Two alumni from the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland were among the winners of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for 2017. Jefferson Pinder ’93, theatre and ’02, M.F.A. art and Mahwish Chishty ’07, M.F.A. art won for their work in fine arts.
“We are proud of these alumni and excited that their visions have been recognized through Guggenheim fellowships,” said Bonnie Thornton Dill, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities. “Jefferson Pinder and Mahwish Chishty are innovative, interdisciplinary artists who explore the complexity and diversity of human experience and are an inspiration to the arts community at UMD and beyond.”
Guggenheim Fellowships are intended for scholars who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts. This year, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation awarded Fellowships to a diverse group of 173 artists, scholars and scientists, selected from a group of almost 3,000 applicants. Fellows are appointed on the basis of prior achievement and exceptional promise.
Jefferson Pinder is an interdisciplinary artist who creates performances, video work and objects that ask viewers to consider the complex construction of identity. Drawing on training in mixed media, theater and dance, his work incorporates elements inspired by everything from soundtracks and popular music to science fiction.
Pinder’s video work is multi-layered and often features performers working themselves to exhaustion. In the film “Afro Cosmonaut Alien (White Noise),” for example, Pinder’s white-painted body interacts with images NASA mission launches and the film, “The Right Stuff,” projected over him.
The piece, like much of his work, is influenced by afrofuturism, a cultural aesthetic that looks at the African diaspora through the lens of science fiction. Growing up, Pinder’s parents watched both “Soul Train” and “Star Trek,” and he became a fan of science fiction at an early age.
“Afrofuturism is this incredible metaphor for exploring the correlations between what we understand as science fiction and our social expectations,” he said. “I love the genre because it is exploratory and unprescribed. It opens up new ways of understanding identity and blackness.”
Pinder places no restrictions on the tools he uses, employing materials as varied as mercury lights and glitter. No matter what the medium, his goal is to create pieces that challenge audiences to consider the complexity of the African-American experience.
“I had a eureka moment in graduate school at the University of Maryland,” he said. “I realized that I didn’t have to do only theatre or only art, or limit myself to certain kinds of materials. Instead, I let the concepts drive the work.”
During his Guggenheim fellowship, Pinder will create a series of performances for a road trip through states including Florida, Mississippi and Alabama. The project is partly inspired by the Freedom Riders, the civil rights activists of the 1960s who challenged the status quo of segregation in interstate transportation and in local customs by riding interstate buses through the South in mixed racial groups. Pinder hopes the performances will create opportunities for dialogue about black identity in spaces outside the museum.
“It’s great to do these pieces in museum settings where you get a receptive audience,” he said. “But I am curious about using the work to begin a conversation with audiences that may not be as receptive to performance art or black bodies. The complexity of the work will come from the way people interact with it.”
Pinder’s work has been featured in numerous group and solo shows, including exhibitions at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, Showroom Mama in Rotterdam, Netherlands, the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia and the Zacheta National Gallery in Warsaw, Poland. He has shown work in several Washington, D.C. galleries, including the National Portrait Gallery and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. His piece, “Mothership (Capsule),” is currently on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Pinder is a professor of sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Pinder credits the Department of Art at the University of Maryland for helping him expand his creative practice, and says he was especially inspired by David C. Driskell, W. C. Richardson and Patrick Craig, who helped him find the freedom to experiment with different forms.
“I can’t say enough good things about the university,” he said. “Patrick Craig in particular helped me to trust my own work, and David Driskell introduced me to a world of innovative art by African American artists that still provides models for my own artistic practice."
Mahwish Chishty’s artistic practice explores her interest in Pakistani politics and traditional culture relative to the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. The pieces in “Drone Series,” for example, juxtapose the sleek outlines of drones with the elaborate, colorful designs of “truck art,” a traditional folk art used by Pakistani truck and bus drivers to decorate their vehicles.
