Faculty Spotlight: Heather Moqtaderi

Just like traditional on-campus classes, Penn LPS Online courses emphasize communication and connection with instructors as well as peers. Our courses are designed and delivered by Penn faculty who bring years of teaching experience as well as professional expertise to the classroom. The Faculty Spotlight series aims to introduce you to some of the outstanding instructors who make our courses so immersive and effective. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Meet Heather Moqtaderi

Heather Moqtaderi is the founder and artistic director of Past Present Projects, where she curates and organizes contemporary art exhibitions and programs that bring together material culture, history, and contemporary artistic practice. She also publishes Past Present, a biannual publication of artist interviews and reviews of exhibitions, books, and music. Moqtaderi has served as a curator of the University of Pennsylvania’s art collection, and more recently took the position of curator and assistant director of Penn's Arthur Ross Gallery.

Moqtaderi has taught courses in art history and museum studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. For Penn LPS Online, she teaches courses in the Certificate in Social Difference, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, including SDEI 2600: Inequity in Arts & Design: Re-Presenting History, which is the subject of this interview.

What can a student expect from SDEI 2600: Inequity in Arts & Design: Re-Presenting History—especially if they have never studied art history before?

There is no prerequisite for any art historical background for my course. We focus on one artist per week, read two or three short essays specifically on that artist’s work, and watch video interviews with the artist. In each of the video lectures I present, I highlight any art historical knowledge or vocabulary and define it so that everyone is on the same page. We learn together and build our skills together, using terminology for discussing both historic and contemporary artwork. Then we have collaborative discussions in Canvas that relate to course material.

The final project is really exciting: After having read about the eight artists in the course, each student chooses one artist and artwork, and writes an exhibition label for a virtual exhibition that we create collaboratively as a class.

Is there any benefit to taking an art history course like this online?

The virtual environment allows us to take field trips that aren't limited by our geographic location. I've chosen online exhibitions as part of our study that are beautifully produced online and offer an equitable experience for everyone to experience the artwork in as multisensory a manner as possible, regardless of their location. Contemporary technology allows these experiences to be very lively. Incorporating video gives us the feeling of traveling to exhibitions together. Also, the Padlet technology that we use for our virtual exhibition is a great tool for students to link to artworks virtually, and have interactive, collaborative online discussions in ways that aren't possible when we're when we're seated in a physical classroom.

It sounds very interactive. Why is collaboration and discussion important for your class?

Every student brings their own unique perspective to the course. In our online discussions, students challenge one another in constructive ways, support one another, and bring the entire group to reach new conclusions that are impossible to come to without that collaborative dialogue.

I recommend that students participate early to stimulate the discussion for each week that we’re studying material—although I have found that the LPS community jumps in very quickly! LPS students seem to be incredibly enthusiastic and motivated, and approach the material with a sense of openness and curiosity. Our discussions are a safe space to work together to understand difficult histories and learn from one another's perspectives.

What makes this course a good fit for the Certificate in Social Difference, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?

Contemporary art is a powerful avenue for understanding our shared history. The artists we study use visual language and stimulate all of our senses to challenge us to think of our shared past in new ways. Many of these artists foster the ability to look outside of one’s own framework or perspective, which I think is a really important part of SDEI curriculum. Artists are especially able to facilitate empathy through their effective means of communicating through communicating visually and through the senses creatively.

For this course, I've selected artists that are particularly resonant voices in creating empathy, understanding, and social critique through their work. For example, I highlight the work of Kara Walker, who is a well-known figure. Her work draws from narratives that many of us are familiar with, such as Gone with the Wind, and brings our attention to the ways that these very familiar cultural touchstones have racist implications that have become part of the fabric of the society that we live in. Her work is often grotesque in nature; the images are difficult to look at, and bring forward really complicated emotions that feel different from just reading about how a certain history is racist. By examining and confronting racial stereotypes like those in Gone with the Wind, her work allows us one way to understand how social inequity has become prevalent—and, in that way, helps us dismantle it.

How does your work for Past Present Projects inform your approach to teaching art history?

There are a lot of intersections between the course work and the curatorial work that I do. I curate, organize, and support exhibitions of contemporary art in historic spaces—such as The Woodlands historic building and cemetery, right in West Philadelphia near the University of Pennsylvania. I think The Woodlands does an exemplary job of making connections with the local West Philadelphia and University City communities; people can walk right from their neighborhoods into the site, and there’s an emphasis on opportunities to enjoy time with family and friends outdoors in this space.

Through Past Present Projects, I organized an exhibition in The Woodlands of art by Roberto Lugo, who is a Philadelphia-based ceramic artist, and Leo Tecosky, who is a New York-based glass artist. We cover the work of Roberto Lugo in SDEI 2600: he’s also a featured artist in Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that we visit virtually. Both artists were able to spend about a year studying the history of The Woodlands and thinking about its architecture to create site-responsive installations that were customized for the historic building, and we created a pop-up exhibition that was open for five weeks in that space: Graffiti & Ornament.

What is a site-responsive installation?

I use the term site-responsive as a more conceptual approach to responding to a site—as opposed to simply site-specific, which just refers to the size of a project fitting into a space. In the case of The Woodlands, there’s such a tangible connection to the past because of the very old gravestones. Roberto Lugo and Leo Tecosky were specifically thinking about cemeteries and ancestors, and how their own personal and cultural history relates to the people who are buried at The Woodlands.

Curating site-responsive installations with contemporary artists at historical sites is wonderful, but also very challenging, with unique issues that arise from working outside of plain white boxes built for artists. Part of my mission is to share best practices that arise, to create a supportive environment not only for my projects but for guest curators and collaborators.

Explore book recommendations from Heather Moqtaderi and other Penn LPS Online instructors in Essential reading for the humanities: 3 books recommended by Penn faculty.

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