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Workshop on the Aesthetics of Power

Jul 17, 2015

How political leaders such as Gandhi or Mao have been represented in images across the globe was the topic of a workshop at the Karl Jaspers Centre from July 17 to 18. The event was organised by Prof. Barbara Mittler and Prof. Sumathi Ramaswamy (Duke), as part of their joint research project "Embodying the Nation - Representations of Gandhi and Mao".

The workshop was titled "Artful Bodies: Charisma and the Aesthetics of Power". It sought to find out whether it is artful representation that transforms flesh and blood men such as Mao or Gandhi into charismatic presences. It considered a wide range of forms of representation: A leader’s “image” consists of his political program and the values this embodies; of his political deeds and merits; of the associates he surrounds himself with; of his reception and reputation; and of the coding inscribed into his public appearance including his body language, clothing, hairdo, beard and mien as they might appear in paintings, photographs, as they might be lampooned in cartoons or as they might be idealized in musical, literary, philosophical, political, elite and popular “texts.” Political iconography is a well-established field, but its material and argumentative base remains largely restricted to specific regions or cultures. The question of how particular leaders’ representations or “images” may have travelled globally was addressed in the context of this workshop.

Invited speakers at the workshop were: Prof. Horst Bredekamp (HU Berlin), Dr. Iftikhar Dadi (Cornell University), Prof. Boris Groys (New York University), Dr. Jeremy Taylor (University of Nottingham), Prof. Monica Juneja, Emily Mae Graf and Prof. Günter Leypoldt (all three from Heidelberg University).

The workshop "Artful Bodies: Charisma and the Aesthetics of Power" took place at the Karl Jaspers Center from July 17 to 18. It was organised in the framework of the research project "Embodying the Nation - Representations of Gandhi and Mao". The project seeks to understand how Gandhi and Mao have been transformed through the work of visual imagery into globally recognizable, transcultural icons. It is headed by Prof. Barbara Mittler and Prof. Sumathi Ramaswamy.

Prof. Barbara Mittler is the acting director of the Cluster of Excellence "Asia and Europe" and the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies. She holds the Chair for Chinese Studies at the University of Heidelberg. Prof. Sumathi Ramaswamy teaches history at Duke University. She is member of the Advisory Board of the Cluster of Excellence "Asia and Europe". Her research foci are the cultural history of South Asia and the British Empire.

Download programme and abstracts (PDF)


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  • Political poster sporting Mao Zedong (Francisco Anzola, Wikimedia Commons)

  • Statue of Mahatma Gandhi, Ariana Park, Geneva (MHM55, Wikimedia Commons)