016. Photo by Urmila Mohan.
MR: How would you address your role as a curator, or the power and responsibility of curation?
UM: Even as people are writing and theorizing about curating, the term curator itself seems to be getting more diffuse—one can seemingly “curate” anything, a magazine, a shoe collection, even one’s life! So it’s probably better to consider this an evolving field where there are as many kinds of curators as collections. Having said that, my agency was exercised specifically as a guest curator in a small art museum in New York city that also functions an educational space. Being a guest curator at a smaller institution gave me much more freedom to experiment. Keeping in mind that a “guest” curator is by definition a transient presence, the first power I can think of is the ability to materialize my ideas. The process is highly collaborative because you are working with so many people and departments, and you have to be both passionate and flexible. Institutions are not necessarily innovative but when the system can make space for you, new ideas emerge, and curating becomes very rewarding.
I cannot separate the question of curatorial power from the process. I think of curating and my research as a “museum anthropologist” as forms of rhizomatic growth, a kind of branching out and feeling and sensing that takes place in several directions simultaneously. The vision for the exhibit has to be shared and embodied not only by the curator but also by the numerous other people needed to make the idea a reality: the gallery staff, label writers, graphic, web and exhibit designers, marketing, development, registrar, installation crew—the list is endless. In addition, I also had to think of ways to engage my students in the process in different ways. Once the exhibit is up, students from other schools and colleges in the city can use it as an educational and explorative prompt. Further, none of this can be done without funding and we were fortunate to have the Coby Foundation, Ltd. support this exhibit. So in true Gellian fashion, the exhibit is a “distributed” person that mediates the power of various people in their absence.
The next kind of power is to what extent a curator can represent the culture of non-Western “others” and source communities in a responsible manner. In the book that accompanies this exhibit, I was critical of Colonial Dutch politics in pre-Independence Indonesia and placed the actions of Western artists, curators and collectors against this historical background. In this context, anthropologists like Margaret Mead were products of their times and acquired their iconicity by working within the system of the AMNH. What museums “fabricate” are not just objects and their histories but also specific kinds of subjects. That is, museums make curators, visitors, critics, researchers, etc. as much as the latter shape these institutions.

While postcolonial theory has been with us for a while, the “decolonize” movement has drawn fresh attention to these sites (for instance, at the AMNH) and researchers should be doing much more work to critique not just the contents of these archives but also how these contents are affected by institutional power. That is, we should be working both within and outside the museum frame by interrogating the question of power through an “anthropology of museums” as well as “museum anthropology”. A more culturally-informed attention to questions of power, agency and access is something that benefits all curators (and visitors), not just anthropologists.

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