Objects of the past, present and future

Objects of the past, present and future

 Office of the Dean January 6, 2021

UCI art historian traces South Asia's present in objects from its past

By Annabel Adams

A tattered leather-bound photo album found in the Getty Research Institute’s archives is one of University of California, Irvine art historian Alka Patel’s latest discoveries. Patel believes the photographs were taken by British military surveyors during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1881) and may comprise the earliest available documentation of a notoriously difficult region of Afghanistan: the southern city of Qandahar and its surroundings.

Whereas many humanities researchers focus their study on texts of the past, Patel’s focus is on objects of the past, including artworks and buildings produced between the 12th and 16th centuries in South Asia, which is made up of Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Her scholarship around these works reveals the oft-changing ways inhabitants of this vast area have identified themselves and their surroundings over centuries. 

“I’ve always thought of the object writ large as an infinite phenomenon—I don’t think there is ever enough having been said about a building or an object or, in fact, a human-intervened landscape,” she says. “Objects can serve as windows to the past while their public perceptions and uses at any given moment reveal their power and relevance to the present.”

After earning her Ph.D. in art history from Harvard, Patel joined UCI in 2007, where she is currently an associate professor in the Department of Art History, Ph.D. Program in Visual Studies and minor in archaeology. Patel has expanded course offerings available in these academic paths to include South Asian art and architecture. Her undergraduate courses, for example, include Arts of India, Arts of Islam, Early Modern Empires and South Asian Photography. Before the shift to remote learning, Patel often incorporated opportunities for students to view and handle primary works from special collections, from resources in the UCI Libraries to artifacts she arranged to be brought to campus.

Numerous cultural institutions worldwide have seen the value in Patel’s unique scholarly approach. Over the years, her work has received support from the American Institute of Indian Studies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Philosophical Society and the UC Office of the President. Her most recent awards include the Getty Research Institute’s Consortium Fellowship (2017-18), where she worked on her current two-volume project and taught the consortium seminar on iconoclasm and the destruction of cultural heritage sites for political ends.

The destruction of cultural heritage sites around the globe is both an ongoing and contentious issue. One example that shook the world was when the Taliban destroyed two giant Buddha statues embedded into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan valley of central Afghanistan in March of 2001. While the destruction brought attention to the rich pre-Islamic heritage of the country, the shocking quality of the news overshadowed the larger history and story surrounding the two statues, such as the numerous ancient cultures that flourished in Afghanistan and the rigorous archaeological excavations throughout the country during the last century.

In addition to shining light on the ways cultural sites are imbued with changing political meaning, Patel brings to light new objects and areas of study. In 2019, while she was a Josephus Daniels Fellow in residence at the National Humanities Center, Patel completed the first of two books dedicated to the Ghurids, a dynasty of Iranian origin from the province of Ghor in modern central Afghanistan. Before Patel, this group had received little scholarly attention. “The Ghurids have remained in the shadows,” she wrote in an early article based on research for her book.

Her forthcoming work, titled Iran to India: The ShansabānÄ«s of Afghanistan, c. 1145-1190 CE (Edinburgh University Press, 2021), traces the nomadic origins of the Ghurids and their impact on Central and South Asia. While the Ghurids’ beginnings remain obscure, they went on to create an empire unseen for almost a millennium, extending from modern Afghanistan through Bangladesh and conjoining the Iranian and Indic cultural worlds for the next thousand years into the present day. This book and the next, Building the Indo-Persian World (due 2024), write an architectural biography of the Ghurids and challenge what Patel argues to be an artificial separation between the architectural histories of South Asia and the Islamic world.

Patel’s architectural documentation has taken her across the globe, from her native India to Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran and Cuba. Given the uncertainty of access to many of these regions, she has pursued a wide range of media, chronology and geography in her documentation, which has become an Artstor archive in her name. Containing approximately 15,000 images of objects, buildings and archaeological sites from her fieldwork, the archive makes well-researched images accessible to scholars and teachers. “Limited access to these regions curtails global engagement where it is most needed,” she explains. “And that is where scholarship can make a powerful difference.”

Making her scholarship, and scholarship in general, accessible to educators and the public is a passion of Patel’s. Over the last year, in conjunction with the National Humanities Center’s Educational Outreach Office, she has led several workshops and webinars for K-12 educators, including a module on civil discourse that demonstrated the relevance of visual analysis in combating racial profiling and other social biases. “My time at the NHC instantiated and made real the everyday relevance of humanistic thinking in every aspect of life. I had always felt deeply convinced of that and committed to that idea.”

With COVID-19 barring Patel from research-related travel, she has turned her attention back to the leather-bound album of photographs held by the Getty Research Institute since 2014. In a bid to “take the photographs home,” Patel and a Getty Research Institute curator are collaborating on an exhibition of the photographs (in facsimile) called “At the Crossroads: Qandahar in Images and Empires.” The 53-image exhibition was anticipated to open in Qandahar itself this past summer, but due to the pandemic, it is now scheduled to premiere in summer 2021 before going on to tour Herat and Kabul, making it the first project undertaken by the Getty within the country of Afghanistan. Additionally, Patel is working with UCI Libraries’ Special Collections to stage a scaled-down version on campus, the only U.S. venue for the exhibition.

Until then, Patel is planning a new interview series with the UCI Humanities Center that will pair School of Humanities faculty who have new book publications in dialogue with journalists and public figures. The goal is to make humanities scholarship visible, especially at a time when conventional routes of book publicity, like the book tour, remain on hold. It is fitting that this innovative concept is hers, seeing as new approaches to the past are her forte.

With additional reporting by Daniel Rivera and Audrey Fong