Gradhiva n°6

Gradhiva n. 6: To see and recognise, the object of a misunderstanding

Gradhiva n°6


Coordinated and presented by Jean-Pierre Goulard

Laurent Barry, The man of quality

If the thinking of biological racism –from Gustav Klemm to Joseph Arthur de Gobineau– only appears in the 19th century, it is because, according to the accounts offered by the historians of living sciences, the idea of the individual as part of an identity and a specifically biological heritage had just been formed.

Before this, Nature is silent. At the very least, it reproduces itself tirelessly and identically, through individual destinies that have no influence over a heritage of which they merely receive but do not write and even less judge.

However, as our contemporary exegetes suppose, if the concept of biological heredity is expressed scientifically at a very late stage, it does not mean that Ancients did not have thoughts akin to somatic inscription. If it does not necessarily fall within a perfectly constructed scholarly view, one does however clearly perceive its echoes in other types of literary productions of the period.

The author invites us to reread some of these texts which present genetics before genetics - i.e. a kind of pre-scientific reflection on heredity that, in the human legacy, does not yet distinguish between the innate and the acquired and between nature and culture.

Béatrice Fraenkel, The invention of prehistoric rock art. History of a visual experience

In 1906, Felix Regnault announced the discovery of human handprints in the Gargas cave (High Pyrenees) to the Anthropological Society in Paris. As a regular digger of a site that he had visited for the last thirty years, he had not “seen” the handprints. The article retraces the multi-form genesis of a scientific form of observation that moves from the ground to the inner walls, that comes close to the surfaces and scrutinizes them in order to identify the figures and the signs in order to interpret them. The survey shows how Regnault’s discovery is the result of a life shaped by erudition. It was preceded by the initial discovery of Altamira, excluded and censured by the contemporary scientific authorities, and ulterior experiences perceived as revelations and which allowed an entire community to “discover” numerous sites, some of which, already noticed by the diggers, had been overlooked.

Jean-Pierre Goulard, The savage in general

An engraving from the beginning of the 19th century suggested by two naturalists, Spix and Martius, was quick to attract attention. It was reused and often reworked in the years that followed its publication. The analysis points first of all at the combination of the elements that composed the engraving. By drawing a parallel with subsequent borrowings, the author seeks to show how much this image corresponded to the perception of the savage - which had become emblematic - thereby guaranteeing its continued existence. Indeed, it corresponds to the desire at that time of being able to know and see in order to classify natural elements - amongst which the savage had its place - just as the fauna and flora were classified.

Dimitri Karadimas, Yurupari, the figures of the devil. The misunderstandings of the different points of view

Yurupari is one of the emblematic figures of the indigenous societies of North-West Amazonia. Materialised by flutes during masculine initiation rituals, the character they are supposed to incarnate remains partly enigmatic. The prohibitions applied to women and the non-initiated, the ritual, the myth... all form a “complex”, that adjoins the sacred.

At first associated with “Satan” or the “Devil” by the missionaries who, in the 19th century attempted to eradicate its presence and its rituals, this complex has long been the subject of abundant debates in the literature associated with this cultural region, in which it appears in terms of a protean construction close to monotheism.

The article intends to briefly review the different elements that compose this complex in order to shed light on them through the analysis of mythical enunciations and the iconography of a number of masks associated with the ethology that these entities embody.

The analysis proposition will be based on the hypothesis that the iconography of the figure of the devil conveyed by the missionaries would have been recognised as “Yurupari” by the Indians; the recognition would thus have been due to the Indians and not to the missionaries. The reflection will bear on these crossed perspectives regarding what was allowed to be seen and what was forbidden to be shown and seen; in brief, the status of the “iconographic point of view” will be examined.

Sandra Revolon, Sacred curios. About the changing status of objects in a Melanesian society (Aorigi, East Solomon Islands)

In Aorigi, to the East of the Solomon Islands, as elsewhere, wooden sculptures take their meaning according to the context in which they interact. But this meaning is not definite; on the contrary, it fluctuates with the categories attached to these objects, passing from profane to sacred and, at the same time, from the sphere of alienability to that of inalienability. This conceptual mobility has provoked changes in the way the Owa perceived the “bowls of men” which initially created exclusively for 19th century Westerners, were later considered as apuna ritual objects, reserved for the initiated in their relationships with the ancestors of the assassinated dead.

Gaëlle Beaujean-Baltzer, From the trophy to the artwork : the journey of five artefacts from the Kingdom of Abomey

Between 1893 and 1895, French officers gave 27 items from the war booty taken at Dahomey to the ethnographic museum of Trocadéro. This article seeks to retrace the “biography” of five of these trophies. Information about these objects was brief, incomplete and/or incorrect. The exhibition of these unusually large pieces, encouraged the researchers to make further investigations. The use and the journey of these objects over the course of a century were thus revealed. This was a genuine challenge in terms of the artefacts' memory and that of the artists, the religious practices and the regalia of Abomey. The public diffusion of the objects, notably via photography, contributed to their worldwide reputation, inciting the Beninian government to order copies for the Abomey museum. Since 2000, in Paris, some of these artefacts have been recognized as universal masterpieces and others as remedies against historical amnesia, thereby timidly but openly transforming the museum into a site where colonial history is remembered.


Vincent Debaene, The “Ethiopian chronicles” by Marcel Griaule. The ethnology, the literature and the document in 1934

Published in 1934, Marcel Griaule’s "Les Flambeurs d’hommes" [Burners of Men] recounts the first “Griaule mission,” undertaken in 1928 in the Godjam region of Ethiopia. Although forgotten today, the book initially enjoyed considerable success. Indeed, it deserves a critical reappraisal based on several features which make it completely unique and which have no equivalent in the ethnographic literature of the 20th century. This notably includes Griaule’s use of the third person when speaking about himself. To be properly understood, this curious text needs to be situated in the epistemological context of French ethnology of the interwar period. Indeed, "Les Flambeurs d’hommes" sheds light on the contradictions of the anthropological discipline of that era. In particular, it demonstrates ethnology’s ambivalent relationship to literature, as literature is held to be, on the one hand, that which must be discarded on behalf of the objectivity of the document, and, on the other hand, a technique much desired for its alleged ability to convey and restore the “moral atmosphere” of society.

Marie-France Fauvet-Berthelot, Leonardo López Luján et Susana Guimarães, Six characters in search of objects. History of the archeological collection of the Real Expedición Anticuaria in New Spain

To become more familiar with its colonized territory in Latin America, Spain organized scientific expeditions such as the "Real Expedición Anticuaria", which was in charge of drawing up inventories and of describing and sketching the pre-Columbian monuments and sculptures of New Spain between 1805 and 1809. The “Latour Allard” collection acquired by France in 1849, which today is part of the collection of the musée du quai Branly, was gained during this scientific mission.

Thanks to archives conserved in Mexico, France and in the United States, and also to drawings of the scientific expedition, it has been possible to retrace the odyssey of this collection containing 182 archaeological objects, which on its arrival to France in 1825, provoked commentaries from both independent Mexican authorities and French erudite milieus.