VCS Alumna Elizabeth Kalbfleisch talks to faculty member Janet Berlo

Elizabeth Kalbfleisch (VCS Ph.D. 2009) and faculty member Janet Catherine Berlo held this epistolary conversation in August and September of 2009. Elizabeth wrote her dissertation on feminism, transnationalism, and ideas of the home in Native women’s visual culture. This year she is a visiting Assistant Professor at Concordia University in Montreal, where her courses include “First Peoples and Photography” and “Nationalism and Transnationalism in Native Art.”

EK: As VCS celebrates its twentieth anniversary, we’ve had the chance to reflect upon the work of the program’s founders and its first years of operation under their leadership. You came to the University of Rochester in 1997 and have played a key role in shepherding VCS into its second decade. Tell me a bit about what it was like to join the program at that time.

JCB: It was a very exciting time. Michael Holly headed the department and Janet Wolff ran VCS. These women were a dynamic team.

I came to Rochester with a joint appointment for my first five years: I was “The Susan B. Anthony Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies” and half of my teaching was in the SBA Institute for those first years. I didn’t have graduate students of my own until Norman Vorano came in 1999 and you came in 2001. Now I am supervising dissertations that range from the politics of an ethnic dance troupe, to fashion history, to contemporary Native and Chicano performance art.

I became one of the core faculty members in 2002, and then for the next three years co-directed the program with Douglas Crimp.

EK: Your interests are certainly broad. Yet women’s art and Native American art are foundational to these interests and to your contributions to the program. I believe that as a Native Americanist, you hold a different view of inter-disciplinarity, visual culture, and the art historical canon than do many art historians working in other areas?

JCB: Yes, I do; in fact I wrote an article about this for the Clark volume Anthropologies of Art (2005). My first course as a freshman art history major at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1970 was “the Hindu Temple”, taught by a Marxist art historian from UCLA, Gary Tartakov. I studied other aspects of Asian art and culture with Teresina Havens, the first woman to get a Ph.D. in comparative religion at Yale, in 1933. She taught a course called “Buddha, Mao, and Sesshu.” It could have been a VCS course, except that we started each class by doing Tai Chi!

EK: How did your own graduate work at Yale, and the mentors you had, influence your cross-cultural and inter-disciplinary approach?

JCB: In my Ph.D. work in history of art at Yale from 1974-79, my two mentors were the distinguished historian of Pre-Columbian art George Kubler, and Africanist Robert Farris Thompson. Kubler transgressed all art historical boundaries when he wrote a dissertation on colonial Hispanic churches in New Mexico’s Pueblos in the 1930s. Thompson was working on his amazing boundary-smashing works Flash of the Spirit and Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds when I was at Yale. I think I was made a finer and more daring scholar for having had these wildly different men as my mentors. Kubler was meticulous about method and historiography; Bob sang in Yoruba and drummed on the podium in class. He dared to ask questions about African art that no one had asked before.
RFT was Carnival, and George was Lent.

I took courses in the Anthropology Department on Maya hieroglyphic writing and Maya archaeology; I was Catherine MacKinnon’s TA for the first Women’s Studies course at Yale. My friends in the department of History of Art were writing dissertations on African American quilts, ancient Maya temple murals, and Jonkonnu festivals in Jamaica. We were no respecters of boundaries!! So it has always seemed to me that many of the boundaries that Visual and Cultural Studies presumed to transgress were ones that those of us who studied non-European arts in an interdisciplinary way had never paid any attention to anyway.

EK: More generally, how has your training and research shaped your outlook, your commitment to Visual and Cultural Studies and specifically, your contributions to VCS?

JCB: I think the fact that I have a restless mind, and have worked in many different regions and time periods of the Americas is good training for teaching VCS grad students who work on such a wide range of topics.
I went to grad school with some superb scholars who were studying the Classic period Maya in 1978 and are still doing so some thirty years later. That makes for a great depth of knowledge, but I have always been more interested in a comparative approach, in which the questions drive the research. So whether I was working on art made in the 6th century AD in Guatemala, or in 1990 by contemporary Inuit artists living above the arctic circle, I was always interested in art made on the boundaries of cultures. We didn’t use the term ‘hybridity’ thirty years ago, but I was always interested in the frontier, the border, the hybrid.

EK: You’ve now been part of VCS for twelve years. To what extent has your identity and outlook as a scholar been shaped by this vantage? Are there aspects of your research that would be received differently, or that you would be more reluctant to take on, if you worked in a traditional Art History department?

JCB: Perhaps I have had a different experience—and a luckier one— from some of my colleagues in that I have never taught anywhere where I felt the need to tailor either my intellectual pursuits or my teaching to old-fashioned disciplinary practices.

EK: I’m interested in your teaching as well as your research. Over the years, how have the kind of courses you have offered shifted? To what extent do those shifts reflect your home in VCS?

JCB: This is a really interesting question, and one I haven’t really considered before. My courses have radically shifted; this reflects my changing interests, but also the influence of the program and its students. I tend to teach courses around conceptual topics now. The theoretical readings are always grounded in specifics case studies that illuminate the topic.

For example, this semester I am teaching a new seminar called “The Visual Culture of Heritage and Identity.” We are looking at the so-called “heritage industry” as well as how issues of trauma, memory, nostalgia, and loss shape the way that different social groups/ ethnic groups/genders and individual artists tell their own constructed histories. I also teach a course called “The Museum and ‘the Other’”, a history of representational practices in North American museums. Most of my courses are cross-listed in Anthropology, Religion, or History. The linear historical or period-bound narratives that we all used to teach are pretty much gone from my repertoire.

EK: As one of your students, I can testify to the importance of a strong relationship with a mentor. From your perspective, what has it been like working with the graduate students in VCS?

JCB: It was a transformational experience for me to finally have Ph.D. students, after teaching for 17 years in an undergraduate department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. It made a big impression on me when, in my first year in the department, Douglas Crimp said to me, “Janet, I truly love my graduate students. I care about them as much as anything else in my life.” I soon came to understand what he means. We have had such an impressive cohort of students here in VCS. It is such a privilege to learn from and be challenged by the next generation of scholars, something you will have the pleasure of discovering, Elizabeth.

My grad students always laugh and think I am being fatuous when I occasionally say, “I didn’t have to be half as smart as you are today, to work on a Ph.D. in the 1970s,” but I really mean it. I think of my grad students as junior colleagues. They critique my work-in-progress, and our conversations are as intellectually important to me as they are to them.

EK: Thank you, Janet.

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