Akasia News

Confessions of an Anthropologist

Villa Karo’s intern in duty, Emmi, who is also an anthropologist, is reflecting ethics, understanding and responsibility in a foreign culture.

”No one will ever read it anyways. Those were the words that I kept repeating to myself every time I started to doubt my ethnographic skills during my fieldwork in Lagos, Nigeria. I wondered if I had understood my informants clearly enough. To make my life easier I lulled myself into believing that my informants in Nigeria will never read my master’s thesis. A funny thought, as I wrote the thesis in English in order to make it more available to everyone.

Finally I got myself to send my thesis about Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry, to the Lagosian university that helped me in my research. I was waiting for somebody to make remarks on the factual errors I had made in my deductions about the Nigerian society. However, nobody said anything. Maybe I had understood the culture ”correctly” or maybe I had emphasized strongly enough on the subjective quality of anthropological knowledge.

The actual traveling part aside, I dare to say that anthropologists in the early 20th century had it easier. Depending on the morale of the anthropologist, he or she could decide quite freely what to say about their research subjects. In most cases, describing the cultural differences was more important than to actually understand the cultural phenomena. The anthropologist was liable for the accuracy of his research to the Western audience, not to his research subjects – the ”natives” more than likely would not have been able to get a hold of the published research, let alone understand it.

I started to think about my experiences in the field while following the heated debate on the portrayal of West African vodun religion in Finland (and in the Western world in general). How does one portray one’s own experiences in an unfamiliar culture? I too signed the ”anthropologist’s ethical guidelines” on how to do ethnographic research while respecting one’s privacy and culture. Truthfully speaking I did not think too much about these guidelines – my informants were after all relatively accustomed to being in the spotlight! But the idea of ”no one will ever read it anyways” (my security blanket so to say) simply will not hold in the modern world.

Today everybody has, theoretically at least, access to published material on the internet. Even the research subjects, ”the natives”, can comment on the possible errors through social media. Researchers, artists, and other explorers need to think more carefully what and more importantly, how they portray their findings. The relationship between the researcher and the researched has become more equal. And rightly so!

After all this pondering, I decided to do something wild: you can download my thesis from the link below. Read it and feel free to comment! After all, that’s what anthropology is all about: cultural debate.

https://helda.helsinki.fi/handle/10138/135400

Everyday Life of Benin?

Finnish photographer Juha Metso’s exhibition “Voodoo – Afrikan arkea” (“Voodoo – Everyday Life in Africa” or “Glimpses of Everyday Life in Africa”) opened this week, and some of the exhibited photos were available for public already through Helsingin Sanomat’s web article earlier in September. The photographs represent powerful images of Vodun practices in Benin. The aesthetic and dramatic features of the situations are emphasized – through the use of black and white images, capturing sudden groans and strange movements of people, and creation of strong contrasts – but the photos also depict controversial themes such as animal sacrifice, and show places that are traditionally forbidden from people who are not adepts of the religion.

While aesthetic and artistic, the photos have also received critical feedback in social media and in discussions of the Beninese and also of the Finns who have shared a glimpse of Beninese life or of Vodun religion. Especially the exhibition title’s and text’s (which is also published online) claims that the photos offer views of common life in Africa (“Afrikan arkea”) or show a “sincere” depiction of the Beninese “reflecting themselves as if there were no one else around” is under scrutiny. We gathered together a few points of view that have come up during the discussion.

In the article by Helsingin Sanomat Metso ends his interview with a self-reflective statement:

“When one photographs others, one photographs himself.”

This insight is however omitted in the exhibition text by journalist Matti Tieaho, and a different view – which suggests that the photos depict “primitive locals” and bring the viewer to “the times of the missionaries” – becomes emphasized. The critical view concerning the photographs is that the pictures and their objects are chosen in a manner that supports stereotypes, and thus spread a problematic image of Benin and especially of Vodun, which is, like the Helsingin Sanomat’s article correctly notes, an everyday religion (just like Christianity, Islam, or Rastafarism) in Benin.

The everyday life, however, is not exactly what the images depict according to the Beninese: “These still photos, removed from the context, are deliberately shocking and can be interpreted in many false ways”, Beninese visual artist Victor Amoussou comments. He explains that:

“The photographer is obviously a talented professional, but does not understand what he has captured. In the eyes of someone born in the culture these images are theatrical, some even offensive, especially when claimed they represent everyday Vodun. This is surely not the way to build comprehension between different cultures, this is a moral crime.”

