We and the world are enveloped in a common reality; objectivity and subjectivity are conflated, agency is entangled and the task of research is to excavate the way we capture through language, writing, images and models part of our ultimately contingent and partial condition of being. Research traces the boundaries of our linguistic, textual, visual and modelled formulations of the world in an attempt to map the contours of the unknowable focus of our technical, intellectual and creative endevours. I am motivated by the belief that by understanding the limits of cognition we may gleam some semblance of the shape and nature of the black hole of the “real”. In 1981, I began work on a book on anthropology's repressed anti-disciplinary lineage, sometimes called philosophical anthropology, which traces the connection between Kant, Cassirer, Jung, Piaget and Lévi-Strauss. I still intend to finish this book but in the meantime much of my work appears to me to have been haunted by the epistemological and ontological issues these and other authors raise.
My work is centred on the problem, limitation and politics of the representation of metaphysical categories through images (static, moving and performative). In my formulation of the discipline of critical museology I reorientate museum-based knowledge systems away from empirical and didactic preoccuaptions to focus on them as evocations and alternative and counter-evocations of ways we have sensed, mediated and expressed meanings. Critical museology has since 1995 to 2017, provided a methodology for nearly all the exhibitions I have curated.
My research on Mexican and Portuguese Indigenous and popular art has examined the intellectual and literary roots and the changing ways these have been articulated to mobilize images within specific knowledge regimes; the working of palimpsests to ghost the past and their political manipulations and counter usages as forms of resistance. I have conducted long term research on 16-20th century Mexican and Andean dance dramas; the telescoping and spalializasion of time in the invention of popular art by the Portuguese estado novo, and on the appropriation of African visual cultures within western tropes of fetishism, curiositys and art.
I am drawn to problems of materiality; the adoption of concepts of light and heavy matter, in the words of the Mexican researcher Alfredo López Austin in his interpretation of Mexica sculpture, or luminescence and shimmer as used by pre-Hispanic Andean civilizations and later in the colonial period by the painters of the Cuzco and Potosi schools. More recently the same concepts are found in Indigenous uses of metal foils, mirrors and polychromatic plastics and paper. I have also written on collections, assemblages, rusted metals and surfaces that absorb light, fetishized objects and desire. The affect of the uncanny, the displaced, the unnatural, whether in the manipulation of puppets, dolls, deity impersonators, fashion or melodies have woven themselves in and out of many of my essays.
In 2019, I began divising a new project focused on the aesthetics and cultural categories embedded in Luso-tropical art-worlds. This project, if developed, will examine the combinations and frictions that have contributed to creating an Afro-centric sensibility that brings together markets, exhibition networks; belief systems and artist and literary exchanges between Salvador (Brazil), Mexico, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Southern Europe.
Klee’s monoprint, Angelus Novus, later associated by Walter Benjamin with his “angel of history”, evokes a sensibilty that runs through many of my preoccupations and works. A tapestry of Klee’s angel, brought in 1980, from Zapotec weavers in Teotitlán del Valle in Oaxaca, three times attacked by moths, still hangs in my book room.
My long-term research interests include, mask and masquerades of Mexico, Guatemala and the Andes; material symbols; art, nationalism and identity in Yucatan, and pre-Colombian Mexica earth deities. I have also carried out fieldwork among the Wixárika which was focused on the relations between aesthetic and moral categories and their expression in divisions of time (kinship and cosmology) and space (social organization and sacred geography).
My interest in aesthetics grew out of my 1979-1980 field work among the Wixárika and later, a growing fascination with the pre-Columbian Mexican collections of the British Museum. Having partly lived in Portugal since 2000, I have also become interested and researched the connection between politics and popular art during the period of the Estado Novo (1933-1974). Recently, I have been thinking about performances, including puppet plays, as assemblages which are able to concentrate, focus and channel power.
Since beginning work in museums in 1985, I have continually felt both jolted and delighted by these strange startling, anachronistic and unique institutions and by the motivations of the collectors who created them. I have attempted to lay the basis for a critical museology which questions and deconstructs the presuppositions underlying museum representations, heritage regimes, and the politics identity and contestation. Critical Museology also provides a method to create new interdisiplinary genres of exhibitions and enhances awareness of the limitations of visual and narrative media.
I am interested in collection history and its potential to subjectivize material culture studies. Instead of providing passive backdrops, collections are assembled to constitute and express personal and institutional biographies. I have written widely on European cabinets of curiosities and the history of ethnography collections in the UK, Mexico and Canada and am currently working on a history of the British Museum's pre-Colombian collection.
My MLitt. thesis, Some Problems in the Comparative Study of the Concept of Time, examined different approaches to the representation and understanding of time. These ranged from phenomenology and neo-Kantianism to ethnographic descriptions and its expression in language and grammar. These interests have continued to mark most of my life's work, especially the conceptualization and performance of temporal reversals, stoppages, timequakes and eschatologies.
I am struck by the close thematic links and stylistic similarities between the contemporary art worlds of Bahia, Togo and Benin and by the development of collectors markets in Souther Europe. I am currently preparing a research project to examine more deeply the history of artist exchanges, traveling exhibitions, and similarities in genre paintings and how they constitute a uniquely South Atlantic contemporary art world.