Anthropology Professor Rosalind Morris – DT012
Dean’s Table Podcast Episode
If you enjoyed today’s podcast, consider subscribing using your favorite podcast player and never miss a future episode!
About the Episode
Rosalind Morris is Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University and is the author of many books, among them In the Place of Origins: Modernity and its Mediums in Northern Thailand, a book that explores spirituality, performance, and mass media in Southeast Asia. Professor Morris is also the author of Accounts and Drawings from the Underground: The East Rand Proprietary Mines Cash Book, a book produced in collaboration with the South African visual artist, William Kentridge. She has been conducting field research in South Africa since 1998, where she has been writing ethnography of South Africa’s dangerous gold mining communities. While conducting ethnographic research, Professor Morris has also produced creative projects in the form of documentary film, multimedia art installations, as well as photography, poetry, and she has also worked on operas.
Professor Morris speaks with Dean Harris about how she decided to become an anthropologist, to reflect on her ethnographic and creative work in South Africa, to share with us how important collaboration is to research and the creative process, and to provide some insight into the joys and challenges with working in various mediums.
Professor of Anthropology
Anthropology Professor Rosalind Morris – DT012
Rosalind Morris is Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. Known among colleagues and friends as Roz, she’s the author of many books, among them In the Place of Origins: Modernity and its Mediums in Northern Thailand, a book that explores spirituality, performance, and mass media in Southeast Asia. Roz is also the author of Accounts and Drawings from the Underground: The East Rand Proprietary Mines Cash Book, a book produced in collaboration with the South African visual artist, William Kentridge. Roz has been conducting field research in South Africa since 1998, where she has been writing ethnography of South Africa’s dangerous gold mining communities. While conducting ethnographic research, Roz has also produced creative projects in the form of documentary film, multimedia art installations, as well as photography, poetry, and she has also worked on operas.
I invited Roz to The Dean’s Table to talk about how she decided to become an anthropologist, to reflect on her ethnographic and creative work in South Africa, to share with us how important collaboration is to research and the creative process, and to provide some insight into the joys and challenges with working in various mediums. Roz, welcome to The Dean’s Table.
Rosalind Morris: Thank you, Fred. It’s very nice to be here. It’s always lovely to have someone interested in the work that you do. So it’s, it’s a, it’s a great opportunity for me. Thank you.
Fredrick Harris: So Roz, for some reason, I thought that you had grown up in Kimberly, South Africa. Kimberly is a mining community known for its extraction of diamonds in, in South Africa, but you actually spent your early childhood in another Kimberly, a mining town in the Rockies of British Columbia. The two Kimberly’s are nearly, uh, 10,000 miles apart. How much did your experience growing up in Kimberly, um, British Columbia shape your interests in the study of mines?
Rosalind Morris: You know, at some point in my life, I want to write a book called Three Kimberlies, because there’s another Kimberly, another mine in Kimberly, in Australia. Um, kimberlite is the name of a, of a particular ore, but, um, you know, in retrospect, everything seems to have produced the trajectory that you follow to the present. I grew up next to what was then the world’s largest lead and zinc mine in a class-divided household. My grandfather was an underground miner, um, slowly dying of miner’s lung and going deaf as many miners do. My father was a geologist in mine management. He himself was an immigrant, as was my grandfather, from different parts of the world. But of course in, you know, in a very profound way, all of that experience, which I was not able to really grasp until many, many years later, decades later, informed, I wouldn’t say it caused, I wouldn’t say it led me to South Africa to the mines or to that world, but it certainly informed the way I think about it and the questions that I learned to ask, um, the concerns that I, that I had to understand the, the effects of those complex extractive economies on, on everyday life. Um, but there was a, there were, there were many, um, let’s say many detours along the way.
Fredrick Harris: Right, right. And we’re gonna get to those detours, um, so in fact, um, you graduated, um, with a BA degree in anthropology. Um, so you’ve had a long standing interest in anthropology and in English. Um, but before you completed your degree, you dropped out of college. Um, you and I’m quoting here, um, you “bought a one way ticket to the furthest place that I could find, and that happened to be Sri Lanka.” So what prompted you to leave college and how did you get back on track to finishing your degree?
