Working (and thinking) from an anthropological perspective

Ana García Alarcón
April 14, 2021
Marcos Ávila-Forero, "From The Mountains. Varela Family", 2017.
Marcos Ávila-Forero, "From The Mountains. Varela Family", 2017.

As an art historian, I have always been very much focused on the visual arts, particularly on the art of our times and on an art with an eminently critical point of view. I am interested in art that has things to say and to contribute, which echoes problems that sometimes seem invisible so that they may be seen; it may also be that we,1 women, hide and ignore them to keep on going with our comfortable lives.
When I begin to do research into these issues I see how (and this is something I deal with in many of my texts, always taking into consideration the book by Miguel Ángel Hernández who talks about an artist as historian),2 I feel attracted by the figure of an artist who, somehow, works both as a historian and an anthropologist. Thus, the artist appears as a producer of realities. The art created from this position becomes a device that may end up having a social impact (although it may also go unnoticed and become diluted).
Anthropology becomes an essential tool to understand issues that are not analysed (and not taken into consideration either) by other disciplines. It is a science where all voices play the main roles, where the object (in this case the artistic one) is no longer important and where those who come to the foreground are the people who shape the places. Seen through the lens of anthropology, the work of art is considered in relation to its context, to who made it and to what it was designed for. For Alfred Gell, what really counts is to insert the artistic objects into a network of relations based on which they have been created, and, within this network, to establish the answers or the effects that these objects (or these works of art) produce on the viewers. In this case we may see how, in the anthropology of art, the relationships that revolve around a piece are fundamental, both from its shaping until its insertion into the social environment and how the agents relate to it. Gell refers to art as an “action system”.3
Many artists follow similar methods to those of an ethnographer, for whom fieldwork is an essential part of the process. For contemporary ethnography, what counts is not to observe the subject of study and to establish “its” theories from afar, but rather to carry out an active and participatory (or participating) observation. Therefore, for research it would be very important to somehow be part of the group that is going to be observed. The voice of the protagonists, their own documents and their contributions are the main sources when elaborating the study. Many tensions arise (and many crises and conflicts appear) from anthropological thinking and practice when trying to get inside the different cultures and to carry out a study that is to be as faithful as possible to their reality.
When approaching anthropology as a discipline (always from art history), I see how sometimes we do not take into account many factors that are fundamental for cultural construction; how, despite working from a critical eye, we forget many voices and give priority to ours. This has led me to look for, or at least to try to, other ways of approaching the fields of study in my research projects. In this regard, I intend to work with artists who, in one way or another, go deeper into their context, study it, analyse it, and, being part of it, create works that tackle a problem, that invite us to think about it. This art, based on engagement and responsibility, penetrates the mechanisms of our society in order to try to send messages “from within”, to invite us to reflect on issues that need to be urgently revised.


1. In this text we use the inclusive feminine gender.

2. Hernández, Miguel Ángel (2012). Materializar el pasado. El artista como historiador (benjaminiano). Murcia: Micromegas.

3. Gell, Alfred (1998) [2006]. Arte y agencia. Una teoría antropológica. Buenos Aires: Sb editorial.