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Kristin Otto
PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, Indiana University

“Repairing the Sowei: Layers of Material Interpretation in Global Assemblages”

The West African sowei masks performed historically and contemporarily by women in West Africa are now among the most widely distributed, easily recognizable, and most iconic forms of African art worldwide. A sowei mask can now be easily found in almost any collection of objects from Africa: from major art museum to anthropology museum, from local biographical museums to private collections, from elite art fair to eBay. Consequently, sowei masks have circulated widely in the assemblages of people, objects, institutions, ideas, and transactional spaces that characterize the movement of material culture around the world. As the masks circulate—in addition to the discursive interpretation that adapts the mask to new contexts—people also regularly repair the sowei masks. Drawing from examination of sowei mask collections around the world and interviews with repairers, Otto argues the processes of repair characteristic of the performative, market, and institutional contexts materially interpret the sowei mask for new audiences, thus producing new forms, identities, values, and knowledge.

Monday, March 16, 12:15 pm
38 West 86th Street, Seminar Room

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Kristin Otto is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University, an NSF Graduate Research Fellow, and a research associate with the Mathers Museum of World Cultures who focuses on the study of repair and material culture. Her dissertation research traces how repair materially interprets sowei masks as they circulate from performative contexts in West Africa into Western markets, collections, and institutions. Within the scope of her broader research in museum anthropology, Otto curated two exhibitions: Shapes of the Ancestors: Bodies, Animals, Art, and Ghanaian Fantasy Coffins (2018) at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, and Extending Lives: Repair and Damage in African Arts (2017) at the Eskenazi Museum of Art.