And as Finnish-Beninese musician Gildas Houessou points out:

“At some point we need to stop disrespecting the other cultures. Some of the photos are unfair and out of their context they give a shock effect. But are they really everyday life of Benin? These photos give an image of raw and uncivilized life in our country. Seeing these pictures abroad does not give anything more than a scary Hollywood image of us. Benin is still a calm and peaceful country. This is certainly not every day life of Beninese people.”

Finns attest to the discrepancy between different perspectives. Villa Karo’s former director, writer Miikka Pörsti comments that:

“This visually fantastic series of photos speaks more about the person behind the camera than of those in front of it, as photographer Juha Metso suggests in the related text. But the downside of this is that a few more people will, in vain, be afraid of Benin after seeing these photos.”

Also Jeanette Heidenberg gives an idea of the Finnish perspective:

“The use of black-and-white can be artistic, but to me it creates a distance, making the people in the pictures seem primitive and from a different time. Why were there no more everyday pictures? The text clearly states that Vodun is an everyday thing, but none of the pictures are of people who do things that a Finn can relate to as everyday things. Just kids playing football, for instance, would have been relatable.”

Metso’s photos and exhibition are connected to a book by the same title, also released this week. In the book the photos go along with texts written by writer and director of the board of Villa Karo Juha Vakkuri.

The director of the Society of Finnish Composers Annu Mikkonen commented the photos in relation to the texts, and has an optimistic view about the Finn’s abilities to relate to foreign cultures. According to her, even though the forms of everyday life are different all around the world, they share common features, and this supports understanding:

”I believe that the book is most interesting to people who are interested in other cultures and who understand cultural differences. Those who are looking for a sensation will probably be disappointed.”

As Miikka Pörsti points out, Metso’s photos have opened up an important discussion about the visual and textual representations of Benin and Beninese in Finland, and we hope that the discussion continues. In Jeanette Heidenberg’s words:

“Understanding another culture takes time and respect.”

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There will be a special issue about the representations of “Africa” and “Africans” in Finland in the next volume of Villa Karo’s journal Akpé. Proposals for essays and comments can be sent to toimisto@villakaro.org by 20th October and the deadline for full texts (max. 2000 characters with spaces) is 20th November 2014.

Text: Anna Ovaska

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Juha Metso’s exhibition presentation text by Matti Tieaho in English, translated by Leea Pienimäki-Amoussou

Juha Metso in Africa, in the times of the missionaries

We all know the exotic travel stories written by our friends, in which the most important tourist attractions, strange animals, the overwhelming heat, the lack of infrastructure and bizarre primitive locals are mentioned.

Extra points can be achieved by friendships from the country in question. An African Facebook-friend belongs to the basic equipment of every Finn who has language skills. Yet all of us who have travelled far away know how difficult it is to reach a sincere connection with people who live in a strange culture.

When did you last see an African photo, where the depicted people live like there is no one else present?

You cannot find a social message in Juha Metso’s Voodoo-photos. No deliberate some-gestures (gestures created for social media) or arrogant visual rebellion. All intentional communication has been cleared out of Metso’s photographs. The Beninese mirror themselves in the photos as if there is no one to see them.

In his Voodoo-photos Metso takes the viewer to the black-and-white era, when the missionaries invaded Africa. Witchery, the living and the dead, goats, cocks, and people living in their time bubble rush to Finland in Metso’s images. The black-and-white transforms into bright colors.

[Added text: -Matti Tieaho / Kouvolan Sanomat]

Metso photographed Africans for two months in late 2013 in Benin, West Africa. [Added text: This exhibition represents his views and experiences, seen through the eyes of a Finnish primitive local.]

Juha Metso (b. 1965) is a photograph artist from Kotka. During the past 30 years he has had almost one hundred private exhibitions in Finland and abroad. He has worked in more than 60 countries, and his work is represented in all the major Finnish art museums.”

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Further discussion:

Also former visitor of Villa Karo, Hannele Huhtala, commented Metso’s photos in her blog in Voima. She points out that even though both parties (locals and tourists) actively participate in mystification of Africa, it is still problematic.

Juha Metso’s interview on YLE. He emphasizes that his photos are a mere scratch of African cultures, and that Voodoo (Vodun) is a much more diverse phenomenon than what is usually perceived in popular culture.