Rosalind Morris: Gosh, Fred, I wasn’t expecting that question. [laughter]
Fredrick Harris: [laughter] Well, that’s what The Dean’s Table is for. [laughter]
Rosalind Morris: Um, that’s what The Dean’s Table is for. Okay. We’re gonna get down and dirty quickly. All right. Um, you know, I, I, I, uh, I left high school in 1981, uh, a time of great change in the world. Um, I started off in pre-med at the, uh, University of Calgary before I ended up back at UBC in Vancouver and, um, explored with, I wouldn’t say, you know, with a – wasn’t aimlessness, it was a kind of insatiable hunger, really, to learn as much as I could. Um, I didn’t grow up in an academic household, but I grew up in a household where learning was valorized and where reading was valorized. And I was interested in all the things that I had not yet learned. Um, and I was interested and very moved also by the political questions that were on the horizon in my world at that time. Um, issues of labor issues of, um, indigenous rights in Canada, issues of, um, gender and sexual emancipations, beginning of the AIDS, um, uh, epidemic/pandemic. Um, and it was a time in British Columbia where a very conservative, uh, provincial government was pressing down upon all the things that most Canadians, in retrospect, and some still believe are, you know, fundamental to the fabric of, of collective being. Um, so it was a combination of desire to learn more and dissatisfaction with, uh, my life as a, as a college student. Um, and probably many things that I’m not even conscious of myself, but I, I didn’t feel that I was able to, um, conclude or to focus in the way that I wanted to, um, had many friends who worked, uh, in South Asia. And, um, yes, and, and beyond that, a, probably a scandalously ill-conceived or unprepared-for journey, but one that was, as you can imagine, completely transformative for me.
Fredrick Harris: Yes. You’re, you’re, you’re a famous, world-famous anthropologist, so, but [laughter], but I wanna hear, uh, if you could say, um, what did you learn from that experience? Anything that you would like to share?
Rosalind Morris: Oh gosh. I mean, everything, I suppose, um, I learned how important it is to learn from others and how difficult that is. Uh, I arrived in Sri Lanka, at what was the beginning of the, um, extremely painful, um, ethnocidal wars there, um, and left shortly after the, um, the devastating bombings at the train station. I went to India in the moment that, uh, Indira Ghandi was assassinated and, uh, made my way through one after the other encounter with a world and a worldliness that I had not thought about or had not been prepared to think about. Um, this is also, you know, nearby when the explosion at Bhopal occurred. So, and now that sounds like a, a journey of, you know, falling from one disaster to another. And, and, and, and in a way, I suppose there were moments when I felt that way, but I also had some extraordinary inductions into an education that I should have had even, even in the places from which I came. For example, uh, uh, in Bombay, uh, uh, uh, as it was called, then Mumbai now, uh, in Bombay, there was a fantastic, uh, bookstore also called The Strand, where-
Fredrick Harris: Ah! Like in here in New York, the famous Strand.
Rosalind Morris: Like in here in New York, but I have to say, a very different kind of, uh, institution. And I met there a group of women who were, um, uh, involved in editing a extremely important feminist journal there who, um, sat me down and informed me that I was extremely ignorant about my own, uh, uh, intellectual traditions, as well as about theirs, and urged me to buy everything I could in the bookstore, which, uh, uh, I did, it was at the, under the guidance of, of these fabulous, smart, brave women, uh, that I was urged to sit down with Virginia Wolf’s diaries, for example, while also reading the journals and the political writings of Indian feminists. I mean, that was, that was a, a, an absolutely life-changing experience. And I had encounter after encounter like that, in which, um, people who were strangers to me were willing, and, it seemed, interested in helping me learn. And if there was anything that kind of shaped my orientation to anthropology as a, as a project of learning how to learn from others that, you know, that would have to be, you know, one of the most important. I went from India to, to Nepal and I lived there for a couple of years.
Fredrick Harris: Huh. Interesting. And so is it from there that you went on to get a Master’s to degree at York University in Toronto?
Rosalind Morris: Well, first I had to go back and finish my bachelor’s degree. [laughter]
Fredrick Harris: Oh yeah. We forgot. [laughter] Yes. I forgot.
Rosalind Morris: I went back to Nepal.
Fredrick Harris: Mm-hmm.
Rosalind Morris: Um, and then from there, uh, applied to, and was admitted to, and then went to York University.
Fredrick Harris: Right. And so you then went on to the, um, University of Chicago and did doctoral studies [there]. How did your interest in anthropology gel?
Rosalind Morris: Well, I think it was a good 15 or 20 years before I realized it had gelled in me.
Fredrick Harris: [laughter] Right.
