(Under)Water: The Mary L. Cornille (GRS’87) 38th Annual Boston University Graduate Symposium in the History of Art & Architecture

April 2, 2022
Boston University
by Katherine Mitchell and Francesca Soriano, Co-organizers

Edward Moran (1829–1901). The Valley in the Sea (1862). Oil on canvas. Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, Indianapolis, Indiana.

(Under)Water, this year’s Mary L. Cornille (GRS’87) 38th Annual Boston University Graduate Symposium in the History of Art & Architecture, took place on April 2, 2022. Eight graduate student panelists and keynote speaker Dr. Stacy L. Kamehiro (Associate Professor in the History of Art and Visual Culture Department, University of California Santa Cruz) considered and responded to the role of water in shaping the production of visual and material culture. Sponsor Mary L. Cornille, who attended this year’s event, remarked upon the creativity of the presentations and the diversity of approaches to a theme that may sound unrelated to art historical scholarship.

Water has long occupied a place in art and image-making as subject, inspiration, and material. The universality of water serves as a useful framework for uniting visual and material production across cultures, geographies, and centuries. Its innumerable and perpetually changing forms can also highlight differences. Bodies of water provide food, materials, commodities, and waste disposal for human communities. They also function as spaces of transit, connection, exploration, and trade, and as sites of religious observance and social identity. Water and water bodies are a source of mystery, myth, and danger. The challenges posed to humans by both too much and too little water continue today. Expanding scholarship in the green and blue humanities considers the important presence of the natural force of water and its environs in cultural and visual production.

The papers in the morning panel took up the theme of “Water as Resource.” Moderated by PhD student Hannah Jew and with technical support from PhD student Colleen Foran, the panelists discussed themes of danger and control. Krista Mileva-Frank (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) opened the day by sharing her research on aquariums. In “Troglodytic Technology: The Grotto Aquaria of the Expositions Universelles,” she discussed immersive viewership and themes of control and spectacle in exhibits that mimic underwater submersion. Marina Wells (Boston University) highlighted gender construction and conceptions of water-related danger in images related to the nineteenth-century whaling industry in “Selling Maritime Men: The First American Whaling Images and the Masculinity they Produced.” The third paper in this panel, presented by Dada Wang (University of California, Davis), moved from historical to contemporary work. In her talk “Reframing Narratives of Water Control: Mechanisms of Resistance in Chinese Performance Art,” she shared fascinating examples of water-based performance art and how they confronted and engaged with governmental water policies in China. Finally, Murtaza Shakir (Columbia University) considered public wells—their construction and placement—within the context of the Islamic institutionalization of providing drinking water to all citizens during in the Fatimid era in his paper, “The Fatimid-era Well in al-Jāmiʿ al-Anwar: An Inspiration for a Retrospective Study of the Islamic Tradition of Siqāyah.”

The group reconvened after a lunch break for a keynote lecture by Dr. Stacy L. Kamehiro, Associate Professor in the History of Art and Visual Culture Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Dr. Kamehiro’s lecture included a discussion of her thought process and art historical approaches as she wove together themes from the student papers. She bridged the two panels in three sections: “(Under)Water,” “Water as Worlding,” and “Vā Moana: Water as Place and Path.” Dr. Kamehiro considered themes such as water as a life force rather than death force in Oceania and Oceanic culture; water as related to movement and transformation in contemporary works; and the need for storytelling in considerations of and activist work to fight climate change, respectively. She included a detailed discussion of her ongoing research on the world tour of Hawaiian King Kalākaua and water as a pathway for Hawaiian survival, transportation, resources, and exchange. Dr. Kamehiro concluded with a consideration of water as linking space and time and its centrality to Oceanic art and visual culture. Following her lecture, PhD student Renée Brown moderated an engaging and thought-provoking discussion.

The second student panel of the day, “Water as Connector,” was moderated by PhD student Carter Jackson with technical support from PhD candidate Alex Yen. The four papers continued threads and themes from the morning panel and keynote, and highlighted the myriad ways that water can, and has, permeated the creation of visual and material culture. Alexandra Creola (University of Michigan) began the afternoon panel by examining nymph cults in southern Italy and considered why Greek colonists depicted nymphs in specific and unique ways. Her paper, “Embodiments of Sacred Waters: Artistic Depictions of Water Nymphs in the Ancient Greek Colonies of Southern Italy,” discussed water as a liminal space through careful examination of figural representations. In the next presentation, “Floating Forests: The Pacific Ocean in Oh Haji’s Textiles,” Soo-Min Shim (Australian National University) presented water as a site that connects movement. She provided an in-depth analysis of Zainichi Korean artist Oh Haji’s textiles in terms of their installation and materiality and considered how they use a decolonial framework to destabilize the viewer and fight visual boundaries of land and ocean. Gabriella Johnson (University of Delaware), in her talk “The Triumph of Trapani Coral,” considered water as a site of material extraction and identified sea coral as a distinctly Sicilian material that circulated globally. She addressed the unsustainability of coral harvesting practices and used methods of eco-materialism to conclude that coral was symbolic of the Habsburgian Spanish empire. In “Liquescent Interiors: Water in French Decorative Wallpaper, 18041863,” Ivana Dizdar (University of Toronto) introduced the concept of hydroimperialism and discussed the crucial role of water, and the places where land and water meet, in colonial interaction. She also highlighted various water bodies, including rivers and arctic waterscapes, in her reading of nineteenth-century French decorative wallpaper.

Nine thoughtful and thought-provoking talks, as well as active participation in the discussion from the History of Art & Architecture community, made for an engaging day. We were delighted to see that connections between the papers and themes sparked interesting discussions. This event would not have been possible without the student volunteers who helped edit the Call for Papers, read and reviewed numerous abstracts, advanced slides for the presenters, and moderated questions. Further support from Susan Rice, Cheryl Crombie, Gabrielle Cole, and Professors Michael Zell and Becky Martin was invaluable. Despite the challenges of the Zoom format, presenters joined from four different continents, bringing together an array of perspectives and ideas. We hope that these productive conversations were just the beginning of collaborations and further considerations of water in relation to visual and material culture.


Katherine Mitchell is a PhD candidate in history of art and architecture at Boston University. Her ongoing dissertation research is focused on the history of riverine photography in the nineteenth-century United States as an instrument of imperial control and illustration of Euro-American ecological sensibilities.

Francesca Soriano is a PhD candidate in history of art and architecture at Boston University. Her dissertation research is focused on U.S. art and visual culture associated with South American and Caribbean birds and avian products in the nineteenth century and how it participated in imperialistic activities as well as a hemispheric extractive economy.

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