Atreyee Gupta: "Art history, as a discipline, has constantly exploded and expanded what art is, what it can do, and what counts as art."

February 6, 2024

Person with short dark hair wearing glasses and a taupe blouseFor our next interview, I will be speaking with Professor Atreyee Gupta of the History of Art Department. Professor Gupta’s area of focus is on Global Modernism, and Modern and Contemporary South and Southeast Asian art. She is also affiliated with the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, and the Center for Race and Gender, and has been a professor here at Berkeley since 2017. 

Hello, Professor Gupta, to start us out, I’d love to hear a little more about your work in the History of Art Department. What does your research currently focus on?

I am an art historian, as you know. I work on the ‘interwar’ and ‘postwar’ period, that is, the historical period between the First and the Second World War—think Nazism, Fascism, imperialism, colonialism—ending in the decades after the Second World War—think the aftermath of the atomic explosion at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cold War, denuclearization movements, and decolonization. It is also in this period that the Third World takes shape, and it takes shape through various political avenues or political networks such as the Non-Aligned Movement, which was a coalition of 30 newly decolonized countries who formed the Cold War’s third front. It is now widely acknowledged that the Non-Aligned Movement was an epochal event central both to the processes of decolonization and the Cold War. As such, its roots go back to the invention of the Third World—or what is now known as the Global South—in the crucible of the Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, where twenty-nine newly liberated countries of Asia and Africa had gathered in the summer of 1955 to speak about international relations, sovereignty, and human rights from the perspective of the still marginalized. This is the political context that my research engages.

As an art historian, I am specifically interested in the intersection between art and politics, but from the perspective of the Third World. My research focuses on how the emergence of the Third World—and when I say Third World, I’m not talking about underdevelopment or poverty but I’m talking about the processes of decolonization that began in the interwar years and posited an epistemological challenge to the Western conception of the universal human subject during the postwar years with the aim of transforming the ontological limits imposed by imperialism on politics, culture, and life itself. I examine how the political context of the Third World impacted artistic and intellectual practices. In fact, many of the theories and concepts that postcolonial studies subsequently took up emerged during this period. Think, for instance, of the writings of Frantz Fanon and others. So the question is, how did this entire cluster of political and intellectual processes impact the ways in which artists made art or thought about themselves and their world? This is the subject of my first book, Non-Aligned: Decolonization, Modernism, and the third world Project in India, ca. 1930–1960, and my research more generally.

Division of Arts & Humanities