Alumni Profiles Series: Erica Moiah James
Name: Erica Moiah James
Title: Assistant Professor, Department of the History of Art and African American Studies and Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of African American Studies, Yale University (2011-present)
Previous Job: Founding Director and Chief Curator of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas (2003-2011)
Current City: New Haven
PhD, Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Duke, 2008
MFA, Painting and Drawing, University of Chicago, 1994BA, Urban Studies and Architecture, Vassar College, 1992
What professional or career plans did you have in mind as you were completing your graduate degree?
Funnily enough, not what I am doing now. I grew up in a very small place— the Bahamas – and became interested in the arts at a very early age. In college, I came to understand and value the potential role of art institutions in postcolonial societies and what these institutions could do politically and for nation building. As a result, for my undergraduate senior project at Vassar College, I wanted to design a National Art Gallery of The Bahamas. It was a dream. There was no National Art Gallery of The Bahamas and no plans for one, but my mentors at the time, Jeh Johnson and Nick Adams, really thought it was important for me to think about it as a real possibility, something I could do. So under their supervision, I wrote an extensive rationale for a national art gallery, scouted a real site in Nassau to place it and designed a structure in relation to that site. The Bahamas was a small place that no one thought of as actually having an art history- even Bahamians. But I knew there was something more there and that an art gallery could do the kind of work that could change that way of seeing forever.
I completed the project, graduated and tucked it away. Rather than going to architecture school, I decided to take a chance to pursue my dream of becoming an artist. I studied painting and drawing at the University of Chicago, where I received an M.F.A. But life is filled with surprises and during my studies at Chicago I took a class called “Other Modernisms.” We were asked to question our way of seeing by engaging the idea/concept of ‘modernity’ in so called “non-western” societies. I think I had a mental explosion in the class- the kind that clears a path rather than destroys all that is present, or maybe it was a little bit of both. As a result, I began to more clearly see and engage the art histories of places other than Europe and America, places like the Caribbean and Africa, and the work of artists embedded in places like Europe and America, whose work was not a part of dominant narratives. Before that class, I never thought that “I” might be the one, someone that did the kind of work that would make the institution I had designed as college senior not only possible, but necessary. What my experience at Chicago taught me was to see global phenomena in particulars and to imagine a subaltern discourse that would allow me to explore certain ideas that I thought would help me- and others- rethink the field.
A few years later I arrived at Duke to work with [Duke Professor of Art History] Richard J. Powell. As a former artist himself, I thought he would understand me, and the kind of work I wanted to do. I did not come to graduate school to become an academic that teaches at a university. At least that wasn’t a priority. I came because I wanted to do a particular kind of scholarly work (and that as corny as it sounds) that would be meaningful. Only later did I sync that goal with a career in the academy.
At the end of my third year as a Duke graduate student, I got a call from someone affiliated with a committee leading the national art gallery movement in The Bahamas. They were thinking of finally launching the institution, were looking for a curator and called to ask if I would help bring the institution into being. I expressed my interest, sent in a resume and didn’t hear back from them. A year later, shortly after finishing my qualifying exams I received another phone call from the gallery committee stating that they were ready to move forward- and asked if I would consider returning to The Bahamas. Until that moment I had been on an academic track. But my mentor also curated so I was able to see what was possible through his career. I went to see him to discuss the opportunity and without hesitation, he said “you have to do it.” Just as an aside, the mentorship I received at Duke from Rick Powell, Kristine Stiles, Pat Leighten and others was second to none. It really informs how I work with my students to this day.
So I returned to the Bahamas at the end of 2002 and began work in January 2003. The first thing the committee asked me to do was set an opening date and we settled on July 7, 2003. A few weeks after meeting the goal, I was installed as chief curator and the senior administrator of the gallery. Two years later the government made my position official and named me Director and Chief Curator of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas.
Working with the gallery was a dream come true, but shortly after arriving I also realized that in some ways it was a gift in terms of my dissertation. It was best for me to be in the Caribbean while writing and researching a dissertation based on its art history. Though having a job meant that it took me a little longer to finish, I don’t think I would change a thing.
What has your career path looked like since you graduated?
I finished my dissertation [Re-Worlding a World: Caribbean Art in the Global Imaginary] and had my defense at Duke in 2008. My mentors immediately asked me if I had thought about returning to the academy and encouraged me to apply for a postdoc that had just opened at Washington University in St. Louis. But it was a hard decision. I felt I was doing good work in The Bahamas, meaningful work. I had seen the community develop. The discourse on art expanded. Artists were responding to the presence of the institution. Working across medias. Public art programs were becoming available and we were becoming involved in how art was being taught in the school system. It was good to be able to see the benefits of our work and (most importantly perhaps) to contribute to a growing archive and the historicization process. I had established myself in the community and was fulfilling a lifelong dream. At the same time, I had to admit that I missed the kinds of scholarship, engagement, and research the academy demands. I wanted to continue to do work that expanded the archive on a Black Atlantic art histories. I wanted to turn my dissertation into a book and eventually decided that the postdoc at Washington University might provide the opportunity to do that.
