Bodies of knowledge
Alongside research participants, the project team also entered a space of negotiation surrounding the administration of private knowledge. The debate around ‘Two Figures in a Room’, by Francis Bacon, offers an interesting perspective in this respect. The painting is prominently located in the gallery, standing at almost 2m x 1.50m. Although the artist never publicly acknowledged that the figures depicted in the painting are both men, this can be assumed to be the case (see Arya, 2012; Cooper, 1994). The project team carefully avoided the painting when planning the workshops. However, during a session where participants were asked to select an object to discuss, some of the women were immediately drawn towards the canvas. The women expressed a desire to be accompanied by a woman member of staff in their encounter with the painting. However, as the researcher, I also followed the group to record the reaction to the object, a request that the women hesitantly accepted.
The woman member of staff who facilitated the debate later observed that the initial absence of men meant that the group was more open in discussing the contentions raised by the object. Hence, when I joined the discussion, the tone changed and the women’s behaviour became more formal. My entering the safe space created around the object was problematic both in terms of accessing the field and in terms of how such power was administered. In this sense, my actions could be seen as reinforcement patriarchal dynamics.
At the same time, it is also interesting to consider the project team’s initial avoidance of discussions on this particular object, as their attempt to bypass the painting was, in fact, based on the assumption that debating homosexuality would generate conflicting responses within the group. The attempt to avoid the painting demonstrates how notions of public and private knowledge can continuously shift in intercultural contexts. In this case, participants considered nakedness to be a form of knowledge inappropriate for public debate and the project team took a similar approach to homosexuality.
Narrative block 6
Madalene The big white naked man looks like he wants to have sex with the other man, he is in that position!
Babette I don’t like this. I don’t want to talk about this.
Madalene Two men cannot be together, why they are here?
Adela I want to stay and learn about this.
Babette What do you think about it?
Researcher I don’t see anything wrong about it...
Babette So do you think that two men having sex is ok?
Babette Do you have a girlfriend?
Researcher [no answer]
As the sixth narrative block illustrates, I also thought inappropriate to disclose my sexual orientation with research participants. Anthropologist John Borneman (2007) explores these issues of positionality in a reflexive ethnography where he concludes that the researcher’s sexual orientation is a private knowledge that doesn’t need to be disclosed to research participants. Nevertheless, this stance is undermined by a fundamental ethical question concerning the administration of power and knowledge in the gallery. In the context of the research, participants had no agency in deciding what was up for public debate until the question of the Bacon study arose, whilst museum staff exerted the power to administer access to knowledge throughout.
On the one hand, my omission challenged issues of reciprocity in the field. Whilst participants entrusted me with discussing important aspects of their lives, they did not enjoy a mutual process of recognition. On the other hand, it could be claimed that by concealing my homosexuality, I prevented a possible break in the relationship of trust with participants. At the same time, the pressure to reveal my sexual orientation also represents a form of heteronormative oppression. In this way, in the exchange around the object, both Babette and I were simultaneously subjected to the oppression of heteropatriarchy whilst also acting as its agents.
Re-dressing the body
In an intercultural environment, the surface of the body can be a highly political terrain through which diasporic subjects might articulate strategies of adaptation and resistance to dominant ideologies. Body adornment
The body of objects 133 and outer appearance are particularly invested in these processes of identity negotiation. In his ethnography of the Kayapo people of modern-day Brazil, Turner (1980) observes that the body is a social skin that forms the biological and social frontiers of the self, acting as a symbolic stage for the enactment of the drama of socialisation (112). As discussed by Masquelier (2005: 23), forms of transgression associated with the body’s surface are inextricably linked to relations of power and inequality and they are powerfully mobilized in the making and unmaking of moralities.
Degas’ ‘Little dancer aged fourteen’ sculpture provoked a telling debate in this respect. Gallery guides Pete and Wilson introduced the object, discussing its bronze casting technique and variation in materials. Pete revealed that the girl who inspired Degas’ statue was a 19th-century dancer, likely called Maria. This contributed to further anthropomorphise the object, as participants subsequently addressed the statue by name (Figure 7.4).
In the seventh narrative block, the importance of dressing modestly is evoked in association with the recent national news of a young British woman who had been slapped in public by a Nigerian man for wearing a short dress. This news report triggered a discussion that further clarified the political dimension of clothing within the local Congolese diaspora.
