September 6, 1929–April 7, 2017
Joanna Kirkpatrick, emerita professor at Bennington College, passed away on April 7, 2017, of complications from rheumatoid arthritis. She died in Boise, Idaho, where she lived in retirement. A sociocultural anthropologist whose research focused on South Asia, her work ranged over medical anthropology and women’s studies, as well as folk art. Her major scholarship gave impetus to the field she called “conveyance arts,” the decoration of transport vehicles. Her work centered on the colorfully hand-painted and remarkably illustrated bicycle rickshaws of Bangladesh, a topic on which she did research beginning in 1975 and continuing through the 1990s.
Born in Los Angeles in September 6, 1929, Kirkpatrick graduated from Stanford in 1951, earned an MA from Yale in 1954, and a PhD in anthropology from UC Berkeley in 1970. Her dissertation was based on a pioneering ethnographic study of the obstetrics-gynecological ward of a hospital in Punjab, India, a very unusual topic in the 1960s.
In 1967, Kirkpatrick joined the faculty of Bennington College, where she taught until retiring in 1994. Her first encounter with Bangladesh came in 1975–76 when she was a Visiting Professor supported by a Ford Foundation grant at the University of Rajshahi, in the newly formed Institute of Bangladesh Studies. There she began her interest in the art of rickshaws. She returned to Bangladesh in 1977–78 to pursue this subject.
Her major work, Transports of Delight: The Ricksha Arts of Bangladesh (Indiana University Press, 2003), was another innovation, a scholarly CD-ROM. Described by reviewer Dennis McGilvray (American Anthropologist 108:3. 2006) as containing “a bulging closetful of stuff that would be difficult or impossible to publish as a full-color book… the digital format makes it nicely accessible as a research archive.” In addition to over 1,000 photographs, topically arranged, each with text commentaries, the CD-ROM also contains half a dozen short video clips of Dhaka street scenes that provide the ecological setting in which rickshaw drivers earn their living. Scholarly discussion is amply provided in five chapters and commentaries by Kirkpatrick and others, along with a bibliography and glossary.
She got to know the rickshaw painters and learned how they thought about their art. In the course of her research she learned how the parts are made and how rickshaws are assembled; she knew the industrial as well as the artistic side of her subject. She created a window into the culture and society of Bangladesh. She asked, “What sort of art is ricksha (sic) art?” Her answer: “peoples’ art,” combining “folklore, movie, political and commercial imagery and techniques.” It serves to express the “heart’s desires of the man in the street for women, power, wealth, as well as for religious devotion,” and the “prestige and economic functions for the people who make, use and enjoy it.” McGilvray concluded his review of Transports of Delight by saying that it “offers an amazing digital museum of one of South Asia’s most vibrant popular arts: the painted rickshas of Bangladesh.” (Peter J. Bertocci and Ralph W. Nicholas)
Cite as: Bertocci, Peter J., and Ralph W. Nicholas. 2017. “Joanna Kirkpatrick.” Anthropology News website, July 14, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.517