History of Art


HoA welcomes Dr Jacopo Gnisci as a lecturer in the Art and Visual Cultures of the Global South

21 October 2020

UCL History of Art is delighted to welcome Dr Jacopo Gnisci to the department, where he joins us as a lecturer in the Art and Visual Cultures of the Global South.

Jacopo Gnisci

Hi Jacopo – welcome to the department! Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you, it is great to be here! I was born in Rome and I started my academic career (after a lot of non-academic jobs!) teaching African art history at a university in London. I then changed several institutions and countries, working in museums or universities in Dallas, Hamburg, London, Oxford and even in the Vatican City where I got free blessings from the Pope! It was instructive to see how different kinds of institutions in different countries work and I was lucky enough to build up long-lasting friendships with many great colleagues along the way.

What does your research focus on?

During my BA I developed an interest in Christian and medieval art and I had the time to travel to the Middle East and Africa, so the two interests combined and I ended up becoming fascinated by early the history of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. I was particularly drawn to Ethiopian and Eritrean Christian art and its unjustified marginalization in Western institutions, so I continued to pursue this line of research throughout my MA and PhD. Consequently, a lot of my written work focuses on a range of topics that are relevant to the Christian heritage of these two countries and on the material and cultural interconnections between the Ethiopian Empire and its nearest and more distant neighbours. One of my latest articles looks at some of the power strategies pursued by Ethiopian Emperors through art, literature, and performance.

I have been involved in several projects ranging chronologically from late antiquity to the contemporary. Among other things, I have been recently working on the history of collections of Ethiopian art in European institutions together with some amazing colleagues from the Bodleian Libraries, Germany, and Italy. I am also working on a project that uses TEI to digitally record information about images, and I continue to contribute as a guest editor to the Endangered Material Knowledge Programme that is being run through the British Museum.  This programme supports research on material practices across the world that are critically endangered because of phenomena such as global warming and imperial globalism. I would invite readers to check out the latest piece we published on the making and significance of mouth harps in Cambodia.

That sounds interesting! Which courses will you be teaching on this year, and how will they link with your research?

That’s very kind of you to say! This term I will be teaching a course on the early history of manuscript illumination. The course aims to go beyond conventional Western-centred accounts of this history, since about half of the course focuses on contexts in Africa and the Middle East. I am also teaching an introductory course to the arts and architecture of Africa, which looks at the histories and legacies of some of the most prominent African Empires prior to 1500 CE. Part of the course will be devoted to a critique of the enduring effects of imperialism on non-African representations of the continent. Next term I should also be working with students on a thematic seminar entitled The Living Dead! However, more about that in the future!

What are you most looking forward to about starting at UCL History of Art?

It will honestly be a strange year to start, for colleagues as much as for students, but we will come out of this stronger by working collectively as a team. My top priority is student satisfaction, so I will be giving our students my all in the hope that their feedback will not be too harsh at the end of the year!

On a more personal level, I strongly believe that the future of research in the humanities lies in multidisciplinary collaboration. There are some amazing people here at UCL, and I would like to contribute or set up some cross-departmental interdisciplinary initiatives that will be beneficial for our research and, crucially, also for our students. Since a lot of my work focuses on Africa, I also hope to build up bridges with African institutions to contribute to a more ethically reflexive academic environment.

We have lots of new students joining us in September, and many returning for their second and third years. What advice would you give to these young art historians?

In the short term, I would tell them that I realize that this might look like a challenging year, but I would invite them to engage as much as possible with everyone here at the department as well as with the range of activities and resources offered by UCL. When you are setting the foundations for your career the more you can soak up the better! Of course, I would also tell them to enjoy their educational career as they will come to think of it fondly in years to come.

In the long term, I would advise them to think creatively and to challenge received knowledge. It can sometimes be tempting to follow the latest academic trend, but trends go quickly out of fashion, so they should trust their instincts and follow their passions since these are the best guides they will ever have. As I see it, our role is to support them at the outset of their amazing professional journeys.

While I am at it, let me note that I will be acting as the Careers Liaison Tutor this year, so I would like to invite students to engage with me, Sally Brown (Careers Service), their Personal Tutors, and the activities we are organising for them as much as possible. In saying this, I must really extend my gratitude to Cadence Kinsey for doing such an amazing job on careers last year. Like her, I will be working tirelessly with and for our students to advise them on resources, opportunities and career pathways.