You are here


By Anita Nejat

Carla Peterson, professor emeritus of English, and Hasan Elahi, associate professor of art, are two of 178 scholars, artists and scientists in the U.S. and Canada to win the 2016 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship from an applicant pool of almost 3,000. Often characterized as "midcareer" awards, Guggenheim Fellowships are intended for scholars who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.

Carla Peterson’s research focuses on 19th-century African American literature and culture in the northern U.S., including black women writers and speakers, African American novelists from the 1850s onward, issues of gender and urban studies.

As part of the Guggenheim Fellowship, Peterson will work on her new book, “‘All Things are Becoming New’: Taste and the Making of African American Modernity in Antebellum New York and Philadelphia.”

Her new book project, she said, comes out of her latest award-winning book, “Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City,” in which relied on family history to tell her story.

“Black Gotham satisfied a double need – discovering my family history and looking more broadly at the social history of 19th-century black New Yorkers, specifically the elite group who acquired education and went into trades and professions,” she said. “You can’t start analyzing African American intellectual thought without looking at this earlier period.”

Her new book looks more broadly at issues of culture and the history of ideas, she said.

“In the 19th-century, slaves, and hence all black Americans, were considered to be pre-modern, working bodies, so I’m trying to argue that mid-century northern urban areas, particularly New York City and Philadelphia, were in fact sites of an early black modernity,” she said. “African Americans in those cities are both urban and urbane; they consider themselves modern people who constantly keep up with the taste of the time and the taste of the town.”

Peterson suggests that a racial politics is always at play, and that African Americans in those urban areas were invested in getting rid of slavery and moving toward racial progress. Her work seeks to expand scholarship in African American life beyond slavery to include northern free blacks, who played a significant role in shaping American history.

Peterson has received many awards for her scholarly works. In 2001-02, she was awarded a residential fellowship at the New York Public Library’s Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. In 2005-06, she received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to begin her research on “Black Gotham.” More recently, she was awarded the 2011 NYC Book Award in History from the New York Society Library for “Black Gotham,” and was a finalist for the 2012 Gilder-Lerhman Institute Frederick Douglass Prize. She also received a Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities fellowship from the University of Maryland (UMD) to establish a website dedicated to “Black Gotham.”

Peterson taught at UMD for 36 years. She started out teaching 18th- and 19th-century English and French literature, which led her to write her first book, “The Determined Reader: Gender and Culture in the Novel from Napoleon to Victoria.” This book got her tenure and allowed her to take a sabbatical leave. When she returned to teaching, she became especially interested in American and African American literature, which led her to write her second book “‘Doers of the Word’: African-American Women Speakers & Writers in the North (1830-1880).” Subsequently, she decided to explore the social history of New York City because that is where her family came from, so she began investigating her family history, which resulted in “Black Gotham.”

Peterson said her new book project brings together all the strengths of her research interests. She said that she’s going back to 18th-century British literature because writers of that period were intensely preoccupied with what it meant to be “modern.”

“I always felt that UMD gave me the opportunity to do what I wanted – in both my teaching and research interests,” Peterson said. “The English department always encouraged me to follow my passions, so I did.”

Hasan Elahi’s work examines issues of surveillance, privacy, migration, citizenship and borders.

As part of the Guggenheim Fellowship, Elahi will work on a project that looks at the relationship between selfies and the War on Terror.

After the FBI detained him in the Detroit Metropolitan Airport in 2002 and mistakenly listed him as a terrorist, which led to a six-month investigation in Flordia, Elahi decided to make his life an “open book.” By creating a public website, Elahi put his entire life online, documenting his daily encounters and location via a GPS device that he keeps in his pocket – a self-surveillance project he calls “Tracking Transience.” His website allows officials to see his whereabouts at any time of the day. It also features his art and technology installations since 2005.

“Algorithms are only getting smarter, and online movements easier to track,” Elahi wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian. “So it’s time for a paradigm shift: going forward, the best way to restore privacy will be to give it up and instead embrace total transparency.”

Elahi said his new project focuses on conducting surveillance on others. “This project explores the role of someone else’s images when they are stored as data in the publicly accessible realm,” he wrote in his proposal for the Guggenheim Fellowship.

Elahi plans to visit urban areas and photograph selfie stick users. He will then attempt to find the image of each user’s selfie online, re-photograph the user’s image and create a set of diptychs illustrating the selfie alongside his photograph.

“Why the selfie?” he wrote. “In most circles, the selfie gets no respect, yet I believe that the selfie is a very political action, whether the participant is aware of it or not and it is directly linked to the War on Terror.”

Elahi believes that taking selfies is a component of self-surveillance, which is part of larger political movement because you are choosing to put yourself online. In other words, the culture of the selfie is leading to more minable information that is publicly online for anyone to see.

“Consider the link between World War I and the birth of Dadaism and an attempt to make sense of the world at a time of great technological upheaval,” he said in his proposal. “Likewise, following that trajectory, the link between World War II and the birth of abstract expressionism, at the time of the shift of world power from Europe to the United States.”

Elahi suggests that there is a distinct artistic expression that comes out with this type of political movement. In particular, he said the selfie stick gives a certain style to self-surveillance because of the angle and position of how selfies are taken using this tool.

“In looking at the Korean War and then Vietnam War, a close link appears alongside the birth of minimalism and pop art,” Elahi said in his proposal. “I am presenting that the popular form of artistic expression that is now linked to the War on Terror is the selfie and the process of continuous and perpetual self-documentation.”

Elahi has had many of his works displayed in international venues, including SITE Santa Fe, a museum platform located in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that displays works of cultural significance and innovation; Centre Georges Pompidou, a well-known complex in Paris that houses modern works of art and architecture; and Venice Biennale, a prestigious cultural organization that hosts contemporary art exhibitions biennially in Venice, Italy; among others.  

Elahi has been invited to speak about his work at various functions, including the American Association of Artificial Intelligence, the International Association of Privacy Professionals, the World Economic Forum and TED Global, among others. In 2012, he was invited as a "Young Scientist" to the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions in China. His work has also been covered by many news outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, Fox News, CBS and Al Jazeera.

Elahi’s awards include grants from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Arts (2014); Creative Capital Foundation (2012); and Art Matters Foundation (2011). He was also an Alpert/MacDowell Fellow (2010) and Resident Faculty at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (2009).

Elahi has taught at UMD for six years. His courses explore contemporary issues in art and technology as well as digital cultures and creativity. From 2011 to 2014, he was the director of the Design | Cultures + Creativity program in the Honors College.

Vice News recently named us the #1 most militarized university in the country,” Elahi said. “If you were to triangulate the locations of the FBI, CIA and the NSA, it lands exactly on our campus, so this is the perfect place for me to work!”

Date of Publication: