Historiography, Humans, Practices, Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Johannes Neurath’s Someter a los dioses, dudar de las imágenes

How is the actual presence of the different beings and characters represented in Amerindian art and ritual to be understood and conceptualized? Art historian Sanja Savkić Šebek offers a review of Johannes Neurath’s recent publication Someter a los dioses, dudar de las imágenes, which revolves around this fundamental question.

Sanja Savkić Šebek
Book cover

Johannes Neurath, Someter a los dioses, dudar de las imágenes: enfoques relacionales en el estudio del arte ritual amerindio. [EN: Subduing Gods, Doubting Images: Relational Approaches in the Study of Amerindian Ritual Art]. Buenos Aires: Editorial SB (Colección Paradigma Indicial, Serie Arte, Estética e Imagen), 2020, 174 pp. ISBN 978-987-4434-86-9.

In Someter a los dioses, dudar de las imágenes: enfoques relacionales en el estudio del arte ritual amerindio, Johannes Neurath combines the study of ritual dynamics with a critical examination of forms of symbolisation in ritual and artistic expressions, with a view to formulating a single approach to art and ritual. By doing so, he calls into question established academic traditions and interpretive methods which deal with Amerindian ritual art, and thoroughly engages with the ‘relational turn’ and multiple ontologies.

Both ethnographic and archaeological materials show how relational approaches can be productive for exploring the lifeworld of Amerindian peoples by significantly adding to our conceptualisation of their pasts and presents. In this light, the book posits that the quest for contact with beings of alterity and the rendering of these experiences in lasting images may be a key to understanding the complex and ambiguous figurations of many Amerindian artistic traditions. In rituals, intricate negotiations are established with beings that belong to realms of alterity; on the outcome of these arrangements depends not only the life of the individuals who practise the rituals, but to a certain extent also that of other beings and of the planet itself.

Neurath’s research is based on a long-term fieldwork project among the Huichols (the Wixaritari) of Western Mexico, with the aim of building models based on concrete experiences in the field: “[…] in the study of Amerindian ritual art, interpretative models must be ethnographic” (143). Both the everyday work in the cornfield and the celebration of festivals reveal that the Huichol ‘way of life’ is perfectly adequate for the contemporary world; that is, their practices are not simply anachronistic survivals of the past, so rather than revealing the historical ‘authenticity’ of the festivals and rituals which can be documented today, Neurath conceptualises them as relational and cosmopolitical phenomena. Thus, they should be understood as a realistic and pragmatic way of coexisting with ancestors, animals, non-indigenous populations, and other kinds of beings (usually referred to as gods) who belong to different ‘worlds’ or realms of alterity.

The relational thinking practised by his interlocutors in the book serves to overcome the limits of the conventional conceptual frameworks that are still predominant in the social sciences and humanities. In this ‘dialogical methodology,’ indigenous theories have the same value as Western philosophies. The author’s reflection starts with Huichol art and goes on to include other indigenous communities of the Americas, so as to develop what can be called an ‘Americanist perspective’—one that never loses track of the continent’s great ethnic diversity. In this way, the book creates a productive tension between the particular and the general, the local and the continental, and between diversity and unity.

To understand the problem of the Amerindian ritual image and formulate an anthropological theory of the visual arts, Neurath takes his cues from current anthropological theories of personhood, humanity, life, worlds, and alterity. For him, the key is to extend Gell’s proposal concerning the ontology of images and, in a way, to emulate Wagner’s Reverse Anthropology (1981) in order to invert the relationship between the common image of the everyday and the miraculous image of ritual. And what is a ‘common’ or ‘normal’ image among the Huichols is what Belting calls the ‘true image’, that is, the image understood as an actor with its own agency.

In this line of thought, the book incorporates Bredekamp’s theory of Bildakt or ‘image-act,’ according to which images possess an agency that is sovereign and separable from people’s perception and uses, and gain their power through perception and interaction. In this way, processes and relationships become central to the dynamic, fluid, and varied ways by which humans interact with other-than-human beings. Already Preuss, in his ethnographic investigations in the Gran Nayar in Mexico in the first decades of the past century, had looked at issues such as subjectivity and the agency of the god-objects, suggesting that artefacts act as beings to some extent independent to their creators. Altogether, the theme of the agency or power of images has been of great importance for both anthropology and art history – take authors such as Freedberg, Belting, and Mitchell, to name just a few.

Someter a los dioses does not provide a separate introduction. Rather, it is the first chapter that sets the tone of the entire volume with a precise and clear question, which stands as the central theme of the book: “How should the real presence of beings and characters represented in ritual images be understood?”—to which the answer is immediately given: “Some images are subjects with an agency and life of their own” (13). This brings to mind the old problem of presence and representation in art, namely, that images can belong to different ontological registers: “Some images are representations, and others are unmediated presences of powerful beings. The vitality of images tends to range from insufficient to excessive” (124); in this, Neurath is close to Severi. Just like ritual ‘action’ is always full of contradictions and paradoxes, the images created in ritual are never easy to interpret. Therefore, Neurath is critical not only of semiotics and iconography, but also of the ‘iconic turn’ and even of the ways the ‘ontological turn’ is implemented in research. Rather than enforcing closed interpretations, he suggests that we start from the ritual image as it is presented and focus on understanding its complexities and possible polysemic configuration.