Rosalind Morris: Um, and I don’t, I, you know, the thing about anthropology as it was practiced, uh, in that tradition in Canada, social anthropology, very influenced by British school, um, less culturalist than in the United States. But, um, I, I simply found that it was a discipline within which the breadth of method, the breadth of concern, the capacity for methodological promiscuity, um, and that fundamental commitment, which I maintain, which, which holds me in the discipline—I’ll do many things—but the thing that holds me in the discipline was a commitment to being with people in the long run in a way that requires time and patience, in a way that keeps you with people long enough that they can tell you you’re wrong, which I, I think is, is a very special attribute of the discipline.
Fredrick Harris: It is.
Rosalind Morris: If, if it is practiced in the way, if it is enabled in the way that that encourages that kind of long-term practice, that is not for example, the model in France, which has a much more, um, well, uh, collaboratory formatting in which people, uh, work in teams, um, often spend relatively short periods of time in one place or another. Um, I, I try not to speak about it as staying in a place. One stays with groups of people or one, uh, and, and often in, particularly in areas where I work, you know, that group of people changes over time. People come and go. Um, but there’s something to be learned in, in that, in that longer apprenticeship, in other people’s ways of living.
Fredrick Harris: Right. So, um, what was your experience like as a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago?
Rosalind Morris: Well, it was hard work. Um, you know, Chicago, then, was a school of thought. And I think actually that it’s probably no longer the case, but, uh, more than any other institution in the United States, the University of Chicago produced a school of thought, people read work together. They, um, they spoke about that work together. They shared a conceptual, you know, relatively coherent conceptual system, um, which in some ways is, is a virtue in other ways can be constrictive. Um, I had fantastic teachers. I, I spent a relatively brief period of time there because I already had a very substantial master’s degree. Uh, the, the, you know, the American system of essentially a one-year program was not that from which I came. And in fact, my master’s thesis became a book,
Fredrick Harris: Oh!
Rosalind Morris: um, during the process of my, of my, my getting my doctorate. So, so I, I actually had relatively, I think, two years of coursework and exams. And then I was, uh, you know, doing field research.
Fredrick Harris: So your very first book was published the first year you started at Columbia back in 1994, and the title of the book is New Worlds From Fragments: Film, Ethnography, and The Representation of Northwest Coast Cultures. So I guess, is this the book that came out of your master’s thesis?
Rosalind Morris: That’s right, yeah.
Fredrick Harris: Could you tell us a little bit about what it was about?
Rosalind Morris: Yeah. You know, it’s, it’s interesting. I, my, [laughter] my, my, my, my writerly life seems always to be, be belated. So I, I, I wrote that, uh, thesis, and which became a book, about the history of anthropology’s relationship to that group of people that are thought of in anthropological parlance as the Northwest Coast cultures. Um, but it had been a very specific object of anthropological inquiry, very important to Boasian anthropology, very important to the elaboration of the discipline’s conception of culture area and so forth.
Fredrick Harris: And Franz Boaz-
Rosalind Morris: That’s correct. Yep.
Fredrick Harris: Yes. Okay.
Rosalind Morris: So it was both be belated and maybe anticipatory. Um, but, uh, the, it had also played a very specific role in the development of anthropological film in Canada. So I had to undertaken a lot of archival research in the archives in Canada, I n fact, had discovered rediscovered films that had been thought to, uh, lost in a, in a infamous fire at the, at the national archives. Um, and it turns out there were copies and, and, um, I was able to, to, to, to look at them and to think with them, um, you know, that, that analysis ran alongside the analysis of the place of anthropology in the Canadian states’ and the settler colonial states’ policies about Aboriginal people in. Um, so it was a, it was a, it was a, a double project and maybe even a triple project insofar as it, it responded to, you know, late eighties, it responded to what was a kind of sea change in the discipline of anthropology. Um, under the influence of a lot of, uh, writers who were concerned with the writerly project of ethnography. Um, my, uh, advisors at at Chicago were the ones who said, you know, this thesis should become a book. Why don’t you spend some time?
Fredrick Harris: And, and who, who were your advisors?
Rosalind Morris: Well, my, my, um, committee supervisor was Jean Comaroff.
Fredrick Harris: Oh! Yeah.
Rosalind Morris: Um, uh, many of- it was strange, I was working at that time at, in the pursuit of an understanding of Southeast Asia under the guidance of, you know, the world’s most renowned South Africanists.
Fredrick Harris: Right. I was gonna, they were a couple, they, they’re a married couple.
