A decade-long journey towards contemporary change – Ethnographic Terminalia at Terminal City

From the East Coast to the Pacific Northwest, Ethnographic Terminalia’s 11-city decade-long tour across North America has transcended physical boundaries as its five-member curatorial collective opens the conversation between art and anthropology, allowing attendees to intimately inhabit varied cultural spaces through creative bodies of work.

As a locus physically embodying the themes that have, for the past ten years, both challenged and motivated the Ethnographic Terminalia Collective, Vancouver welcomes the exhibition’s tenth anniversary and final official event to The Hangar at the city’s Centre for Digital Media from Nov. 19–24.

“Vancouver is known as Terminal City – the end of the railways and pipelines where land meets the Pacific Ocean,” says Fiona McDonald, professor of Visual & Media Anthropology at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Okanagan and a member of the Ethnographic Terminalia curatorial team. “It is the terminus, like the name of our collective (Terminalia). It is a space that is both the boundary and the border where things start and end. It is a city on unceded xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) territory, a place grappling with colonial ruptures, cultural continuities and new beginnings.”

The creative power of a leaderless collective

What began at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Pennsylvania developed into a continent-wide pursuit for a space to bring artistic expression into the realm of academia. The five founding members of Ethnographic Terminalia pride themselves on their maintenance of a leaderless cooperative. Alongside McDonald, Craig Campbell of the University of Texas, Kate Hennessy of Simon Fraser University, Stephanie Takaragawa of Chapman University and Trudi Lynn Smith of the University of Victoria joined forces to allow fellow scholars to cross the boundaries of conventional knowledge-sharing avenues.

“We came together in 2009 in solidarity to take our research beyond the conference venue and explore more innovative ways of presenting work through the format of exhibition,” says McDonald.

Leaving PowerPoint presentations and protracted paper readings in the past and instead adopting artistic, interactive displays, Ethnographic Terminalia has displayed the work of nearly 150 artists and anthropologists in its rare, multidisciplinary spaces.

“Interdisciplinary conversations are critical to moving us all beyond our own echo chambers, to find new areas of convergence and to reconcile spaces of divergence,” says McDonald.

The 2019 Ethnographic Terminalia exhibition unites six curated projects, one of which is a special audio presentation of sq̓əq̓ip, gathered together, originally curated by the Museum of Anthropology at UBC with the Musqueam Indian Band.

“This final Ethnographic Terminalia exhibition is not just an end, but it is a beginning. A beginning and a space for others to now occupy and explore in their own way,” says McDonald. “The intersections of art and anthropology create an opportunity to use all of our senses to understand a situation, a new reality, etc. The projects that have been part of Ethnographic Terminalia exhibitions, workshops and publications over the years have seen these disciplines coming together to share methods, materials and modalities that help to imagine and speak to new possibilities.”

A sort of superhero empowerment

Of the events at this year’s Ethnographic Terminalia, another project called Wakanda University makes African aesthetics accessible for all with its Marvel-movie inspired title and dynamic take on challenging the often perpetuated colonial, white and masculine forces dominating academia.

“In the United States [the black-white] binary dominates the discussion of race, so I also frame Wakanda University as [going] beyond whiteness. The African diasporic aesthetics are the clearest but [the project] also encompasses many things beyond whiteness,” says Elizabeth Chin, professor at the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena, California and curator of the Wakanda University project.

Wakanda University explores beyond the conventional foundations of anthropology, challenging its audiences to consider future realms, beyond the temporal boundaries of the present, through the creatively driven synergy evoked from a sharing of cultural traditions. Wakanda University makes anthropology an accessible space for all.

“Anthropology is the easiest place for people of colour to be,” says Chin. “I work in a 10,000 square foot space that’s white and full of white people and white ideology and culture. I’m surrounded by all of this whiteness and I wanted to, quite literally, [introduce] some colour.”

An outgrowth of Chin’s Laboratory of Speculative Ethnology, Wakanda University inspires experimentation and exploration through creative reflection.

“Black Panther had just come out and I thought people would get it. There is an Afro-futurist vibe to the aesthetics of the lab and the project that signals that kind of energy of imagination and difference,” says Chin.

Both the Laboratory of Speculative Ethnology and Wakanda University emerged from Chin’s love for and collection of Dutch wax fabrics, the material which later made Chin’s lab coats a physical representation of notions of visibility and occupation.

“We were travelling to Uganda and doing field work and I was coming home with duffel bags full of Dutch wax fabric,” says Chin. “The materials I chose [for the Wakanda University project] are very purposeful. The history of Dutch wax fabrics is very important to the material’s use in the project. I pull in aesthetic and material references from parts of the African diaspora. It’s playful but definitely respectful and it’s meant to have an open spirit – people are welcome to bring things to it.”

Chin aspires to use Wakanda University to instigate a move beyond the insipidity and dullness expected of academia.

“We take ourselves way too seriously in academia. It doesn’t have to be boring. We don’t have to be boring,” she remarks. “Let’s have some fun and not be too rigid about how things need to be done.”

All are invited to join, and sustain, the kinetic space of Ethnographic Terminalia, a space necessary to disrupt temporal, spatial, cultural and disciplinary boundaries.

Ethnographic Terminalia is committed to engaging with all communities and ensuring that there is no town and gown divide between academic researchers and those of us committed to public engagement,” says McDonald.

A special closing reception, TERMINUS, will take place on Nov. 22 to conclude the exhibition’s ten-year journey.

For more information, please visit www.ethnographicterminalia.org and www.wakandaaaa.home.blog.