Amherst Magazine

Office Space: Deborah Gewertz

Italianate in style, Morgan Hall was constructed in 1853 as the college’s first library. Nowadays, it’s home to the Departments of American Studies and Anthropology and Sociology. On the second floor—where college trustees were infamously locked in their boardroom during student protests of the ’70s—is the office of Deborah Gewertz, the G. Henry Whitcomb 1874 Professor of Anthropology. Here’s a look at some of the things she’s collected over the years.

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Item 1: Iatmul Hook
Though this hook was intended for tourist sale, the Iatmul people of Timbunmeri Island traditionally used such items to represent ancestors and embody clan power. Gewertz had this particular hook commissioned in 1974 when she saw a similar one at the home of an American Catholic missionary. “I draped the hook with the pig-tooth necklace, which was given to my husband by a Chambri friend during a ceremony to rename him as a Chambri, and the Amherst hood, which was given to me during a ceremony to promote me to full professor.  Like the hook itself, the necklace and hood are embodiments of power—and, at least at one time concerning all three, masculine power.”

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Item 2: Kambot Statue
“I teach gender and am interested in its many manifestations. This particular manifestation  was made by a people living in an area known as Kambot. They used to be bark painters until a development officer convinced them to transfer their motifs into three-dimensional form. This is now a classic Kambot carving of two people who obviously, let’s say, love each other very much.”

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Item 3: Statue of a Woman
This statue was made by Andrew Tambwi Kwolikumbwi Yorondu, someone who first taught Gewertz about the cosmology of the people with whom she worked. “This really has no significant meaning except that it’s of a woman and so Tambwi thought I should have it, Gewertz said. “And I won’t reveal that fact to you by picking up her skirt, since that would be inappropriate,” she added with a laugh.

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Item 4: Rhesus Monkey Skeleton
When Gewertz first came to Amherst College, she taught a course on human evolution that students nicknamed “Stones and Bones.” Since retiring from that course, she’s had to return the human and gorilla skeletons that she used for class props. The Rhesus monkey, however, has faithfully remained on her desk. When I asked Gewertz for a comment about her unique pet, she had a single response: “I just love it.”

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Item 5: Crocodile Prow
All the canoes made in the Sepik region where Gewertz works have crocodiles decorating their prows. Gewertz was eager to acquire one because “the prows of canoes are not made for tourists.” She was able to buy one because nowadays when people pass away, they are buried inside their canoes. Before being buried, however, “people would cut off the prows of the canoes— as a remembrance of the person who died.

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Item 6: The Independents
Gewertz’s husband joined a fraternity when he went to Wesleyan but later dropped out because of its racist practices. He then joined an eating house called The Independents, pictured here. “I liked that he—although blonde and blue-eyed at the time (as opposed to grey and blue-eyed now) —found being a member of a racist fraternity rather despicable and so decided against it,” Gewertz said.

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Item 7: Longinus on the Sublime
“A former teacher of mine—when I was an undergraduate—gave me this print. I became something of an intellectual in her classes. She thought I had some potentiality, and I was grateful that she encouraged me. He’s lecturing on the sublime, which is a pretty cool thing to be lecturing on.”

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Item 8: Maps
“When I first came to Amherst from New York City, I was not very happy about being in Amherst. I was delighted, of course,  to have this wonderful job,” Gewertz clarified, “but I wanted very much to go home to my city. I would look longingly at that New York City subway map, and it gave me some solace.” Juxtaposed against the 1970s subway map was a map of Papua New Guinea, dating back to World War II. “New York City on one hand and Papua New Guinea on the other made up me in certain regard,” Gewertz concluded.

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Item 9: Bug Collection
While Gewertz purchased this bug collection as “another tourist item,” she did live around bugs like the ones encased. “I once lived through the mating flight of giant cockroaches,” she recalled.  It was another manifestation of gender, or at least sex. The bugs liked it, I guess, but it caused me to seek refuge under my mosquito net.”

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Item 10: Slit-Gong Drum
“Art that is made for tourists is often hypertrophied or minimalized,” Gewertz explained as she pointed out her small version of a slit gong drum. “The real version of the drum would be huge.  It would be placed  where men congregate – in the “haus tambaran” or spirit house.  When certain rhythms are played, men know that a meeting is being called of relevance to their clans.” This drum was also made by Andrew Yorondu, who has since passed away. “I look at these objects and I think about Tambwi and his work with me,” Gewertz reminisced, “and I’m moved by the memories of him that are embodied in those objects.”

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Item 11: Snail Shell Bridewealth
The shell of a snail, Turbo marmoratus, was very important in brideprice transactions—exchanges that many people mistakenly understand to be the buying of wives.  “There is a difference between a gift and a commodity,” Gewertz began. “As a gift, the value of an item is the relationship it establishes between people and groups. Paying brideprice is not purchasing a woman, it’s establishing relationships between families.”  When I asked how she acquired the shell, her response was quick. “I commodified it,” she laughed.

Gewertz bought the shell when an elderly friend came to visit her during one of her stays in Papua New Guinea. She took this friend on a tourist trip through the Sepik River region on a boat called the Melanesian Discoverer. “It really is, to some extent, a shopping trip,” Gewertz admitted. “Tourists travel in this boat—which is air-conditioned and has gins and tonics in the evening and really good food—and then they go into the villages via smaller boats to see touristic performances and buy things. So this snail shell was offered to tourists to buy.”
Although Gewertz did buy a few things while she was in Papua New Guinea, she rarely did so from the people with whom she worked because, in her words, “things became very complex.”
 

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Item 12: Prints by Zach Yorke ’03
These are prints by Zach Yorke ’03. Yorke, who is now a professional artist, gave them  to Gewertz when he graduated. “I very much enjoyed teaching him,” she remembered. “I almost turned him into an anthropologist from a fine artist, but not quite, which maybe is for the best. I loved him, and I loved his work, and I was pleased when he gave the prints to me.” One of Yorke’s paintings was purchased by the college, and you can find it hanging in Lewis-Sebring.

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