Portrait busts of South Asian men and women. Marguerite Milward. 1935-38
These sculptures of Indian physical and social types are from a series of over 100 by British artist Marguerite Milward (1873-1953). They are portraits of individuals as well as representations of races, castes or tribes.
Initially acclaimed for their vitality as artworks and accuracy as anthropological data, the sculptures have since been associated with the more dubious theories and practices of colonial anthropology. The early twentieth century saw successive projects of counting and studying human bodies. Bodies were classified according to anthropometric measurements and categories, such as nose and skull shape, and arranged in hierarchies.
Physical types were associated with particular personality types or capacities. In India, the ‘martial races’ were defined as inherently warlike and actively targeted for recruitment into the army. Other peoples were classified as hereditary ‘criminal tribes’. Though no longer enforced by law, such harmful stereotypes are still common today.
Although influenced by anthropology, and using similar techniques to achieve accuracy or a ‘likeness,’ these sculptures are not simply objectifications of types. Both individual portrait and generalised representation, they highlight ways in which parts of bodies have been understood to represent, or stand in for, whole bodies, people and races.