Rosalind Morris: That’s right. Jean and John Comaroff, yeah.
Fredrick Harris: Right.
Rosalind Morris: And, um, and I also studied at that time with David Bunn, uh, also a South African, uh, scholar of, then of, of, of literature, who, um, who was there as a visiting uh faculty member at the time. And I was quite stubbornly resistant of doing work in South Africa, partly because I had family ties to it. And partly because um, South Africa was in the, the, the most violent and painful moments of the, the struggle against apartheid and I certainly had no intention of going to the country at that time, although I was actively involved in support work for the ANC. And, uh, I did not want to, you know, do research there or in any ways visit the country until the, until that that incredibly violent regime was gone.
Fredrick Harris: Yeah. For our listeners that’s the African National Congress, which is the, was the liberation, um, uh, organizational movement, um, against apartheid in South Africa. Um, so we’ll get back to South Africa in a moment, but, um, you followed up your second book, which was the basis of your dissertation. Um, and the title of that book is In the Place of Origins: Modernity and Its Mediums in Northern Thailand. And so the book has been described and I’m quoting here “a sophisticated, wide ranging theoretical account of how spirit mediums mediate the Thai experience of capitalist modernity.” How did this project come all about?
Rosalind Morris: Well, when I was living in Nepal, I used to travel back and forth to visit my family in Vancouver and that took me through Thailand and I, uh, traveled many times through Thailand over the years. And as I did, I became extremely interested in it. And I, and I must say I was probably interested in it for wrong reasons. I found it a relatively free space for me to move about as an unattached woman. What I, what I didn’t grasp in those early years is that that freedom was premised upon the relative unfreedom of Thai women. And I misrecognized that unfreedom for freedom. And, uh, and there are lots of reasons for that. We could talk about that, but there is a certain, there was at that time, in any case, a construal of Thailand as a place of, of gendered freedom, um, when I, when I went to do research on it, um, you know, I probably would invert that description of the book and the project, which in some ways is really about cultural politics in the age of the mass media. And, you know, at, at the heart of it is a story about how traditions of ritual mediation- in that case, uh, you know, focused in and through this institution called spirit mediumship, how forms of ritual mediation were overtaken by mass media, which, and, and the relationship changed over time. So what was initially a hesitation on the part of these traditional media forms, mediation forms, uh, there was a hesitation on the part of those forms towards, um, what we would call, you know, the mass media or digital media, videographic, photographic media. It’s not, not just digital analog media as well, which at some moment in time was relinquished in favor of precisely the opposite. Um, technicians of traditional mediation became interested in using new media, um, not only permitting themselves to be photographed, but using those photographs, videographing their, their own performances and becoming increasingly important in the cultural scene, not only as objects of a kind of nostalgic or touristic investment, but also as mediators of the recurrent political crises. Um, you think 1991 was the democracy movement in, in Thailand, um, in which, uh, largely middle class, um, opponents to the military dictatorship, um, made demands for a transformation of that, of that polity. And there was an incredibly brutal crackdown for those people out there, listening, who, who are too young to recall this. Um, and in the course of those protests, uh, you know, ritual mediation was reintroduced, uh, as part of the oppositional practice. And that interested me, how was it that, you know, a tradition that would have been designated by both the Buddhist orthodoxy and by most people as a kind of marginal practice, how that became re-signified, reinvested, and, and then mobilized for very different political ends in something that now I would probably refer to as part of a, a documentary practice, as a documentary gesture.
Fredrick Harris: Right. Right.
Rosalind Morris: So exactly the things that are risked when one becomes visible for the media were embraced, uh, in that moment.
Fredrick Harris: So, Roz, could you walk us through your interest, um, from, um, your studies in Thailand to your interest in South Africa?