I applied for and received the postdoc at Washington University and the Gallery gave me a leave of absence to pursue it. Within the first week of arriving in St Louis, I received an email from my mentor asking if I’d heard about an opening for a joint position in the Department of the History of Art and the Department of African American Studies at Yale. I had, but I never thought I should apply. I didn’t have any teaching experience at that time, was coming from a museum background and on top of that the deadline for applications had long passed. But the job description was perfect – they were looking for someone who studied the African diaspora and the Caribbean. That was me.
Despite odds I could certainly see, I applied for the Yale position in January, 2010. I was invited for an interview at CAA and later a job talk. After I received the job offer at Yale, I requested a deferral in my start date. I wanted to finish my postdoc at Washington University [which extended to December 2010]. I felt that I had made a commitment to the WashU and it didn’t feel right coming in and leaving so soon and I wanted to tie up my work in the Bahamas. I am glad Yale was so accommodating. I’m still very close to the Art History department at Washington University and was able to leave the NAGB in good hands. I started my new position at Yale in July 2011.
Tell us more about your current job. What is your favorite thing about what you do?
I am jointly appointed in two departments [History of Art and African American Studies], which is not an easy thing. I’m split 100 percent between two departments! But that also means that in a sense my practice is recognized as being interdisciplinary. Whatever I teach is listed in both departments and sometimes also in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.
I currently serve as director of undergraduate studies for the Department of African American Studies. Essentially it’s a marketing and mentoring administrative position. I encourage undergraduates to major in AFAM Studies, help develop the undergraduate curriculum, advise our majors through to graduation, among other things. I think my favorite thing – outside of my research and writing – is mentoring, which for me is also tied to teaching. I enjoy talking about projects and shepherding students. I enjoy helping students from different departments – not just art history –develop their ideas and I love working with graduate students. Like most academics perhaps I am a lifelong learner, so playing a part in activating the research projects of young scholars is really exciting for me – being in an environment that is centered on the production of knowledge. Yes. I find that incredibly exciting. It’s that same excitement that led me to curatorial work. Its the kind of work that can be transformative.
Are you still working for the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas?
I am no longer directly involved with the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas. I wanted to make a clean break. I thought it was best for the institution. The new director needed to be free to forge her own path and extend the institution according to her vision. And I also wanted to dedicate myself to the academy. If I was going to make the shift, I had to give it my all, and not be distracted by “there.” I needed to be fully present “here.” I’m not opposed to curating something for [the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas] in the future. We have conversations, but the conditions have to be right.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice [my advisor at Duke] Rick Powell gave to me was simply to be myself; to not ever sell myself as something or someone I wasn’t. He said that if I tried to be someone else, then I would have to be accountable for a person who doesn’t exist. It was more of an affirmation of what I believed. The pressure to work outside one’s comfort zone really is just too much to keep up, and if you’re hired based on someone you’re not, they won’t be happy with you, but more important you also won’t be happy with who you felt you had to become to get and perhaps keep the job. Be who you are.
Do you have any interesting projects or professional plans in the works?
Lots of things are happening. I’m excited to finish the book based on my dissertation. I think it’s an important text and now I need to just get it out there. I’m also excited to really get into my second academic book, which will focus on historicizing the global in Caribbean art. It is giving me a chance to work on Pre-Columbian art and spend some time in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and I am enjoying it. It also involves some work we are doing at Yale with nineteenth century Haitian paintings from the collection of Peabody Museum of Natural History. This is a Yale collection that has been neglected and we’re training Haitian artists as conservators by working on restoring the paintings for exhibition in early 2016.
Any advice you’d like to share with current graduate students at Duke?
My advice would be to do good work but attend to your non-academic life too. Graduate school can be very lonely and very isolating. Make sure to find a community, friends to support you, and friends you can lean on.
Also choose a dissertation you are happy to live with for the next ten years! Between researching, writing, and reworking it for publication, you will likely be working on it for that long.
Take in all of the rich opportunities for life beyond the classroom. The art and music scene in the triangle is quite good and Duke did a good job back in the day to expand cultural offerings in dance and music. If you are a sports fan, the sky is the limit. While I could only stomach one football game in my time, I am told that our fortunes in that area have changed and it should be fun. [When I was at Duke], I was basketball usher in the graduate student section and the following year my friends and I camped out for basketball season tickets. The games were opportunities to commune with other graduate students, get rid of the stress that comes with the process and have a little fun.
Duke is also a great place to engage in outdoor physical activities- after the annual pollen storm. The trails and paths around campus and the Sarah Duke Gardens are great. Trust me, re-reading that chapter on Kant, Bergson, Foucault, or Freud isn’t going to help one bit. Go for a walk.
What is one of your favorite memories of Duke?
In the end what marks a place for me is the people I encounter there. I remember the year before I actually graduated, how I had worked so hard to try to finish and it just didn’t happen. I felt terrible. And then across the miles, almost on cue, my phone rang and it was my mentor’s wife calling with simple words of encouragement laced with her infinite optimism. It was a small act, so small that she has probably forgotten that call, but I am sure I never will. In graduate school you quickly realize that you’re part of a very small community and it’s important to cultivate meaningful relationships. So I remember Duke primarily through the relationships I forged with wonderful mentors, colleagues and friends. The good part of course is that you get to carry those relationships wherever you go.
Anna Kivlan, Ph.D.
Recent Ph.D. Graduate