Valentina GAMBERRI


Valentina Gamberi is a PhD candidate in religious studies at the Department of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Chester, U.K. Her research project consists in exploring Western curatorial practices towards Indian religious artefacts which transmit darshan, namely the spiritual contact established between the Hindu worshipper and the visual representation of a Hindu deity.

Résumé de la proposition

The challenge of the visual materiality: a phenomenological ethnography suggested by Indian religious artefacts

Visual materiality or, more generally, materiality has usually been viewed as a discrimination between human and nonhuman, therefore it has hardly been grasped under an agency paradigm. Gell’s theorisation of agency (1998) has considered materiality as a possible actor. However, the agency of the latter has been formulated by the scholar as a human projection onto the artefact, like, for instance, in the children’s plays with toys. Posthuman studies and multispecies ethnography have stressed how the concept of personhood is a historically constructed boundary in order to justify the human exploitation of animals, in a similar fashion to that according to which materiality is the ancillary replica of a human Self. As Latour (2010) has efficaciously stated, the result of this narcissistic projection is, on the one hand, an animistic belief on the power of visual materiality (see for instance Faure, 1998), which is treated as an anthropomorphic entity or fetish, on the other hand, a transformation of the visual into a reified concept, would it be an aesthetic ideal of beauty or an ethnographic theorisation or factish, which is revered by a semi-spiritual or post-secular approach. The latter is derived by a specific process of secularisation of the act of seeing, anciently anchored to a ritual substratum, which culminated, in the Enlightenment period, with the theory of the art-as-such (Abrams, 1985) and the foundation of the discipline of aesthetics by Baumgarten.

This conflicting split to which materiality is condemned is particularly prominent in the ethnographic or word-art museums, where artefacts considered reincarnation of superhuman entities in their original context are reinterpreted under the light of the educational mission of the museums.

By focusing on Western curatorial standpoints on the Indian concept of darśan, namely the visual contact between the worshipper and the deity who is believed to give life to its visual representation, and its manifestation in folk religious artefacts, more specifically the Bengali and the Rajasthani storytelling scrolls as case study, the paper deconstructs the concept of materiality within the scholarly tradition of the material cultural studies and of anthropology, as well as the Durkheimian’s bipolarity of the sacred and of the profane.

The adoption of phenomenology as a framework for the paper has a twofold goal. On the one hand, phenomenology is employed as a methodological tool, according to which the researcher’s incarnated gaze discloses a particular and intersubjective engagement with the visual materiality. On the other hand, phenomenology is the theoretical approach by which the research topics are formulated and discussed, especially by referring to Merleau-Ponty’s seminal works Phenomenology of Perception (2002) and Nature. Course Notes from the College of France (2003).

The paper, therefore, suggests a critical rethinking on the anthropological tools by which reading and being engaged by the visual materiality through the potentialities offered by the act of gazing and, more specifically, by the darśan.


Abrams, M.H. (1985). Art-as-such: The Sociology of Modern Aesthetics. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 38(6), 8-33.

Faure, B. (1998). The Buddhist Icon and the Modern Gaze. Critical Inquiry, 24(3): 768-813.

Gell, A. (1998). Art and Agency. An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Latour, B. (2010). On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. Durham University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002). Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2003). Nature. Course Notes from the College of France. Evaston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

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