The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, August 05, 2019


Bewitched, bothered and bewildered                                

Readers know they’re in for a rollicking time when a supposedly serious-minded academic starts with a blunt admission about his former profession.

‘Ethnography’, says Dr Will Buckingham when introducing Stealing with the Eyes, is ‘that curious brand of high-minded intrusiveness amongst peoples too polite, or too powerless, to tell you to go f*** yourself.’

Subtitled Imaginings and Incantations in Indonesia, on one level it’s about a young British graduate’s adventures in Tanimbar late last century.  Ostensibly he went in search of three carvers and to learn more of adat, a word with more definitions than dictionaries.

It can be culture, magic, ritual, wisdom, tradition, a reason for doing unreasonable things, an excuse for avoiding people and places, and a jumbled mixture of the lot. Adat is ever-present in rural Indonesia but in Tanimbar it’s most fertile for here the dead walk, women give birth to octopuses and witches are the root of all wrongs.

The island is isolated, 570 kilometers southeast of Ambon in the Banda Sea, though not so distant it couldn’t be reached by Europeans brandishing Bibles, guns and empty barrels to fill with exotic foods for shipment and profit.

After the Second World War it became a center for ‘primitive’ art, drawing collectors and a few tourists. A booklet for craftsmen by a normally prurient government suggests ‘differences in the sexes of sculptures should be made explicit. The sexual organs should not be seen as shameful or pornographic.’

A weird place, and a fine location for a thinker to learn more about himself, his purpose and Western values, not always well scrutinized by its practitioners: 

Books based on academic theses usually include sparkling tributes to the kind folk encountered during research. These glowing acknowledgements lead outsiders to think they’ve missed a perfect world where none are bitchy and bastardly, grasping and lying; mistakes are seldom made and rapidly forgiven. Generosity is unqualified.

Apart from setting tone through observation, the best about Buckingham’s prose is its apparent honesty.  Written more than two decades after working on a project with Ambon’s Pattimura University, this memoir squints at self and society from afar:

‘Curi mata: stealing with the eyes. The accusation was inescapable. What else did Westerners do, the whole world over, if not this? They roved here and there, taking other people’s lives and homes as things to be photographed, consumed, ferried back home.

‘Wasn’t anthropology itself no more than a vast enterprise of stealing with the eyes? Wasn’t the entire world, under the guise of knowledge and science, a cabinet of curiosity for the West?’

Buckingham finds the required ‘informants’ but anthropology isn’t run in a sterile laboratory.  By showing interest the newcomer warps reality, just as a TV news crew’s presence can encourage thugs to change a demo to a riot.

He does meet helpful people, but also gets snared by petty feuds; he’s misinformed, manipulated and exploited. A statue promised as a gift because the artist was being guided by his ancestors turns into a demand for money and a most discomforting episode where Western understandings collide with local expectations.

Such events rarely appear in scholarly works unless buried under obfuscating jargon, which Buckingham avoids.  He gets seriously sick and is treated with a range of traditional cures from pills, to massage, to group therapy.  None work; the fever eventually extinguishes, though later returns.

Buckingham heads to Ambon to sort out visa hassles: ‘The bureaucratic demands of the Indonesian state were no less binding and complex than the adat demands of the ancestors.’

But should he return to Tanimbar?  He’d made friends, garnered information, improved his Indonesian but was running out of money. His inquiries had been led off the textbook track; oral history gets embellished according to the moods of the myth’s custodians. Are there any certainties?  Time for a rethink:

‘What sicknesses and discontents, I wondered, had I brought to Tanimbar? And now that I had left, drifting away with wind and tide, what greater discontents would I bring by returning? What do you here in this poor land? These were questions to which I could find no good answers.’

But he does go back, this time to the village of Tumbur where he’s visited by the self proclaimed ‘best sculptor in the village’.  And indeed Damianus Masele doesn’t exaggerate.

Buckingham’s tape-recorder, the anthropologist’s equivalent of a doctor’s stethoscope proving qualifications, spooks informants so he discards the device – only to find the artist demanding to be recorded.

He’s asked to sign a document absolving Masele of blame should the Englishman be struck by disaster after seeing a sacred object, but instead chooses not to view; had adat taken hold?.

The villagers think of Westerners as men with guns and women in bikinis. Both frighten: ‘Sex and death. Death and sex. Tanimbarese dreams of the West, and Western dreams of Tanimbar. The two were almost-perfect mirror images.’

Back in Britain Buckingham gets seriously sick again, leading him to abandon higher study and turn to writing – which seems to bring release.  Then he discovers his old notes:

‘Tanimbar carved me. It refashioned and remade me in ways that eventually put paid to my relationship with anthropology, this queasy enterprise at the tag end of colonialism.

‘It is thanks to my time in Tanimbar that I found myself eventually heading down new paths, as a sculptor of sorts myself, but one who worked in words rather than in wood and stone, fashioning stories and tales from fragmented dreams, recollections and imaginings.’

And it’s thanks to this book that we can also ponder the world’s ways, learn and discover without having to be tested by Tanimbar and bewitched by adat.

Stealing with the Eyes by Will Buckingham
Haus Publishing, London, 2019
231 pages

First published in The Jakarta Post 5 August 2019

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