Interview with Urmila Mohan

Urmila Mohan earned her doctorate in anthropology (material culture) from University College London (2015), an MFA in studio art from Penn State University (2009), a BA Hons. in anthropology from Victoria University Wellington (2000), and a five year diploma in communication design from the National Institute of Design in India (1998). She works across the arts and humanities and has organized conferences and panels on the use of objects and visual imagery in relation to diverse issues such as ornament, nationalism and religion. Urmila is the co-founder and editor of the Material Religions blog. She is currently editing a special issue of the Journal of Material Culture on religious subjectivation as well as a volume by the ‘Matière à Penser’ group. Her recent publications include “Objecthood”, International Encyclopaedia of Anthropology: Anthropology Beyond Text, Wiley Blackwell, and “From Prayer Beads to the Mechanical Counter: The Negotiation of Chanting Practices Within a Hindu Group,” Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions, No. 174.

You come to us from University College London. Tell us about your background, and how you became interested in your research area.

My background is in anthropology, art and design. My doctoral degree in anthropology is from University College London where a number of scholars work on various aspects of material and visual culture ranging from art to consumption studies. My research at UCL was on clothing as a form of ‘material religion’ within a contemporary Hindu group whose spiritual base is in India. This group is part of a sect of Hinduism in which deity worship is extremely important and where the making of clothing for the deity is a form of devotion. Further, members consciously adopt a more traditional form of Indian dress as a means of conversion and allegiance. In my thesis, I focused on the materiality of clothing practices to analyze cloth as mediation between members as well as between devotees and deities. This research renewed my appreciation of the importance of materials, objects and techniques in fabrication and practice. These were also issues that I was previously interested in as a practitioner via my studies in studio art and design.

What attracted you to the BGC-AMNH fellowship?

I was attracted to the fellowship because of its creative and experimental nature. The BGC-AMNH postdoctoral fellowship is an innovative collaboration in museum anthropology and curation practice between the Bard Graduate Center and the American Museum of Natural History. The fellow is selected through a competitive application process and is funded by Bard Graduate Center for a period of two years. During this period the fellow is located primarily at the BGC and works on scholarly issues related to specific objects or collections in the AMNH’s ethnological section. At the end of two years, the fellowship culminates in an exhibit in the BGC’s Focus Gallery. The fellow is expected to teach two courses at the BGC and through this process students can contribute to the research, the exhibit, and the accompanying catalog.The opportunity to engage with students was another reason that I chose this fellowship.

What will be the focus and result of your research here?

My project with the working title “Fabricating Power: Textiles as Transformation in Bali, Indonesia,” explores the AMNH Balinese collection with a focus on cloth objects collected by the anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in Bali (1936-38). This expedition was one of the first to use photography and film to document and analyze a culture. While the role of Mead and Bateson as pioneers in visual anthropology is known, what we are less familiar with is the fact that they collected numerous objects, including textiles, puppets and wooden figures in Bali. The AMNH currently houses several outstanding examples of Balinese cloth wrappers, magical drawings, and mythological cloth paintings. Cloth, whether worn as garments for daily and ceremonial use or painted with talismanic symbols, is widely used as a means of protection and identity within a Balinese Hindu and Animistic cosmology. My archival and curatorial work will highlight the intersecting material and immaterial values of these cloth objects, and their role in museumology as forms of agency and efficacy within a constant process of objectification.

What are your goals after the fellowship?

I would ideally like to work in a creative environment where fabrication is part of the research process. This could be as an academic, artist, or curator with teaching and research responsibilities.

What would be your advice to young researchers/students deciding a career path for themselves, whether in academia or in museums?

My advice is to be proactive in locating opportunities and to work on building productive relationships with colleagues and mentors. At the same time be resilient since any field whether academia or museums will be competitive. From the brief time that I have been here, I think that the range of interdisciplinary skills that Bard Graduate Center students acquire will make them an asset in any role that requires a humanistic approach to objects or images.