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Graduate Research

 MA Candidates have the opportunity to complete advanced research in the form of an independent research project. These projects can lead to publishable papers, as well as immersive curatorial projects. Here are some recent examples

Akram Kabiri

Akram Kabiri presented her paper entitled “Tehran University: Beaux- Arts and the European Tradition in Iran” at the Graduate Student Lightning Talks at the Society of Architectural Historians Annual Conference in Glasgow, June 2017. She worked on the paper under the supervision of Professor Margaret Vickery. 
Her paper examines the founding of Tehran University in 1934, under the direction of Reza Shah Pahlavi who established the Pahlavi Dynasty in 1925. His reign, in the 1920s and ‘30s, played an important role in the architecture of the mid-20th century. French architect, André Godard together with the other European trained architects, designed Tehran University and introduced the theories of Beaux Arts architecture and planning. While the nascent Modernism of the West was castigating the Beaux-Arts as conservative and even reactionary, in Iran in the 1920s and 1930s, the Beaux-Arts remained a carrier of liberal, progressive Western values represented on this campus. Tehran University was revolutionary as it opened education to both sexes and ended the traditional system of education in Iran. 
Akram received a travel grant from the department of the History of Art and Architecture to travel to Glasgow. 

Christine Beck 

In 2014 I embarked on an undergraduate research project in which I traced a certain wooden balcony type from North Africa, to Spain, to the Canary Islands, and finally, to Lima, Peru, from where they returned to Spain as representative of Peruvian culture in the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929. These architectural echoes of Islamic culture fascinated me and formed the basis of my interest within the field of Art History. Upon arriving at UMass I was certain of my desire to expand on my undergraduate research project, though I was uncertain as to which direction I should follow. Sharing these interests and desires with my advisor, Professor Walter Denny, we determined that the first step in continuing this project was for me to go to Lima and conduct on-site research. In the fall of 2017, I was awarded a graduate travel research grant which enabled me to spend 3 weeks in Lima, during which time I met with professor of Viceregal Peruvian social history, Dr. Jose de la Puente-Burke and photographed a structure with the oldest and most well-preserved wooden balconies, the Torre Tagle Palace. Since returning from Lima, I have begun a research project under the guidance of Professor Denny in which I will discuss the similar narratives created by 19th century foreign visitors to Lima and North Africa regarding the function of the balconies and the women who exist within them as a unique cross-cultural phenomenon. It is my hope that the paper that forms of this research will serve as my writing sample for PhD programs, as well as the basis of what will become my doctoral dissertation. 

Christine received a travel grant from the department of the History of Art and Architecture to travel to Lima. 

Maggie Squires

As with many copies of earlier works, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s early Ming dynasty handscroll known as Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute: The Story of Lady Wenji is most often discussed in the context of its predecessor. The earlier work in question exists only in fragments, and is preserved in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. These paintings offer not only a moving emotional depth, but also a fascinating glimpse into the material world of steppe nomads as seen through the eyes of Chinese elites. The New York scroll so closely resembles the Song Dynasty paintings in Boston that many scholars of Chinese Painting have discussed it only within the historical context of the thirteenth century, largely ignoring the Ming period addition of distinctive pile carpets and felt appliqué saddle blankets. Several carpet scholars have taken up the Eighteen Songs illustrations, but they have been so eager to fit these designs into the ever-developing canon of carpet history that their Ming Dynasty context has been again overlooked. In her upcoming research, Maggie will carefully examine the nomadic details in both sets of paintings and the scholarship surrounding them will reveal contradictions and shed light on the possible origins and relationship to the material record.

