“Mobility Is the Backbone of My Research” – 5in10 with Shana Klein
Shana Klein holds a Ph.D. in Art History from the University of New Mexico, where she completed her dissertation in 2015. Currently, she is a Tandem Fellow in Global and Trans-Regional History at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC, where she works on her book project enttled “The Fruits of Empire: Contextualizing Food in Post-Civil War American Art and Culture.” It examines American art through the lens of fruit to probe how the cultivation of food participated in the broader cultivation and expansion of American empire.
How do you explain your current research projects to your students?
I tell them, plainly, my research on “The Fruits of Empire” looks at food in American art. I explain that my research asks questions like: Why are grapes the most popular fruit in American art of the nineteenth century, repeated over and over again in paintings and prints? Or, why do so many Northern artists depict images of Southern fruits in the years after the Civil War? And how are American artists getting access to foods like the pineapple, an incredibly expensive fruit generally produced abroad? I find that most of the answers to these questions relate to the political landscape of America in these cultural moments, influenced by the mission of national expansion and the desire to cultivate fruit and land in frontiers with desirable resources.
In essence, I tell my students that representations of food are not as innocent or straight-forward as they appear. Pictures of food reserved for decoration or amusement also has a darker undercurrent relating to the politics of American imperialism.
What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?
My research was inspired by a class I took during my PhD coursework on Central American Art History at the University of New Mexico. In this class, I learned about the contemporary artist Moisés Barrios, who paints Banana Republic Clothing storefront windows as a way to critically discuss the romanticization of banana-growing countries, which, in reality, have been damaged financially, environmentally and culturally by American banana companies throughout history. This got me thinking… if the banana is so political, then what other foods are also entangled in American politics? And how is this communicated through images of food?
This research is a reflection of my unique training at the University of New Mexico, a pioneer in studies of African-, Native-, and Latin-American art histories – subjects that have been typically overlooked by scholars. My education not only aims to correct this gap in scholarship but also use art history as a method of social activism. Rather than perpetuate elitism that is historic in the fine arts, I hope that my training, teaching, and research will help democratize the field of art history and spotlight the politics of American art that continue to shape society today.
How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)
Most of my research comes from unexpected sources. While art museums and art archives might seem like the most logical place to do research as an art historian, I actually find that historic cookbooks and horticultural manuals provide the greatest insight into the interpretive meanings of food in American art and history. That many of the artists I study were food growers themselves or had art patrons in the food industry gives me another avenue through which to analyze art about food. Combining methodologies from Food Studies, Environmental History, and Art History allows me to consider how representations of food are political and just as meaningful as the foods themselves.
Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?
I recently attended and presented a paper at the European Society for Nineteenth-Century Art (ESNA) conference called, “Food, Glorious Food.” The conference, I think, was one of the first to unite art historians around the subject of food. I listened to a wide range of presentations on European images of cabbages, rats, and ice cream that felt like an academic homecoming for me! Though Food Studies is a fashionable and rising field now, few art historians devote their scholarship to the subject of food, so I was in heaven listening to how scholars applied ideas about food to different time periods, artists, and cultures outside my own expertise. That very few of these presentations addressed the subject of race and racial difference also motivated me to continue pressing upon these important issues in my work that should not be dismissed.
Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?
Academic mobility is a requirement in my field. I cannot perform research without travelling to different archives and museums because so many of the objects I need to consult for my research have not been digitized. While physical mobility is critical to my livelihood, so is conceptual mobility and the exchange of ideas with different colleagues in different areas of study across the country and broader world. I find that the more conversations I have about my topic, and the more interdisciplinary my scope, the stronger my research project becomes. For this reason, I have benefitted tremendously from a current fellowship in Global and Trans-regional Studies at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C. Mobility in all aspects – travel, objects, and dialogues – is the backbone of my research and writing process.
Citation: “Mobility Is the Backbone of My Research” – 5in10 with Shana Klein, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 22.08.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/7615.