Obituary: Alfred Gell

Alfred Gell was arguably the most brilliant social anthropologist of his generation. He had a very rare combination of intellectual skills, and often dazzled his readers and listeners with both his penetrating logic and imaginative insights, many of which came from his unusual ability to transcend conventional boundaries of knowledge.

Gell took his BA in social anthropology from the University of Cambridge in 1968 and completed his PhD degree at the London School of Economics in 1973 with a thesis based on his fieldwork in a remote settlement in New Guinea. He held lectureships at the LSE, Sussex University and the Australian National University, and in 1979 he was appointed Reader in Anthropology at the LSE. He received several academic prizes and in 1995 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy.

His academic reputation was primarily based on a score of articles and three books: Metamorphosis of the Cassowaries (1975), The Anthropology of Time (1992) and Wrapping in Images: a study of tattooing in Polynesia (1993). He also completed a fourth book, The Art Nexus, which will be published soon.

Metamorphosis of the Cassowaries was an outstandingly original book, particularly in its interpretation of ritual in the Umeda settlement in New Guinea. Drawing inspiration from Levi-Strauss, but depending more on his own aesthetic sensibility, Gell exhaustively teased out the complex meanings of Umeda ritual life. The book gave rise to a continuing debate about whether Gell overstated the coherence of Umeda thought and practice, but even his severest critics acknowledged that he had taken the analysis of "tribal" ritual to a new level of sophistication.

Read superficially, his first book may suggest that Gell liked to exaggerate the otherness of other cultures. Nothing could be further from the truth. In many ways he was a romantic, but he was also adamantly rationalist, and The Anthropology of Time relentlessly deployed philosophical arguments and ethnographic data to demonstrate that much anthropological writing about exotic concepts of time is fallacious. Although specialists may find some of its arguments unconvincing, the book as a whole is a masterly refutation of exaggerated cultural relativism.

Wrapping in Images and his forthcoming book The Art Nexus represent Gell's main contributions to the anthropology of art, a rather stagnant subdiscipline he was determined to shake up. He characteristically combined a deep understanding of art history and criticism with studies of dance and tecnhology, mixed in his philosophical knowledge, and worked through a mass of ethnographic literature to generate a radical cross-cultural perspective on art and its social context which has thoroughly revitalised the field.

When at Sussex, Gell met and later married Simeran Man Singh. With Simeran, he began fieldwork among the Muria Gonds of Madhya Pradesh in India and made a number of visits there. Based on this research, he wrote several important articles and developed an increasing interest in India. His last public academic appearance was to deliver the Frazer lecture in November 1996, when he presented a typically radical analysis of ritual and tribal rebellion among the Gonds.

At the LSE, Gell was an inspired teacher, to whom many of his students became devoted. He was not always consistent, but his best lectures were scintillating and his students were rarely if ever bored. He was, as he admitted, dreadful at administration, which sometimes exasperated his colleagues. But nobody could ever be angry with Gell for long after he had charmingly and sheepishly apologised for his lapses. He was perhaps most impressive in the anthropology department's weekly seminars. However good or bad the paper, Gell would usually deliver a comment, a question or sometimes a demolition that nobody else could have thought of. Sometimes he was wrong, but far more often he was right in a way that neither the speaker nor the audience had previously perceived. The LSE without Alfred Gell will be a duller place.

In seminars, it was a good idea to sit next to Gell, because then one could also enjoy the drawings which always covered his notepaper. He was a very talented artist and a project cut short by his death was a series of drawings and paintings of the old Muslim tombs near the Qutb Minar south of Delhi. On a beautiful spring afternoon in 1995, Alfred and Simeran Gell took me to visit the tombs, which had come to fascinate him. As monuments of Delhi's ruined empires, the tombs are evocative symbols of a past culture that also remind us of the realities of political power and its disintegration, and he was drawn to them, I think, by the same mixture of romanticism and hard-nosed rationality which animated the anthropological work for which he will long be remembered.

Gell (and his work) will be remembered too for his distinctive intellectual courage and integrity. He detested posturing and on detecting untruth he announced it forcefully. But he was not just a critic; he was also passionate and unequivocal about the truth as he saw it, and was never afraid to question the conventionally unquestionable.

A few years ago, Alfred Gell had been seriously ill and had had one eye surgically removed. In late summer 1996, he discovered that he had an incurable cancer. He managed to complete his fourth book and to deliver his Frazer lecture, and he told his closest friends that he had achieved what he had wanted to. In his last few weeks, he weakened rapidly until he died, as he had wished, peacefully and at home with dignity. He was 51.

Facing death, as he had already faced serious illness, he again displayed his courage, as well as a profoundly impressive calmness and realism; he continued to entertain and enlighten his family and friends until he was just too weak to do so any longer.

Alfred Antony Francis Gell, anthropologist: born 12 June 1945; Lecturer in Anthropology, Sussex University 1972-74; Lecturer in Anthropology, ANU 1974-79; Reader in Anthropology, London School of Economics 1979-97; FBA 1995; married 1974 Simeran Man Singh (one son); died 28 January 1997.


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