A 2011 visit to her native city Lahore, Pakistan inspired the series. At the time, the U.S.-led drone war along the border with Afghanistan was going strong, and Chishty’s friends and family could talk of nothing else. To create the ornate truck art designs for the pieces in “Drone Series,” Chishty drew on her training in miniature painting at the National College of Arts in Lahore. This tradition dates back to the Mughal Empire, which ruled the Indian subcontinent from the mid 1500s until British colonization.
For Chishty, focusing on the drone shapes while covering them in truck art imagery is a way of opening a dialogue about Pakistani culture and addressing the reality of modern warfare.
“For people living in drone war zones, learning to differentiate a drone from an airplane by recognizing its shape is a matter of survival,” she said. “And the truck art challenges the depersonalized nature of the drones by making them vibrant, visible and unique.”
During her Guggenheim fellowship, Chishty will work with children on both the U.S.-Mexico and Pakistan-Afghanistan borders to create, exchange and fly kites. The project is inspired by Pakistani springtime kite festivals and the testimony of a 13-year-old boy whose grandmother was killed by drones. Speaking before the U.S. Congress in 2013, the boy said he prefered to play on cloudy days when drones did not fly. Traditional Pakistani kites are made of paper and do not fly well on humid, cloudy days. For Chishty, the kite exchange will be a way of thinking about play, freedom and the legacy of terror passed along to children living in border zones and conflict regions.
Chishty has strong ties to the U.S. and Pakistan and hopes that working with children from border zones in both countries will create new ways of understanding these conflict zones.
“Pakistan is surrounded by five different countries, so I have first-hand experience of how relations are always more intense near borders,” she said. “I want to work with a border that is close to the United States, where I live, and relate that to what is happening in Pakistan.”
Chishty has exhibited her work nationally and internationally at venues including the Imperial War Museum in London, United Kingdom, the University of Technology Gallery in Sydney, Australia, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn, New York and the Gandhara Art Gallery in Karachi, Pakistan among others. She has been in residence at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York and the Chicago Cultural Center.
Chishty is an assistant professor in the School of Art at Kent State University.
The supportive, diverse environment in the Department of Art at the University of Maryland helped Chishty become a more confident, daring artist.
“The M.F.A. program was nurturing and exciting,” she said. “I was conflicted about losing my traditional painting skills, while at the same time I wanted to work with new forms of art. The faculty, especially Foon Sham, helped me see how I could use my traditional skills to explore new things without giving them up or being constrained by them.”
Since its establishment, the foundation has granted over $350 million in fellowships to more than 18,000 individuals.
“Each year since 1925, the Guggenheim Foundation has bet everything on the individual, and we’re thrilled to continue to do so with this wonderfully talented and diverse group,” said Guggenheim Foundation President Edward Hirsch. “It’s an honor to be able to support these individuals to do the work they were meant to do.”
ARHU faculty who have won Guggenheim Fellowships include:
2015: Maud Casey, English
2014: Holly Brewer, History
2013: Joshua Weiner, English
2012: Robert Levine, English
2011: Matthew Kirschenbaum, English and Heather Nathans, School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies
2008: Mary Kay Vaughan, History
2005: Sally Promey, Art History and Archaeology
2001: Donald Sutherland, History
1999: Regina Harrison, English & School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures
1986: Adele Berlin, English
1984: John Fuegi, English
1983: Annabel Patterson, English
1981: William S. Peterson, English
1980: Howard Norman, English
1975: Jack Salamanca, English
1974: Reed Whittemore, English
1973: Stanley Plumly, English
1967: Eric Bentley, English
1965: Calhoun Winton, English
1956: Samuel Schoenbaum, English
1954: Carl Bode, English
1948: Eric Bentley, English
Photograph & Image credits:
1. Photograph copyright and courtesy of Curator's Office, Washington DC.
2. Jefferson Pinder, “Afro-Cosmonaut/Alien (White Noise),” 2007, video. Copyright and courtesy of Curator's Office, Washington DC.
3. Photograph by Rachel Suzanne Smith
4. Mahwish Chishty, “Reaper,” 2015, gouache and gold flakes on paper, 50.8 × 76.2 cm. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.