“Wish You Were Here…” – the artist as ethnographic “object”

Dr. N Jade Gibson is an interdisciplinary academic, visual artist and writer at the Wits City Institute at the University of the Witswatersrand in South Africa. Her short film Wish You Were Here…, in collaboration with Gareth Jones on cinematography, is being shown at Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition.

A material object is seen and categorised as a visual referent within the mind, where, linked with its contextual associations and other referents, it becomes part of visual memory, both individual and collective. This short art film explores how ‘objects’ in the past, as in photographs, books, experiences and film media, shape unconscious perceptions of how we encounter ‘objects’ in the present. In the case of the short art film ‘Wish You Were Here’, the object is myself. I present as an ethnographic art ‘object’, in order to examine the mis-identification and projections of others who create me as being of multiple and different ethnic identities and provenances. Although essentially a playful piece, the work also draws on and relates to more disturbing connotations; the phenotyping and determination of racial ‘types’ in the past and present, the deliberate construction in the composition of the ‘ethnographic’ photograph and film, and the impact of racial and ethnic stereotyping in the present, despite the world being increasingly presented as a more and more genetically and electronically interconnected space.

Being of mixed ethnicity, apparently Scottish/Irish/Spanish and Filipino, yet growing up in the UK with adoptive parents and thus having no cultural knowledge of Filipino culture, and never having been there, I find myself constantly mis-identified by how I appear to others. This is often initially with absolute certainty by those who see me, as being identified as a number of different, and often quite diverse, ethnicities. Over the years, I was curious what images and associations might exist in the people’s heads who mis-identified me, and how these might interplay with images of ‘ethnic stereotypes’ shaped through images in the past, as well as present.

I found myself asking, over the years – what images? from where? – were being projected onto myself? I decided to explore these questions through a creative mode of investigation. Firstly, I wrote and gathered stories of specific experiences I had had of being racially ‘identified’ and selected a set of examples from these. I asked myself what I was wearing at the time, where was I, what were people seeing when they defined me? I then looked for past tourist and ethnographic photographs and imagery that related to these narratives as well as the various ethnic identities that people had assigned to me.

Credit: Jade Gibson / Gareth Jones.

Credit: Jade Gibson / Gareth Jones.

My original concept was to directly replicate past ethnographic and tourist photographs and film imagery, through dressing myself in similar clothing, in identical poses, with the same lighting, and to ‘age’ the images to make them appear ‘authentic’, then presenting them alongside the original images for comparison. Eventually, I decided to wear my own contemporary clothing and to simulate the body poses and expressions of the tourist and ethnographic images. I also used a film format, in order to more effectively juxtapose textual narratives and visual photographic and film media, as I had done in previous art films (Gibson 2013a; Gibson 2013b).

In the final film, I realised that it was absolutely unnecessary to use the original images and photographs for comparison – so ingrained are past images and associations already in the viewer’s mind, that the viewer finds themselves automatically projecting an objectified identity onto each film image, finding themselves being challenged by the constructedness of their own perceptions. This is the strength, and surprise, of the work, for those who see it.

The underlying visual reference used as a basis for the final film ‘Wish You Were Here’ is a very early ethnographic documentary film of the Inuit – ‘Nanook of the North’ (Robert J Flaherty, 1922) – itself claimed to be partially contrived, as in cut away ‘constructs’ of life in the interior of an igloo, and the replacement of guns with spears to add to the ‘authenticity’. I deliberately parodied the original film by using a black and white silent movie genre, using subtitles and creating an aged grainy ‘flickering’ patina. As I could not film myself, cinematographer and collaborator Gareth Jones filmed me.

Credit: Jade Gibson / Gareth Jones.

Credit: Jade Gibson / Gareth Jones.

The final film consists of different visual ‘installations’ of myself as ‘ethnographic art object’ simulating the different tourist and ethnographic photographs and images I had gathered, juxtaposed with excerpts of narratives and texts related to my being identified as different ethnic ‘types’. The textual inserts – fragments of my own experienced narratives; a quote from Nanook of the North; an excerpt from a children’s 19th century book ‘A Peep at the World’ (n.d.)are presented alongside visual replications of women in martial arts film posters; tourist photographs of East Asian bar girls and geisha; black and white ethnographic photographs of Native Americans, Uzbekistani and Andean women, and a close-up of eyes in a Chinese advertisement for eye surgery to look more ‘Western’.

