"Sweetgrass," an Ilisa Barbash documentary, will be shown at Reel Pizza Cinerama on May 14 as part of a series of events sponsored by College of the Atlantic during a visit to the area by Barbash. PHOTO COURTESY OF COLLEGE OF THE ATLANTIC

Culture explored through the lens

BAR HARBOR — Visual anthropologist Ilisa Barbash presents her work exploring race, relationships between vulnerability and violence, nature and culture, and more during two days of film screenings and presentations May 14 and 15.

The documentary film “Sweetgrass,” Barbash’s unsentimental elegy to the American West, will be screened at Reel Pizza Cinerama on Sunday, May 14, at 1:30 p.m. A second documentary, “In and Out of Africa,” which focuses on African culture and art, will play at College of the Atlantic’s Thomas S. Gates Jr. Community Center the next evening, Monday, May 15, at 7 p.m. Barbash will lead a question-and-answer session after each film.

Earlier in the Gates Center on May 15, at 4:10 p.m., Barbash will present a talk entitled “Exposing Latent Images: Daguerreotypes in the Museum and Beyond,” which delves into the most important and controversial objects in Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

All events are free of charge.

Barbash is curator of visual anthropology at the Peabody, where for 13 years, she has made films and written about and curated photographic and other exhibitions. She co-directed both films with Lucien Castaing-Taylor. “Sweetgrass” aired on PBS’s “POV” and was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards and was part of the U.S. State Department and UCS’s 2012 American Documentary Showcase.

“Sweetgrass” follows the last modern-day cowboys as they lead their flocks of sheep up into Montana’s breathtaking and often dangerous Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture. This unsparing film reveals a world in which nature and culture, animals and humans, vulnerability and violence are all intimately meshed. The film is “a one-of-a-kind experience. At once epic-scale and earthbound,” according to “Variety.”

“In and Out of Africa” focuses on Nigerian art dealer Gabai Barre as he travels from the rural Ivory Coast to East Hampton, in Long Island, N.Y., for an art sale. “‘In and Out of Africa’ is a classic work that will richly repay viewing in a variety of courses in African studies, cultural anthropology, and art,” said Berkeley Media. “This extraordinary documentary is one of the most intelligent, perceptive and engaging films ever made on African culture and art. It explores with irony and humor issues of authenticity, taste and racial politics in the transnational trade in African art.”

Among the Peabody Museum’s most important and controversial objects are 15 daguerreotypes of African and African-American slaves from 1850, taken by Joseph Zealy, but not examined until 1976.

In “Exposing Latent Images: Daguerreotypes in the Museum and Beyond,” Barbash will discuss how scholars and artists have used these portraits in discussions and depictions of race, photography, vision, gender, power, the body and anthropology.

The objects were originally acquired by Louis Agassiz, the first director of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, who hoped they would bolster the erroneous theory of polygenesis, which held that people of different races were of different species. A contemporary of Darwin’s, Agassiz never published these images, and they remained unexamined until discovered in a Peabody attic in 1976.

Barbash currently is at work on a film about girls and high school debate, with Lucia Small. Barbash co-authored “Cross-cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Video” (UC Press 1997) and co-edited “The Cinema of Robert Gardner” (Berg Press 2007). She is most recently the author of the book “Where the Roads All End: Photography and Anthropology in the Kalahari” (Peabody Museum Press, 2017).


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