Below is an excerpt from a conversation with our new Associate Curator Afshan Bokhari. We couldn’t resist sharing the many interesting things we’ve learned about Afshan since her recent arrival.
Q: First of all, your resume is quite impressive . You have found time to study architecture at Harvard, work as an architect, teach at several prestigious colleges, have three children and speak Hindi/Urdu, Japanese, Persian, Arabic and French. What do you have to say for yourself? Let’s start with the languages. What a range. How have you used them?
A: My parents immigrated to Queens, New York from Pakistan when I was eight years old. The brighter side of being colonized by the British for 250 years is that you are accustomed to functioning in two languages at a very early age. I grew up with English and Urdu/Hindi and this flexibility in languages allowed me to add more languages to the repertoire with ease. I learned Japanese while living and teaching in a women’s college in Sapporo, Japan for four years.
I learned to read Persian (Farsi), Arabic and French while researching and writing my dissertation. My dissertation was on the 17th C. Mughal princess, Jahanara Begam (1614-1681), the daughter of the emperor Shah Jahan (d.1666), the patron of the Taj Mahal. The court documents during the Mughal reign were written in Farsi and required an intense study of the language to understand the passionate and personal narratives of the princess’ autobiographical Sufi treatise and anthology of Sufi saints.
While working on my dissertation, my advisor remarked that the work we dedicate our lives to ultimately points to our inner-workings. Jahanara Begam’s life was not unlike mine, though we were separated by 350 years. The similarities include: the oldest daughters of an over-bearing and inflexible and conservative patriarch who mandated that success was the only option ever. Most importantly, the princess and I articulated and emboldened the self through Sufism, the mystical aspect of Islam. I have found that mysticism in general has resonated with women through the ages and across all three monotheistic faiths: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Q: What drew you to work at PEM and how do you plan to use all of your professional experiences here?
A: I became interested in the Associate Curator position because it seemingly combined all of my academic and professional experiences, strengths and interests in art, architecture, publications and institutional advancement. It is an exciting time to be at PEM during the expansion plan, equipped with all of my varied experiences, and to help in forging a new vision for the museum. I’m excited to be part of this vision in whatever role I may play toward those objectives.
I’ve had a long history with PEM and have brought my college students to visit the various exhibitions and collection. In particular, the Herwitz collection has been a focus to explore contemporary South Asian art. It was such a privilege for me and my students to visit the only permanent contemporary South Asian exhibition in America.
The Asian Export collection was another area of critical inquiry for my classes. Concepts of Orientalism and how they apply to material culture are at the core of my art history classes. The specific nature of PEM’s collection as export art for the western market allowed me to turn Orientalism on its head and explore reverse Orientalism. So, instead of how did the Westerner frame/view the “other,” we asked, how did the export art crafted by the “other” capture and project the non-western artists’ perceptions of what they thought the westerner expected of their culture and themselves. It was most intriguing and the compelling analysis could not have been possible without PEM.
Q: You consulted to PBS on arts, culture and traditions of the Muslim world. Can you tell us more about that?
A: I was asked to participate as an academic consultant and was a featured faculty for the production of the film Islamic Art: The Mirror of the Invisible World. The film is the first of its kind in that it doesn’t approach Islamic Arts as a monolithic, unchanging and uniform projection of a religion that spans across five continents. Instead, it visually narrates the commonalities of formal elements within the varied representations and breaks them down into its essential components: Water, Color, Word, Space, etc. and explores the role these aspects play in the Islamic Arts across space and time.
Q: You’ll be traveling soon for PEM. Where are you going and what will you do there?
A: My first travel assignment is to go to Colombo, Kandy and Galle in Sri Lanka to attend the Lanka Decorative Arts conference on “Ivory and the Elephant” at the end of November. I will give a paper at the conference that generally and specifically describes PEM’s Chinese ivory collection and the diversity in the representation of the objects. Another aspect of the trip is to network among scholars of Southeast Asian history and to research objects for the upcoming 2016 exhibition Asia in Amsterdam. Sri Lanka played an important role in the Dutch colonization of Indonesia and Southeast Asia from the 17th C. I am very excited about this trip as it will be the 30th country that I have visited. However, I am not looking forward to the 26-hour flight…
On loan from The Tina and Anil Ambani Collection of contemporary art from India, renowned artist Anish Kapoor’s sculpture “Halo 2006″ arrived at PEM in early 2010. In this video, watch as the PEM crew unpacks and installs his immense stainless steel masterpiece.