Rosalind Morris: Um, I first went to South Africa in 1996 to attend, uh, a conference and a very significant installation at the opening of the TRC, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And as I told you, I’d been hesitant to travel to South Africa before that. I have many, many personal connections to the country but I’d been hesitant to travel. And when I did, I was absolutely, you know, what-overwhelmed, blown away impressed by the kind of creative, energetic, brave work that people were doing to, we would say now, to decolonize the country, to transform it for, but mostly, I mean, people were working so hard on changing themselves at every level. And I just was very, very moved by that and felt like I would like to learn from that, you know, that strikes me, that that task of changing oneself is, is one that we, we all confront and when other people are, are doing it well or trying to do it well or risking everything to do it well, then one can learn from that. So that was, you know, that was the, the first attraction. Um, it had become more and more difficult for me to imagine continuing work in Thailand because things were becoming so politically narrow at that moment. Um, the evisceration of the left had been the accomplishment of the late seventies, but, um, you know, uh, serendipity played a very big part, perhaps the draw of personal histories that I had otherwise tried to keep at arm’s length. Um, but I met person after person after person who, you know, who just offered a kind of thrilling lesson. And I, you know, that, that, that compelled me to begin what was a very long process of apprenticeship. You know, you don’t just switch, anthropologically speaking, you don’t just decide, “I’m gonna just start research in this place.” You know, you have to learn so much about what others have already learned. And for a number of years, I thought maybe I would have nothing to say about it. Maybe I would just be someone who learned from what was going on there. And slowly, slowly I felt, um, perhaps I would have something to say that might be of interest to others.
Fredrick Harris: Right. So, um, in 2014 you co-authored a book with the visual artist, William Kentridge, um, and the title of that book is Accounts and Drawings from Underground, but before we get into the details about that book, uh, can you tell our listeners about William Kentridge? Now, I, I think we may have probably passed each other in the streets of Johannesburg because I was there a few years, um, after the first democratically, um, held election and I believe it was a museum or a gallery I walked into and I saw the installations of the artwork of William Kentridge. Um, now he, um, his work is, he’s a visual artist he’s working, you know, he works in South Africa and he’s known for his print and film work.
Rosalind Morris: Uh, [laughter] he probably needs no introduction, um, I, I, I should say that my first encounter with the art world in South Africa came from a different place. Um, early on in my relationship to the country, I taught at the School of the Arts there in a film program, in a gay and lesbian film program, that was overseen by the artist Clive van den Berg, about whom I’ve also written a book.
Fredrick Harris: Is this in Jo’burg?
Rosalind Morris: Yes.
Fredrick Harris: Okay.
Rosalind Morris: Yes. And, um, that was my, I suppose, my first introduction to, to that world. And it is a world, a world of mutual citation, a mu- a world of, of, of, you know, crisscrossing paths, William Kentridge himself, of course, is now, you know, a global star of, you know, almost incomparable stature. Um, his father was Sydney Kentridge, uh, is part of that story. His, his father was an extremely important anti-apartheid lawyer. And, um, his mother was a very important lawyer who worked with women of the Black Sash movement and did a great deal of work in defending, um, women who otherwise don’t enter these stories so often. Um, Kentridge himself started off studying, uh, theater, uh, in Paris and, um, uh, developed his particular forms, which he, he refers to as animated drawings that came out of the print work. Um, and now of course encompasses everything. Um, and we met and, um, you know, shared a number of interests and a number of, you know, our paths crossed again and again and again, and, William is an artist who works a lot on found materials. And these include the documents of the early period of the mining, gold mining industry in Johannesburg. So ledgers, um, things that you find in secondhand bookstores, um, and things that historians would prefer to see in an archive, but they they’re strewn across the sort of vintage and second handbook store world. And he finds these, they have qualities of paper that are interesting to him, but they also are surfaces on which he wants to explore the legacies of that, um, violent industrial history, but also the converging, sometimes converging and sometimes conflicting histories of, of migrancy that brought, on the one hand, um, Jews fleeing the pogroms in Europe of which he is descendant, the Lithuanian Jews, who, who the strong community moved to Johannesburg, the immigrant communities of capital, um, finance capital. And then of course, the forced migrant communities that labored and constituted the great mass of surplus value production on which that industry was built. So these are themes that, that appear in his work and that are, um, literalized, one could say, in this writing on the text of capital.
Fredrick Harris: M’kay, mm-hmmm.
