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The art and agency of a Bornean photographic collection

March 10, 2009

What’s in a (Big) Name? The Art and Agency of a Bornean Photographic Collection
Author: Liana Chua
Published in: Anthropological Forum, Volume 19, Issue 1 March 2009, pages 33 – 52


This article concerns the photographic collection of Paka anak Otor, the Bidayuh owner of a ‘mini-museum’ in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, and how it became entangled in his claims to status within and beyond his village. Superficially, the situation is easily apprehended via two analogous approaches within photographic theory and Southeast Asianist ethnography, which treat objects and images as representations or bearers of power and meaning. Here I suggest that such approaches end up eliding the action-centred nature of Paka’s ‘big name’-making ambitions. In response, I approach his photographic collection through an analytical framework deriving from Alfred Gell’s seminal theory, Art and Agency (1998), which has hitherto remained marginal to Southeast Asianist anthropology. I argue that, more than merely symbolising or bearing his ‘big name’, Paka’s photographs were agentive image-objects that actively instantiated it. I conclude by asking how such an analytical shift might encourage a reconceptualisation of ‘power’ and ‘objecthood’ in Southeast Asianist anthropology.

Keywords: Photography; Power; Objects; Southeast Asia; Art and Agency

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