Narrative block 7
Fabienne Maria is a little girl, it is not good that she wears this skirt. I can’t understand why women in this country can go around with short skirts like this.
Adela I saw in the news that a Nigerian man slapped a young woman in public because she was wearing a short skirt. The man wanted to make her a favour in telling her not to wear that... but then the man was taken to court for this...
Léo In the Congo the family of the woman would thank the man
for what he did, instead of taking him to court...The family would be ashamed and everybody would talk evil about them.
Fabienne Here there are also young Congolese girls that go out dressed like Maria. They are no good people because they don’t know what is to be Congolese.
Albert We don’t have to forget Africa...we should never forget Africa!
Babette I don’t want to see them anymore. They are a bad family.
In the seventh narrative block, dressing ‘the Congolese way’ is alluded to as an important component in building a sense of community identity in Britain. Participants emphasised that being Congolese means adopting African apparel and to reject European fashion. These statements could be underpinned by the rhetoric of ‘traditional’ dress mobilised in post-colonial DRC as part of the nation-building project of roots recovery. Comaroff and
Figure 7.4 ‘Little dancer aged fourteen’. Edgar Degas. 1880-81. Bronze, edition unknown, cast c. 1922. h. 99.1 cm. Acquired 1938. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. UEA 2.
Source: Courtesy of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts.
The body of objects 135 Comaroff (1997: 236) observe that clothing was a central aspect of colonial evangelism, with missionaries strongly believing in the capacity of proper dress to impart profound change on people’s sentiments and conduct. Moorman (2004: 85) notices that Mobutu’s ‘authenticité' mandate is perhaps the most well-known example of the association between dress and politics in Africa. African cultural forms were to act as a remedy for the Eurocentric identity of some urban residents, seen in their tendency to wear European clothes and to speak French. In the course of ‘Intercultural Encounters’, participants widely used dress to strengthen a sense of community identity: people attending the workshops put great effort into fashioning their bodies with kitenges and elaborate headdresses.
The impact of dress politics in the diaspora is similarly emphasised by Akou (2004) in her study with Somali Muslim refugee women in Minnesota. Akou notes that clothing can provide a strong sense of belonging and collective identity in the diaspora. She observes that once in the US, the women started covering their hands and face in public to reaffirm their Muslim identity in a predominantly Christian country (50). Akou argues that to publically dress in Somali fashion signalled the significance of the Somali community to both their diaspora networks and the population among whom the women live. Akou’s observations add further nuance to the counterpunctual sensibility of life in exile. Albert’s plea not to forget Africa demonstrates how dress codes are mobilised to articulate the sense of cultural plurality experienced in the diaspora.5
The identity negotiations played out on the surface on the object also outlined intergenerational tensions within the local Congolese diaspora. In their exploration of embodied forms of resistance, Bobel and Kwan (2011) note that subcultural groups might use dress codes to contest cultural norms and to violate normative uses of the body. This highlights how bodily resistance is a complicated dance of negotiation, with constant tension between resisting and accommodating (Weitz, 2001). The existence of overlapping local sensibilities around dress code emerges through the simile established by Fabienne between the ‘Little dancer aged fourteen’ and the young Congolese girls who, through wearing a short skirt, allegedly bring shame on the local Congolese community.
On the one hand, adult members of the local Congolese diaspora adopted Congolese fashion as both a positive reinforcement of their cultural identity and an act of resistance against dominant ideologies. On the other hand, younger women might have employed European fashion to resist the pressure on dress politics determined by local diaspora networks. As the responses to the statue attest, dress codes can, therefore, act as an exclusionary strategy affecting internal group dynamics. As we learn from Babette, the families of the young women were considered unworthy and it is possible that they were ostracised from local social networks. The responses to ‘Little dancer aged fourteen’ also intersect with wider debates in contemporary intercultural discourses around the increasing politicisation of dresscodes and reading fashion through the lens of particular ideological agendas. Across Europe, recent debates around Muslim hijabs are a good example in this respect, as these objects change from signs of religious devotion to a means of oppression through public discourse. These discussions are quite relevant in the context of work with diaspora groups, refugees in particular, as scholars are increasingly interested in the influence of dress code on the process of refugee integration. Deuchar (2011) provides a promising pathway in this area of research. Drawing on small-scale qualitative research with young refugees in Glasgow, Deuchar pointed to the impact of dress codes in defining refugees’ relations with local Glaswegians, as well as how the dress codes adopted by refugees might reinforce prejudices in mainstream culture.