Stealing with the Eyes by Will Buckingham

Haus Publishing, July 2018, 230 pp

Haus Publishing, July 2018, 230 pp

In Stealing with the Eyes: Imaginings and Incantations in Indonesia, Will Buckingham sets out to narrate his experiences in the Tanimbar Islands, a less-travelled location known in the West mostly for their unique sculptures. The author visited the islands some twenty years ago as a trainee anthropologist, yet the book sees the light of day only now, and it is largely due to the fact that his experiences in Indonesia resulted in him abandoning the practice of anthropology altogether. However, as the author explains it, the islands have stayed with him through the decades, and, in a way, Stealing with the Eyes is a culmination of those thoughts collected during and after his trip to Indonesia to study the sculptures of three local men.

Buckingham’s abandonment of anthropology entails that his book is largely devoid of academic discourse. Certain names of famous anthropologists are mentioned as texts that Buckingham has read, but has later dismissed in the light of his experiences in the Tanimbar Islands. What prevails in Stealing with the Eyes is a matter-of-fact tone that certainly does not romanticize the practice. “I too would go out into the field and engage in some ethnography,” he remembers thinking before embarking on the trip, “that curious brand of high-minded intrusiveness amongst peoples too polite, or too powerless, to tell you to go fuck yourself.” 

During one of his encounters with Matias Fatruan, a sculptor living in a close-by island that is disreputable according to many living in the mainland of Yamdena, the artist remarks on the nature of Buckingham’s business. Fatruan is wary of showing Buckingham his sculptures in the fear of him stealing them back to Europe. Buckingham ensures Fatruan that he is not here to steal, to which the sculptor responds: “‘I do not think that you have come to steal with the hands … I am afraid that you have come to steal with the eyes.” This comment gives rise to one of the main themes of the book, of exporting indigenous imaginings out of the original culture, only to be appropriated and appreciated by the Western cultures:

Curi mata: stealing with the eyes. The accusation was inescapable. What else did Westerners do, the whole world over, if not this? They rover here and there, taking other people’s lives and homes as things to be photographed, consumed, ferried back home. Wasn’t anthropology itself no more than a vast enterprise of stealing with the eyes? Wasn’t the entire world, under the guise of knowledge and science, a cabinet of curiosity for the West?

Buckingham is aware that he has also practiced the business:

Anthropologists are not immune to fantasies of the exotic, even if anthropology has a hard time owning up to the fact. As I look back to my own time spent amongst the barang anegh [‘strange things’] of the Tanimbar Islands, I can’t help but see the tales that I am weaving here as being continuous with the stories in publications like Akim – dubious accounts of colonial derring-to, tales of Europeans finding themselves amongst savage customs and rites. I, too, am guilty. And recognizing the fact does not diminish my guilt. Perhaps it augments it.

In a most concrete example of exporting other’s imaginations, waiting in the Jakarta Airport for his flight back home, Buckingham observes replicas of the wooden sculptures he had just witnessed Damianus Masele, one of the book’s main sculptors, craft in Tumbur. “They were badly made – pale reflections of Damianus’s art – and shockingly expensive.”

What Buckingham explores in Stealing with the Eyes is an age-old postcolonial question, yet its strength resides in its telling of an intriguing story, rather than in an attempt to solve any of these issues, or free his white guilt. Orientalism, postcolonial gaze, the notorious business of cultural export: these are all widely discussed topics elsewhere, and that is not what the book sets out to tackle at all. Moving in the realms of personal travelogue and the novel, Stealing with the Eyes is a curious and always entertaining book, driven by lively dialogue with occasional dips into beautiful observations that verge on epiphany: 

I did not believe the stories I was hearing. But I could not dismiss them entirely. They were so firmly rooted in the landscape, in the shallow seas and tiny villages that clung tenaciously to the low rocks, in the twisted roots of the mangrove swamps and the low, scrubby forests, that it was impossible to reject their strange undertow. The stories belonged to the landscape, and the landscape to the stories. And, because I was a part of that landscape, they seeped into me, whether I liked it or not. I felt the strange logic of Tanimbarese myth and story beginning to work on me. It was a logic rooted in concrete things, in rocks and stones and cliffs that plunged down to the sea. To spend time in a place is to become subject to its logic, whether one likes it or not.

In place of theorizations, Buckingham presents everyday occurrences with local people, and through dialogue the reader can feel the impact of brutal colonial history, Catholicism, alcohol, magic, hospitality, and other pervading features of the Tanimbarese reality. At times, the text reads almost like a thriller: Buckingham gets seriously ill on the island, and his nocturnal staggering in the darkness to find a way to the outhouse is portrayed in a surprisingly engaging way, from the dog he accidentally kicks in the dark to the various healing methods the locals apply in the subsequent days. It is all thanks to Buckingham’s ear for good storytelling, so that the book moves with the narrative arc of a novel.