Professional Savages Captive Lives and Western Spectacle Roslyn Poignant
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- Publication date:
- 08 Jun 2004
- 320 pages: 243 x 201 x 26mm
In August 1882 the circus impresario P.T. Barnum wrote to American consulates and agents around the world for assistance in assembling a collection 'of all the uncivilized races in existence'. Within months the showman and self-declared man-hunter R.A. Cunningham, already in Australia, had 'recruited' a group of North Queensland Aborigines and shipped them to San Francisco. In this fascinating and often searing narrative, Roslyn Poignant pieces together the experience of two groups of reluctant travellers. Exhibited in circuses, dime museums, fairgrounds and other show places in America and Europe, they were also examined, measured and photographed by anthropologists. Displayed as cannibals and brutish specimens on the metropolitan exhibition circuit - Crystal Palace in London, the Folies-Bergere in Paris, Berlin's Panoptikum, St Petersburg's Arcadia, the imperial court in Constantinople, the World's Fair in Chicago and Coney Island, New York - they transformed themselves into accomplished show people and professional savages. Thrust into the harsh world of commercial spectacle, the survival of the Aboriginal performers depended on the strengths they drew from their own culture and their individual adaptability. Few ever returned to Australia. Most died somewhere on tour. A century later, in October 1993, the mummified body of Tambo, the first to die, was discovered in the basement of a recently closed funeral home in Cleveland, Ohio. Tambo's posthumous repatriation stimulated a cultural renewal within the community from which he came and exposed the roots of present social and economic injustices experienced by Indigenous Australians.
Roslyn Poignant is the author, with Axel Poignant, of Encounter at Nagalarramba and curator of Captive Lives: Looking for Tambo and his Companions, and exhibition for the National Library of Australia. She is an honorary research fellow in the Department of Anthropology at University College London, and member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.
'...a scrupulously researched account' - The Victoria and Albert Museum Magazine'Poignant...combines indefatigability with deep knowledge of Aboriginal culture and Victorian anthropology, an exemplary ability to read visual images, and a commitment to using history to improve the present. She also writes with a poetic sense of the metaphors of cannibalism, consumption, the boomerang, the spectacular, and the circus tent. ... [Poignant] has been personally haunted by a sense of duty to these hitherto forgotten lives and also to those of their descendants. This is a book that will not be forgotten.' - Jonathan Benthall, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute