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‘What is America? Who is America?’: Q&A with Art Museum curator Mitra Abbaspour

<h5>Sections of the stained glass sculpture in front of the Princeton Art Museum have been removed as a part of major renovations.&nbsp;</h5>
<h6>Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Sections of the stained glass sculpture in front of the Princeton Art Museum have been removed as a part of major renovations. 
Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian

Mitra Abbaspour is the Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Princeton University Art Museum. Her work features a diverse range of pieces from the 20th and 21st centuries, including Latin American art, Asian and Asian American art, and African American art. Since 2016, Abbaspour has been collecting contemporary Indigenous North American pieces, among others, for the University’s Art Museum.

This interview has been edited slightly for clarity and concision.

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The Daily Princetonian: To start, could you please explain what your job looks like?

Mitra Abbaspour: As the curator of modern and contemporary art at the University Art Museum, there are multiple aspects to my job, but at its heart is the care for a collection of artworks that represent artistic practices in the 20th and 21st centuries around the globe. Care includes ensuring that we have proper knowledge of the objects to preserve them, and researching those objects to give them deeper context and meaning, so that they can be objects of study for our current student body, faculty, and visiting scholars.

It includes creating exhibitions and gallery installations that integrate or expand what we know about artistic practices in the 20th and 21st centuries around the globe and using those as platforms to engage both the current campus and the broader community in conversations about that subject. 

Care also includes thinking strategically about how to grow that collection, how to build upon it to ensure that we are investing in its strengths, and responding to gaps, because, of course, it doesn't represent decades of artistic practices instantaneously. It’s a process of continuing to work towards that definition.

DP: Speaking of processes, how do you decide what kind of art to acquire? What prompted you to start collecting works by Indigenous artists?

MA: I try to understand the conversation that is defining our present moment. When I came to Princeton in 2016, it was clear to me that the subject of nationalism was not just a defining conversation in the United States of America — national identity was a pervasive and increasingly global cultural conversation, and artists were deeply engaged in this as well. From my perspective, in the US, the conversation was centered around questions of “What is America?” and “Who is America?” 

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It became really important to me to think more complexly about the United States as a geopolitical body that contains many First Nations and individuals who have not only a deep, millennia-long sense of cultural and ancestral belonging, but also have deep geopolitical frameworks.

DP: When you source these artists, how do you ensure that they are also included and represented in this conversation?

MA: That is an excellent question. I’ve been working with one of my colleagues — who's a curatorial associate in modern and contemporary art — to develop an “artist intake form.” We're working to make the practice of collecting works by living artists more routine. At the moment of acquisition, we ask artists a series of standard questions about the object and about themselves, to allow them to self-identify and contribute their perspective on how to interpret and understand that object. 

Of course, once it’s created and becomes a part of a public collection, it will be studied, interpreted, analyzed, and used in multiple contexts, not all of which are defined by the maker. However, we want to create a system through which the artist is brought in with their work as a primary document of their voice. That also allows them to make decisions about how their pieces are represented. For example, many Indigenous artists refer to the place they were born in by its Indigenous name, yet that name is frequently not what we would find on a geopolitical map. So, creating systems by which we can list more than one name — so that it can be defined both in the language of the maker and how we would understand to locate it on a map — in the gallery space is particularly relevant.

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DP: What are some exciting works that you’ve recently acquired for the university?

MA: I'm very proud of our acquisition of a multimedia work by Rose B. Simpson. Her work was recently on view at one of our satellite spaces. She’s gained a lot more notoriety over the last few years since that work came into our collections. It’s particularly notable because it's a work that represents Pueblo women as part of a larger global community of women. 

I'm also really delighted to represent Cara Romero’s “Coyote Tales” and Sonya Kelliher-Combs’ “Idiot Strings, The Things We Carry.” Sonya is an artist from Northwest Alaska, and is a very important contemporary voice in conversation with the large body of historical collections we have from that region. 

The reason I highlighted them in part is that Rose’s [work] is a multimedia ceramic sculpture, Cara’s is photographs, and Sonya’s is a big sculptural installation made out of animal hide and sinew. It’s very important to me that we’re collecting across media, in different scales, and in different visual languages to represent the diversity of practices.

DP: On the other hand, are there certain pieces that you would like to add to your collection that you're still looking for?

MA: I would say the focus and priority right now is making connections within the community of the Lenni-Lenape people, who are Indigenous to the land of Princeton and the greater area of the Northeast region, so that we are representing the voices and the practices of the people who are indigenous to the place of Princeton itself.

DP: A big part of art is how we display it. What role will Indigenous art play in this museum and how are you looking to display these works?

MA: It will play multiple roles. It is integral to the way that we tell a story about art in the Americas, which is a focus of this exhibition in the new museum. It is integral to understanding the art of our time. It is integral to how we understand historical art of the Americas, as a way of understanding the continuity over centuries of makers, from the past all the way to the present. It will absolutely, straight out of the gate, appear in those three contexts. 

It is also essential that this work will continue to be contextualized within itself, that we don’t always use it to complicate narratives with others, but also that we recognize it as being an artistic conversation and practice that is particular to cultural group and context. There will be many cross-collection galleries, and I think we can expect to find the presence of these works throughout those as well.

DP: Is there a particular perspective that you’re trying to share through this collection?

MA: I’m interested in complicating the idea of who we are — as a community, a culture, and an identity — and creating space for that to be multiple, partial, layered, and complex. One thing I hope the contemporary program will always do is not only allow many people to see themselves represented within the museum, but also offer many opportunities for anyone to think about their role as an individual, as a citizen, as a human, within the context of the world in which we live today — a global world, a multicultural economy, that is deeply shaped by the relationship of civilization to nature. That’s the perspective I hope will come through in this work. I think it has a real role to play, in particular in thinking about where it is that this museum, and this university, sits.

DP: Lastly, you have curated several exhibitions about very different topics. On a personal level, how does your experience with collecting Indigenous pieces influence how you approach other aspects of your work?

MA: Oh, that’s also a wonderful question. A very good concluding question. The greatest reward of working in an academic context is the opportunity not only to create those opportunities for expansive thinking for an audience, but also to always continue to learn and question the ways in which I've been trained to structure knowledge, the ways in which I’ve framed my worldview. 

In collecting contemporary Indigenous art, I may have set out to complicate the definition of what America is, but I certainly have learned and continue to learn the ways that my own identity and education as a US citizen has structured a worldview that is only one way of seeing history, time and space, and the place in which I live. I’ve been very rewarded to be challenged to think carefully and intentionally about the ways I use language, and the ways I can present knowledge to allow for multiple ways of thinking.

Kerrie Liang is a Head Editor for The Prospect and an Assistant Editor for Podcasts at the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at kerrie.liang@princeton.edu, or on Instagram at @kerrie.liang.

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