In Daniela Bleichmar’s study of catalogues and inventories of Wunderkammers (cabinets of curiosities), she contends that these early modern collections, which are also the origins of the modern museum, displayed the geographical reaches of power, knowledge and wealth that the collector had acquired. The collections transported knowledge across borders and became a way for Europeans to observe and learn about other cultures. However, knowledge was constructed around slippery and imprecise descriptions given to these objects. For example, “India or China did not stand for specific geographic locations but for an exotic origin that was hard to pin down, remained unspecific, and could mutate unexpectedly” (Bleichmar 19). Rather than having a focus on the specific object, the collections became a space for a particular kind of viewing and narrative that changed according to the protocols of the guided visit. How the material object acquired a transformed meaning had to do with the strategies of display. Meaning shifted depending on who was doing the interpreting. Cultural materials were reordered, regrouped and, in the process, they lost geographical specificity. Their original meaning was emptied and the objects became vessels to construct new narratives. Benjamin Schmidt’s analysis of the migrating meaning of parasol imagery demonstrates that mobility and circulation softened the original meaning. He contends, “exotic icons are performative” (Schmidt 34). Performative interpretation is made possible due to the trans- media spaces that “spectralize” the thing. Jacques Derrida’s concept of spectrality refers to a representation that is always mediating. It enables “an interpretation that transforms the very thing it interprets” (Derrida 64). Trans-media spaces are performative in the sense that they dislodge geographical specificity and rely on the act of interpretation, which transforms what is interpreted.
During the early modern period, the global circulation of iconic objects, such as the parasol, transformed their meaning due to the practices of display and interpretation that spectralized or abstracted objects from any real geographical place and framed them within a new space and narrative. Bleichmar and Schmidt have analyzed how these mobile circuits and the transference of iconic imagery across media unfixed cultural specificity for the objects on display. European ways of seeing made legible, in European terms, narratives that were intended for a European audience. This strategy of seeing and display privileged European forms of knowing, since it ignored the historical and geographical specificity of what was actually being observed. Guided visits to cabinets of curiosities followed protocols of displaying and seeing that supposed a certain type of specialized knowledge over the objects and, by extension, the subjects who used those objects. The guide created a narrative that assumed knowledge over the object that was being looked at, and implied European imperial domination over the colonies that these objects represented. However, just as the global flow of material culture destabilized cultural meaning and presented a way of seeing based on European epistemology, the same strategies of seeing and display were utilized by captive and freed people in the Americas who were also able to take advantage of the globalization of cultural and religious material culture to negotiate new cultural and political identities in the Americas. The focus of this study is the ways in which performative interpretation of trans-media iconography functioned within the institution of slavery and in the religious practices of the brotherhood of the Rosary of the Church of Santa Efigênia in Ouro Preto, Brazil.
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