Researcher talks history and ethics of carved elephant ivory

KENNESAW, Ga. | Nov 12, 2020

Jessica Stephenson
Jessica Stephenson

Kennesaw State University’s Office of Research is hosting a one-hour web show every other Friday at 4 p.m. to showcase the varied research being conducted by KSU faculty members. “Research with Relevance” spotlights Kennesaw State researchers in a live interview followed by an interactive question-and-answer session with the virtual audience.

Jessica Stephenson, associate professor of art history in the College of the Arts, will be the guest on the Nov. 13 show, presenting her research on the history and ethics of carved elephant ivory from 19th century Africa. An art historian raised in South Africa, Stephenson primarily focuses her research on the growing field of modern and contemporary African art. In advance of the upcoming Research with Relevance show, Stephenson answered a few questions about her interest in research and its benefits to students.

How did you first get involved in this field of research?

I’ve always loved to travel and explore and was fortunate to have done a lot of that from a young age. My parents took my brother and me out of school in South Africa (my country of origin) for half a year, and we travelled throughout Europe, the UK and the USA, visiting ancient sites and major art museums. I also started formal art and music lessons at a young age and was pursuing an arts career in high school. Research came naturally to me. I picked college classes that offered me on-the-ground research opportunities. I participated in Stone Age archeological digs, documented ancient rock art sites, and conducted interviews with local artists.

I am currently conducting archival and museum collections research on photographs and carved elephant ivory sculptures from the 19th century Congo. This project was actually an option for my Ph.D. Art History thesis, but at the time, I opted instead to conduct research with living artists in South Africa. After completing my Ph.D., I returned to the carved ivories topic, which worked well since the material is housed in American and European collections and thus more accessible to me since I now reside within the USA.

What was the defining (or ‘aha”) moment when you realized this is what you wanted to do?

After I finished my undergraduate degree at the University of Witwatersrand (WITS) in South Africa, I became a curatorial assistant of works on paper at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the primary art museum in that city. This was my first taste working in an art museum, and I fell in love with the dynamic world of museums. In my position, I researched the collections, planned exhibitions, conducted tours with visitors and developed an outreach program. From there, I returned to graduate school to prepare to do research and to teach with the goal of working in art museums. This current project on 19th century photographs and carved elephant ivory sculptures brings me back into archives and museum storerooms. It’s thrilling to get to pour through old documents and collections and throw light on things from the past.

How are you involving students in your research?

I worked as an art museum curator at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University for a decade, and students were always an integral part of my research and curatorial projects there. I’ve continued that at KSU. Students have collaborated on exhibitions projects, and I currently have a research assistant sponsored through the Office of Research assisting with my carved African ivories project.

What do you hope students learn from you in the classroom?

I teach courses on art made outside the Western canon, and so my focus is to assist students in gaining the tools and perspective needed to read art through historical or cultural lenses that are far different to their own. My approach to studying art history is also not typical for that discipline. I don’t focus on facts and dates. Rather, I emphasize the importance of critical thinking and visual literacy – skills important to art history, but transferable to any discipline and profession.

What is a common misconception about your field?

I think art history is often perceived to be stuffy, dry and elitist. But that is not the case for my field of African art history which is informed by anthropology, a very people-centered discipline. Art historians travel extensively and often get to spend time with artists who are typically far from dull, so it can be a very exciting field to work in. There is also the perception that art history does not lead to a profitable career. Again, not true, as many of our KSU art history majors have landed professional positions in local arts centers and museums. Even without a graduate degree, they are making significant contributions to the local arts ecology.

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