Engaged Anthropology Grant: Marissa Mika

Staying Alive exhibition poster, designed by Rumanzi Canon. Image courtesy of Andrea Stultiens.

While a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania Marissa Mika received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2012 to aid research on “Experimental Infrastructures: Building Cancer Research in Uganda from 1950 to the Present,” supervised by Dr. Steven Feierman.” In 2017 Dr. Mika was able to follow up on her fieldwork research when she received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Staying Alive in Photographs at the Uganda Cancer Institute”.

In August 2017, the Uganda Cancer Institute celebrated its 50th anniversary in Kampala. Since 2010, I have worked at this site as a historian and ethnographer. My work explores the past and present of the Institute to examine how scientific research shapes biomedical care on the African continent. I focus on how experiments create and shape cultures of care that take on a political and social life of their own, well after the experiments themselves have ended. I argue that there is a fundamental dynamism to experimental sites such as the Uganda Cancer Institute. Collaborations ebb and flow according to scientific interests. Political violence forces physicians and families to flee into exile. Epidemics such as HIV transform dedicated research wards into late stage palliative care triage centers.

The Lymphoma Treatment Center, 2012. Image courtesy of Andrea Stultiens.

I started working at the Institute at a time of profound infrastructural transformation. Since the mid 2000s, political negotiations to fund better cancer services for aging Ugandans and new American interests in studying the relationship between infectious diseases and cancers in east Africa remade the Institute. Through political lobbying, vision, and USAID grants, two new cancer care facilities were built at the UCI.

These latest transformations are both creative and destructive. Drug procurement patterns, records keeping systems that have not been seriously updated since the 1960s, and ward rounds are all components of infrastructures for care that are being radically reformulated by Ugandan oncologists, nurses, laboratory, and social workers. The new UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre, stands on the demolition site of the Institute’s original Lymphoma Treatment Center from the 1960s. It both ushers in a new era of research on the synergy between infectious diseases in cancer, and violently tears down over 45 years of carefully honed cancer care practices.

For the entire year I worked at the UCI, I knew the Lymphoma Treatment Center was going to be torn down to make way for a new cancer treatment center. My Wenner Gren Dissertation Fieldwork grant made it possible to trace how this experimental infrastructure was being remade in real time across multiple geographies and places. The Wenner Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant made it possible to share, publicize, and exhibit these profound transformations documented through a long-term collaborative photography project and book made with artist and researcher Andrea Stultiens. Staying Alive showcases photographs which capture continuities be they extraordinary bodily states, the physical dynamism of this experimental field, the everyday lives of patients, or the empathetic care which medical staff and families bring to the wards on a daily basis.

The New Uganda Cancer Institute, 2017. Image courtesy of Andrea Stultiens.

The book and exhibition creates a visual and historical conversation between two sets of photographs from the materials and moments that make up the Institute in the late 1960s and 2012. The first is from the personal archives of John Ziegler, the founding director of the Uganda Cancer Institute in the 1960s. These materials document major and minor events and images from around the Institute in the 1960s and early 1970s. There are snapshots of political visitors touring the wards, wildlife encountered on up country “patient safaris,” laboratory and ward facilities. The contemporary photographs are made by Andrea Stultiens. The intention was to make a series of portraits of patients, as well as a photographic portrait of the Institute as a whole through its spaces—wards, laboratories, hallways, kitchens, parking lots—and the people using them. As Stultiens says, “The images are both responses to the photographs from John Ziegler’s collection and alternative representations. People are photographed as individuals who happen to be patients or caretakers or Institute staff. Spaces are captured without anecdote or event as motivation for the production of the picture. Taken as a whole, these historical and contemporary images complement each other, and make it possible to question each other’s existence and the ethical implications of looking ‘through’ them to people and places in remote or near pasts.”

Professor Charles Olweny, Dr. Jackson Orem, and Marissa Mika at the Staying Alive book launch. Image courtesy of Andrea Stultiens.

We collaborated with the Institute to amplify the history of this hospital in Uganda during its Golden Jubilee celebrations. These events engaged with a diverse range of audiences, including the Ugandan media, government officials, medical community, and wider Ugandan public. Events included the following: the UCI@50 press conference, Radio One’s Saturday morning health awareness, the Staying Alive exhibition opening at AfriArt Gallery, interviews for the UCI’s documentary, organizing and a Health Education Journalists Network Science Café on UCI’s contributions to oncological research and care in east Africa, a series of blogposts on the HIPUganda website, shared by bi-weekly newspaper The Observer, and the keynote lecture at the fiftieth Anniversary Gala Dinner for diplomats, scientific experts, and UCI staff.

