Unfinished Bodies: The Figurative Object in Southeast Africa, 1860–1920
Sims, Theresa Elizabeth
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CitationSims, Theresa Elizabeth. 2017. Unfinished Bodies: The Figurative Object in Southeast Africa, 1860–1920. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThe incomplete body is a persistent motif in carved works from nineteenth-century South Africa. Prior to this period, images of the human form were rare in Nguni visual cultures along the southeast African coast, but they began to proliferate in the second half of the nineteenth century. Yet despite this new enthusiasm for representing the body’s form, many figures sculpted in the round are partial, fragmented, or otherwise distorted. Proceeding from this contradiction, my dissertation investigates what it meant for the human form to become a subject of visual representation in this time and place.
Through a series of case studies, I situate figurative objects within their broader cultural landscape: an environment that was both newly flooded with pictorial media, and deeply preoccupied with anxieties about the body’s cultural meaning and its physical vulnerability. These uncertainties were the product of various historical forces, which included a volatile atmosphere of heightened colonial intervention, Christian missionary activity, rapid economic change, and war. At the same time, the increasingly accessible media of photography and print enabled the body’s image to be manipulated and estranged from its subject in new ways. I argue that anthropomorphic objects must be understood in light of these conditions, as material sites where the status and meaning of the human body were in the process of being negotiated, undermined, and remade.
Each chapter traces a different motif of fragmentary anthropomorphism. Chapter One examines carved staffs that incorporate representations of human heads. Chapter Two looks at the motif of functional objects carved in the form of headless female bodies. Chapter Three analyzes the strange corporeality that characterizes a class of elaborate wooden vessels. Chapter Four describes relationships between violence and figurative representation in objects made to commemorate war. Through these case studies, I offer a new interpretation of nineteenth-century objects carved in the round. I show how the emergence of figurative representation was inextricably linked to broader cultural histories of the body in this region and era.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:41140249
- FAS Theses and Dissertations 
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