Gemma Sharpe

BA, University of Nottingham. MFA, Goldsmiths, University of London. PhD, The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Specializing in modern and contemporary art from South Asia, Cold War histories of art, museum and exhibition studies. Current projects examine modernism in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the work of Iqbal Geoffrey (b.1939), and realism in postcolonial modernisms. Recipient of fellowships from the Asian Cultural Council, American Institute of Pakistan Studies, Modernist Studies Association, and Paul Mellon Center for the Study of British Art. SLC, 2021–

Previous Courses

Art History

Global Modernism, Internationalism, and the Cold War: 1930s, 1960s, 1990s

Open, Lecture—Year

This course is an introduction to diverse trajectories of modern and contemporary art from contexts that include Russia, Mexico, Iran, China, Japan, Argentina, India, Nigeria, Brazil, Ethiopia, Iraq, Egypt, and Pakistan, as well as Europe and North America. The course ties these trajectories together via the theme of “internationalism” and its shifting geopolitical stakes over the course of the 20th century. The course follows the creation of modern internationalism in institutions like the League of Nations, the United Nations, UNESCO, and the Non-Aligned Movement; to a shift from diplomatic internationalism to economic “developmentalism” and “globalization” led by institutions like the World Bank and the IMF; and related cultural internationalisms promoted by MoMA, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Venice and São Paulo Biennales, and even the Stalinist state and Chinese Communist Party. Lectures will examine topics like Mexican muralism and Rockefeller internationalism; Négritude and its influence on African postcolonial modernisms; the infamous “weaponization” of abstract expressionism during the Cold War; debates on socialist realism in the Second and Third Worlds; the arrival of postcolonial diasporas to London and Paris and, relatedly, developments in “calligraphic modernism” spanning from North Africa to East Asia; and finally the proliferation of post-medium and new media strategies around the world toward the end of the century. Taking a chronological journey through global modern and contemporary art, the course focuses on three key decades to examine how artists navigated the shifting pressures and opportunities of internationalism throughout the 20th century. We will ask: How did modern artists think about national identity and nationalism in the colonial and postcolonial periods? What were the stakes of abstraction versus realism in different Cold War contexts? Can modernism exist in a totalitarian state? How have “First World” ideologies informed how modernist history has been written in the past? How are global modernists expanding the canon today? And on whose terms? While the course will include canonical readings on modern and contemporary art from the West, we will also read work by thinkers including Hannah Arendt and Rabindranath Tagore on nationalism; Mark Mazower and Vijay Prashad on the shifting politics of internationalism; Geeta Kapur and Ferreira Gullar on postcolonial avant-gardes; and primary documents, including UNESCO conference proceedings and artist manifestoes. The course lays a particular focus on recent work on global modernism by scholars that include Chika Okeke-Agulu, Iftikhar Dadi, Kellie Jones, Joan Kee, Ana María Reyes, and Reiko Tomii. These readings will illustrate current debates and shifts in the field, opening onto questions of art historical method and ways of looking, especially as they pertain to contested and formerly marginalized domains of art history. Writing assignments will focus on New York-area collections; the course will include a guided field trip to MoMA.


Home/Nation: 20th-Century Asian Art–via New York

Open, Seminar—Fall

This seminar is an introduction to modern and contemporary art from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea. The course takes its title from Indian artist Rummana Hussain’s “Home/Nation” (1996), a multimedia installation reflecting on rising political violence in India at the end of the century—especially against minority groups. In 1998, Hussain completed a residency at Art in General in New York and was one of numerous artists from across Asia showing in the City during the “global” and “multicultural” 1990s. This seminar elaborates on this global turn by tracing prior histories of Asian art in the City; however, our discussion and reading will also spend equal time in Asian and New York-based histories of modern and contemporary art, looking across continents to consider parallels, inversions, connections, and disconnections between and among them. We will, therefore, examine artists like Hussain, who might have visited New York only briefly, along with those who have lived in the City for all or most of their lives. Artists examined will include Toshi Shumizu, Rabindranath Tagore, Chao Chung-hsiang, F. N. Souza, Isamu Noguchi, Zainul Abedin, Yoko Ono, Tehching Hsieh, Zarina Hashmi, and Shahzia Sikander. We will consider how artists grappled with splits between “home” and “nation,” both in Asia and in the United States, during the 20th century, taking into account major events in Asian history that include decolonization, the Cold War, and neoliberal globalization. We will also explore the impact of World War I and World War II on Asian minorities in the United States, the civil rights movement and related passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, the Vietnam War, and, more recently, the aftermaths of 9/11 and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Artistically, we will examine diverse trajectories of realism and abstraction, photography and performance, and new media and avant-garde strategies. Students will have the opportunity to visit New York-based museums, galleries, and archival collections, including the Asia Art Archive, as part of in-class and individual assignments. Seminar discussion and final papers will focus on primary documents: institutional correspondences and historical newspaper and magazine reviews, artist writings and interviews, and archival photographs, among other documentary forms. These records will be used to build on existing histories of Asian art in/via New York and, if possible, to rediscover new or forgotten ones.


Non-Aligned Abstractions

Open, Seminar—Spring

This seminar examines abstract painting and sculpture in countries that include Iran, Bangladesh, Japan, Korea, Brazil, Nigeria, Iraq, India, and Venezuela and that are generally categorized as being part of the Cold War’s “Third World” or non-aligned geopolitical bloc. Within new and expanded histories of global modernism, the proliferation of abstraction around the world during the 1950s and 1960s has been pegged to artists’ aspiration to follow Western modernist precedents and has overlooked the national and political entanglements that led postcolonial artists to accept, adapt, or reject the possibilities of abstract form. This seminar focuses on these entanglements and asks why, for example, leftist and Communist artists in postcolonial contexts often opted for abstraction instead of Socialist Realism; how artists used abstraction to support or resist postcolonial “nation-building” projects; how artists drew on indigenous sources, including Islamic calligraphy and ancient and folk art, to develop new approaches to abstraction; and how abstraction ultimately became co-opted by nationalist and Cold War political forces and turned into yet another tradition that artists needed to surpass. The course emphasizes close looking at and reading of essays, manifestoes, and theories of abstraction written within and beyond the Western canon. Students will develop a grasp of key terms—including concretism, the grid, medium-specificity, minimalism, flatness, and facture—and will consider debates on abstraction and realism emerging from “Second World” geopolitical contexts—such as in Cuba, China, and Russia—along with “non-aligned” artistic practices within the West, including by Black, immigrant, and minority artists. Covid-depending, the class will include trips to New York galleries, including MoMA and the Whitney Museum.