Oscar Salemink (1958-2023) – a Personal Tribute Oscar delivering his final lecture in Copenhagen, 15 September 2023. Photo by Peter Pels.

Oscar Salemink (1958-2023) – a Personal Tribute

My dear friend Oscar Salemink died in Copenhagen on September 23 after a prolonged struggle with myeloma cancer. He was outstandingly generous, mischievously funny, and an indomitably social anthropologist to the end.

“We started our career together”, Oscar said, when meeting in Copenhagen at a celebration in his honor, shortly before his death. That characteristically understated his own prior contribution to the historical anthropology we cultivated together after we were introduced at our Amsterdam graduate school in 1992. Becoming instant academic soulmates, I admired (but was also a little jealous of) his 1991 publication on the colonial ethnography of Vietnamese Montagnards in my favorite book series, the History of Anthropology volumes edited by George W. Stocking jr. We jointly organized an international seminar on “Colonial Ethnographies” in Amsterdam in 1993, and experienced an exhilarating synergy – for me, never to be repeated with anyone else – when co-authoring and editing the 1994 volume of History and Anthropology under the same title. A successor volume further developed our ideas, but drew more on my networks because Oscar had, by that time, become a Ford Foundation Officer in Hanoi.

Our fortuitous meeting, however, built on much deeper affinities: we were both products of the critical anthropology – of left-wing students as well as staff –of Nijmegen and Amsterdam. In an atmosphere saturated by neo-Marxism and feminist anthropology, we drew from the networks around Nijmegen philosopher Ton Lemaire, as well as our PhD supervisors, Johannes Fabian and Peter Kloos. We also established long-lasting friendships with international colleagues attracted by the standards set by collaborations between Nijmegen and Amsterdam anthropologists. Moreover, as children of secularized Catholic families, we shared not only an interest in the Afrika Museum (near Nijmegen, founded by Catholic missionaries), but also a life-long preoccupation with what Oscar later described, in one of his last major co-productions, as “managing sacralities”.

Oscar, however, was the more “Catholic” of us two, if that is taken in the secular sense of “broad in sympathies, tastes, or interests”. His dedication to and generosity towards people and things Vietnamese led him to become a Ford Foundation Officer in Hanoi, taking him away from our close collaborations, but putting him at the center of rapidly opening up Vietnamese cultural developments. Oscar’s impact on anthropology, museums, and heritage policies in Vietnam cannot be underestimated – see some of his Vietnamese colleagues’ praise in the obituary of the Copenhagen Department – but I missed him, despite our extraordinarily productive year 1999, when Oscar finished his PhD, I published mine, and we published Colonial Subjects together.

Ironically, after Oscar successfully applied for a position at the Free University in Amsterdam in 2001, we saw less of each other for a while. We equally suffered the irrationalities of Dutch neoliberal university management, but rarely together, my most cherished memories focusing on regular visits to the Free University when Oscar had invited friends whom we both admired (Jim Ferguson in particular). It was only after Oscar settled down in Copenhagen in 2011 that we again started to conspire intellectually, returning to our mutual interest in the historical ethnography of ethnography – or the understanding of our anthropological discipline from the practical historical situations in which it finds itself. One such initiative – together with Michael Rowlands from University College London and Pieter ter Keurs at the Leiden museums – was “Europe from the Outside In”, an effort to find out whether and in what ways the self-understanding of Europeans was conditioned by their need to import “exotic” terms like fetish, totem, and taboo into their vocabulary. While we did not find funds for this research, some of our ideas ended up in Oscar’s final pioneering project – in which Mike and I had the honor to take part – and the publication he co-edited with the researchers he brought together: Global Art in Local Art Worlds.

After an afternoon of celebrations on September 15, and while he and his partner Edyta were already exhausted from a sleepless night, Oscar delivered his last, characteristically lively lecture, outlining what he still wanted to write about if his body would allow him. It didn’t, but the performance was vintage Oscar – amazingly resilient, unwaveringly true to his audience, friends and beloved, holding the reins, yet wisecracking about his own weakness. It was an extraordinary privilege to have known you, dear Oscar. Rest in peace, and in our memories.


Add a comment