The images and words in Staying Alive open up a space for conversation about continuity and change in ways that a scholarly monograph cannot. The exhibition created a space for critical institutional reflexivity about transformations in mortar and concrete, research and care. The publication and distribution of these materials in accessible photo book form also served as a vital component of research results dissementation that was timely and accessible for an audience beyond elite academic seminars or oncology conferences.

You can read more about Staying Alive and the exhibition in the series of blog posts at History in Progress Uganda:

Staying Alive – Blog Post 1

Staying Alive – Blog Post 2 

Staying Alive – Blog Post 3

Staying Alive – Blog Post 4

Staying Alive – Blog Post 5

Staying Alive – Blog Post 6

Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship: Lucas Bessire

As we round out the year Wenner-Gren is pleased to present an abstract and trailer for Dr. Lucas Bessire who received a Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship to aid filmmaking on The Ayoreo Video Project.


ayoreo_trailer_FINAL from Lucas Bessire on Vimeo.

The Ayoreo Video Project

Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship

“The Ayoreo Video Project” is an experiment in visual anthropology and political advocacy through collaborative video-making with Ayoreo-speaking people, members of a small, recently-contacted Indigenous group of the Bolivian and Paraguayan Gran Chaco facing several immediate threats to their lives, land and dignity. The project created a set of four feature length films, including the first three Ayoreo-made videos and an ethnographic documentary about the process. In doing so, the set of films explores how video technology allows Ayoreo to tell their own stories, catalyzes new ways of relating to themselves and the world, and opens novel spaces for cross-cultural dialogue in a context of extreme violence and marginality. The project takes the process of Indigenous video production as a visual theme and the topic for future writings on visuality, personhood and power.

The project entailed several linked activities that were completed between March 2015 and February 2017.  It began with five months of community consultations, after which my long-term Totobiegosode collaborators and I decided to host a four-week video training workshop in a remote village. For this workshop, we invited a select group of fourteen Ayoreo from five villages (Chaidi, Arocojnadi, Campo Loro, Tunucujnai, Zapocó), three historically hostile sub-groups (Totobiegosode, Guidaigosode, Direquednejnaigosode) and both sides of the Bolivia/Paraguay border to take part. The participants included both men and women, ranging in age from approximately 23 to 70 years old. Such gatherings of Ayoreo people from different communities are very rare, and this workshop was one of the few collaborative projects to unite different Ayoreo factions.

Next, we were able to enlist the pioneering Brazilian media collective Video Nas Aldeias (VNA, which has been training Amazonian Indians to make their own videos since the late 1980s) to serve as an institutional collaborator. As part of this partnership, we invited VNA associate and filmmaker Ernesto de Carvalho and Kamikia, a VNA-trained Indigenous filmmaker from the Kisedje tribe of the Brazilian Xingu, to help coordinate the Ayoreo video workshop. From August – September 2015, my collaborators and I installed basic infrastructure (generators + screens) in Chaidi, donated small HD camera kits to each village team, trained Ayoreo participants in the basics of digital video and assisted village teams as they conceived, directed and began to film videos on the themes of their choice. Kamikia and Ernesto documented most of the workshop process on video, and village teams retained copies of their footage. This was the first Ayoreo video training, the first Indigenous video workshop held in the Paraguayan Gran Chaco, and the first international collaboration for VNA. After the workshop, I advised remotely as the village teams continued to work on their films over the following months.

From April – June 2016, I returned to Paraguay. With the help of Bernard Belisário, a VNA collaborator and editor, we coordinated the editing of the Ayoreo-made videos. This meant installing basic editing infrastructure, gathering village teams and developing a collaborative editing method tailored to Ayoreo cultural norms and decision-making styles. We worked closely with village teams as they identified and constructed editorial elements within their footage, crafted a basic story-board, refined it to reflect key priorities and concerns, assembled rough-cuts, screened them in the villages and incorporated this feedback into final cuts of their films. In July 2016, I continued working with Bernard to cut a reflexive ethnographic film about the project based on workshop footage as well as archival footage I shot in those same communities a decade before. The result is a set of four feature length documentary films. These are imagined as a quartet composed of stand-alone but mutually referential chapters. The conceptual implications of the films are framed by the generative tensions between them. In August 2016, the Ayoreo films began post-production at VNA for basic color correction, audio mixing, translation and subtitling in English, Spanish and Portuguese. The Ayoreo films are scheduled for release on a trilingual DVD in late February 2017. The finished films are:


  • Ujirei [Regeneration] (55 minutes; Mateo Sobode Chiqueno): This is a critical poetic meditation on contemporary Ayoreo realities by a 65-year-old Ducodegose man and respected leader who played instrumental roles in his people’s transition from forest to evangelical mission. Filmed over the course of eight months on an evangelical mission, the film offers a critique of political marginality and shares one man’s visionary perspective on the destruction and rebirth of Ayoreo society. It was an official selection of the 2016 Forumdoc film festival in Belo Horizonte Brazil.


  • Yiquijmapiedie [Our Ways] (52 minutes; Chagabi Etacore): In this quiet reflection on making and belonging, the leader of a band that made first contact in 2004 and two others that were contacted in 1986 create material objects that were once crucial to survival in the pre-contact forest but that have little use in the present and are thus being forgotten. Working together, the three protagonists show the process of digging up a water root, creating wooden storage containers for water, and making bark ropes for a swing game.  They provide subtle commentaries on their activities and instruct younger generations about these practices.


  • Ore Enominone [Visions] (92 minutes; Ajesua Etacoro and Daijnidi Picanerai): This film is a remarkable ethnofictional performance about the creation and inhabitation of a dream world in the forest. Created by the survivors of a deadly 1986 first contact, the Totobiegosode protagonists play a fictional version of themselves and share their unique knowledge of traditional foods, practices and beliefs.  Blurring the lines between staged reenactments and serious engagement with present challenges, the film opens new spaces for its creators to reflect on the ruptures of the past and to envision a more inhabitable future.


  • Farewell to Savage (70 minutes).  This film uses footage from the workshop process, archives and a drone to craft a non-linear reflection on the power of visuality to provoke new ways of relating to the world, each other and our own past selves. In sustained dialogue with each of the Ayoreo videos, the film documents how the filmmaking process unleashed new potentials and dilemmas for all involved, in ways that pose important questions for anthropological theory, practice and advocacy.


For the first time, these films share Ayoreo representations of themselves, their social worlds and their ideal futures with wider publics. Doing so promises to unsettle the existing terms of politics in the Gran Chaco by offering Ayoreo a technology to tell their own stories and to speak back to impoverished representations of their humanity. As a set, the films valorize the social projects of a group of marginal people whose realities do not fit within the conventional frames of analysis or activism. Rather than measuring Ayoreo life against an ideal-type category of culture from which they are already excluded, the films demonstrate their critical and creative capacities to objectify themselves and their world in new ways. This makes the films more than illustrations of existing debates.  Rather, the films show how collaborative video production can be a form of decolonizing praxis. At the same time, the videos overlap and diverge in unexpected ways. The tensions between them convey novel insights into contemporary Ayoreo realities, the organizational force of video production, and the unfinished, open-ended nature of Ayoreo subjectivity. The videos are also archival records that register highly endangered practices, linguistic forms and traditional knowledges that are unknown even to many present-day Ayoreo. Moreover, the finished films provide an opportunity for Ayoreo advocates to establish otherwise impossible social dialogues across the deep divides of language, culture and power that structure daily life in the Paraguayan Gran Chaco. At the same time, the project takes the process of collaborative video production as an ethnographic site for further conceptual reflections on genre, emergence and advocacy.

The four films are on schedule to be finished in late February 2017.  Currently, I am seeking support to allow Ayoreo partners to organize public screenings of their works in Paraguay, both in their villages and in a neighboring town. The circulation of their films to distinct audiences in Paraguay will open new spaces for dialogue in a context of extreme oppression and segregation where such cross-cultural conversations are exceedingly rare. The videos themselves – due to their technical sophistication and critical contents – will undoubtedly catalyze wider discussions and may provide Ayoreo leverage for protesting common racist tropes of Ayoreo as degraded savages and more effectively claiming rights and resources. Supporting Ayoreo filmmakers as they design, implement and coordinate a plan of public outreach around their films will encourage them to take full ownership over the films and the contexts of their circulation. Formal distribution plans for all films are pending. While I anticipate that the Ayoreo films will screen in festivals (one already has), the Ayoreo filmmakers will decide how they will circulate. Likewise, I expect my film to circulate in academic research and festival contexts, although no formal agreements have been made.

To learn more about Dr. Bessire’s project we invite you to read his article in the November issue of Visual Anthropology Review.