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Five Questions for Art History Professor Helen Langa

Feminist Art History Conference

Photo by Carolyn Supinka

American University’s Art History Program sponsored its fifth annual Feminist Art History Conference (FAHC) from October 31 to November 2. The conference brought together scholars and students from all over the world to share their research on art history, feminism, and gender studies.

Helen Langa was the director of the American University Art History Program from 2008 to 2014. Currently she teaches American and contemporary art at AU. Her research addresses women’s art, political art in the 1930s, and queer identity and representation.

This is the fifth year of the FAHC. How has the conference grown and evolved since 2009?

For our first conference, we received 70 proposals for scholarly papers, and this year we received 178.

We invited major scholars in varied fields of feminist art history as keynote speakers, ranging from Renaissance to recent African American Art. Each year we have had a strong number of international presenters and some international attendees. This year, there are 16 people speaking or attending from countries including Canada, South Africa, China, Japan, Israel, Italy, and Scotland, as well as several international scholars who are teaching this year in the United States.

Can you tell us a little about the keynote speaker?

This year’s keynote speaker, Lisa Gail Collins, is a professor of Art History at Vassar College. Professor Collins earned her PhD in American studies from the University of Minnesota and has taught at Vassar since 1998. Her talk, “Here Lies Love: Feminism, Mourning, and a Quilt from Gee’s Bend,” is drawn from her current book project on history, memory, creativity, and community.

The keynote this year was very moving and interesting because Professor Collins took a single quilt image and demonstrated how much you can do with the cultural contexts of a single work. This really illustrates how writing art history is not only the result of doing archival research, but can go much deeper by exploring a work’s social and cultural meanings. 

How is this conference unique amongst other art history conferences?

The opportunity for networking with other scholars in one's field who share feminist interests is very important. Younger scholars are able to connect with more established speakers and participants, and some professors who attend have encouraged their students to come to the conference or to apply to our graduate Art History Program.

Many art history conferences focus only on one specialized time period, or are not particularly welcoming to feminist research papers. The Feminist Art History Conference provides an invigorating and scholarly atmosphere, but also one of camaraderie, support, and opportunities for academic networking, and has drawn numerous participants to come back multiple times.

How does feminist art history fit into the curriculum or mission of the Art History Program?

Feminist theory is central to the curriculum of the Art History Program. When you look at the course catalog, there are very few courses focused specifically on "women artists." Rather, all of our courses include women's professional achievements and feminist feminist scholarship as an inherent component of the curriculum.

What might you say to young scholars interested in joining this field?

There are many kinds of scholarship possible within the realm of art historical research and writing, and the varied kinds of papers given at this conference serve as a great illustration that there is no one way to do art history.

For more information about the Feminist Art History Conference, visit the conference website.

For more information about AU’s Art History Program, visit the program website.