Beyond the Ethnographic Turn: Refiguring the Archive in Selected Works by Zanele Muholi

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2 Citations (Scopus)


Twenty-one years after Hal Foster identified what he terms the “ethnographic turn in contemporary art”, it may be argued that art which has similarities with ethnography in its focus on representation of cultural difference and issues of sociopolitical change has become accepted practice in the global art arena. Looking at artists who work within the framework of institutional critique, and considering their practice exclusively within museum spaces, Foster's notion of the “artist-as-ethnographer” centres on representation of the Other and the practice of Othering. According to Foster, the artist-as-ethnographer grapples with the image, the imaginary, and the representation of the cultural and ethnic Other in relation to the white, European “Self”. Combining the crisis of representation—the ethics of representing, speaking for, of, to, and with the other—with analysis of institutionally critical artistic practices, Foster questions whether artists can deploy ethnographic methods such as representing cultures and cultural practices other than their own. In this article, Foster's critique of the ethnographic turn in contemporary art is presented by briefly assessing its relevance to discourses on relations between art and ethnography from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. It is then shown how contemporary artists whose practices are located in the intersecting modes of art and ethnography, or what can be termed “ethnographic-aesthetics”, work in ways that trouble the Self/Other binary upon which the colonial photographic archive is premised. Specifically, it is examined how, in selected works, South African-based artist Zanele Muholi critically engages with and “refigures” the ethnographic archive in ways that disrupt the well-worn tropes of self and other. Working from the position of “insider” within her own community, Muholi simultaneously replays and resists the ethnographic archive's pictorial tropes, disrupting the authority of the objectified colonial gaze by affirming the agency of those imaged and their positionalities as empowered individuals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)12-27
Number of pages16
JournalCritical Arts
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 4 Mar 2017


  • Zanele Muholi
  • colonial ethnographic archive
  • positionalities
  • self and other

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Communication
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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