Rosalind Morris: I, you know, uh, my partner and I, um, who, who know William well, um, are often a little anxious when we see these beautiful, uh, ledgers becoming artworks. And in this case, this was, um, the ledger that, that became this book, uh, was the, um, accounts book of the East Rand Proprietary Mines Company, which is one of the very large finance houses. One of the most, uh, one could say productive or one could say extractive, um, mining houses, uh, um, of, of the region. And we had thought, you know, William had asked if I would write about it. Uh, he was going to draw upon it. And the deal we made was that we would photograph it for archival purposes. And then we would dissemble the book and he, um, drew upon those pages and I read them, I read them. And then I wrote about them, seeking in those just strange gestures of the accountant, the traces of lived experience. That document happens to come from a period in which, um, a very extraordinary and terrifying experiment in international labor importation, Chinese laborers were brought in to supplant Black African laborers in the mines of the East Rand Proprietary Company and other companies. And those registers trace that influx 1906, that influx of, of, uh, an unprecedented kind of labor into the mines. They are, they contain traces of everyday life on the mines, everything from the purchase of seeds, to the sending of po-, uh, of letters and, uh, concerns over wages, also traced there are the mines’ forgiveness of absenteeism of their white workers who went to fight against the Bambatha uprising in what’s now KwaZulu-Natal, and of the Indian miners who were, uh, encouraged by Gandhi actually to fight against, uh, the Black uprising in support of the, of the colonial, uh, regime.
Fredrick Harris: This is around Durban, right?
Rosalind Morris: Yes, that’s right.
Fredrick Harris: Mm-hmm.
Rosalind Morris: Um, and all of these things are somehow, uh, residual in these little remarks about the costs of everything. So it became my task to find a way to express that, to tell that story. Um, and what we did is we, we, we each pursued our particular part of that book project separately. We never showed them to each other until we were finished.
Fredrick Harris: Oh really!
Rosalind Morris: And then we reassembled it. The absolute baseline criterion was that I was not going to write about his art.
Fredrick Harris: Huh.
Rosalind Morris: And he claims that he doesn’t read the pages for their material substance, but I have argued with him that indeed, it’s there, traced in very many ways. Um, and that, yeah, that, that was the genesis of that particular project. We did another project, which was a conversation about his work, but this, this book was from my perspective, um, aimed at animating, without animation, animating the stories of all those people who had otherwise vanished into these ledgers.
Fredrick Harris: Right, right. The second edition of this book is coming shortly, right?
Rosalind Morris: So the second edition just came out, this, this, I, I got my copy last week.
Fredrick Harris: Mm-hmm. Congratulations.
Rosalind Morris: Um, and it’s so, you know, why did we do a second edition? We did a second edition because things had changed. Um, you know, even in the course of my own time in South Africa, the gold industry, which was also be already become relatively marginal for as a source of GDP, but not at all marginal in the imagination of, of, of subjects in South Africa. Um, it, many, many of those mines, deepest mines in the world, most productive mines in the world. Um, you know, more gold has been mined in South Africa than in all of the other mines in the world during all of history put together.
Fredrick Harris: Wow.
Rosalind Morris: So it’s incredible, uh, uh, source of gold. And yet, as with all mines, there is a, there is a, a finitude built into them from the very moment of their first operations, they are working against time because eventually the ores will be depleted at least as, as payable ores. And they’re, they’re now closing and increasingly closing and into these abandoned mines, into these no-longer-maintained infrastructural universes, hundreds, and thousands of desperate migrants from throughout the region are now coming to scavenge. And these are the people who, the scavengers who go deep into the mine, as opposed to those who work the surface, they are known as Zama Zamas and Zama Zama means to gamble, it means to keep trying, it means to resonate and Zama Zamas are, uh, basically these people who are understood to be gamblers and they are truly, you know, risking everything.
Fredrick Harris: Right. Just quickly, what’s the origins, linguistic origins, of Zama Zama? Is it Xhosa or is it Zulu, or?
Rosalind Morris: It’s, it’s, it’s an isiZulu term, but, you know, that’s, it’s lexicalized throughout all of the languages of the area.
Fredrick Harris: Mm-hmm.
Rosalind Morris: So you know, it’s used in isiXhosa and used in Zulu and it’s yeah, it’s, it’s spoken everywhere and, you know, in English too. So we wanted, we wanted the, our first version of this book did not accommodate that world because it was a very small piece of the, the universe. And in that, what even, I think within five years, it seemed imperative that we follow that story because indeed be because East Rand Proprietary Mines was, uh, one of the earliest finance houses and most mining in South Africa is, is a kind of complex. It begins as a financial project and, and, and then becomes a mining project. Um, we, those old, old mines were among the first to close. So it was in the same territory that the phenomenon of the Zama Zamas began to appear. And we traveled together in some of those areas. I was conducting very different, very sort of intensive, uh, research in the area. But, um, William and I certainly visited some of these sites and spoke to people and he generated his sketches and, um, that we just felt we needed a second edition of the book that would, that would take account of this afterlife so completely shaped by the previous era, um, but definitely not one of absolute disappearance.
