As I round out the third year of my program, I realize the panoply of first experiences I have recently gained. Some have been successes…others not so much. Regardless, these experiences would not have been possible without the strong, unique, and supportive faculty that make up the History of Art and Visual Culture department and the Visual Studies program at UCSC. Frankly, I feel I’m lucky as hell for the opportunities I’ve had in the last three years. And to think: initially I didn’t even want to be in a PhD program; or at least, that’s what I used to tell myself (picture Dante from the movie Clerks whining “I’m not even supposed to be here today!”)
The past three years have been a whirlwind of balancing professional, personal and academic pursuits, and this highly sought-after balance has frequently oscillated. I came to the Visual Studies program rather late in the scheme of things—after a fairly successful ten-year career as a museum practitioner, with hefty art publications under my belt. The PhD seemed like a hoop—like a piece of paper I had to get to prove I could do the work I was already doing. This is part of the reason I resisted matriculating for so long. But when I was finally able to recognize the opportunities that a PhD brought me, and the new experiences I would gain, I changed my tune. And I am so glad that I did. My gears shifted and I saw the opportunity to structure my own course of research and to focus on my own interests. The PhD was no longer a hoop, but a fun way to work on my own project, gain new experiences, learn to teach and work more directly with students and continue my curatorial pursuits—all while living in beautiful Santa Cruz, California.
Which brings us back to the whirlwind of the here and now. This year I gave my first seminar as well as my first conference paper at the University of Basel in Switzerland. The seminar was entitled "Reinscribing the Museum Text: Examining Fixity and Ambivalence in African Arts Labels." Based off of an article I also submitted for publication to NKA Journal of Contemporary African Arts, the presentation applied Bhabha's notion of fixity in colonial discourse and its tendency towards “typing” to show that the scholarly language and display modes applied to the arts of Africa in the West are inextricably bound up in an imagined identity. This constructed identity is naturalized and normalized through museum texts and display strategies. I argued that in order for museums to continuously challenge generalizations and fixities, and decolonize the arts while remaining relevant, then the language of display and the restrictive nature of the Western idea of “art” and of the notion of "artist" must be interrogated, disrupted and shifted.
Later that week, I gave a paper entitled "Inclusion/Exclusion: Mobilizing Youth Masquerades from the Margins of Freetown" for the University of Basel's workshop/conference Re-Imagining African Cities: The Arts and Urban Politics. This paper is based directly off of my dissertation research and was a wonderful opportunity to hash out a chapter and then workshop it with several scholars that I admire, and who are familiar with the terrain. The paper explored the locality of Freetown, Sierra Leone and how its historic specificity allowed for the unique youth masquerade phenomenon of Ode-Lay to emerge; a masquerade which is then mobilized by the populace for political and/or social goals. I also argued that youth urban masquerade is an essential aspect to the lived experience of the city's extreme political, economic and cultural landscape, and has been so since the early days of the colony's founding. I was able to historicize this argument through examples from the over 300 masks I have examined throughout Europe and the United States: yet another opportunity made possible through the financial support of the Visual Studies program.
Another “initiation” experience for me this year was the submission of my first journal article, largely thanks to the encouragement, guiding hand and academic support of Professors Elisabeth L. Cameron and especially Derek C. Murray. After my first rejection, I resubmitted the article to a different venue. This helped me get my first dry run of the politics of academia, and better understand which journals to submit what to, and how to navigate through their underlying agendas.
Next up, I am teaching for the first time (Visual Cultures of West Africa in summer session, followed by Intro to the Visual Cultures of Africa in the fall quarter). My advisor, Elisabeth Cameron, has offered me invaluable support as I prepare for this challenging endeavor. Although at first I was overwhelmed by the mental and emotional intensity of the teaching experience, I am actually surprised to discover how much I enjoy putting together the lectures. Rather than focusing solely on curatorial and museum opportunities, this will widen my marketability and allow me to expand my career search to university and academic appointments.
Overall, the first three years of my Ph.D. studies have been a steady parade of firsts: from the rigorous process of preparing for qualifying exams and the subsequent colloquium (both of which I passed with honors while also interviewing for Curator positions at two top museums!!), to teaching experiences, seminar and conference presentations and journal submission, to writing my first featured student profile (a self-indulgent, yet enjoyable activity). None of this would have happened without the intellectual and collegial culture of the Visual Studies program that helped me feel so welcomed and inspired. More so than any other department or program I have ever engaged with, the Visual Studies faculty have continually supported my ongoing museum work, allowing me to spend quarters in residence at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, so that I could continue my professional pursuits, pay the bills and still work on my PhD. Thanks to the program's flexibility I have the unique opportunity to curate an exhibition with accompanying publication on Senegalese gold jewelry entitled Sanse: Gold Jewelry and the Self-Fashioning of Senegal. The exhibition focuses on women’s self-fashioning and agency, and through the project I have already had the ability to curate a small rotation of the historic jewelry collection of the Smithsonian as part of the museum’s “Golden Anniversary.” I very recently applied for a full time curatorial position at the very same museum, and have just been asked for an interview.
As for that project of my very own I am now getting to focus on, I am planning my first field stint to Sierra Leone, Winter 2017. With all of the work that I’ve been able to do before embarking on fieldwork, I already feel like I’m entering the last leg of my PhD journey. While in Freetown, I’ll be working directly with artists, performers and Ode-Lay society members, focusing on the very unique circumstances of urban Freetown that allowed for the invention of a masquerade in the city. African masquerades are widely considered to be rural in nature, and thought to migrate into the city as people flood in for jobs, festivals and the myriad of other opportunities only to be found in an urban environment. So, for a masquerade to be completely intertwined with the life of a city is fascinating and I can’t wait to research it firsthand. Further, the very nature of urban masquerade bridges a long-standing scholarly gap that places so-called “traditional” and “contemporary” African visual culture at odds. Urban masquerade then represents a new direction in the field of African art—one that does not separate contemporary from traditional, the West from the Rest. I feel that my project contributes to bringing this inclusivity and complementarity to the forefront of scholarly attention, and I am enthusiastically energized by the potential of this intervention. As I move forward, to job interviews, to the field, and to writing the dissertation, I can laugh at my own stubbornness that kept me from these achievements for so long, but also rejoice at the successes and experiences I have had since I entered the Visual Studies program at UCSC.
Image caption: Ode-Lay (Ordehleh debul) of a Medusa-Mami Wata, commissioned by Medo-T and carved by Foday Bangura. Photo courtesy of Sam Anderson, Ph.D.