The quest for a context: Material Culture & Object

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The quest for a context: Material Culture & Object

As artists, historians, finding connections, creating contexts has always had a kind of omnipresence.   Major artists today are interested

Depictions of the Dragon in an early Islamic astrological manuscript
The Individual Artist: Carving-Out Oneself

As artists, historians, finding connections, creating contexts has always had a kind of omnipresence.


Major artists today are interested in and make use of the “craft of material”. For such art, sometimes, material itself becomes content and message and craft.  For example when Ayesha Khalid creates her imagery on installation-size fabric pieces with gold-plated pins, alluding at one level to creations for Royals in the past, and at another, invokes materiality itself.  Likewise the fluidity of Imran Qureshi’s latest material becomes his ‘art’ and ‘craft’. Rashid Rana while creating digital montage certainly is making use of a context, which is local, through a contemporary medium/material. In his work, context is alternated with material. Faiza Butt as a diasporic artist needs it way more than others but her material is vast.  As a result, the politics of identity are furthered.  This is a rather loaded word. Whether it is possible to survive in today’s art and culture milieu without a context is a question that requires a clear answer and that too, urgently.  Trying to find an answer is not easy.  Finding connections, connecting dots brings us to an older debate that is still going on: of material culture, its history and our understanding of it. In my view, it is extremely important to bring different positions around this debate to the forefront in this article so that the broader term “Material-Culture” gains clarity.

This narrative also touches base with a few key concepts along with ‘material-culture’ such as ‘skills in the pre-historic or pre-industrial society’, ‘colonialism’, ‘museums’, ‘politics of identity & heritage’, before finally contextualising the two case studies to the larger narrative.


This article sensitises about older narratives of human imagination and experience, socio-material environment, cultural homogenisation and de-skilling, transformative impact of encounters on the ways objects are understood, Western hegemony and newer perspectives around shifting emphasis, cultural capital and elaborations.


Christopher Trilley, a leading scholar in the domain of ‘material-culture’, in his book ‘Reading Material Culture’ explains that though historically concerned with the relationship between artefacts and social relations irrespective of time and place, this field “refuses to remain enmeshed within established disciplinary boundaries.”  So with time and more deliberations, the articulation of this material culture includes the study of kinship, totemism, classificatory systems and myth in small-scale non-industrial societies, stresses Levi Strauss, a most well-respected thinker.
This brings us to the fact that the cultures that existed in pre-history were the prime makers of myths and our soul access to them is through their artefacts, the ‘Objects’.  To better understand ‘myths’ and their contribution to the making as well as understanding the material-culture, I want to present Strauss’ thoughts, for whom myth and science were two parallel ways of acquiring knowledge.  Myth for him was also a verbal expression of ritual practices working to maintain social solidarity.  “In the world of myths anything can happen, a fabulous space is constituted for people, animals, supernatural beings, tastes, smells, colours, landscapes, sounds and heavenly bodies to inhabit.”  The thought that art (the ‘pre-historic’ art) is an articulation of myth thus furthers the cause of tracing the trajectory of material-culture.  Art definitely seems a facilitator. With art/craft/material in the foreground, skill makes an entrance too. David Sutton proposes that skill is not just the application of mechanical force to objects but “an extension of the mind/body, often through the use of tools, requiring constant and shifting use of judgement and dexterity within a changing environment.” He further argues that “It is through such skilled practices, then, that forms are generated…”  Such forms, my conjecture would be, using the lens of reflective historiography, thus converted into examples that today can be used to decipher those cultures. As Ingold stated too that “a traditional tool is not a mere mechanical abduction to the body, serving to deliver a set of commands issued to it by the mind, rather it extends the whole person” into the environment.


At this point it is imperative to state that the interest in the study of the material-culture developed only when through colonisation projects of industrialised nations, many indigenous societies were studied. Excavation expeditions brought forward a wealth of such artefacts to be later placed in the museums.  Museums, as is well established, were a ‘colonial program of collecting’ and also ‘institutionalising western assumptions about how objects are apprehended through cultural processes’.


Authors/editors Elizabeth Edwards, Chris Howden and Ruth B. Phillips in the preface of the book ‘Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture’ further confirm that “colonialism was profoundly material and that colonised and imperial centres were critically linked by a traffic in objects that was the sensorially figured: raw materials, crafted artefacts, foodstuffs, photographs, documents, bodies, and body parts.”  It is further stated that the passive and yet always political role of the museum “as a space for representing the world” is fast changing. Museums are undergoing a phase impacted by activism, redefining their role as one of advocacy for social change.

