Religious Studies, UC Davis
My research examines the historical, ethical, and socio-political effects of religion’s encounter with modernity, particularly in South Asia. I am interested in the ways that modern forms of governance, standardized bodies of knowledge, new forms of expertise, global media circulation, and market-driven capitalism have produced and continue to authorize discourses recognized as both secular and religious. My in-progress manuscript, Religion is a verb: Becoming religious in a secular age, examines how the arrival of the category of religion to the Western Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh in post-independence India transformed how people related to themselves, to others, and to their pasts. More specifically, it shows how the active work of and on “religion” redrew the emotional landscape of the region. It tracks a series of exchanges (of knowledge, media, and bodies) between urban centers and their rural peripheries showing how, for example, animal sacrifice is reframed as an areligious activity and the gaze from an urban sculpture becomes a site of mystical experience. Beyond this work, I am also involved in a series of projects examining relations between religion, colonialism and postcolonialism — particularly in relation to the mutual interdependence of imperial metropoles and colonies
Black Studies, UCSB | Curriculum Vitae (.doc)
My research on place, race, and religion in New Orleans examines how Afro-diasporic religious practices imbue seemingly secular sites with sacred meanings. Blending vodun and Catholic traditions, the Mardi Gras Indians designate the medians on North Claiborne Avenue and the intersection of Lasalle Street and Washington Avenue as sacred sites for parades and performances. Catholic and vodun altars locate centers of spiritual power inside poor people’s houses rather than in public religious, judicial, or commercial sites. Elaborate funeral processions invite spectators to parade in the streets to affirm that Black people are loved and that their lives have meaning. These religious practices and rituals are both race-based and place based. They occur in some of the oldest areas of continuous Black settlement in the nation, areas held together by parish boundaries and neighborhood and family traditions. They directly contradict the spatial imaginary that guides redevelopment in New Orleans that treats spaces as fungible and interchangeable and as a result seeks to rebuild the city by displacing impoverished Black people from spaces they consider to be sacred. In How Racism Takes Place (2011) and The Fierce Urgency of Now (forthcoming), I argue for the right of Black people to remain in places that are sacred to them. In my work in progress, I build on my experiences with New Orleans artists and activists to argue that the concept of accompaniment as enunciated by Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador in the 1970s and the vodun concepts of konesans and balans bear direct relationship to the socially conscious activism and artistry of the past decade in the city.
Mary (Polly) Nooter Roberts
World Arts and Cultures/Dance, UCLA
Among the topics of my research as an interdisciplinary scholar trained in Art History (PhD Columbia University), I explore ways that religiosity promotes the remaking of urban spaces. For the past 18 years Dr. Allen F. Roberts and I have studied the Mourides, a Senegalese Sufi movement. We have been especially interested in how artists and adepts replace colonial and postcolonial monuments with new symbols of self-reliance and resilience in the form of murals, environments, and architecture, re-inscribing them as sites of devotion where hard work is understood as a form of prayer. This research culminated in a major award-winning book and exhibition entitled A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal (2003). While continuing aspects of the Senegalese project, our focus has turned to visual practices associated with a South Asian saint named Shirdi Sai Baba (mid 1800s – 1918) whose teachings and images pervade cities I have studied in India, Mauritius, Ghana, Germany, and the United States. Through the Working Group “Spaces for the Future: Religiosity in Urban Place-Making,” I shall draw upon my research data concerning ways that imagery associated with Sai Baba reshapes and galvanizes urban devotional spaces.
Allen F. Roberts
World Arts and Cultures/Dance, UCLA | Curriculum Vitae (PDF)
Although my formal training is in socio-cultural anthropology (PhD University of Chicago, 1980), I have long been resolutely interdisciplinary. My work has ranged from dissertation research on symbolism and local-level politics, with three major NEH-funded books and traveling exhibitions and the forthcoming monograph A Dance of Assassins: Performing Early Colonial Hegemony in the Congo (Indiana University Press, 2012) suggesting the breadth of the work; to case studies of lieux de mémoire and culture-building in a number of contemporary African societies. For the last 18 years Dr. Mary Nooter Roberts and I have conducted research in Senegal on a multifaceted project about ways that Muslim artists refabulate the city — that is, how they endow urban places with new myths to meet quotidian devotional and practical needs. For example, our paper “Mystical Graffiti” (Africa Today 2007) explains how one artist endows streets of Dakar’s inner-city neighborhoods with images that actively bless those living and working there, and extends processual theory to capture the vitality of everyday religious expression that transforms anomic spaces to meaningful places. Through the UCHRI Working Group, I hope to gain comparative insights from intellectual and regional foci unfamiliar to me.
Anthropology, UCR | Biography (Faculty Page)
My current work examines postsocialist urbanization in Vinh City, Vietnam, and how the shift to “market socialism” has brought rapid and profound changes to its socialist urban landscape (Schwenkel 2012). This project builds on ten years of ethnographic research in Vietnam on the social consequences of war and the cultural politics of historical memory in urban spaces, including changes to the memorial landscape as the lines between secular state practices and once discouraged “superstitious” beliefs have blurred (Schwenkel 2009). With its wartime status as one of the most decimated cities, Vinh offers a unique site to study postcolonial and postconflict socioeconomic recovery in relation to changes in the social use and meanings of urban space, including how socialist secular space (i.e. public housing) has been reconstituted to incorporate practices of ancestor worship, the relationship between economic reforms and the recent renovation of Buddhist temples, and the construction of new martyr temples and other sites of state commemoration that have accommodated traditional belief systems.
Anthropology, UCI | Curriculum Vitae (PDF)
My theoretical interests are with notions of representation, production of reality and ways in which ethnographic materials are produced, both in the written and visual form. I am also interested in ways in which ritual, religion and space are produced and consumed, and in the ways in which war produces culture. My first book, Warring Souls: Media, Martyrdom and Youth in Post-Revolution Iran, (Duke U Press, 2007), was about the “culture” produced by the Iranian government during the Iran-Iraq War and the effect on the generation that came of age after the Revolution. It analyzes the Iranian revolutionary project of creating a strong Islamic citizenry through an all-encompassing Islamic social space. My work is inherently interdisciplinary and engages in textual and visual analysis and ethnographic research. My first film, Plastic Flowers Never Die, deals with the memorialization of the war, especially space-specific sites such as the former war front and urban museums of martyrdom. I am also very interested and have published on the cinema that was produced during the war years, in particular a ten-year long documentary project that brings into question notions of the real. I am also working on a new project about war culture in Teheran (Making and Marketing Martyrs), including the transnational passages of theater, art and performance from Iran to Europe.