Fredrick Harris: Right. So I’m gonna switch gears a bit and talk about your artistic work. Um, you once said, and I’m quoting here, um, “Anthropology as a practice is a discipline in which you can satisfy almost every intellectual curiosity.” So you have expressed your intellectual curiosity through various creative practices, specifically film installation, art, and you’ve written a couple of operas. You have also produced a feature-length documentary, We are Zama Zama, which premiered at the Encounters International Film Festival in South Africa earlier this year, and it’s been nominated for an award. Um, you also have, um, created multimedia art installations that, um, has been selected for a major art fair in Germany. And you have written, as I just mentioned two operas, how do these create practices complement your academic writings or do your creative creative practices inform your academic research?
Rosalind Morris: I hope I hope the scholarly writing is also creative,
Fredrick Harris: It is, it is. [laughter]
Rosalind Morris: but I know, but I know what you mean. Um, I, I strongly believe that, um, questions, ideas, um, arguments, and, uh, and just explorations can produce different kinds of engagements depending on the form and medium in which they’re pursued. You don’t get the same thing from a, a short essay as you do from an extended monograph. You can’t do the same kind of thinking in those different forms. And that is true also in different media forms. Um, the, the, the documentary film work that I, that has grown out of my South African research, um, started, I guess about six years ago and has been very much shaped by my relationship with a number of young Zama Zama miners, who, um, who are looking for still looking for a way in which to become audible by becoming visible. They wish to be heard, and they wish to be seen. And they wish to be seen as the kind of people who have a voice. They, they want a voice, politically speaking. They also want a voice in the cultural sphere. And in very, very many ways, we have been experimenting together to find ways in which this might be possible, to find ways to tell stories that testify to their experience, that testify to the injustices, to which they’re subject, and that allow them also to express their desire, or that allow desire to be expressed in and through them. Um, documentary feature film was shaped by this long project. The, the, the, the, the miners film, I, I taught them with my, um, director of cinematography, Ebrahim Hajee, to use cameras. They did the filming underground, most of it. And, um, the editing process took three years, uh, was incredibly labor intensive, uh, and it required a team of translators because underground people speak many languages all at the same time.
Fredrick Harris: Right.
Rosalind Morris: You know, the, the, the documentary feature is in some ways, a fairly, a fairly, um, conservative narrative form of documentary, more perhaps than I would have imagined pursuing myself, but it’s a form in which they recognize themselves. So it’s not conventional it’s- there are no talking heads, no one tells you what’s the truth of the matter. It is simply the enunciation of their collective and, and multiple perspectives. Um, on the other hand, it’s, you know, it’s got a fairly strong narrative arc, you know, it, it has three parts. All of that. When I started making the film, I thought we would never see a face. I, I imagined in this illegalized world that we would have to make an entirely gestural film, you know, closeups of an ear or of a hand, or, um, shots from behind the head. And, and, and, and the miners absolutely refused this. They felt it is their prerogative and their right to tell their stories and to dictate the way in which they appear, and they wish to appear en face. And so we did that. We certainly talked through it many, many, many times and still do, but I mean, to the extent that they, uh, have embraced and sought out, uh, encounters with the press and so forth, they’re not afraid of, of that, of that, um, prospect of being seen, to- of the contrary, there are people in, in, in, in this project who did not wish to be seen, and they are not seen, but, um, having said as much, that form has its limits. And I found that I, there it was, you know, after a number of years of shooting, you have so much material that reveals so many interesting and important things. And I wanted to find ways in which this could also become a vehicle for a speaking. So the installation work and the short fragmentary narrative film pieces that together form The Zama Zama Project and the photographic work, is part of an effort to explore what was generated in and through the filmmaking project. As a project of learning and speaking with others, it was an effort to find, uh, new outcomes, new forms, new new strategies, and new ways of asking questions. So it’s a kind of very unfixed installation. It can appear in different ways, in different places. The goal of it is that when people are in the presence of that installation, they feel themselves addressed. They feel themselves addressed from the wall or from, from, from the screen by people who are saying something, people who are saying something that would, they would like others to hear. It might be the testimony of the experience of an accident. It might be the call on the ancestors, it might be a description of what people want for education for their children. It might be just, you know, what it, the- the kind of jouissance of playing pool, um, all of these elements of a life that is otherwise said in South Africa, at least, to be unimaginable, um, are given a form and are allowed to enter the world. I mean, partly we were working against a, a, a discourse of enormous suspicion and, and contempt in the South African public sphere, where Zama Zamas are despised and the object of extreme violence and xenophobic fear and where they live in fear, but where they, you know, they simply, they are often blamed for all of the ills that industrial mining has caused, although they are the symptom of all of that dislocation and dissipation, but they are in general in the, in the, if you, you know, look in the popular media in South Africa and you see the word Zama Zama, it’s going to be almost invariably accompanied with suspicion of violence, gangsterism, rapacity. And in my experience, these people are the victims of that far more than they are the perpetrators of it.
