A review by Nick Wees

The following is a review of a performance of Anthropologies Imaginaires (Imaginary Anthropologies) that took place on January 30, 2016, at Open Space gallery in Victoria, B.C. This work for solo voice with accompanying video (French w/English subtitles), written and performed by Gabriel Dharmoo, explores the space between creativity and documentation. It is, in certain respects, an attempt to give a voice to the voiceless. It might also be thought of as vocalizing an imaginary reality – one that allows us to enrich our own lived reality. In this work, the human voice confronts us with the uncanny – with “songs” that are both familiar and weirdly exotic – and throws us back onto the world within which we live. In this sense, we can, through the sound of the voice, imagine other worlds, other possibilities, that are different from that which we know, but that are nonetheless intelligible and recognizable as other human experiences.

The lithe black-clad figure stands on a low white pedestal, his shadowy form a dark silhouette against the gallery’s bare wall, his voice and movements evoking something strange and far way, yet seemingly commonplace and familiar. As he moves through the eleven pieces that make up the work, he calls forth a range of vocal styles, gestures and bodily dispositions with tremendous ease, each both strange and foreign yet oddly recognizable in some ambiguous way – a journey into the uncanny and beautiful. And the intensely comical. In a performance that is at once serious and powerful, satirical and playfully funny, and aesthetically delightful, Gabriel Dharmoo transports us into an imagined world of exotic Others, apparently doomed to be swept aside by modernity’s relentless march of progress. Video projections appear on the wall above and behind him, as various “experts” (actually friends and acquaintances of the artist) parody the authoritative gaze of the museum and of academic discourse, informing us of the “significance” of the different songs and reminding the audience that these “primitive” cultures are rapidly disappearing but have been “collected” for preservation, and to be enjoyed (by us, cultural tourists that we are).

Gabriel Dharmoo studied at the University of Laval, and composition and analysis at the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal. He is the recipient of numerous awards, his works being performed to critical acclaim, both at home and abroad. As a vocalist – in which, by his own admission, he has no formal training – Dharmoo has performed solo and with other vocal performers. He also plays the cello, and has delved deeply into the Carnatic music of India. One can hear the influence of this, and other musical forms and traditions, in some of the pieces that make up the work Anthropologies Imaginaires. The work consists of eleven sung pieces, each with accompanying gestures – part dance, part bodily declamation – with accompanying video ‘mockumentary’.

Anthropologies ImaginairesWhile the idea of imagined anthropology may seem strange at first glance – after all, isn’t this supposed to be a discipline that describes the actual experiences and lived cultures (past and present) of human beings? – there is actually a long line of antecedents, as Dharmoo points out. Reading the description of Anthropologies Imaginaires online before seeing the performance, my first thoughts were of Michael Snow’s 1987 recording The Last LP and Luis Buñuel’s film Las Huerdas (Land Without Bread) of 1933 (though some might look back to the mix of fact and fiction in, for example, Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia). Works such as these explore the porous and fertile middle ground between art and anthropology, raising questions of authenticity, appropriation, the exotic Other (whether a Noble Savage or threatening but doomed to extinction) and highlighting anthropology’s historical complicity in European colonialism. This is part of the point of Dharmoo’s work, yet his playfulness and obvious enjoyment of the performance belie the more serious aspects of the show. He pokes fun at everything from racist essentializing, academic self-importance, and the curatorial hubris that has marked many museum projects, to Western appropriation of other cultural forms, pop music and Twelve-tone compositional techniques.

Gabriel Dharmoo performing Anthropologies imaginaires : PuSh Festival + Music on Main (Vancouver) Photo Jan Gates 4During the performance, Dharmoo is aware of audience, and while each piece is well worked out in advance, there is an element of chance and improvisation. He later says that he never knows exactly how each performance will go or how it will be received by the audience. On this night in Victoria, the show seemed to be a resounding success. The penultimate piece in Anthropologies Imaginaires draws the audience into the performance, transforming us from passive spectators into active participants in this world that blurs the lines between aesthetic experience and social commentary, between artist and audience, between the imaginary and the real. And in the end, as we come back to ourselves, we are reminded of the fragility of cultural forms and of the arbitrariness of history, and that, in fact, the exotic Other is to be found as much within ourselves as in the peoples whose lives and ways resonate in the anthropological imagination.

Photos: Courtesy of Jan Gates. 

Upcoming performances:

– March 11, 2016 Montreal – Maison de la culture du Plateau Mont-Royal.

– June 2016 (date to be confirmed) Waterloo – Open Ears

– July 8-16, 2016 (date to be confirmed) St. John’s – Sound Symposium

More information here

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Nick Wees is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in social and cultural anthropology, at the University of Victoria. His interests include creative practices, everyday life, sound studies, urban settings, marginality, food, the arts, and social space. His thesis project examines the experiences and self-perception of buskers in Montreal’s metro system. He is also a musician and sound artist, and is involved in local and national seed-saving and -exchange networks.