The big picture

Joanna Grabski, associate professor of art history

Joanna Grabski is still catching her breath after a very busy six months in Dakar, Senegal.

Grabski’s trip, funded by the Fulbright-Hays program, revolved around the Dakar art scene. In that city of five million people, the associate professor of art history interviewed artists and collectors, worked with art writers, curated two shows for the Dakar Biennale, and co-organized a workshop sponsored by the American Embassy’s Public Affairs Section.

The fieldwork gave Grabski fuel for a new book that she’s writing about urban environments and the richness of the art they inspire. She is exploring how the visual framework of the city catalyzes artistic transformation. She sees art as a reflection of our experiences, and so, as Grabski investigates individual artists and their art, she’s really examining how the metamorphosis of art illuminates personal and collective change.

Grabski has taken several trips to Dakar over the last decade, and she has seen transformation in artists’ works, reflecting economic, social, and emotional challenges, both as individuals and as a society. In other words, she sees the big picture that’s created by a lot of little pictures.

Few people in the western hemisphere would think of Dakar as a hub of the art world, but Grabski sees it as a focal point for current and developing artists. She has been fascinated by African culture since her days as an undergraduate at Indiana University.

“After my undergraduate studies,” says Grabski, “I was lucky enough to go to Niger, where I simply fell in love with the culture, intellect, and generosity that the people showed me.”

What has followed that initial experience in Africa is an astounding three Fulbright awards. The first, to conduct research for her doctorate in the Republic of Congo, had to be deferred due to political unrest there. Then, 13 years ago, she successfully reapplied for a second Fulbright, which enabled her to do research in Dakar.

Now, having just returned from the trip funded by her third Fulbright-Hays award, Grabski is thrilled that she was able to spend more time in a city where she has established long-term relationships.

“I have family there — ‘aunts,’ ‘uncles,’ and lots of ‘cousins’ — and I’ve kept in touch with them over the years,” she says. “These relationships have been in place through two stages of my life, first as a doctoral student and now as a member of the faculty and mother of my seven-year-old daughter Olivia, who joined me this time for her first trip to my research site.”

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