Michaela Pelican

Cultural and Social Anthropology, Köln
Fellowship: 01.10.2018–31.03.2019


Michaela Pelican is Professor of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University of Cologne. She has specialized in the study of South-South mobility and migrant transnationalism, in particular from Cameroon to the Gulf States and to China, as well as the study of ethnicity and indigeneity in Africa. She has a strong interest in visual and media anthropology, and has worked with methods of visual and performance anthropology throughout her research. She has done extensive fieldwork in Cameroon, as well as in the United Arab Emirates and China. Together with Prof. Dr. Björn Ahl (Department of Modern Chinese Studies, University of Cologne), she is currently heading the project »Chinese Immigration Law and Policy: Perspectives of lawmakers, administrators and immigrants,« financed by the German Research Foundation (DFG). This project investigates the social dynamics and outcomes of the implementation of the new exit-entry law of 2012. Her Morphomata project feeds into this project, as it focuses on the portraiture of African migrants in Guangzhou. 


Fields of Research

  • Migration
  • Transnationalism
  • South-South mobility
  • Ethnicity
  • Indigeneity
  • Visual and media anthropology
  • Research methodology


Project outline

Life writing through documentary photography: Recognition and alterity in the portraiture of Chinese-African encounters in Guangzhou


In this project, documentary photography is taken as a form of life writing. The focus is on the portraiture of Chinese-African encounters by three photographers from different regional and cultural backgrounds: the Chinese freelance photographer Li Dong, the South Africa based artist Michael MacGarry, and the US American photographer and filmmaker Daniel Traub. Independently of each other and with a slight time lapse (2012-2015), the three photographers have documented the co-presence of African and Chinese residents in Xiaobei, a neighbourhood in the Southern Chinese city Guangzhou. The project integrates both portrait and biography in its analytical approach to life writing through documentary photography. It takes into account the photographers’ personal histories, their aesthetic strategies, and their social criticisms expressed in their work. At the same time, it pays due attention to the photographers’ subject, African and internal Chinese migrants, as well as the geopolitical inequalities and the ethnic and racialized ideologies that impact on the migrants’ lives. Drawing on the seminal work of the anthropologist Johannes Fabian on the construction of alterity and on portraiture in Africa, the project will address the following questions: In which ways have the three photographers’ biographical, cultural and professional backgrounds inscribed themselves in their specific aesthetic and narrative strategies? How have their photographs been read by different audiences? In which ways do their portraits generate knowledge and recognition of migrants as persons in their own right? How do they contribute to questioning or reconstructing migrant alterity?


Publications (Selection)

  • Pelican, Michaela and Li Dong. 2017. PHOTO ESSAY: Baohan Street: An African Community in Guangzhou. In: Hodgson, D.L. & J. Byfield (eds.) Global Africa. University of California Press, Oakland.
  • Pelican, Michaela and Sofie Steinberger (eds.). 2017. Melilla. Perspectives on a Border Town. Kölner Arbeitspapiere zur Ethnologie 6. Institut für Ethnologie, Universität zu Köln.
  • Pelican, Michaela. 2015. Masks and Staffs: Identity Politics in the Cameroon Grassfields. Oxford, New York: Berghahn.
  • Pelican, Michaela. 2015. Neoliberal Challenges and Transnational Lives of Cameroonian Migrants in Dubai. In: Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf and Dale F. Eickelman (eds.). Africa and the Gulf Region: Blurred Boundaries and Shifting Ties. Berlin: Gerlach Press: 92-110.
  • Pelican, Michaela and Mahir Şaul (eds.). 2014. African Global Entrepreneurs, Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development (UAS) 43: 1,2,3. 
  • Pelican, Michaela (ed.). 2014. BAOHAN Street: An African Community in Guangzhou. Documentary photographs by Li Dong. Kölner Arbeitspapiere zur Ethnologie 4. Institut für Ethnologie, Universität zu Köln. 
  • Pelican, Michaela. 2013. International Migration: Virtue or Vice? Perspectives from Cameroon. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 39(2): 237-258. 
  • Portrait of a Migrant Woman: Martha in Dubai. Documentary short by Michaela Pelican and Francesco Bondanini, 2014, 14:20 min., English subtitles. http://www.michaela-pelican.com/research_migration.php#portrait-Martha
  • Face To Face: Cameroon – Gabon – Dubai – Geneva. Documentary short by Michaela Pelican, 2009, 8 min, English subtitles. http://www.michaela-pelican.com/research_media.php#face2fac