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Confronting Representations: An Interview with Lila Abu-Lughod

8 January 2023

Interview by Aiman Rizvi

Dr Lila Abu-Lughod, interpretive curator of On the Move, discusses museums, representation and the curatorial decisions addressing power and positionality in the exhibition.

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On the Move, on view at the National Museum of Qatar until 14 January 2023, draws on the lived experience of pastoralist communities from Mongolia, Qatar and the Central Sahara, shedding light on a way of life that both depends upon and nurtures the ecologies that house it.

The celebrated anthropologist Dr Lila Abu-Lughod’s extensive ethnographic work on Bedouin communities in Egypt, particularly those who call themselves the Awlad ‘Ali and live on the northwest coast, has raised important questions about the politics of culture and representation. In this conversation, accompanied by photographs from her own extensive work in the 1970s and ‘80s, she shares insights into the curatorial processes for On the Move, and what she hopes visitors will take away from this exploration of a way of life that provides alternatives to the extraction and consumption that currently characterise our relationship with the planet.

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Young girl with family sheep herd, Awlad ‘Ali, Egypt. 1979. Photo courtesy of Lila Abu-Lughod@Anthro-Photo File

Q. Could you talk us through the conceptualization of this exhibition, the curatorial decisions that went into choosing these three specific groups and the vocabulary used to categorise them?

Dr. Lila Abu-Lughod: Conceptualising this exhibit was complicated, collective and absolutely fascinating. For someone like me, who is more used to writing, it was an intensely intellectual challenge. How can you communicate knowledge and fresh ways to think about the world to wider publics without sacrificing depth or nuance?

We actually began not with a concept but with some remarkable objects in the collection of the National Museum. Dr Alexandra Bounia, an experienced museum studies specialist, guided the team. I was “interpretive advisor.” I had lived with and written about former pastoralists, a Bedouin community in Egypt, and had read all the research that went into the making of the permanent galleries on Qatar’s pastoralist heritage.

We recruited specialist curators with impressive expertise on and experiences with pastoralists in the regions we had decided to focus on. We looked for anthropologists who understood the everyday worlds, material culture, languages, historical circumstances and scholarly debates about these communities, but had also spent years living with them. They, along with the Qatari experts from the museum who had worked on the permanent galleries, made up the group that developed the themes and structure of the exhibit. It was a process of intense give and take, discussion and experimentation. We shared a commitment to creating an innovative but carefully researched exhibit that would tell a story and make an argument that was relevant to anyone who cared about the future of our shared planet.

As curators and anthropologists, we wanted to share what we each valued about these communities we knew and admired—people who live with, care for and breed livestock. We wanted others to begin to think about what it means to live in moveable homes that don’t use up resources or leave permanent traces and to value the environments that nourish us. Could this way of living offer us all clues for how to live well with less damage to our fragile worlds?

It took more than a year of talking and planning, preparing research packets, arguing over terminology and considering what objects we had and could borrow to tell the story that unfolded gradually through our conversations.

Qatar was at the centre, but we extended east to Mongolia, where the marvellous gers have inspired the yurts so popular in Europe for eco-glamping and even well-known American architects like Buckminster Fuller. We moved west to the Central Sahara to include the nomadic pastoralists with camels and goat herds who call themselves Imuhar (but are known to outsiders as Tuareg, again an important consideration we had about what terms to use).

The National Museum has an excellent collection of objects from Qatar as well as from Central Sahara. The conservators restored a large tent made of goatskins, exquisite carved wooden poles and milk bowls, windscreens woven by women, fringed leather bags and more. It turned out that Mongolia was a wonderful place to choose because the anthropologist who curated this material made close connections with colleagues at the Mongolian National Museum. They were excited to be a part of our exhibit. They generously shared what they had, including a full felt ger (yurt), jewellery, clothing, horse saddles, musical instruments and more. The National Art Museum also lent us some of their true national treasures of Mongolian art, depicting novel views of herders and their environments.

