Thursday, January 21, 2016

Meet Shawnya Harris, our new Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Curator of African American and African Diasporic Art

Shawnya Harris, Larry D. and Brenda A.
Thompson Curator of African American
and African Diasporic Art
If it hadn’t been for a vacant seat on a shuttle bus and a welcoming smile, the Georgia Museum of Art might never have had Shawnya Harris as its inaugural Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Curator of African American and African Diasporic Art. The way Harris tells it, she stepped aboard the bus at the annual College Art Association conference only to be greeted by the grin of Lynn Boland, the museum’s Pierre Daura Curator of European Art, who encouraged her to take the seat next to him. As they chatted, she was intrigued by his ability to pursue academic research, organize exhibitions and work with the public, all at the same time. They spent the rest of the drive talking about the Thompsons’ collection, which she knew from the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland.

Harris holds both master’s and doctoral degrees in art history from the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, and she received her bachelor’s degree in African American Studies from Yale University. It was during Harris's undergraduate years that she decided she wanted to work in museums. The way the university integrated its gallery into the curriculum, combined with the enthusiasm of certain crucial professors for visual arts, hooked her. One of those teachers was Robert Farris Thompson, a specialist in Black Atlantic art, and Harris was inspired by his eclectic way of approaching material, fusing fine with vernacular art in an effort to tell a sweeping, inclusive story.

Robert, one of our preparators, and
Shawnya exchanging a laugh.
Harris comes to the museum from Elizabeth City State University, Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where she taught courses in African American art, 20th-century art and art appreciation, as well as survey courses on the history of Western art. In addition to teaching at UNC Chapel Hill and Middle Tennessee State University, Harris served as director of the University Galleries at North Carolina A&T State University, in Greensboro, North Carolina, and worked as an art consultant at North Carolina Central University’s art museum and as a research assistant at UNC Chapel Hill’s Ackland Art Museum.

Her eyes light up when she talks about what she wants to accomplish in her position at the Georgia Museum of Art. The upcoming reinstallation of the permanent collection, for example, is a way to juxtapose artists of color with their peers, helping them become part of the narrative of art history rather than confining them to their own section in the galleries. 

Harris will start teaching at the Lamar Dodd School of Art next academic year, with Introduction to African American Art, a survey course that will allow her to use the museum’s permanent collection. Here, as elsewhere, she plans on conveying what she learned from her own teachers: an enthusiasm for the subject and for the work. To Harris, that is the most important thing she can pass on.

Adapted from an article in Facet, the museum's quarterly publication. The official press release can be read here.

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