Ambiguous Images: Gender and Rock Art

Kelly A. Hays-Gilpin
Altamira Press, 2004

Reviewed by Lea McChesney

The title of Kelley Hays-Gilpin’s ambitious volume is intentionally provocative. Ambiguous Images challenges us to address ambiguities in particular forms of visual imagery (“rock art”) as gender representations by rethinking the role of gender in our theoretical approaches to this medium. This is a tall order and a wide journey. An archaeologist specializing in ceramic analysis who principally works in the U.S. Southwest, Hays-Gilpin does not confine her study to that area, where there is an abundant rock art record, or even to native North America. Instead, she takes a global, comparative view through time (from 40,000 B.P. to the present) and space, ranging from French Paleolithic cave paintings to historic Hawaiian markings of spiritual power; from Norwegian sacred landscapes to Mono Crater (California) petroglyphs; from San (South African) ritual practice to Australian aboriginal production. Along the way she covers multiple topics: an overview of recent developments in gender theory and the disciplinary marginality of rock art; the difficulties of both rendering and determining “male” and “female” images, who their makers were, and why specific images were made; a critical review of analysts’ unexamined gender assumptions in intellectual paradigms; the role of ethnography in elaborating and clarifying interpretations where it is available and appropriate; and the import of this symbolic practice in human manipulation of and relation to the environment and its preponderance in the density of imagery at many locales. Probing more deeply into what these quixotic, “sexed” images may represent in their various (pre)historic, social and cultural contexts, she also examines how best to arrive at plausible answers. In short, she seeks to legitimize an object of study (rock art) through a theoretical focus that once itself was marginalized (gender).

Hays-Gilpin passionately and persuasively argues that these objects must be “engendered” or taken seriously for their metaphorical content, “degendered” of the cultural constructions Euro-Americans project onto them, and “regendered” according to the meanings and practices that informed their making and use as best these can be determined. She shows how this repositioning helps us understand the variability of gender in the human past while broadening our purview of what constitutes the material basis of theory. Using an historical approach to topics (e.g., “fertility,” “shamanism,” “gender universals”), she teases apart analytic cultural stereotypes from the archaeological record and then reweaves new interpretations by problematizing gender. In the process she addresses the degree to which Euro-American “primitivist” thinking is entwined with this object of study and encourages more complex ways to think about and through these conundrums. In each case examined, she insists on systematic, comprehensive observation and documentation, a methodological goal she achieves by her own example, weighing the limits of evidence to yield insights and evaluating prior interpretations. The large number of illustrations both enhance the volume (what would a book on imagery be without ample illustrations?) and reveal the author’s considerable artistic skill in addition to her intellectual rigor.

In her broad but careful sweep, Hays-Gilpin leaves no rock unturned, even examining how this “art” has become a focus for the professional audience that has cohered around it in the last twenty-five years (a process she also documents) as well as its “New Age” uses. She is most comprehensive and detailed in the chapters that focus on the prehistoric Southwest and the continuing importance of rock art to indigenous peoples there (notably Hopis with whom she has collaborated). Chapter 6, on life cycles and puberty rites, is especially rich, examining the role of gender in the production and transformation of social beings, and thus, restoring a focus that had gone out of fashion but deserves renewed attention. Deftly demonstrating the dynamic aspects of a static medium that allow for specific peoples to shape beliefs and materially express a meaningful existence, she also addresses the intimacy of social relations and the discrete, foundational dimensions of identity construction and the role of gender therein.

The book is written in an engaging style that renders its subject accessible to diverse audiences. It will enthusiastically introduce students to the principal disciplines she targets (archaeology and gender studies). But it can equally entice readers in the developing fields of visual and cultural studies (including media ecology and “visual thinking”) and new approaches to material culture and the archaeology of symbolism at advanced levels in anthropology and art history. Equally important, the book demonstrates the relevance of ethnographic attention to materiality, the productive exchange among anthropology’s subfields and with other academic disciplines, and the continuing significance of rock art to contemporary indigenous peoples as a medium of identity.

One shortcoming is her awkward formulation of images not just “reflecting” gender concepts by “acting back” on them (see Chapter 9). She means to describe the constitutive role these images played in shaping social life in specific prehistoric contexts, but the language is a bit cumbersome. Literature on gender and social personhood would be useful here (e.g., Strathern 1981). I am not convinced of the “matriarchy into patriarchy” argument provided in the Siberian example (Chapter 10), and studies of the role of gender in the construction and contestation of political hierarchies and prestige systems would be more salient (e.g., Gailey 1987, Silverblatt 1987). In general, I wish she had drawn on a wider ethnographic literature in discussing North American examples. Yet throughout she consistently points to the importance of rock art as a key medium in social and political relations, often not only in historical but also cosmological time. While considering rock art in relation to more ephemeral media in a given context (e.g., pp. 102-104), she does not specifically query “why stone”? Here, literature on comparative durability of media to condense within them greater semanticity and the question of the lack of circulability for these objects is germane (e.g., Munn 1986, Weiner 1992). A final quibble is with labeling her interrogation of the gender of makers as “separate spheres” (Chapter 5). Ultimately the chapter problematizes this notion, but without doing so at the outset (as in “separate spheres?”) she inadvertently reifies a notion that is historically located and challenged by feminists (Rosenberg 1982).

Still, these oversights highlight the validity of Hays-Gilpin’s enterprise, demonstrating the degree to which her study intersects with a wider range of literature than she utilizes. Further, they point to the promise of her work to encourage more expansive studies and deeper research along the lines she identifies. Ambiguous Images is a welcome addition to gender, material, visual and even “science” culture studies, and a text I will eagerly recommend and use in the classroom.

References Cited
Gailey, Christine Ward. 1987. From Kinship to Kingship: Gender Hierarchy and State Formation in the Tongan Islands. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Munn, Nancy D. 1986.The Fame of Gawa: A Symbolic Study of Value Transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) Society. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rosenberg, Rosalind. 1982.Beyond Separate Spheres: Intellectual Roots of Modern Feminism. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Silverblatt, Irene. 1987. Moon, Sun, and Witches: Gender Ideologies and Class in Inca and Colonial Peru. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1981. “Self-interest and the Social Good: Some Implications of Hagen Gender Imagery.” In Sherry B. Ortner and Harriet Whitehead, eds., Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexually, pp.166-191. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weiner, Annette B. 1992. Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping-While-Giving. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lea McChesney is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the anthropology of art and gender and material culture. She considers issues of identity and personhood as they relate to the intercultural production and circulation of culture and value. With a focus on Hopi pottery and the U.S. Southwest, she works with native artists, cultural mediators, and collectors in the American Indian art market.

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