In September 2018 the Block Museum welcomed Sarah Estrela as a 2018-2019 graduate fellow. Block Museum Graduate Fellowships are offered to two graduate students annually, one from Art History and one from any department within the Graduate School. Graduate Fellows are integral members of the museum staff and support projects through exhibition and collection research, curating, writing and catalog production. We took a moment to sit down with Estrela, a PhD candidate in Art History to discuss her background and forthcoming work:
Can you tell us a bit about your background and your field of study?
I am a Ph.D. student in art history specializing in modern and contemporary art. I focus on art made in Portugal and Lusophone Africa (Angola, Cabo Verde, Moçambique, São Tomé and Princípe, Guinea-Bissau) during the 1960s and 1970s, and am currently researching how artists negotiated and articulated their visions for the future before, during and after the anti-colonial liberation struggles.
Can you tell us about some of your previous research at Northwestern and abroad?
My first research project brought me from the Special Collections at the Deering Library to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2016. I focused on the 1930 re-urbanization proposal Alfred Agache organized for the city of Rio (which was the first of its kind); I used ArcGIS to better understand how his plans cartographically censored and legitimated the removal of predominately Black neighborhoods despite Agache’s claims for a more equitable and “modern” city. I received funding to conduct archival research, visit sites, and conduct interviews in Rio during that summer, and the project eventually became my qualifying paper.
My research since then has taken me across the Atlantic, and my dissertation will hopefully answer the following question: in the wake of the anti-colonial struggles for independence in Africa during the 1960s and 1970s, how did people in Angola, Cabo Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Moçambique visualize their futures and use the visual to (re)construct a sense of self? Bringing together the ephemeral visual material (i.e., political posters, murals, and pamphlets) that people created, circulated and encountered, I use visual analysis, critical race theory and critical fabulation archival tactics to examine how revolution and liberation were defined and redefined artistically. I hope to better understand how works of art were mobilized as part of the larger struggle toward independence and how artists’ methods provide insight into what was (im)possible in a climate of physical devastation, psychological torment, and brutally enforced censorship to produce the most potent images of what a decolonial revolution and future could look like.
What particularly interests you about working within an art museum?
What interests me about art museums—and university art museums in particular—is the depth of questioning one can engage in with the same objects over time. Bringing objects together in an exhibition in order to tell a broader story has always fascinated and inspired me, and I especially appreciate the unique opportunity we have here to encourage students who might otherwise never spend time with artwork to think more critically about what they see and how these works relate to specific moments in time, contemporary or otherwise.
What will you be focusing on while you are here?
Throughout this academic year, I will help Dr. Kathleen Bickford Berzock and the team at the Block with the upcoming exhibition, Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa. I especially look forward to helping curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock develop a syllabus and undergraduate course in relation to the exhibition that will be taught this Spring quarter.
What drew you to the Block Museum mission, exhibitions, and collection?
The Block’s mission is what primarily drew me in and its exhibitions have added a special component to my graduate studies. I admire the commitment its staff has to ensuring that the collection and exhibition programming relate to and expand upon the various curricula and goals of faculty and students here. The special relationship it has cultivated with Chicago and the surrounding communities has also really impressed me, and I feel honored to be part of the team here.
What museum exhibitions or programs (outside the Block) have inspired you lately?
A recent exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, cleverly titled Volta Photo Starring Sanlé Sory and the People of Bobo-Dioulasso in the Small but Musically Mighty Country of Burkina Faso, stands out. The dynamic presentation of studio portraits, the recreation of a studio environment (with the inclusion of a backdrop, studio props, and a phonograph that played the sounds of Volta Jazz) were especially compelling. The stories highlighted in the wall texts foregrounded the possibilities of exhibition curation for audiences who might otherwise be completely unfamiliar with photographic practices in the “small but mighty country” of Burkina Faso (and across the African continent more broadly), and it reminded me of the potential that a single room of objects can do to help re-orient one’s worldview.