Elizabeth Upenieks

As a Curatorial Fellow at the UMCA, 5 Takes on African Art | 42 Flags by Fred Wilson has given me the unique opportunity to acquire valuable curatorial skills and to explore deeply the complexities of working with African objects from the Derby Collection. While I am trained in the traditional art historical canon that is based on the Greco-Roman culture, here I was challenged to question those traditional ideas, overturning notions such as ‘masterpiece’ or the venerable ‘artist’. It gave me a chance to explore theoretical ideas that often do not make it into discussions of Western art. A year of meetings, research, and planning all has fed into my new understanding of African art in a contemporary context. 
Our diverse curatorial team spent many months researching, discussing, arguing on how to exhibit African Art that challenges the Western trained gaze. As the only white woman in the team, I was concerned of being too stuck in a Western mindset. Visiting the collection and talking to Charles Derby was instrumental in my appreciation of the objects. Derby’s passion for his collection, his extensive knowledge of the objects’ origins, their meaning, and role within that society was indispensable for my understanding of the objects. In time, I leaned to recognize and mitigate my Western biases. 
The focus of my research came surprisingly easy and was prompted by Derby’s occasional references to pieces in his collection as ‘traditional’ and some as ‘tourist’ works. Beyond the physical markers of worn, soiled, or aged appearances that guide his judgment, he also questions the intent behind its creation. For a piece to be traditional, or “authentic”, it must have been intentionally created for, and existed within, the artist’s ethnic group. The flipside of “authentic” objects are “inauthentic” ones that were created specifically for tourists and traders, and may be indistinguishable from the “authentic” ones. For many collectors of African Art, it matters little if the artist also creates “authentic” works, employs the same materials, workmanship, energy, and passion into the “inauthentic” piece - it is still considered inferior as the intent is different. This illustrates the Western point of view, defined by African art collectors, and unfortunately, affects the appreciation of pieces that have just as much artistic merit as the so-called “authentic” ones. 
Ironically, the pieces created specifically for the Western collectors, were rejected by them. Now, signs of authenticity such as wear and ageing, can be easily recreated by a skilled craftsman, and are commonplace. By eschewing the qualifiers of many Western collectors, I selected objects from the Derby collection that exist outside of that dichotomy. 
While African art, no matter its intent or inspiration, has gained more acceptance in our mainstream culture, it is often still undervalued and viewed as inferior. With my selections I not only hope make aware our cultural biases but also to expand and broaden the viewers’ understanding of African Art. 

Rachel Young

Rachel Young *17 presented material from her “publishable paper,” entitled “The Painting as Object, the Object as Sign: Performative Mediation in Botticelli’s Bardi Altarpiece,” at the Graduate Conference for Interdisciplinary Renaissance studies in October. The publishable paper is the art history department’s version of a master’s thesis, and was the result of a year long project under the direction of Professor Monika Schmitter. The conference was held at the Arthur F. Kinney center for Renaissance studies of UMass Amherst. Organized by PhD students in the English department at UMass, the conference included graduate students from schools across the country, working in a range of fields, including English literature, history and art history. The study of early modern Europe is an increasingly interdisciplinary field, and it was thought-provoking and productive to consider the methodological perspectives of presenters working in different disciplines. 
Rachel’s paper examines the self-reflexive sign systems at work within Sandro Botticelli’s Bardi Altarpiece (1485), and its visual and iconographic response to the worship of miracle images in fifteenth-century Florence. She interprets the devices of illusionism within the image as a meta-pictorial commentary on the possibilities, and potentially the limitations, of mimesis as an efficacious representational mode. The altarpiece’s negotiation of its dual identity as both presentational object and representational image, she argues, enacts its performance as a liturgical mediator. 
Her engagement with Botticelli has been ongoing since her internship at the MFA Boston in 2016, where she assisted with curatorial preparations for the 2017 show Botticelli and the Search for the Divine: Florentine Painting Between the Medici and Savonarola. Researching Botticelli’s voluminous bibliography inspired her to re-evaluate the Bardi, moving emphasis from the artist’s authorship and oeuvre to the cultural context of cultic devotional practices of the period.  During the course of research on her thesis, Rachel received a travel grant from the Art History department to travel to Berlin and study the Bardi in-person at the Gemäldegalerie. Presenting her work to peers at the Graduate Conference this October was an excellent way to round out over a year of work on this object. Rachel intends to eventually revise this paper and submit it for publication.