Mural, Mural, On The Wall
Art History's newest faculty member, Anna Seastrand, studies South Asian art. Coming from the University of Chicago, Seastrand was drawn to the University of Minnesota’s legacy of fantastic scholarship in that field, and she is excited to be working with students at the University of Minnesota.
Tell us about yourself. Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where I majored in art history with a concentration in Asian art. I actually entered college as a computer science major and also thought about pursuing English, women’s studies, and intellectual history before I eventually settled on art history. I liked art history because you have to know a little bit of everything to study it. You have to know about things like religion, economy, and politics to understand how art operates and what it means in a particular context.
After deciding on my major, I traveled to UW–Madison to complete an intensive summer language program in Tamil. Then I spent the entire academic year in India where I was apprenticed to a silk sari weaver, and so I got to learn how to do everything from spinning bobbins to actually designing and weaving my own sari by the end of the year. That experience set me on a path to continue studying Indian art, leading me to get my PhD in art history from Columbia University.
What does your research focus on?
Much of my research is on mural painting. One aspect I focus on is the depiction of landscapes—and I mean “landscapes” broadly, in ways we might not think of when we think of “landscape painting.” Unlike landscape painting in the West, in temple murals we don’t find paintings of beautiful mountains or serene forests, or anything like that. Instead, “landscapes” are sets of connected sites, typically images of temples that describe how those temples relate to each other. Through these landscapes, we can think about the ways in which people imagine the world they live in. What are the meaningful places in that world? And how do people remember or commemorate them? How do people travel between those sites? How are those sites integrated into people's social, religious, or political imagination?
For sites depicted in temple paintings, pilgrimage from one site to another is possible as a purely imagined journey. The paintings are also related to poetry that describes these connected sacred sites and that again might take you on a spiritual or mental journey that is shared with a devotional community.
How did you get interested in murals?
I really loved living in India, and I found the paintings fascinating. I actually found what I thought would be my dissertation site from a survey book of South Indian art and architecture, in which there were a few sentences about mural paintings that were inside a temple gateway tower. I had never heard of paintings inside of gateway towers; gateways are something you usually go through, not into. I wanted to see it, so I took an overnight train down to the south of India and took a bus to this little village.
I got there at midday and woke up the guardsman and got him to take me into the tower, which is hundreds of years old. We walked up an unlit stone staircase that was full of bats rushing out, and emerged into this incredible room, where every surface was painted, the ceilings were carved, and it was just amazing. I had never seen anything like it. That experience started my desire to research murals.
Why is your research important?
For one, it preserves something that is ephemeral—something that’s disappearing. That’s important because it gives us a window not only onto the artistic history of [a] place, but also onto the history of religion, politics, the way people organize themselves, and what life looked like in the past.
Studying murals also gives us a way to understand the world more broadly. Westerners often think about the early modern world as one of European expansion and exploration, paving the way for European imperialism. If we change lenses and start to see the cultural dynamism of other places in the world, we can begin to balance out a view of the early modern world that isn’t just about European activity.
What projects are you are working on at the moment?
My book is tentatively titled, Muralspace: Painting in the South Indian Temple, and is about early modern temple paintings and their relationships to texts, religious practice, and sensory experience. I’m also finishing an article on the nature of portraiture in South India, and another on monasteries and how monks represented themselves in paintings. One of my articles is being translated into Tamil to be published in India, and so I’m working on that, too.
I really enjoy collaborative work and have a number of ongoing projects. I am a co-organizer of an ongoing international collaborative project on digitizing sonic and visual archives. We have been working towards making federated research possible across different repositories, because although there are many libraries, private collections, and institutions that have archives in South Asia, it is difficult to access them, both electronically and sometimes even in person. Growing out of this collaboration, I’m involved in another project, called “Interwoven: Visual and Sonic Histories of the Indian Ocean World.” I’m also involved in a multi-year project on a set of 13 interconnected temples in southern India, for which I’m working with scholars of religion, epigraphy, and architectural history. That project is titled, “Making Heaven on Earth: Place, Space and Ritual at Viṣṇu Temples in South India.”
What do you hope to accomplish while here at the U?
I have so much to explore. The Ames Library of South Asia is an incredible collection of South Asian materials that I’m looking forward to getting to know better, both for research and for teaching. And I’m really excited to get to know the students—I’m only teaching one course this semester, but next semester I’ll have two, and it will be great to get to know both graduate and undergraduate students interested in Asian art. I’m eager to get to know both faculty and students who work in South Asian studies, as well as in early modern studies. Both of these areas seem like dynamic centers of intellectual interest on campus that I am excited to be a part of.