Using only my own contemporary clothing – a fur hood, a poncho, a necklace and earrings, a dressing gown, a short skirt and makeup – that I wear or have worn, I recreate the poses in the original photographs, in which the body and angle of the camera also play a strong role in suggesting the ethnic stereotype. The props are minimal. A cement back yard with wooden fence and pot plant replaces an expansive windswept wilderness with sparse trees and rocks. A contemporary room interior becomes the background for a geisha, in the simulated pose of lighting a cigar for a seated male tourist – in this case, the same attentive gesture is recreated while stroking a cat. In the latter scene, also, instead of black and white, saturated colour is used to suggest the bright colours of geisha clothing and Japanese painting.

In some images, I am seated on a plinth in an art gallery, in which I become the art ‘object’, as objectified by the viewer, framed in the context of the museological collecting and referencing of an ethnicised past. In another scene, merely leaning against a doorway and looking sideways invokes tourist photographs of Asian bar girls, and draws on the assumed gendered sexual availability projected onto East Asian women. A fur hat is used to reference a mistaken Uzbekistani identity; an athletic stretched pose suggests a martial arts film poster alongside a narrative of being followed by children in Mozambique.

Credit: Jade Gbison / Erin Bosenberg.

Credit: Jade Gibson / Erin Bosenberg.

The text and imagery in the film also form mutilayered connotations and challenge these very stereotypes they invoke. For example, the Japanese Geisha image is deliberately juxtaposed with the story of a market stall holder refusing to serve me because I looked Japanese; and Nanook of the North’s description of inimitable desolate lands and distance is contrasted with myself on a plinth wearing a fur hooded duffel coat and backpack. The gendered passivity often assigned to women perceived as of Asian origin, and the wording of the 1900s children’s book describing Chinese women’s bound feet is also deliberately juxtaposed with myself sitting upright in a jacket and cap that visually suggests and referents a photograph of a uniformed Chinese Communist woman. At the end of the film, I contrast the images of myself as different ‘ethnicities’ around the world with the irony of my more recent experiences of passing through Heathrow airport and clearly not being identified as British. The soundtrack to the film is primarily excerpts of the soundtrack of Nanook of the North’ played backwards as a form of private joke; reversing the soundtrack of time, undoing the impact of the past.

This film was created in South Africa, a country I have been living and working in for over thirteen years. This context also presents interesting readings; it deliberately provokes and challenges the perpetuation of perceptions of ethnic divides derived from racially determined and segregated phenotypes created and enforced under apartheid– ‘white’, ‘black’, ‘coloured’, ‘Indian’, based on how people ‘looked’. Today many of these divides, and their subdivisions, are reified as ‘cultural’ identities in the present.

The artwork challenges the notion of people being ethnically typified – and suggests the historically constructed denial of multi-ethnic diversity within individuals, in a world where travel and intermixed relations have always occurred. At their worst, imposed visual ‘racial’ phenotypes are the tools of ethnic genocides. If visual media has constructed persons as ethnic ‘objects’ in the past, and continue to inform perceptions in the present; how then can one reveal, explode and challenge these constructs, through the very means that created them?

The first showing of this film in Greatmore Studios art gallery in Cape Town, also involved a recreation of a photographic studio alongside the playing of the film. Visitors could ‘dress’ me in items of clothing and pose in a photograph (taken by photographer Erin Bosenberg) in their chosen imagined tourist destination, evoking power relations implicit in the construction of tourist and ethnographic photographs. The film also exists as a work in itself, however, and, interestingly, for this conference, has taken the journey without its original material object, myself. Consequently, the image of myself has become yet another ‘object’ to be reinterpreted in different contexts, constructing its own interpretation of place, space, identity and other people’s ‘elsewheres’.

Credit: Jade Gibson / Erin Bosenberg.

Credit: Jade Gibson / Erin Bosenberg.


Gibson, N Jade 2013. Skeletal (In)-Visibilities in the City – ‘Rootless’: A video sculptural response to the disconnected in Cape Town.’

South African Theatre Journal, Vol. 26, No. 02, 1–21, 2013. Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.
Gibson, N Jade 2013. Visual Ethnographies of Displacement and Violence: Land(e)scapes in artists’ works at Thupelo Artists’ Workshop, Wellington, South Africa 2012.’ Special issue: Revisiting the ethnographic turn in contemporary art. ‘Critical Arts: South-north cultural and media studies, 27(5) 2013. UNISA Press/ Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.

Visual References:

‘Nanook of the North’ – early ethnographic film of the Inuit – Robert J Flaherty, 1922.

‘A Peep at the World and a Picture of Some of its Inhabitants’. 19th century children’s book. London. Thos. Dean and Co [n.d.] Children’s Original Toy Books Series. (Source – Horton collection of children’s material, Aberwystwyth University Horton collection, Hugh Owen Library online information).

Various other images drawn from the internet – tourist photographs, ethnographic photographs, martial arts film posters.


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