The images I leave in my work—that I don’t paint over or chip away—are those which remain inviting, mysterious, while at the same time possessing a presence that resists the meddling of interpretation.
—Enríque Martínez Celaya
Aby Warburg called the art historian a necromancer—someone who speaks to, receives, and even conducts the spirits condensed in the images she studies (see Agamben 1999). I invoke Warburg here just to buttress what I am about to say, because it still feels strange to be talking about spirits in relation to the images we work with, to be invoking the occult neither to explain it away nor to tame it.
A couple of years ago, I gave a carving made by an Inuit man, one I had bought at a gallery in Nunavut, to an Amazonian healer for his birthday. It took me a while to decide to give it away, because I loved its frank, loon-like form. The visible strokes of the knife that drew the loon’s form from the block of soapstone, conveying something of the essence of the bird’s body from the hand of the sculptor to me. The next morning, my friend, the healer, said that he had not slept well. He asked if there was a lot of death in the place from which the carving had come. He had been up all night quelling the dark spirits the carving brought with it.
I wanted the carving back. I loved the loon-like piece of rock and didn’t really want to acknowledge its dark familiars. Besides, I wanted to insist, it was a birthday present, a secular gift from one individual to another. Couldn’t it just be appreciated?
Walter Benjamin (2006, 39) describes the scents and sounds and scenes from his childhood as images that “preside over my thinking.” Such spirits are not always gentle and not always kind. In Berlin Childhood around 1900, Benjamin fashions those scenes into denkbilder, or thought images: pieces of writing in which image and thought cannot be separated. As an ethnographer, images from conversations I’ve had in the field often preside over my thinking—though their standing as spirits, and sometimes dark ones, has not always been as clear to me as it is lately.
The images that are now dictating my thoughts were given to me by a friend, Joaquin, a man in his early fifties who fled Colombia to Ecuador in order to escape the violence that had pursued his family for decades. Joaquin thinks he was four or five when the violence started in his village. In the forest behind their house his father dug a cave beneath a tree. After dark, the family would make their way there to sleep. The beginning of this period in his life—the time when they slept in a cave in the forest—was marked by the vision of a man tied to the back of a horse, being led along the railroad tracks that ran past their house. His family was outside drinking coffee on the patio. The man begged them to save him: “Friends, help me. They are going to kill me.” Three days later, the vultures began to circle and they knew the man was dead.
The entrance to the cave was blocked by a tangle of vines with sharp thorns. His father told them not to touch the vines, which protected their hideout. The family also made sure never to take the same route from the house to the cave, so that there would be no visible path. To enter, they had to get onto their elbows and knees and crawl through a long tunnel. Inside, it was impossible to sit or stand. All seven of them curled up together, sleeping like a pack of dogs. Joaquin sometimes calls the cave a madriguera, or animal den. His father warned them not to speak, nor even to cry while they were in the cave, because, as he put it, “there were people looking for them—people who wanted to hurt them.”
There’s another image linked to this one. It’s of the smell of Joaquin’s father’s clothes, saturated with diesel fuel and machine grease, and the feeling of being completely safe. He sometimes went with his father to work on the railway. He would fall asleep at his side or on the floor under the machines. His father was pacífico, he was never violent, Joaquin tells me.
At eighteen, Joaquin was conscripted into the army. He was assigned to counterintelligence, which meant tracking the guerrillas in the hills. Joaquin was good at what he did and the army offered him a position of leadership. But as he thought about it, he realized that he would continue moving through the ranks until one day he would inevitably be shot dead. The men, his men, would step over his body and carry on. “For what?” he asked me. “For what?”
During his time in the army, while tracking the guerrillas, Joaquin came upon a hideout. It looked just like the one where he had slept in the forest. It threw him back on his childhood. Once the hunted and now the hunter, this second hideout brings a sense of amazement to his voice when he speaks of it. I ask Joaquin if it made him feel more sympathetic to the guerrillas—they must also have passed nights waiting for the violence to arrive. But he refuses this suggestion: “The scene from when I was a child came immediately to my mind,” he says, because of a “similarity of form.” Yet there is something else at stake in the similitude, something wondrous for Joaquin about finding—and then telling me about—the hideout and its reappearance there in another forest.
An image of refuge, but also of terror; of ingenuity, but also futility; a father’s protection and its terrible limits. What else is it? Does the image of the hideout, a repeated structure made of thorns, of mud, of roots, of desperation, and flashes of hope, also carry its legions of dead along with it? What kind of gift is anthropology, anyway?
Agamben, Giorgio. 1999. “Aby Warburg and the Nameless Science.” In Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, 89–103. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Benjamin, Walter. 2006. Berlin Childhood around 1900. Translated by Howard Eiland. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap. Originally published in 1950.