Fredrick Harris: Interesting. Yeah. So could you say, uh, just a little bit about the, the work you’ve done on operas with those, I think there are two operas, um,
Rosalind Morris: Maybe three now. [laughter]
Fredrick Harris: Three? Oh! [laughter]
Rosalind Morris: You know, we’re in pre-production right now for a chamber opera called Southern Crossings, which, um, it’s the libretto’s co-written with my, my partner, Yvette Christiansë, and with the same composer, Zaid Jabri, Syrian-born, Polish-trained composer. Um, and that opera tells the story, you know, operas are built around stories, and then the music extends that story, but that, that opera tells the story of a failed dinner party that was held in Cape Town in 1836. Uh, when John Herschel, the astronomer, hosted Charles Darwin, uh, at his home, he wanted Darwin to join him in his abolitionist project. And, um, the dinner was sort of infamously a, a social disaster and um, Yvette and I thought this was the basis of a very interesting story, not only about this, sort of moment of scientific discovery, corresponding to the political revolutions around the world, but also very much the product of colonial science in the moment where, uh, this is exactly in that period of mandatory apprenticeship when, um, the emancipated slaves were transitioning supposedly to freedom in the Cape colony and they were forced to go through a four year period of apprenticeship. Um, the Herschels had emancipated or manumitted their slaves. Um, it’s a chamber opera. So it’s relatively small, um, music by Zaid Jabri, he’s a fascinating and brave and interesting contemporary, uh, composer. And we’ve loved working with him. We started working with him some years ago on a massive opera, which remains to be completed, based on the novels by Abdul Rahman Munif, uh, and the opera, and the novels are under the title of Cities of Salt. Uh, we felt that perhaps we needed to work on a, on a smaller, more manageable piece first.
Fredrick Harris: Right.
Rosalind Morris: And it’s completely scandalous. I mean, why, why, why should I be writing, uh, uh, uh, libretti, uh, with, with, with Yvette, who’s a much more accomplished poet than am I, but, you know, we felt called to do it. And, um, yes, one responds to that call,
Fredrick Harris: Yeah.
Rosalind Morris: If you’re able.
Fredrick Harris: Right. So this is wonderful. So this is my last question. Um, you produce innovative scholarship and creative work, or I’m sorry, your scholarship has been creative, um, artistic work across a variety of genes. If you were granted one wish to choose between winning a Grammy for the operas you’ve worked on, an Oscar for best documentary film for the, your film series, um, first prize at the Venice, um, be biennial for your work in installation art, or the best book award given for your scholarship by the American Anthropological Association, which would you choose now, before you answer Roz, I want to put these awards in context for some of our listeners, three of these awards, at least I think, um, involve walking down a red carpet and wearing a snazzy outfit. And for our listeners, uh, who can’t see, um, Roz is wearing these very snazzy gold shoes [laughter], which she could wear to any of these award events and, and look great. [laughter].
Rosalind Morris: [laughter] I don’t think so. [laughter]
Fredrick Harris: So: what say you, Professor Morris?
Rosalind Morris: Well, I think that’s a very unfair choice.
Fredrick Harris: [laughter]
Rosalind Morris: Um, you know, I, I, the thought of being on a red carpet just fills me with dread, so I would have to go with anything but a red carpet.
Theme outro music
Fredrick Harris: Roz, this has been great. Um, thanks for coming by The Dean’s Table. This has been a wonderful experience for me.
Rosalind Morris: Thank you, Fred. Thank you for all of your lovely questions and for, for, and for being interested.
The Dean’s Table is produced by Eric Meyer, with production assistance by Jack Reilly. Our technical engineers are A.J. Mangone, Airiayana Sullivan, and John Weppler. Our researchers are Emma Flaherty and Angeline Lee. Our logo design is by Jessica Lilien, episode portraits are by Cat Willett, and our theme music is by Imperial. I’m your host, Dean Harris.