Inspired by Islamic and African art and motivated to understand the role of objects in the lives of people living on the Swahili coast, doctoral student Jenny Peruski has many reasons to be involved at Krannert Art Museum. We sat down with her to talk more about her interests, research, and contributions to World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean.
KAM: I understand you are a graduate student in Art History.. what is your specific area of specialty?
Jenny: I focus on Islamic artistic practice in coastal east Africa, what is commonly referred to as the Swahili coast. I am very interested in boundary formation and mobility, whether physical or more abstract.
For instance, we can talk about the physical circulation of objects and people on the Indian Ocean, but we can also talk about the movement of people and things across cultural spheres. A Muslim individual making pilgrimage to a particular tomb sees and engages with that tomb in very different ways than someone who isn't Muslim. Or, someone who was related to the deceased experiences the tomb in another way.
And these ways of engaging with the tomb coexist and intersect—a person may be both Muslim and related to the deceased. How do we account for this plurality in scholarship? How do we make people aware of it when they visit museums? These are some of the questions I'm really excited about exploring more.
KAM: What led you to study what you do?
Jenny: I began studying Islamic art in 2010. I studied abroad at the Université de Provence my sophomore year, and the program there had a really great professor of Islamic arts, Yves Porter. I took a class with him and loved it, and so I pursued Islamic art history further when I returned to Indiana University. The professor of Islamic arts at Indiana, Christiane Gruber, recommended that I go to the American University of Cairo (AUC) to study for my Master's degree. And while I was studying at AUC, I became increasingly interested in the so-called "periphery" of the Islamic world. In Islamic studies, there tends to be an emphasis on Arab, Turkish, and Persian lands, which means that other areas with Muslim-majority communities like the Swahili coast don't receive as much attention. So when I began my PhD here at the University of Illinois, I wanted to specifically focus on these underrepresented regions of the so-called Islamic world.
KAM: How did your academic work first bring you in contact with the museum?
Jenny: During my first semester here in the fall of 2016, I was taking a course on theories and methods in art history and one of the projects that the professor, Oscar Vázquez, assigned was working with three different objects at Krannert Art Museum. I worked on an Ijebu-Yoruba armlet, an Elu mask, and a Kota or Fang reliquary sculpture. This required detailed object research that KAM could then add to their object files, and afterward, each student chose one object for research in greater depth. It was a great introduction to the collections here and the problems with researching and cataloging objects.
KAM: So, what type of art inspires you?
Jenny: I really love puzzles, and when I encounter an object or series of objects that I don't understand, I become very intent on learning more. For me, this has ranged from 13th-15th century metal and glassware made in Egypt and Syria to footwear popular on the Swahili coast between the 17th and 19th centuries. Recently, I've also been looking at pilgrimage arts on and around the Indian Ocean.
KAM: Do you have a favorite work of art at KAM?
Jenny: I have many! Like I mentioned with what works inspire me, I tend to be partial to the objects that have unusual histories, especially if I've been able to explore them in more detail.
The Elu mask that I researched my first semester here, for instance, is really interesting to me because its not common for this type of mask to be carved with a bird beak in place of lips (of course its not entirely unique in this regard, and there are other examples that do exist). So, for me, that raises a lot of questions about what this particular mask was used for? What did the inclusion of the bird beak form do? And then beyond that, how did it come to KAM? What kinds of questions is it raising for audiences in a Western setting?
So I think its a really interesting piece both visually and also in terms of the discussions that can be raised about it.
KAM: Do you have a favorite gallery here?
Jenny: As a specialist in African and Islamic art, it's perhaps easy for me to say that Encounters: The Arts of Africa is my favorite gallery. I find the material more accessible because of my own training, but I also think the curator of Global African Art Allyson Purpura has provoked engaging questions.
The section on "Fraught Histories" asks us to consider, how were some of these objects acquired? Or "The Power of the Script" challenges the idea that there hasn't been a dominant written tradition in Africa by presenting this very powerful material that uses written traditions like Ge'ez or Arabic, which have been in use in Africa since at least the 5th century and the 7th century, respectively.
KAM: I understand you recently worked with Allyson Purpura on World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean—how did that collaboration first come about?
Jenny: I was very lucky that my first year here coincided with the year prior to the opening of the exhibition. Because I came to the University of Illinois to study Swahili coast art and architecture with Prita Meier, who co-curated the exhibition with Allyson, my work very directly overlapped with a lot of their aims for World on the Horizon. They were very generous to bring me on board as a research assistant, which meant that I got to study and write about a range of objects included in the exhibition.
KAM: What specific research did you complete that contributed to the exhibition?
Jenny: World on the Horizon is broken into six sections. I mostly researched the objects in the sections "Architecture of the Port" and "Ocean of Adornment." This meant writing about the architectural forms as well as a lot of the jewelry and dress included in the exhibition.
Because the specific histories of individual objects aren't always known, this research involved studying object types. For instance, there is a series of silver bracelets, armlets, and anklets in the exhibition. Because there isn't a lot of information about each individual piece, I contributed broader research on silver jewelry made and used in the Arabian Peninsula, India, and east Africa.
Of course, there are other objects with very specific histories. For instance, the sandals of Hamad bin Muhammad al-Murjebi (more commonly known as Tippu Tip)—we can trace the ownership of the sandals and how they exchanged hands (or feet!).
KAM: What programs have you participated in —related to World on the Horizon— that have been meaningful for your academic life?
Jenny: I worked with Allyson on the African Studies Association workshop entitled "Epistemologies of the Contact Zones in Africa" in November 2017. This was a really new and exciting experience for me—I had never planned a workshop before, and I learned a lot about what goes into organizing a scholarly event, especially as part of a team.
Beyond the planning processes, having this wonderful group of scholars come to Krannert Art Museum and talk about how we can engage with ideas of mobility and cross-cultural contact within the context of the museum was really productive for my research. There were museum professionals and art historians, but also political scientists, anthropologists, historians, fine arts professors, all of whom brought their own experiences to the discussion.
KAM: What aspect of the work has had the greatest impact for you?
Jenny: In the exhibition, there are several pairs of a type of sandal popular in east Africa, referred to in Swahili as mtalawanda. These have been incredibly productive subjects of research for me that started off with the question: how do I write a 150-word label about a series of objects which have next to no source material to pull from? This expanded into a seminar paper, which I've presented in different forms at several conferences and am continuing to work on today.
KAM: Do you hope to continue working with museum collections or will your research lead you to another type of work?
Jenny: Museum studies and curatorial projects have been central to my research, so I do very much hope to continue working with museum collections. I'm currently working on a historiographic seminar paper that asks: what sort of viewer is imagined or constructed by exhibitions focusing on African art? But of course, I'm also moving in other directions. My work on pilgrimage and gravesites on the Swahili coast looks more toward material culture, anthropological, and archaeological research.
KAM: What advice would you give to other graduate students who are interested in working with the museum?
Jenny: I think, as a graduate student, it's important to develop a wide network of contacts with whom you can work and reach out to when you have questions or need support. And also don't be afraid to advocate for yourself. In my experience, no one has ever been upset when you politely ask for what you want or need from a project. Of course, the converse of that is understanding that the answer is sometimes no and understanding that something may not be possible now, but may be in the future.