Welcome to the memoir, Art, Anthropology, and Activism: Stories for another world. It examines, through stories about people and places, five decades of my life as an artist, an anthropologist and an activist.
My professional story shows that Canadian scholarship can be international in scope and can contribute to meaningful change. Drawing on my experiences as an author of 10 scholarly books, an artist, and a community activist, the memoir illustrates what engaged research can do to make a difference in the world while also challenging scholarly mindsets and advancing novel ideas. It highlights important global issues and innovative research practices in distinct cultural settings such as northern Canada, Mexico, Honduras, India and Bangladesh. The narrative provides students of the social sciences and people curious about the world of action-oriented and internationally relevant research, with access to a lifetime of experiences and reflections on the personal choices that shaped me.
Part 1: ART (three chapters):
In the 1970’s Yukon, I was an earnest young man pursuing an artist’s life. I observed and took inspiration from the bush lifestyle of young people searching for connection, and witnessed the beginning of a renaissance among the First Nations of the region. Part way through my time there, the southern sun and my own desire to connect to other artists drew me to Mexico. There, I developed an intense curiosity about the language, history and revolutionary art of the Mexican people. The country became a second home to me and birthplace of both my sons. Stories from the Yukon and Mexico tell a coming of age tale of an artist exploring an interior life while also discovering that we cannot live for ourselves alone.
Part 2: ANTHROPOLOGY (six chapters):
My immersion in cultural anthropology in the 1980’s began with field work in Mexico for a study on corn, cattle, and conflict in the Mexican tropics. The doctoral work, published by Zed Books in the U.K., contributed to the establishment of one of Mexico’s first UNESCO bio-sphere reserves. Reflections in the memoir on the experience of doing advanced studies bring to light the challenges of combining scholarly pursuits with social change objectives. Elements of my inner life, including a diagnosis of metastatic skin cancer at age 32 and the interventions that resolved the crisis, are woven into the memoir’s narrative.
Action-oriented research became the core practice of my professional life at the International Centre for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT), based in Mexico. I led pioneering research on the social and economic aspects of new agricultural technologies that are now fundamental to modern ecological farming strategies. The research with farmers and scientists illustrated something important about the nature of scientific discovery: the collective, transpersonal qualities of knowledge generation, and humanity’s debt to farming women and men. It also changed my world, helping to establish a reputation for rigorous and engaged research practice grounded in the experience of local communities.
While at Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), I was pulled into a different world, where research mingles with policy advocacy. I learned from Indigenous leaders and people on the front lines of the global food sovereignty movement about the threat that international companies present to Indigenous land rights and farmer rights to save seed. Through IDRC, I contributed to new scholarship and policy analysis on ways and means to mitigate impacts. My experiences with the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and The World Bank stretched me beyond my disciplinary silos and blind spots, forcing me to acknowledge the complexity of international development.
Part 3: ACTIVISM (five chapters):
I reached my stride as an engaged anthropologist when I shifted to Carleton University in 2005 and joined a research project developing a unique approach to participatory action research. My relationships with leading South Asian activists and the academic freedoms of a university environment made it possible for me to undertake careful and grounded research focused on changing lived realities. This included efforts by the Katkari, a former “criminal tribe” of western India, to fight eviction from their hamlets, and research with Bangladeshi farmers aimed at breaking their dependency on Big Tobacco and tobacco farming. Three detailed monographs published by scholarly presses form the basis for reflections in the memoir on the key role of facilitating people’s own analysis and action, and the vital contribution of sustained and sensitive commitment over years.
The experience of being in South Asia, and learning from different farmer and Indigenous rights movements, provided me with an original and far reaching perspective on ecology and the ethics of community life. It opened my mind to a hidden, and hopeful world where political activism merges with insights from unique spiritual traditions. Reflections in the memoir on these influences in my life, and later experiences in West Africa and northern Canada, highlight the opportunities and the challenges of bringing the inner and outer life together in art, scholarship and social engagement.
The memoir concludes with two chapters recounting a 10 year journey into climate justice activism in my neighbourhood and in my city. It starts with a protest over felling of a heritage oak a few hundred metres from my home in Ottawa, Canada. The journey then broadens to consider collective efforts to save the urban forest and influence the shape of municipal land use policies. Reflections on trees, biodiversity and local activism are organized in these chapters around a Zen Buddhist metaphor, the Ten Ox Herding Pictures. These are an ancient series of folk images that depict stages in a path to self-discovery, explored in the memoir through stories about environmental activism, personal growth and my own art.
Collectively, the memoir raises broadly human questions about art, anthropology, and activism: who am I, how should I relate to people and to nature, what do I live for? The memories point to possible futures worth bringing to light, and fighting for.
Description of readership: I’ve written the book with three audiences in mind:
Young professionals, including students in the social sciences and humanities, trying to make sense of what it might mean for themselves to be an agent of change in a complex world. The choices and considerations that shaped me provide key reference points and may help guide their own professional and personal path.
People with a general interest in the lived experience of anthropologists in diverse cultural settings. The memoir relates the core practices and major issues of contemporary social sciences through story, reflections on personal growth, and highlights from scholarly research.
Artists, anthropologists and activists open to exploring the intersection of art, anthropology, and activism. The fields of action connect aspects of the human experience in novel ways, providing people in all three professions with ideas for new directions.
I created all of the images on this site, unless otherwise credited.
Image: Searching, Temagami lakeshore, 2021.