On display until the end of April: Phyllis Kaberry (1910-1977), a woman in the field

The exhibition “She was the first one” – Phyllis Kaberry (1910-1977), a woman in the field is on display in the foyer of the Anthropology building until the end of April 2019. This exhibition has been co-curated with Dr. Diane Losche from the University of Sydney.

Phyllis Kaberry grew up in Australia and completed her undergraduate degree in anthropology at the University of Sydney before joining the London School of Economics for her PhD. She returned to Australia before leaving for Yale University and then London during World War II. She was Reader in Social Anthropology at UCL for twenty-six years and research fellow of the International African Institute. She had three major fieldwork sites: first in the Kimberley district of Western Australia (1934-1935), then among the Abelam of Northern New Guinea (1939-1940) and finally in the Bamenda division of what used to be the British Cameroons (1945-1946, 1947-1948, and periods in 1958, 1960, 1963).
Kaberry worked on many topics: kinship, ritual, land tenure and political structures but most of all she was a pioneer in the anthropological study of women’s place in society. (Firth 1978)
We hope that this exhibition, based on the UCL Ethnography Collection and additional documents from University of Sydney and the London School of Economics archives, exemplifies her meticulous methodology in all field sites as well as the enduring nature of her legacy.
UCL Ethnography Collections contains numerous lantern slides reproducing photographs taken by Kaberry, which she used for her teaching at UCL. Some of this material is exhibited here with objects brought back by her from her three fieldwork sites, which she donated to the UCL Ethnography Collection.

Phyllis Kaberry in the Kimberley (Australia)

Aboriginal women and Phyllis Kaberry, Kimberley, Australia, 1934. ©Toussaint 2002, p.16

This photograph was taken in the Kimberley region, north-western Australia, where Kaberry first conducted fieldwork as part of research for a Ph.D at the London School of Economics. Her main findings were published in 1939 in Aboriginal Woman Sacred and Profane. During her time in the field, she received an Aboriginal name, Nadjeri, and the memory of her stay “has been recorded into a number of indigenous historical narratives” (Toussaint 2002 ; Williams 1988). She was the first researcher to focus on the lives of Aboriginal women (Williams 1988) and her work garnered considerable public as well as academic attention. Newspapers of the time published a number of articles about Kaberry and her research. She was much influenced by Bronislaw Malinowski and his field methods – she was one of his first postgraduate students at LSE (1936-1938), and she dedicated her book to him. In a letter to her, Malinowski said that her dedication bestowed “a great honour on [him]” (Kaberry 1974). During her fieldwork, Kaberry’s focus was not solely women but rather the structure of gender. Her volume argued that the culture she studied was based on gender complementarity: “If my theme is women, it is one that has involved a contrast and comparison of their activities with those of men with due recognition of the co-operation that exists between sexes.” (Kaberry 1939:xii-xiii)
UCL Ethnography Collection keeps seven objects which were given or are related to Kaberry’s Kimberley field work and almost 50 lantern slides showing reproductions of field work photographs used for teaching.

Phyllis Kaberry in Papua New Guinea, among the Abelam

Kaberry among Abelam women, UCL Ethnography Collection, X.0007

Kaberry worked in New Guinea in 1939-1940, basing herself in Kalabu village in the Abelam speaking region of the Sepik District. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, who had both done fieldwork in the Sepik region, suggested the area to her. Kaberry writes: “Fortunately, the men put me in another category from their own women, referring to me as “white-skin”; they made no objection to my entering the yam gardens and often invited me to attend their ceremonies, and to go inside their ceremonial house or house-tamberan.” (1940:237). In line with these interests she took detailed photographs of yam cultivation and the processes involved in the construction of spectacular ceremonial houses. Recent photographs taken by another anthropologist, Ludovic Coupaye, demonstrate striking consistencies, as well as some crucial changes, in these practices over a fifty-year period (see Coupaye 2013). Kaberry’s study of the Abelam was functionalist, with an emphasis on kinship, yam culture and ceremonial and political organisation as well as exchange. While her published ethnography of the area does not focus on the lives of women and children, her photographs give us an important glimpse into their lives.
UCL Ethnography Collection keeps 250 lantern slides reproducing Kaberry’s fieldwork photographs and ten objects either given by Kaberry to the collection or related to the area.
Both Coupaye and Losche shared the same fieldwork as Kaberry and discuss in this video the legacy of the later and the evolution of Abelam studies and filedwork methodologies.

Phyllis Kaberry among the Nso’, Bamenda

Kaberry at the Nso’ Queen Mother Ceremony, Cameroons, Africa, 1947. ©Toussaint 2002, p.17

In 1944, the Government of Nigeria contacted the International African Institute with concern about the Bamenda region, particularly the situation of women “whose low status was held to be one of the obstacles to the social and economic development of the region” (Chilver 1978). Kaberry, who was appointed to this research, arrived in Bamenda (then part of the British Cameroons) in April 1945. Her fieldwork was prompted by conditions during the 1940’s when, despite considerable natural resources, there was under-population, very high infant mortality and the status of women was low. “One’s starting point is not the women but an analysis of a particular aspect of culture. On that basis one may then proceed to examine in more detail the way in which the structure and organization of rights, duties and activities within a group of institutions affect the position of women.” (Kaberry 2004:VII). Her research was published in 1952, Women of the Grassfields, which examined the social and economic status of women in the Nso’ of the Bamenda division. Her work became one of the foundational works of gender studies and demonstrated that women’s agricultural role was not an index of low status, but a way of preserving their rights. Kaberry’s study incorporated a holistic understanding of how women functioned in that society and their central role in constructing economy and community. Kaberry was made a Yaa Woo Kov (Lady of the Forest) and Queen Mother by the Fon of Nso’ (Chilver 1978 ; Toussaint 2002), and said that it was her most significant honour (Michael Rowlands, personal communication). Her woman-centred view can be observed in her many photos, the majority of which shows women engaged in their everyday activities. The objects, knives and sculpture displayed here are also insights into her focus on agricultural activities.
As being a woman in anthropology has been central in the life and research of Kaberry, it was discussed in this video by Diane Losche and Susanne Kuechler, Head of UCl Anthropology.

Chilver, E. M. 1978. Obituary. RAIN, No. 24, p. 11-12
Coupaye, L. 2013. Growing Artefacts, Displaying Relationships: Yams, Art and Technology amongst the Nyamikum Abelam of Papua New Guinea. Oxford & New York: Berghahn Books.
Firth, R. 1978. Obituary: Phyllis Kaberry 1910-1977. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 48 (3), pp. 296-297.
Kaberry, P. 1939. Aboriginal Woman Sacred and Profane. London: Routledge.
Kaberry, M.P. 1940. The Abelam Tribe, Sepik District, New Guinea: A Preliminary Report. Oceania, 11, pp.233-258
Kaberry, P. 1974. A glimpse of Malinowski in retrospect. Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, 5 (2), pp. 104-108.
Kaberry, P. 2004. Women of the Grassfields. London: Routledge.
Toussaint, S. 2002. Searching for Phyllis Kaberry via Proust Biography: Ethnography and memory as a subject of inquiry. Anthropology Today, 18 (2), pp. 15-19.
Williams, N.M. 1988. ‘She was the first one’: Phyllis Kaberry in the East Kimberley. Aboriginal History, 12 (½), pp.84 – 102. The title of the exhibition refers to this article. An inhabitant from the Kemberley described her as the first woman anthropologist in the area. She was also one of the first female anthropologist to develop long term fieldworks and to focus on women.