We didn’t want this exhibit to be just ethnographic, representing the groups and their ways of life in a stilted way, as “cultures.” These were three very different communities from different parts of the world, with distinct histories (colonial and otherwise), distinct political aspirations, and facing different challenges. To begin with, we imagined them as pastoralists—they all herd and live with animals. That’s what they have in common. They have moveable dwellings so they can pack up and move with herds. But their situations couldn’t have been more different. Some Imuhar are highly nomadic, packing a household’s possessions onto two camels to move. In Mongolia, where herders are a minority and herding families often split between town and country, we had the opposite situation. Contemporary herding was shaped by the history of Soviet colonialism and collectivization but now herders were in a neoliberal freefall in their country, with not enough support for this way of life. In Qatar, with the discovery of oil and gas, the semi-nomadic herding way of life was replaced with many other possibilities and opportunities. If pastoralists are those who live intimately with animals—goats, sheep, camels, horses, and more—yes, the three groups shared that. But we had to come to terms with what they didn’t share. This was a key lesson: we could not see any group as outside of history and politics.

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Woman spinning sheep wool, Qatar 1959. Photograph by Jette Bang (c) Moesgaard Museum.

Q. Challenging misconceptions and misrepresentations of nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists appears to be one of the primary intellectual undertakings of this exhibition. As a curator, how do you account for the spatial power dynamic that emerges in an exhibition space, where there is a culture being ‘viewed’ and a person doing the viewing?

Abu-Lughod: We all knew that these communities were subjects of romantic fascination, sometimes Orientalist, and often both admired and feared as independent warriors of desert and steppe. They were also objects of disdain and prejudice, especially from urban and sedentary neighbours in their local environments. Those who live in cities often look down on such communities because they aren’t as well educated; they appear to be living in more basic conditions and they seem inferior because they have fewer possessions or less refined consumer or luxury goods. All of us were troubled by the ways that the people we had come to know and love, had lived with and cared for as individuals, were viewed by outsiders. We were determined to counter those stereotypes. But how? We agreed that one way was to confront visitors with their own prejudices and fantasies. We tried to frame visitors’ experiences by putting those problematic images at the beginning of the exhibit: Here’s how these peoples have been represented. Here are the crazy ideas that people have about them. Maybe even you? Let’s now take you behind and beyond. Let’s represent them in this exhibit in a different way. But the problem you raise is exactly the challenge we faced: we are still creating representations in a museum exhibit. There is no getting away from representations, to some authentic reality or voices.

Still, we ask visitors to confront their own assumptions. We offer them alternative representations, through photographs and films that we hope will make the communities come alive as complex but the people as ordinary. We tried to display what we admire about them – including the incredible technical skill they have to be herders in the challenging environments where they live. We focused on the everyday objects they make and use in their intensely social lives. But the everyday objects are actually impressive. They live with things of great beauty and practicality, many of which they make themselves out of the animals they live and breathe with.

So the exhibit highlights the ways that these people make ingenious use of a world they have, in so many senses, built themselves. The tents are woven by the women whose homes they are. They spin and dye the wool and goat hair they use on looms they have made to weave the fabric for tent walls, roofs and decorative dividers. They can set up and take down in record time the architecturally clever homes they live in. They are experts who make beautiful structures. So yes, we are still representing them, but as people who are technically sophisticated and creative. We were especially attentive to gender and the arts and essential contributions women make.

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Photo Courtesy of Gan-Ulzii Gonchig/MLPS

Q. One of the pitfalls of ethnographic archiving is the way in which it can fossilise a people and their practices, and enable a reading of them as people from the past. What was the curatorial approach to depicting the ongoing, changing, transforming nature of culture, and the lives being lived?

Abu-Lughod: These communities are often presented as timeless “cultures” of the past. For Qatar, in some sense it is the past. Although many of the values have been retained, and it was important for us to talk about traditions like the majlis and falcon hunting that are vibrant today, we wanted to show how even these are changing, just as they had, no doubt, in past times. You only have to think about falconry in Britain, Europe and Asia to recognise global flows and transformations.

