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Department of Social Anthropology

 

What is the link between the memory of the ancestors and the materials chosen to build and rebuild the sites dedicated to them? My postdoctoral research aims to answer this question by exploring the relationship between the particular conception the Sakalava of Madagascar have of their ancestors and the ritual works performed to preserve their tombs and other sites of memory. More broadly, my research focuses on the reciprocal influence between the attributes ascribed to their ancestors and the handicraft and ritual experience of the properties of different kinds of non-human materials (textiles, wood, metals, but also cow’s blood, honey, etc.,) used to make the various artefacts with which these ancestors are identified. The theoretical horizon of my project is to overcome simplistic divisions – and reductionist links – between work and ritual, between symbolic and material production, with an ecological approach to human culture.

During my doctoral research (PhD EHESS, Paris, 2020) I studied the Sakalava kingship in Madagascar and the contemporary ritual services of burying dead rulers in graves and bringing them to life in the form of altar trees or spirit mediums. Having faced several years of political and economic crisis in Madagascar, clan groups and political actors negotiate their legitimacy and position in the Malagasy republican state through the language and practices of kingship. In carrying out royal rituals and carrying within themselves the spirits of ancient rulers, the descendants of the slaves and the servants of Sakalava royalty claim a conception of loyalty and work that differs from that imposed first by colonisation and then by the postcolonial state. National government representatives, on the other hand, draw on their aristocratic origins, and more generally on the history of kings, to legitimise their controversial power amongst the population. It is the ideology of the royal power and social hierarchy mobilised by these actors that my PhD thesis examines.

According to this cosmology, for the Sakalava of northwest Madagascar, ancestors, especially royal ancestors, transmit the generative power of life (hasiñy) to living beings. This power must be preserved and protected by living human beings, in order to regenerate it periodically. For this purpose, the memory of these ancestors must be regularly cultivated and performed, in particular through two ritual practices: the spirit possession and the maintenance of sites dedicated to these ancestors (tombs or altar trees). These sites are mostly made of wood and require regular maintenance. Hence the link between the fragile materials that make up these sites and the memory of the ancestors, which must be preserved by the Sakalava people. However, solid materials (cement, sheet metal) are beginning to replace the old wooden materials in this sacred architecture. My current work explores this complex relationship between memory, materials, and ritual work in light of these contemporary transformations.

My reflections owe a lot to the classes I taught at the EHESS in Paris on religion and politics in Madagascar, and to the seminar I co-taught on the comparative anthropology of the Indian Ocean. 

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