Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anthropology and East Asian Studies Patrick Dowdey takes an interdisciplinary approach to things, as his titles might suggest. The course he is teaching this semester—Anthropology of Contemporary Chinese Art—blends art history, East Asian Studies, and anthropology, and is, in the professor’s own words, one of the hardest classes his students will ever take at Wesleyan. In addition to teaching one course per year, Dowdey is the curator at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies. The Argus sat down with Dowdey to discuss his fieldwork in China, the curatorial process, and the blues.
The Argus: So, what’s on your bookshelf?
Patrick Dowdey: I just read RJ Smith’s biography of James Brown, and that’s just an awesome book. I read a lot of music writing, and I grew up in Washington D.C.—James Brown has always been an interesting figure. He’s the guy. He’s such a complex figure. [Smith] has talked to so many people, so the research is really deep. It’s something that the people who lived it could read and say, “Yep, that’s right.” I think it’s a great piece of music writing.
I like music writing because it’s untrammeled by convention. There are no conventions for music writing. My sister told me, “When you’re writing, don’t read the newspaper.” She said, “Don’t read in the field that you’re writing about.” I think that’s a really good suggestion. Usually when I’m writing I read music writing because it’s outside and yet a lot of people writing it are really good writers. I like that.
A: Would you draw a distinction between the reading you do for pleasure and for academia?
PD: I don’t read [Richard] Kraus for fun! I do read stuff like that, though. One of the researchers that I really like a lot is Yan Yun Xian. He has a really good understanding of rural China, has watched the changes there, and is a really good commentator on that. He makes a very interesting distinction between individualism and individualization. He says there’s forced individualization, and I think it’s true for a lot of people in China: they don’t want to be individuals. They’ve been waiting their whole lives for everybody to support them as old people through the traditional family structure, and all of a sudden they have to be individuals.
A: Could you talk about where your interest in Chinese art came from?
PD: I’ve been working in the arts for my entire life. I worked with artists’ books a lot but also was working with shadow puppets and screen-printing—I’m a really awesome screen printer. I’m not really interested in fine arts. I like popular arts a lot, and I think they’re really important—like music writing. I read a lot about it. I’ve always been involved with music. I have a band.
A: Who’s in the band?
PD: This was in Atlanta. My brother and I and friends of ours. It was rock and roll—we weren’t good enough to play anything better than that. It was good stuff, though. We’re all really good singers. I always felt [that] with pop music especially, the singer’s the most important person. People don’t think about it, but those bands that make it, they always have a really good singer. A really good voice.
A: So, back to China.
PD: While I was working at Emory University Museum, Maxwell Anderson came in as the director. He and the Art History Department at Emory really encouraged me to think about going back to school. There was also a guard at the Emory museum who was from China. Saturday afternoons he’d be there guarding, and I’d be there too, and we’d just talk for three or four hours. I started being interested in China. It was a fascinating place.
A: When did you go there first?
PD: I was one month into my graduate studies when I came to school one morning and the headline in the paper was the Tiananmen crackdown. I thought, “Do I really want to do this?” And I thought, “Yeah. I do.” That was ’89, but I didn’t go over [to China] until the Spring Festival in ’93. I remember going and thinking, “Damn, I missed all of the changes.” It was a great time to go over, though, because Deng Xiaoping had done his summer trip the previous summer, and it was when the economic reforms really took off.
A: You conducted a lot of fieldwork there as well.
PD: Right away. Through some connections I’d made at UCLA, I met these artists at the Sichuan Artist’s Association, and they welcomed me. They were pretty open-minded people, and they were very high-level artists. They were printmakers, and I was a printmaker too, so we had that connection. I went over again in ’94, and I lived there for two years. I’ve been going back ever since—I go back every year for a couple of months.
A: You’re also the curator [at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies]. Can you address the exhibit that’s up right now?
PD: Let me go back and talk about a catalog I did, called “Portrait of Korea.” That was a student-curated exhibition. We revisited the Korean War in terms of what it was like to be on the ground, and not just for American soldiers but for North Korean soldiers, South Korean soldiers, and especially for the people of Korea. One of the first experiences I had with reading was when I was a little kid, [and] my dad showed me the newspaper, and it said “WAR” across the top. That was 1950; I was two. I remember seeing it, and he asked me, “Do you know what that says?” I said no, and he said, “That says war.” That country was devastated.
A: So how did that bring you to the exhibit that’s up right now?
PD: From then on, we’ve had a very close relationship with the Korea Society. This exhibition comes from them. We’re too small to get all of it, so we’ve got half of it, and the other half is at UConn. It’s just a great exhibition.
A: Could you describe it?
PD: It’s a look at what we call social realism—photography. But they don’t call it that in Korea because that sounds too Communist. They call it “life realism.” You can see those images—they’re just so striking. It’s definitely got a Korean perspective. They’re seeing things that Americans certainly saw, too, but didn’t think to photograph.
A: Are you still involved in producing your own artwork?
PD: I do cartoons. You know, I work with these artists, and they always ask, “Do you do art?” And they’re major artists, so I say, “Just a little, you know, little bitty things here and there, nothing very formal.” It’s nothing very fancy. I took a printmaking class when I was an undergraduate, and I’ve taken drawing classes—it was all old ladies. I’ve always been around artists, though.
A: You’re obviously very involved in art, and you said you do a lot of music reading on your own. Do you find that the two fields ever intersect?
PD: I teach Anthropology of Art—there is no anthropology of art. It’s the archaeologists talking about art. But some of the best articles about art by anthropologists are about music. I’m an academic, but I don’t really come from a 100 percent academic background. A lot of the divisions in academia don’t really mean too much to me—that’s why I’m an anthropologist. It’s a great field; it’s synthetic. I think I’ve come to a lot of my own conclusions about how art works socially, and music definitely comes into that very strongly. I remember taking classes on oral performance and thinking, “Well, this is just like the blues.”
A: You’ve mentioned in class that you listen to WESU radio sometimes. Do you have a favorite program?
PD: I can’t say that. There are some programs on there I really like, though. There’s a community there. About seven years ago, the University was thinking pretty seriously about giving up the license, and I wrote something in talking about community radio. I DJed on WESU, and I remember interning with one of the West Indian DJs. He said, “Where I come from, it’s a privilege to be on the radio.” I put that in there. I said, it’s not something everybody likes, but the contribution they make to the community at large is really enormous.