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The Photograph and the Malanggan: Rethinking images on Malakula, Vanuatu

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Abstract

From the recent efflorescence of anthropological engagements with photography we are by now aware that photography is an embodied practice and that photographs are complex materialisations of the subjective and experiential as well as the objective and evidential. Despite discussions of ‘visual repatriation’ (e.g. Brown and Peers 2006), and of local responses to colonial photography and other kinds of archival images in the Pacific, little has been discussed regarding the status of photographs as particularly ‘Pacific’ artefacts—objects that make sense in indigenous terms as well as being understood in terms of the connections to other places that their production and circulation might signify. Following Wright’s exhortation to recognise ‘the provincial nature of Eurocentric notions of photography and … suggesting that a certain corporeality and materiality constitute elements of its identity’ (2004: 74), I discuss the resonance of historical photographs in Vanuatu, building an analogy with Malanggan—funerary carvings from Northern New Ireland. I do not mean to suggest that photographs are complex ritual artefacts, but rather follow the ways in which Malanggan have been used as anthropological conceits, in order to discuss the representational efficacy and materiality of Melanesian images in facilitating the crystallisation of memory and history (Küchler 1988), the enchantment of technology (Gell 1998, 1999), and the consolidation of certain kinds of property relations (Strathern 2005b). As my title suggests, I draw on Strathern’s combination of Malanggan and Patents to rethink the potential utility of Malanggan as a ‘way to think’ about the meanings of photographs in Pacific communities.

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