Ethnographic Portrait-Painting Today: Opening Up the Process at NYC’s American Natural History Museum | Bray | Visual Ethnography
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Ethnographic Portrait-Painting Today: Opening Up the Process at NYC’s American Natural History Museum

Zoe Bray


This article contributes to today’s discussions on the collaboration between art and anthropology and the necessity for ethnographers working with art to expound on their methodological process. The article discusses the application of contemporary ethnographic practice on portrait-painting in the specific institutional setting of New York City’s American Natural History Museum (AMNH), as a way to reflect on the norms and politics of representational forms and relations between the ethnographer, the ‘informant’ and the public. It reflects specifically on a curatorial experiment in which I took part, invited by the collective Ethnographic Terminalia at the AMNH, within the framework of the annual Margaret Mead Film Festival. The experiment involved installing a pop-up painting studio in the main hall of AMNH where I, as both a social anthropologist and a realist artist, would paint the portraits of two anthropologists over the course of three days. The experiment was to publicly expose the process of depicting a live human-being on canvas and examine what it might involve in terms of doing visual ethnography. The location of the AMNH for this experiment is significant because of its historical status as an authoritative place for displaying human cultures and their natural environment since the late 19th century. This article talks about the experiment in light of current discussions in anthropology on the transformation of the discipline as a co-production of knowledge utilizing multimodal approaches.


Portrait-Painting; Multimodal Ethnography; American Natural History Museum; Ethnographic Terminalia; Collaboration; Visual Representation; Curatorial Practice

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ISSN Print 2499-9288
ISSN Online 2281-1605
Publisher Edizioni Museo Pasqualino
Patronage University of Basilicata, Italy
Web Salvo Leo

Periodico registrato presso il Tribunale di Palermo con numero di registrazione 1/2023