In other parts of the exhibit we wanted to emphasise how connected people are to the present; they have never been isolated and they are not stuck in some timeless past. The Imuhar have been part of trade routes, caravan routes; the clothes they wear are dyed with indigo, which comes from far south in Nigeria. They went to Mecca, on pilgrimage. In this exhibit we’re especially keen to show how they are responding now to the ways the colonial French divided them from each other. They live in different nation states now as marginalised minorities. But we also highlighted the ways they have transformed their silver jewellery into a global commodity, adapting it for the European tourist market. Another sign of their creativity is the guitar music they have developed and made famous worldwide over the past two decades. In the exhibit, we play a song by Tinariwen, a major band who perform around the world. They sing about the desert, they sing about their experiences and they sing about their desires for unity and independence, a people who have been separated by colonial borders and facing unemployment in towns or displaced into refugee camps. It’s a political message to each other and the world. And their electric guitar music is mesmerising.

Mongolia is the best example we have for how pastoralists should never be imagined as living in a timeless past. Our curator was insistent that we had to understand these herders as a product of their recent history. Under Soviet colonialism, certain practices were condemned, medicine was transformed and herding was collectivised. Herding was encouraged as a contribution to the nation by providing meat and milk. Medals were given to reward the best herders. The state supported them. But this has changed with Mongolia’s neoliberal economy: they’re still trying to herd but it’s much more precarious for them because they get little support. Mining companies are encroaching on their grazing land and climate change has brought extreme storms. We shouldn’t be taken in by the adventure tourism brochures that would make you think they are exotic herders living in gers in magnificent pristine landscapes. The exhibit tries to convey some of what it has meant for them to go through what they did in the second half of the twentieth century and what political and economic circumstances shape them now, as they herd on buses and motorcycles, use cell phones to communicate and find themselves vulnerable to environmental extremes. But like the Qataris and Imuhar, who are just as sophisticated, they, too, value the celebrations, sports, music and hospitality that bring people together.

These were just some of the ways we tried to confront popular representations of these groups: we highlighted the differences among the groups and their creativity, but we also said “Wait a minute. Let’s remember history. These people are not, and never were, isolated. We mustn’t freeze them in the past.”

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Cooking for a wedding, Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin, Egypt, 1980. Courtesy of Lila Abu -Lughod@Anthro-Photo File

Q. Your ethnographic writing is distinctive in the ways it accounts for positionality and negotiates the dynamic between the subject and the researcher. How do you navigate the politics of positionality—of who gets to speak about whom—in a museum space?

Abu-Lughod: I always think about my relationships to the people I have studied and written about. We thought hard about the issues when we began talking about the exhibit because most of the curators are anthropologists who are not from or of the communities they are representing. In the museum world, that positionality has been questioned with the push towards community inclusion, not to mention repatriation of objects. In my discipline of anthropology we have long engaged in self-critique about our commitments and ethics. Are we objectifying or ‘othering’ communities? We didn’t want to do that in this exhibit. We were experts only because we’d had years and even decades living with the groups who had taught us about their worlds.

From the beginning, we wanted to find ways to involve people from these communities. Our curators for Qatar were Qataris, which ensured in some ways that the community was ‘speaking for’ itself. This concept is tricky though because communities are not homogeneous. Who represents any community, given differences of class, ethnicity, gender and identity? Everyone speaks from somewhere. But with Mongolia, our curator had such deep connections to the region that she was able to involve colleagues. We had the privilege of working with the director and curators of the Mongolian National Museum. They decided which objects they wanted to share and display. They helped shape the story we told about Mongolia. They had a strong say in how they wanted to represent themselves. All the photographs we included were by Mongolian photographers as well. Unfortunately, because the political situation is so volatile in the Central Sahara, it was not possible to involve people from there in the same way. We hoped to make them very present through their objects and songs, and Dr Anja Fischer was so attached to the families she had lived with in Algeria (on and off for a decade) that she was deeply committed to representing them well. But it was a concern, and their absence was a sobering lesson in how global politics and inequalities shape possibilities.