The five essays collected in the book, which were originally written for different academic and artistic publications and events, have the following titles: I) Is a recursive anthropological theory of ritual art possible?; II) From the staging of myths to ritual condensation: the ritual cycles of North-Western Mexico and the Mexica; III) Warburg’s method and Pueblo rituals without or with snakes; IV) Antagonistic identification: chimeric beings and relational complexity in the Mississippian tradition; and, V) The sacrifice of a sacrificial knife. In these chapters, Neurath examines some rituals from Mesoamerica, Northwest Mexico, and various regions of North America; he also focuses on a set of objects and images from pre-Columbian societies: a series of iconographic elements from the so-called Ceremonial Complex of the Southeast; the Aztec monolith dubbed as Coatlicue; and the image on page 32 of the Borgia Codex from the Puebla-Tlaxcala region in Mexico.

These images show rituals of transformation, the personification of ancestors, the ‘presentification’ of deities, sacrifices of all kinds, ritual hunts and battles, vision quests, and ritual tool-making processes; they condense relationships and evoke ritual experiences of great intensity. However, ritual power is not always celebrated, but also questioned. The agency of images has to be controlled and sometimes even revoked—that is, image-gods created in this way need to be subdued. Therefore, in Amerindian ritual art, the problem of fixing the moments of greatest tension is reversed: it is not a matter of bringing inert figures to life, but of limiting the agency of beings who are considered too powerful. To rephrase Warburg, “we could say that we are dealing with Antipathosformeln” (39).

In dealing with past cultures, Neurath draws on contemporary concepts and practices. He follows Severi’s claim that Amerindian ritual art is modern. Although he acknowledges that traditions are constantly changing and developing, he believes that the dynamics of ancient rituals cannot be very different from what can be documented in the present: “The cases we have studied have a number of features in common, such as relationality, reflexivity, ambiguity, and complexity. The proposal is to understand Amerindian ritual art in its modernity avant la lettre, independently of the period of its origin” (143).

Neurath’s approach implies a rejection of all those representations of Amerindian cultures that have ignored their inherent complexity, reducing their study to simple questions of dualism and cosmovision (based on the ideas of order, structure and fixed values) or to practical-functional aspects, such as adaptation to the environment and legitimisation of power. Judging by a multitude of Amerindian images, for Neurath the point is not to insist on the possession of powers and privileges, but rather to emphasise the processual and transformative character of rituals of power acquisition. Moreover, all implication of a univocal, ordered, and stable object or world is rejected in favour of the uncertain, the imprecise, the ambiguous, the contradictory, and the paradoxical.

Someter a los dioses, dudar de las imágenes: enfoques relacionales en el estudio del arte ritual amerindio is a well-written book, expressive and concise. It is pertinent in the way it combines a multitude of historical and field data with theoretical discussions from different fields of knowledge. Strong criticism is always accompanied by counterarguments. The volume adds significantly to the field of pluralistic history of art and the study of global art practices. We may well think of it as an accomplished transdisciplinary study, in that it is able to bridge between disciplines that are often treated separately without ever losing its focus on Amerindian ritual art. Neurath’s volume underpins the principle that art/images can create the epistemological, critical, and phenomenological conditions necessary to critically analyse and challenge officially constructed linear histories. By emphasising the need to seriously embrace indigenous ways of being, knowing, and doing into academic investigations, the book makes a step towards emancipatory research.

About the book author: Johannes Neurath is a Research-Professor at Museo Nacional de Antropología and teaches Anthropology of art and Ethnographic theory at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), both in Mexico City. As an ethnographer, he has been conducting fieldwork among the Wixaritari, the Náayari, and other Indigenous communities in Mexico since 1992. He has published extensively on ritual studies, anthropology of art, and Amerindian cosmopolitics. His recent publications include Mostrar y ocultar en las artes y en los rituales [EN: Showing and Concealing in Arts and Rituals] (ed. with Guilhem Olivier, UNAM, 2017) and Cosmopolítica y cosmohistoria: una anti-síntesis [EN: Cosmopolitics and Cosmohistory: An Anti-synthesis] (ed. with María Isabel Martínez Ramírez, Ed. SB, Paradigma Indicial, 2021). Click here to view Johannes Neurath’s talk on “Images and Psychotropic Plants in Mesoamerica” in the 4A_Lab online seminar series.

About the Author

Sanja Savkić Šebek received her MA and Ph.D. from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), where she studied the Indigenous arts of the Americas. Her doctoral dissertation on ancient Maya art and architecture was awarded the Alfonso Caso Medal. Her research focuses on Amerindian art and the artistic and intellectual exchanges between New Spain and Europe. Sanja was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas – UNAM, the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin, and the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – MPI. In Berlin, she also collaborated with the Ethnologisches Museum on the preparation of several media stations for the display of its Mesoamerican collection at the Humboldt Forum. Presently she is a Research Associate in the international research group “Bilderfahrzeuge. Aby Warburg’s Legacy and the Future of lconology” at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – MPI.

Contact: sanja.savkic@khi.fi.it

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