I have been reading ‘What Do Pictures Want?’ by W.J.T Mitchell and clarifying the difference and the definitions of the idol, the fetish and the totem in order to understand my art practice with more depth.

Having presented my ‘tribe’ for the July presentation it was noted that although my artist statement tilted towards the ideas of fetish objects and totemism, were these objects exactly those things? Were they people?, they had peoples names (Terry, Robert, Susan etc). Because I had only just finished the works the day before the seminar and I generally work very intuitively, I had not given myself enough time to reflect on what the hell I had just made. With the generous help of my talented contextual supervisor, an artist statement was formed a few days before the seminar without my thorough understanding behind it, This, I have found out, is not a smart way to go about things, however the lesson learnt in this process was well worth it.

So what is a totem?

According to Wikipedia:

A totem (Ojibwe dodaem) is a spirit being, sacred object, or symbol that serves as an emblem of a group of people, such as a family, clan, lineage, or tribe.

While the term “totem” is Ojibwe, belief in tutelary spirits and deities is not limited to indigenous peoples of the Americas but common to a number of cultures worldwide, such as Africa, Arabia, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Arctic. However, the traditional people of those cultures have words for their guardian spirits in their own languages, and do not call these spirits or symbols, “totems”.

Contemporary neoshamanic, New Age and mythopoetic men’s movements not otherwise involved in the practice of a tribal religion may misappropriate and use “totem” terminology for the personal identification with a tutelary spirit or guide.

A totem pole is a pole on which totems are hung or which the images are carved into. There can be a heirachy of images on the pole. The poles can symbolise family legends, clan lineage or notable events. They can serve as a welcome sign for visitors, as moturary vessels for the deceased or a ‘pole of shame’ in order to publicly ridicule someone who has wronged.

So here is the thing, according to wikipedia totem poles were never objects of worship and were never treated reverently. Their purpose is to generate allusions or illustrate stories and they were generally just left to rot in place . The idea that they had an association with idol worship was from 19th C Christian missionaries  who thought shamanism an occult practice.

According to W.J.T Mitchell

‘If the idol represents a god and the fetish is a ‘made thing’ with a spirit or demon in it, then the totem is “a relative of mine” its literal meaning in the Ojibway language’ pg98

‘In short, the fetish is the totem without the communal investment’ pg99

‘Totemism  is primarily a technical term in the social sciences, virtually synonymous with the rise of anthropology as a discipline’ pg99

Pouwhenua or pou whenua (land post), are carved wooden posts used by Māori, the indigenous peoples of New Zealand to mark territorial boundaries or places of significance. They are generally artistically and elaborately carved and can be found throughout New Zealand.  Much like totem poles, pou whenua tell a story. They are significant to the Māori people, representing their contributions to the cultural heritage of the New Zealand. They acknowledge the association between the people (tāngata) and the land (whenua). Specifically, they reflect the relationship between the ancestors, environment, and the reputation or standing of the tangata whenua




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