Exoticisation Undressed is an innovative ethnography that makes visible the many layers through which our understandings of indigenous cultures are filtered and their inherent power to distort and refract understanding. The book focuses in detail on the clothing practices of the Emberá in Panama, an Amerindian ethnic group, who have gained national and international visibility through their engagement with indigenous tourism. The very act of gaining visibility while wearing indigenous attire has encouraged among some Emberá communities a closer identification with an indigenous identity and a more confident representational awareness. The clothes that the Emberá wear are not simply used to convey messages, but also become constitutive of their intended messages. By wearing indigenous-and-modern clothes, the Emberá—who are often seen by outsiders as shadows of a vanishing world—reclaim their place as citizens of a contemporary nation. The analysis presented in the book makes visible ‘ethnographic nostalgia’, the distorting view that the present seems to emerge through the pages of a previous ethnography—a mirage: for example, the Emberá carrying out their daily chores dressed as their grandparents. Ethnographic nostalgia distorts social reality by superimposing an interpretation of underlying cultural patterns over intentional or purposeful action. Through reflexive engagement, Exoticisation Undressed exposes the workings of ethnographic nostalgia and the Western quest for a singular, primordial authenticity, unravelling instead new layers of complexity that reverse and subvert exoticisation.
In this introductory chapter the reader is exposed to some of the challenges set by the Western, exoticising view of Emberá clothing. The author’s own biases are revealed to aid the deconstruction of the Western view. ‘Ethnographic nostalgia’ and ‘indigenous disemia’ are introduced as concepts that aid the analysis. The chapter also includes (a) a review of existing anthropological work on clothing, which problematises the invisibility of indigenous-modern clothes, (b) an account of how the previous ethnographic record on the Emberá has framed the author’s approach and nostalgia, (c) a discussion of the methodological parameters that informed the author’s fieldwork, and (d) a short introduction of ethnographic sketching as a tool that exposes the author’s nostalgia.
The chapter provides a description of the old Emberá code of dress, as this is conceived, in static terms, as ‘tradition’. A description of the normative Emberá attire and the Emberá practice of body painting is indispensible—not only for the benefit of the uninitiated reader—but also as a point of departure for a more nuanced analysis in the following chapters. As the author reflexively admits, his scholarly comparisons with the previous ethnographic record structure his ethnographic nostalgia, and provide a measure of comparison to appreciate that even some of the most old-fashioned elements of the Emberá dress code are now re-adapted to meet contemporary concerns. Emberá attire, even when statically conceived as ‘traditional’, is subject to change.
The chapter tells one among many possible stories of social change in Emberá society—one account of Emberá social history in Panama. Here the uniting thread is the changing Emberá dress codes. Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, the Emberá lived in dispersed settlement; they dressed in (what they describe now) as ‘traditional’ clothes. Later, they founded nucleated communities and reorganised their political representation. As they formalised their relationship with the state they started to rely more heavily on Western mass-manufactured clothing. More recently, we can recognise a third emergent stage of increased national and international visibility, which has led to the re-valorisation of Emberá dress through indigenous tourism. In later chapters I challenge the linearity of this sequence of transformations—and the misplaced assumption that they move in a single direction from tradition to modernity.
The chapter examines the accounts of two early twentieth century authors, Verrill (1921) and Marsh (1934), who provided us with detailed—idealising but also stereotyping—descriptions of Emberá clothes (and from their point of view, Emberá nudity) in the 1920s. The accounts of Verrill and Marsh are two nostalgic anchors that haunt this ethnography. The chapter analyses the romanticised but infantilising narratives of these two Western traveller-explorers, their exoticisation of the Emberá, and their desire for exclusive contact with Otherness. Their ambivalence about indigeneity and Western modernity fluctuates from admiration of indigenous spontaneity to imperialist nostalgia and sentimental pessimism, a combination of exoticised contradictions that is not so vastly different from that of contemporary tourists.
The chapter focuses on the tourism encounter at Parara Puru—an Emberá community at Chagres, Panama—the exotic images that publicise it, and the contradictory expectations of the tourists. Naturalised images of the Emberá in tourism advertisements—dressed in exotic garb, with their bodies largely uncovered—provide the promise of experiencing wild, tropical South America. Tourist expectations are rooted in such naturalised imagery and reproduce, on their part, contradictory remarks that communicate an ambivalence about the degree to which indigeneity should remain ‘uncorrupted’ by Western values and commodities. This type of exoticisation, to which I refer as ‘unintentional primitivisation’, relates to the expectation that indigenous people may benefit from some Western civilisational provisions—such as education for children and hospital care—while at the same time remaining unaffected by other Western influences or technologies. In this respect, unintentional primitivisation shapes indigenous tourism, posing dilemmas that fuel the ambivalence of the Emberá.
Focusing on the community of Parara Puru (at Chagres National Park), the chapter examines the involvement of the Emberá with tourism, and their increasing representational self-awareness. Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, the Emberá avoided the world of the non-Emberá. It is only in the past twenty years that some Emberá communities have started reaching out to the world, taking advantage of new representational opportunities. The Emberá who work for indigenous tourism are now concerned with how best to represent their culture, what aspects of it to make available for viewing, and in what form. The renewed interest of the Emberá in the details of their culture signals an emerging representational self-awareness; they have started to look for new or forgotten information about one’s own cultural distinctiveness, and a more confident articulation of indigenous knowledge is developing. The Emberá of Parara Puru consider their role in tourism as more akin to that of a teacher than tourist entertainer.
The chapter focuses more closely on the dress choices in Parara Puru and the indigenous-and-modern clothes of its inhabitants. It demonstrates that is misleading to assume that Emberá dress codes follow a unidirectional and deculturating progression from indigenous tradition towards Westernising modernity. In communities that entertain tourists, such as Parara Puru, dress choices shift in the course of the day, or in the course of an individual’s lifetime, moving closer to, or further away from, indigenous aesthetics and practices. To convey the fluidity and complexity of local dress codes, the chapter explores dress combinations that bring together ‘modern’ and ‘indigenous’ elements, as well as the adaptation of some traditional clothing items, to accommodate conventional non-indigenous modesty. Attention is paid to the spontaneous, often accidental, re-emergence of old, informal dress styles during non-representational moments in daily life (e.g. after the tourists have departed), during which the Emberá of Parara Puru look as though they have re-emerged from the pages of old books. At this point, the author exposes reflexively his ethnographic nostalgia—evident in his pleasure in seeing cultural patterns from the past re-emerging in the cultural practices of the present.
The chapter explore in detail three examples of discontinuity, authentically embedded in Emberá everyday life. The first example focuses on a ‘traditional’ or ‘indigenous’ item of dress made in Asia specifically for an Emberá audience in Latin America: this is the cloth of the paruma-skirts, a clothing item considered by the Emberá to be an authentic mark of indigeneity. When parumas are combined with modern tops they generate unique indigenous-and-modern dress combinations. The second example follows the members of an Emberá family as they prepare to go to Church in an ‘authentic’ Emberá canoe that excites the author’s misplaced ethnographic nostalgia. Here, the Emberá put aside their indigenous clothes, without putting aside their Emberá identity. Their shift between modern and indigenous dress codes reflects a growing desire among the Emberá to be modern-indigenous people. The third example, unravels ethnographically a mimetic appropriation that represents a reversal of the exoticising gaze: Westerners who put on Emberá clothes, to embody indigeneity—reconstituting the authenticity of the imitation and the imitated.
The concluding chapter brings together some of the theoretical concepts introduced earlier in the book in a unified analysis. It employs the notion of indigenous disemia to describe the simultaneity of indigenous-and-modern elements in the identity of the Emberá. It also employes the notion of ‘ethnographic nostalgia’ as a vehicle to problematise the authentic and the exotic, as these are conceived in relation to Emberá representation. Every new ethnography, it is argued, structures nostalgia and authenticity—not merely via the authority generated by the writing process—but also by extending the bibliographical ‘record’ a bit deeper into the past. The resulting feeling of incompleteness—the realisation that we cannot really contain change in our writing—inspires ethnographic nostalgia, but also facilitates its demise. How can we prioritise the narrative we record—one authenticity—over the many that unravel in incomplete form in front of our eyes? Nostalgia, exoticisation, and the search for a singular indigenous authenticity are the ghosts that haunt our efforts to understand social change. But without them, and without the exotic recognition they have provoked—the challenge of new knowledge—we would not have had the opportunity to contest previous conventional views—including our own. Ethnographic nostalgia—however irredeemable it may be—has provided the ethnographer with the opportunity to recognise and contest the exotic.