On the Value and Versatility of Strategic Ambiguity

From the Series: Bateson Book Forum: Dust of the Zulu

Photo by Photo by TJ Lemon, 2003. Young Zulu men Bhekiseni Ndlovu (partially obscured), Neli Mbongiseni Dladla, and Phumlani Zulu perform ngoma dance on Christmas day in their home village of esiPongweni, KwaZulu-Natal.

In Dust of the Zulu: Ngoma Aesthetics after Apartheid (Duke University Press, 2017), Louise Meintjes’s analysis of the ambiguity of aesthetics in ngoma can serve as a methodological heuristic, encouraging anthropologists to attend to our interlocutors’ use of strategic ambiguity to direct our attention to the controversial, to what can and cannot be said, to deeply personal and political issues. That which is purposefully left ambiguous can reveal the very contours of politics. Below, I tease out a few ways in which paying attention to the deliberately ambiguous can be productive, drawing on both Meintjes’s work and instances in my research.

First, ambiguity can map the contours of what can and cannot be said. Describing the practice of intentionally avoiding being explicit about one’s HIV status, Meintjes notes that frequent joking and puns can “perpetuat[e] ambiguity around the boundaries of the disease” (187). Strategic ambiguity can allow interlocutors to avoid voicing the difficult or problematic. In my fieldwork, residents of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) drew on similar strategic ambiguity about their status—in this case their citizenship status. The UAE, as other Gulf states, have grown increasingly ethnonationalist in recent years (Kanna 2011; Vora 2013, 2018; cooke 2014) and citizenship is patrilineal. To be a UAE citizen, one must possess a family card (khulasat qaidor marsoom) that is essentially a family tree, confirming one’s lineage; without this card, residents are not entitled to the state’s generous education, healthcare, land grants, housing, and other benefits. At one talk I attended, a European artist asked a longtime UAE resident colleague, whom I call Asma, what it felt like to be an Emirati artist. Asma responded, “As opposed to what?” She neither confirmed she was an Emirati citizen nor denied it, pushing rather at the relevance of her citizenship status to her work as an artist. Later, when she and I were discussing that conversation privately, Asma informed me that her citizenship status had been revoked. While many people assumed she was Emirati, she in fact no longer had the documents to prove this, which endangered her residency in the country as well as her ability to work legally. Asma chose, to borrow Meintjes’s framing, “a politics of silence coupled with a poetics of ambiguity” (197): rendering her citizenship status ambiguous was one way to refuse the relevance of the category altogether. Her refusal to make explicit her status reveals the contours of the UAE’s politics of belonging. The statuses that are not made explicit, be they HIV or citizenship, mark out areas that are sensitive or vulnerable. In this way, selective ambiguity can also be a mode of protection, a way to simultaneously express commentary that was prohibited or dangerous without endangering oneself. Ngoma as an art form creates a space of simultaneous revelation and protection: “concerns about which dancers choose not to speak or sing in live performance can be brought into public with the protection of the interpretive ambiguity of ngoma dance. We know [their HIV status] but we can’t say for sure” (203, emphasis in original). By relying on aesthetic forms to communicate partially, the dancers are protected. Art and aesthetics are particularly useful as their very forms eschew confirmation and certainty.

UAE-based artists also relied on the ambiguity of aesthetics and visual forms. Criticism of the UAE’s ruling families, the government, and Islam are forbidden by law. Thus making work that was politically critical could have serious consequences including imprisonment, deportation, and revocation of citizenship. In making work critical of the regime, one artist, Ghada, shared, “If they can’t read it, it’s not subversive.” UAE artists rely precisely on the ambiguity of visual art to get around legal constraints on expression. Ambiguity offers a shroud of illegibility. At one art center, a visiting artist in residence proposed a work that explicitly responded to the government surveillance of UAE residents, which the curator declined to exhibit. A fellow artist reflected on this project: “I was in the meeting where the artist was being told, just change the wording of it so it doesn’t come across as what it is.” That is, the visiting artist was encouraged to obfuscate the work’s meaning, and render it ambiguous to protect those involved in the work’s making and display. Purposeful ambiguity through the arts is reserving the right to self-define, rather than abide by externally imposed categories. But it is also about perpetuating uncertainty—whether that be through the use of aesthetic forms whose meanings shift and are continually remade, or by, as in the case of many UAE artists, simply reformulating the text that explicates a work to disguise its true critique. Analyzing a feud that appears to be reconciled through a ngoma competition, Meintjes asks, “Is this a process of reconciliation by means of the arts or simply a moment of good aesthetics? In the end, one can’t be sure, at least not for everyone participating in the moment. And this is part of the point. Ambiguity that appears to be a problem analytically is in fact the point politically” (119). Ambiguity can be a useful strategy to preserve agency and ownership of information, while demonstrating the uncontainability of aesthetics. In addition to the interpersonal and interpretive flexibility of aesthetic forms, they shift as they are taken up by the “global culture industry [which] depends on the capacity to unhook popular representations . . . from the periodized violent histories from which they emerge and to circulate them” (16).

Strategic ambiguities “enable life to go on without closure or fixity or certainty, and they ensure that the capacity to instrumentalize the arts toward political ends can never be contained or complete” (16). And thus, songs end. Dances conclude. Dust settles. The exhibition closes, artworks are deinstalled. But the spaces of uncertainty and possibility that ambiguity opened, and the politics they foreshadow, remain.


cooke, miriam. 2014. Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kanna, Ahmed. 2011. Dubai: the City as Corporation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Vora, Neha. 2018. Teach for Arabia: American Universities, Liberalism, and Transnational Qatar. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

———. 2013. Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora. Durham: Duke University Press.