Last week I participated in the ‘Anthropology and Geography: Dialogues Past, Present and Future’ conference which was jointly organised by the Royal Anthropological Institute, the Royal Geographical Society, the British Academy, the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at SOAS, and the British Museum’s Department for Africa, Oceania and the Americas. I was invited to join a roundtable discussion on ‘Public Anthropology and Geography’, chaired by Dr Joe Smith, the director of the Royal Geographical Society with IBG. Joining me were geographer Dr Ella Harris (Birkbeck University of London) and Dr Simon Underdown (Oxford Brookes). It was a lively discussion featuring many questions from the 90 delegates in the audience, exploring the ways in which anthropology and geography can be – or should be – ‘public’, ranging from engaging beyond academia, informing public policy, through to ways of constructing knowledge with publics. Ella presented her work on interactive documentary making during COVID-19, and Simon called for greater communication within and between the disciplines of Anthropology and Geography for better engagement with the public.
I used the opportunity to talk about my interest in visual approaches to public anthropology, and to launch an exhibition I have been working on, alongside Dr Jennifer Cearns, supported by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Earlier in the year we put out an open call for illustrations of anthropological research and were overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of the response from anthropologists all over the world. We spent a long time working our way through the entries, along with guest judge Dr Benjamin Dix, Founding Director of PositiveNegatives, who produce comics, animations, and podcasts about social and humanitarian issues.
Jennifer and I are both Leach Fellows in Public Anthropology at the RAI, and this year have been organising a variety of public endeavours. The pandemic has made it a strange year to try to arrange public activities, but perhaps a positive side effect of having to refocus our attention on online events is the possibility to reach larger and more wide-flung audiences. Another side effect is that we have had to prioritise visual media that will engage people online. The online ‘Illustrating Anthropology’ exhibition explores human lives around the world through comics, drawings, and paintings of anthropological research. From those who use illustration as a fieldwork method to others who partner with artists and research participants to tell stories, this exhibition draws together a wide range of ways that contemporary anthropologists are illustrating anthropology.
Drawing has long been part of anthropological research and communication, in the form of maps, field-note sketches and kinship diagrams. But now anthropologists are increasingly recognising the phenomenal storytelling power of illustration as a way to return their research to the communities they work with and to share their findings far and wide. Illustration can be a powerful way to contribute towards the public imagination of anthropology, and also to work with publics in the production of knowledge, including through participatory methods.
I invite you to take a look at the exhibition website where we will be releasing new illustrations every week over the next ten weeks. You can also follow along on the @Illustrating_Anthropology Instagram account for our daily updates. Hope you’ll join us on this journey! And if you are exploring illustration in your anthropological work, then share it with us on Instagram with the hashtag #IllustratingAnthropology.