Fall 2016 Bios and Abstracts

Lectures, Conferences & Events» Past Lectures & Events

The Role and Meaning of the Alevi Cemevi: Islamic Congregational Architecture Outside the Mosque Paradigm
Angela Andersen,
AKPIA@MIT Post-Dcotoral Fellow

The cemevi is the architectural setting for cem ceremonies, the primary religious gatherings of the Alevi Muslim minority. Alevis, along with their ancestors, have practiced in what are now Turkey and its surrounding states since the thirteenth century. They eschew the mosque as an architectural paradigm and as an institution. As the result of their marginalized position in the Ottoman and Republican landscapes, the practical concerns of rural construction and the fiscal realities of urban building projects, and select teachings within their spiritual lineages, Alevis have not produced a visibly monumental cemevi typology, a matter worthy of investigation. In this lecture, I integrate oral histories and structural studies, my analysis of Alevi poetry and hymns as sources for architectural study, and the liturgical transformation of space during the cem ceremony to gain from Alevi experiential insights into the role and meaning of the cemevi, and to counter a monolithic presentation of Islam within the architectural canon.

Angela Andersen examines the inter- and intra-religious interactions that take place via the built environment. This includes the question of minority agency and visibility as embodied in the architecture of the Islamic world, in both historic and contemporary contexts, in what are now Central Asia, Turkey, and parts of Eastern Europe and North America. Her published and forthcoming works examine issues of the relationship between architecture, site, and identity, human rights and architecture, diversity in Islam, and the use of often overlooked sources such as poetry and oral histories in the study of architectural history. Andersen has been supported by the Hamad bin Khalifa Fellowship in Islamic Art, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Turkish Cultural Foundation, the Historians of Islamic Art Association, and other scholarly bodies.

After Daraa: Syrian Art Today
Maymanah Farhat, Writer and Art Historian

Five years ago, a new chapter in Syrian art was set in motion when a popular uprising in the southern city of Daraa began. The uprising inspired an unprecedented outburst of political commentary and creativity. Syrian artists living at home and abroad responded with an outpouring of images; some were anonymous and circulated clandestinely through various channels such as social media, while others were shown in galleries in Beirut and Dubai. The political subject matter of these paintings, drawings, digital prints, and videos ranged in content and style, and were quickly picked up by news media outlets and curators alike, collectively providing an artistic view of the conflict.
As artists experimented with new creative devices and media, the aesthetic characteristics of Syrian art began to change. The Syrian school of expressionist painting, for example, has been dramatically altered with artists adopting new techniques, symbols, and color schemes in order to address different aspects of the war. For the first time, mass migration, displacement, and exile became common themes. In this image-rich lecture, I will explore the development of contemporary Syrian art in recent years with these issues in mind. A brief overview of modern and contemporary art in Syria will provide an initial introduction to the local art scene and the influential artists who have shaped it. This will be followed by an in-depth look at the recent works of leading artists such as Elias Zayyat, Youssef Abdelke, Safwan Dahoul, Hrair Sarkissian, and Tammam Azzam.

Maymanah Farhat is an art historian and curator specializing in modern and contemporary Arab art. Farhat is the artistic director and editor of publications of Ayyam Gallery, co-editor of Jadaliyya Culture, and a curatorial advisor to the Arab American National Museum. She has organized exhibitions at international art spaces and institutions including the Virginia Commonwealth University Gallery, Qatar; the Arab American National Museum, USA; and the Beirut Exhibition Center, Lebanon. Her writings have appeared in Callaloo Journal, Art JournalJournal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Apollo magazine, and Art + Auction magazine, among other periodicals, in addition to artist monographs, exhibition catalogues, and edited volumes. In 2014, she was listed among Foreign Policy's 100 Leading Global Thinkers. 


The Surface of Things: A History of Photography from the Swahili Coast
Prita Sandy Meier, Assistant Professor of African Art History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Photography, especially studio portraiture, became instantly popular on the Swahili coast of eastern Africa and by the 1880s residents of such port cities as Mombasa and Zanzibar avidly collected and commissioned photographs of locals and distant others. Although photography was used as a medium for the performance of selfhood later on, during its early history it was about murkier, even intractable meanings. Rather than focus on its realist abilities, its role as a picture of a person’s life, I foreground its qualities as an object, showing how photographs worked as relational things colliding with other things--such as bodies, commodities, and heirlooms in the mercantile world of the Swahili coast. From this perspective it becomes apparent that photographic portraits, although seemingly about the sitter’s desire to express some essential aspect of his or her being, was often about quite the opposite. Namely, it was about the textural effects and the desire to hold onto bodies as things.

Prita Meier (PhD, Harvard University) is assistant professor of African art history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on the arts and architectures of east African port cities and histories of transcontinental exchange and conflict. She is the author of Swahili Port Cities: The Architecture of Elsewhere (Indiana University Press, 2016) and has publications in Art History, African Arts, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Artforum, and Arab Studies Journal, as well as contributions in several exhibition catalogs and edited books. Currently she is working on a new book about the social and aesthetic history of photography in Zanzibar and Mombasa and is co-organizing an exhibition and edited volume titled World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean (which received a 2016-17 NEH Humanities Projects grant). She has also held fellowships at the Clark Art Institute (2014-2015), Cornell University’s Society for the Humanities (2009-2010) and Johns Hopkins University (2007-2009).


Digital Colonialism?: Thoughts on the Ethics of Digital Recreations of Threatened Cultural Heritage Sites in the Middle East,
Erin Thompson
, Assistant Professor of Art Law and Art Crime, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY)

The Islamic State’s destruction of archeological sites including Palmyra and Nimrud in 2015 was widely covered in the Western media, and has launched a flurry of projects with the goal of combatting the destruction through the use of digital technologies. Technologies such as 3D modeling and printing have been hailed as salvific, and their ability to preserve threatened sites, reconstruct destroyed ones, and disseminate knowledge of the past cheaply and easily all over the globe have been called the only possible remedy for IS’ destruction. But is it really so simple? Thompson’s talk will analyze some potential downsides to digital reconstructions of threatened cultural heritage, focusing on the lack of control offered to local residents over the creation, dissemination, and interpretation of digitized sites, and the way this “digital colonialism” sometimes mirrors that of past image-making by Western visitors to these sites.

I hold a PhD in art history and a JD, both from Columbia, and worked as a lawyer for both a large law firm and the City of New York ethics board before taking my current position as an assistant professor of art crime, fraud, and forensics. As America’s only full-time professor of art crime, I study the damage done to humanity’s shared heritage through looting, theft, and the deliberate destruction of art. I have discussed art crime in academic articles as well as publications in The New York TimesAeon.com, and on CNN, NPR, Al Jazeera America, and the Freakonomics podcast. My latest book, Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present (Yale, 2016), covers the history of private collecting of Greek and Roman antiquities, examining collectors’ writings to determine their self-conceptions of their collecting behavior. In 2015, I curated an exhibit, “The Missing,” which was the first exhibit to showcase the efforts of artists and scholars to resist ISIS and other forms of destruction of the past through creative and innovative reactions, protests, and reconstructions Currently, I am researching the ways in which terrorist groups both sell and destroy art in order to support their genocidal campaigns; the legalities and ethics of digital reproductions of cultural heritage; and forensic archeology - what we learn about ourselves and our future from the bodies of the ancient dead.