May 2015 ArticlesUncategorized

GSAS: Teaching the David in Dubai

By Nancy Schmucker ’98

Grad_01_nbWith the Guggenheim and the Louvre opening branches in Abu Dhabi, and Dubai teeming with galleries, artists, dealers, collectors, international art fairs, and film festivals, the United Arab Emirates has become a must-see destination for art lovers.

So when Sabrina DeTurk M.A. ’96, Ph.D. ’98, saw an opportunity to teach art history at Dubai’s Zayed University, she couldn’t resist. “The chance to be a part of this burgeoning art scene was really appealing to me,” she says.

DeTurk earned her undergraduate degree in art history from Wellesley, then her M.A and Ph.D. at Bryn Mawr. She has spent much of her professional life in higher education administration, most recently as associate dean and executive director of the graduate programs of arts and sciences at St. Joseph’s University.
But DeTurk missed teaching, and Zayed provided an opportunity to return to the classroom. Moreover, she could jumpstart her research career in a city ripe with a strong, grassroots art scene. She applied—and was pleasantly surprised to learn that Marta Ameri ’95 on the search committee—and received an offer in May. Three months later, she and her young daughter made the move to Dubai. For now, her husband alternates between Dubai and Philadelphia, where he runs a printing business.
The family settled in quickly. “We’ve been surprised at how at home we feel,” she says, “Because of the growth, there’s a large expat community from all over the world … Plus, everyone—expats as well as Emiratis—is eager to talk about new ideas and projects. It’s a very exciting place.”

But cultural differences can be challenging, especially in the classroom. The great majority of DeTurk’s students are Muslim women, whose cultural traditions can be a major obstacle to teaching art history. “I couldn’t figure out how to teach ancient Greek sculpture without showing a single nude,” she says.

It is a challenge that has made DeTurk rethink her teaching. “I couldn’t show Michelangelo’s David without covering it to the point of compromising the effect of the work,” she explains. “So, I spent much more time on the Pieta. The Pieta not only became a prime example of Michelangelo’s youthful talent, but also an early example of the kind of dramatic tension that sets his representation of David apart from others. And you can use the Pieta to talk about his handling of marble as well. So it can be done; it just takes a thought process that is different than for a Western classroom.”

Now in her second semester, she has a better idea of the boundaries and how students will respond. “Once I forgot to redact a slide and said, ‘Oh no! I’m so sorry!’ But the students laughed, ‘We’ve seen worse.’ I mean, they watch TV, so they do see things. Some of the more conservative women can take offense, but others say, ‘Don’t worry about it.’”

She also has to be careful not to impose Western ideas about women. “I’ve always encouraged young women about their careers,” DeTurk explains. “So, of course, I want to jump in and encourage these students.”

But in Dubai, she has had to pay close attention to individual boundaries before engaging in a conversation about where a particular student can go with her education. “Some will clearly have a traditional Middle Eastern life and probably never be in the workforce,” she says. “But others are very interested in a Western-style graduate school career.”

A Renaissance specialist—her thesis focused on 16th-century Venetian painting—DeTurk has branched out, with an impressive list of publications about contemporary art. Her current research projects reflect that interest. First up is an examination of Middle Eastern street art, including the graffiti, murals, and stencils that blossomed with the Arab Spring.

But her major focus will be on contemporary memorials and their associated museums, both in the Western and Middle Eastern world. In thinking about the 9/11 memorials in the U.S., she was struck by the ways that they have become spaces where the dead are conferred with an almost martyr-like status. Pursuing that idea, DeTurk hopes to conduct “a cross-cultural, or comparative, analysis … between memorialization in the West and the Middle East.”

This spring, she will visit Tehran’s Martyrs’ Museum—memorializing those who lost their lives in the 1979 Revolution and the eight-year war with Iraq—and other memorials in Iran to begin her research. “Not a lot has been done in this area,” she explains, “so I’m hoping there’s room to build a broader body of scholarship.”