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Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics

My interest in aesthetics grew out of my work with the Wixárika and a growing fascination with the pre-Columbian Mexican collections of the British Museum. Having partially lived in Portugal since 2000, I have also researched the connection between politics and popular art, ethics, and aesthetics, during the period of the Estado Novo (1933-1974). I have taught and written on surrealism, cabinets of curiosities, and museums from an interest in the politics and aesthetics of assemblages.

Mexican Aesthetics


My interest in the anthropology of art began at Oxford with the realization that from the 1950s, with a few notable exceptions, British anthropology had largely ignored the study of non-Western art. I and Jeremy Coote with funding from Wolfson College organized a symposium which asked what a then-contemporary anthropology of art might look like. Contributors included Alfred Gell, Raymond Firth, Adrian Gerbrands, Pieter ter Keurs, Jonathan King, Susanne Kuechler and Howard Morphy and resulted in an edited volume. My own chapter focused on aesthetic and ethical categories among the Wixárika. Later I expanded my interest to include questions on Mexica categories of beauty, power, and efficacy.

  • Pre-Columbian American Collections (in Japanese). In The British Museum. Tokyo, Japan Broadcasting Company (NHK) 6: 42-109.

  • An Aztec Cihuateotl Discovered in Scotland. Apollo: 260-262.

  • (With J. King) The Americas In D.Wilson (ed.), The Collections of the British Museum. London, British Museum Press: 89-95.

  • Realm of the Fire Serpent. British Museum Bulletin, no. 58: 21-25.

  • Ivory and Bone Carving in Ancient Central and South America. In F. St Aubyn (ed.), Ivory. A History and Collectors Guide. London, Thames and Hudson: 314-323.

  • Pre-Columbian Jewellery. In H. Tait (ed.), Seven Thousand Years of Jewellery. London, British Museum Publications: 121-134.

  • The Aztec Theatre State and the Dramatisation of War. In T.J. Cornell and T. B. Allen (eds.), War and Games. Rochester, The Boydell Press: 107-135.

  • The Heart of the World: The Conceptual Integrity of West and Central Mexico. In M. Holsbeke and K. Arnaut (eds), Offerings for a New Life. Funerary Images from Pre-Columbian West Mexico. Antwerp, Antwerp Ethnographic Museum: 40-52.

  • Predicates of Aesthetic Judgement: Ontology and Value in Huichol Material Expressions. In J. Coote and A. Shelton (eds), Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics. Oxford, Clarendon Press: 209-244.

  • The Aztec Cihuateteo: An Image of the Apocalyptic Woman. In N. Saunders and O. Montmollin (eds), Contributions to New World Archaeology. Oxford, Oxbow Books: 1-17.

  • Mesoamerican Bonework. Macmillan Dictionary of Art, London, Macmillan.

  • South American and Caribbean Bonework. Macmillan Dictionary of Art. London, Macmillan.

  • Mesoamerican Shellwork. In Macmillan Dictionary of Art. London, Macmillan.

  • (Editor) Masks. London, Stratagems / The Prince’s Trust.

  • (Editor) Fetishism: Visualising Power and Desire. London, Southbank Centre / Lund Humphries.

  • (Co-editor, with J. Coote) Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

  • Director’s Foreword. In W. A. Grossman, Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens. Washington DC, International Arts & Artists: viii-ix.

  • (with J. Coote) Introduction. In J. Coote and A. Shelton (eds), Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

  • Person, Time and Space: The Community of the Dead in Mexico. In Altars and Idols: The Life of the Dead in Mexico. Colchester, University of Essex.

Portuguese Popular Art


For a long time, I had wondered what the relationship might be between popular art and society. Aware that the category, "folk art", is derived from German romantic thought, it seemed that any specific meanings would depend on particular national discourses on popular culture and sensibility. Having lived in Portugal since 2000, I took the opportunity to examine how the Estado Novo (1933-1974) combined and manipulated history, literature, seafaring, subjectivist philosophy, rustic art, architecture and museums and exhibitions to manufacture a specific Portuguese identity. The project recorded and compared the memories of folk artists who had lived under the regime with historical writings on the period to better understand the significance of collections, and trace the origins of current discourses on Portuguese folk art. The project resulted in one major monograph, a major exhibition at the Univeristy of Toronto and the University of British Columbia and a collection of ~350 pieces now at UBC MOA.    

  • Heaven, Hell and Somewhere In Between: Portuguese Popular Art. Vancouver and Berkeley, Figure 1 Publishing and UBC MOA: 288.

Assemblage and Agency


Since I was a schoolboy, I have been fascinated by the surrealists. In the 1980s during my years at the British Museum, I became a good friend of Dawn Ades who re-inspired my interest in the movement. I visited some of her exhibitions, read her books and catalogues and we worked together developing the idea of the fetishism exhibition and later, the catalogue for The Color of My Dreams. At the same time, I was researching pre-Columbian objects in sixteenth and seventeenth century cabinets of curiosities and was teaching on early collectors and cabinets more generally. After that, I met Amalia Mesa-Bains in Santa Cruz, California, and again at the opening of her cabinet at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. I have interpreted African, Brazilian and Haitian alters as assemblages and commissioned three for the Horniman Museum’s African Worlds exhibition. Recently, I have been thinking about performances, including puppet plays, as assemblages. In most cases, assemblage seem to concentrate, focus and channel power. This continues to fascinate me.

  • 42, Rue Fontaine. In D. Ades and J. Penner (eds.), The Colour of My Dreams: The Surrealist Revolution In Art. Vancouver, D&M Publishing: 211-217.

  • Dreaming with Open Eyes: Mexicanizing Surrealism, Remembering Mexico. In N. Levell (ed.), The Marvellous Real: Art from Mexico 1926 – 2011. Vancouver, Figure 1 Publishing and UBC MOA: 33-59.

  • Embodying the Unseen: The Play of Masks. In A. Shelton (ed), Masks. London, Stratagems / The Prince’s Trust: 8-13.

  • Journeying Between Worlds: The Masks of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. In A. Shelton (ed), Masks. London, Stratagems / The Prince’s Trust: 14-23.

  • Fetishism’s Culture. In N. Sinclaire (ed.), The Chameleon Body. Photographs of Contemporary Fetishism. London, Lund Humphries: 82-112.

  • The Chameleon Body: Power, Mutilation and Sexuality. In A. Shelton (ed.), Fetishism: Visualising Power and Desire. London, Southbank Centre / Lund Humphries: 11-51.

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