To situate the colonial project in the Twenty-First century sensibilities, I must share this very interesting finding that ‘senses’ also had a hierarchy in the eighteenth-and-nineteenth- centuries. For example, in the early nineteenth century the natural historian Lorenz Oman invented a sensory hierarchy of human races, with the European “eye-man” at the top, followed by the Asian “ear-man,” the Native American “nose-man,” the Australian “tongue-man,” and the African “skin-man”.   As a result, the social importance of ‘sight’ grew immensely during this era. Constance Classen states, affording visual arts a detachment from craftwork, which (despite the efforts of the Arts and Crafts movement) was negatively perceived by many as emphasising the hand over the eye and functional consideration over aesthetic form…….Furthermore, new visual technologies such as photography made visual representation increasingly central to Western cultural and intellectual life.


Photography actually was that major tool that helped, sustained and furthered the cause of the ‘colonial project’.

Newer Perspectives


Trilly suggests that since the past fifty years that the ethnographic and archaeological studies of material cultures had started to look at analogies with language, fresh and newer perspectives to what things mean, and of their importance, have come to the forefront. Eventually household and village space, grave-goods and burials etc then can be read as ‘texts’ as well as ‘structured sign systems’ but only in relation to a social and political system. Also these have to be read in relation to one another.

The new emphasis is on polysemy, biographical, historical and cultural shifts in meaning, in fact ‘things’ are now actively constituting rather than reflecting social realities. Things are per se the new reality and not their context or interpretation.  I wish to challenge this very thought as I venture again to look at the artworks of two artists and take a position of opposition here.


My argument regarding a need for identity, heritage and context would rest on my reading of the work of the artist Hamra Abbas, creator of object- based, meaning-laden works.

Abbas’ diverse body of art addresses the concepts and realities of “cultural history, sexuality, violence, ornamentation, devotion, faith, and changing societies.”  This particular project that I wish to present here is her commissioned work in the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. She explains the project as, “‘Barakah’ (blessed) Gifts has been inspired by my visit to Mecca and Medina approximately four years ago. Pilgrimage to these places includes meandering around the markets situated near these sites, bustling with commercial activity. I collected a number of objects of everyday use from gift shops around the two holy mosques ….. Although these objects are collected from commercial markets adjoining religious sites, they are not religious objects, and neither are they used for ritual devotion of any kind in Islam. In one aspect, these gifts are very much like souvenirs and replicas one would buy in museum shops anywhere in the world. Moreover, these objects of everyday use are similar to any other commercial items sold around the world, for example, perfume bottles and clocks.”


“Nevertheless,” she continues, “these various objects are also different due to the incorporation of religious iconography: such as the perfume bottle shaped like a Ka‘ba, or a model of the Medina mosque as a timepiece. In this work, I am interested in this curious intersection, or even paradox, in the case of material objects that are not intrinsically religious but do evoke religious sentiments. I was intrigued by the hybridity of these objects, that is, as ‘non-religious religious objects.’ Therefore, my main interest is in the way these objects appear to the viewer, in their peculiar hybridity and nature of their aesthetics.” She explains, “Barakah Gifts, first of the series, is a flask that is commonly used by pilgrims to carry the holy water (Aab-e-Zamzam), from the spring located near the Ka‘ba. However, in its function as a flask, it can be used to hold any kind of (non-religious) liquid as well. In pre-modern times as well, the flask has served many functions and is a symbolic object on many levels as well. This particular flask has a shiny, golden exterior with an intricate Arabesque pattern on the sides of the flask. Its surface treatment of 24-carat gold tonality makes it an interactive piece due to the mirror effect. The sculpture is made of fiberglass and supported by a metal structure inside to withstand outdoor weather conditions.”


Abbas’ reading of ‘hybridity’ in these objects/sculptures further connects them to the larger narrative of identity. Identity issues are deeply connected with the concept of hybridity on many levels. Her work remains a true embodiment of ‘craft’ as well as ‘material’ while connecting it to the concepts of “cultural history, sexuality, violence, ornamentation, devotion, faith, and changing societies” as mentioned already.






Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture by Elizabeth Edwards, Chris Howden and Ruth B. Phillips

Cooking Skill, the Senses, and Memiry: The Fate of Practical Knowledg by David Sutton.

The Museum as Sensescape: Western Sensibilities and Indigenous Artefacts  by Constance Classen and David Bowes
Metaphor, Materiality and Interpretation by Christopher Trilley


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