Even though it is our representation of the lives of others, I still feel we have done something special and responsible. We have tried to let the objects on display speak for them. We have carefully conceived wall texts to frame how visitors interpret what they are seeing and hearing. But those objects speak louder. They were made and used by people.

We pushed hard to represent the everyday, not the exotic. What is it like to live in a ger or a tent? Interactive boards allow you to put yourself in different parts of the tent or ger, to see who would use that space for what. For safety’s sake and to protect the dwellings, we could not let visitors physically go in. But we wanted to show that these are intensely social spaces for those who live in them. The visitor can experience this through the game. The interactive board reveals that the impressive white ger that looks to an outsider like just one round space is organised for those who live in it: there’s a north and a south side, an east and a west side, each of which have different meanings. One is a special sacred space, one is an entertaining space—so these are like rooms, but invisible to our eyes. These interactive boards allow you to see these dwellings as homes and social spaces, not just architectural wonders. Similarly, we tried various techniques to represent how the different groups see and live in environments that they know intimately.

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Women preparing tea to serve at a wedding, Awlad ‘Ali, Egypt, 1987. Courtesy of Lila Abu-Lughod@Anthro-Photo File

Q. As an anthropologist, what is your relationship with museums? How do you navigate the politics of putting culture on display?

Abu-Lughod: Of course, I share the anthropological critique of the objectification of cultures through museums. And we know the violent past of collecting the objects that fill metropolitan museums and the dilemmas they now face about repatriating to the communities what was taken from them, especially during colonial times. But I think we have something different going on here in the National Museum of Qatar. Nothing was plundered in their collection. And I have to confess that I love museums and felt so privileged to be invited to this one to help create an exhibit.

My love of museums began in Egypt where, when I was young, I used to spend hours in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, sketching the Pharaonic objects. Later, I used to sketch in the Field Museum in Chicago, admiring what I then thought of as the amazing ‘art’ of other cultures. I was drawn to anthropology in college because it gave me a way to make sense of these many worlds that people have made. It seemed a natural extension of these earlier preoccupations. As I learned more, I left these youthful passions behind and became more self-conscious and critical about the ethics and politics of representing others. It is interesting to see that the Field Museum has just redone their exhibits on Native Americans in response to these kinds of critiques. The exhibit is called Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories. But the question remains about whose voices speak, and who is us? Can we ever escape partial representations?

Even with the best intentions, as we had for this exhibit, I recognize the limits of what one can do with a museum exhibit.

I like to think that On the Move is offering a counter-narrative on pastoralists. It may not be as completely told by the people themselves as we all would have liked, but those who put it together know and care about the communities represented. We wanted to publicise the struggles these groups face. Some of the struggles are related to the ways these people and groups have been represented. We show what we respect and admire about them and this way of life. The National Museum is different from a colonial or imperial museum. It is a Qatari national institution that, even in this exhibit, is representing itself.

A Tuareg person pouring tea

Tuareg pouring tea, Burkina Faso 1967. Paul Riesman. Courtesy of the Paul H. Riesman Papers, Carleton College Archives, Northfield Minnesota

Q. What are the learnings you’d want visitors to draw from this exhibition?

Abu-Lughod: What we wanted people to understand is that there are other ways of living that are technically sophisticated even when they look simple; and that we can all learn from people who have lived closely with animals that they nurture and who in turn nurture them—a kind of inter-species living and interdependence. We wanted visitors to notice that nomadic pastoralists and herders don’t put down big structures, extract resources for profit and exploit others. Can we learn from them the value of recycling and reusing, and not depleting resources? What about consumerism? The objects they live with and make themselves are stunning and beautiful. Although the exhibit is dense and rich, the message is simple: There is so much to admire and learn from these people and communities. When we are on the verge of destroying that which sustains us, don’t we need models for ways of living differently?