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5 Questions with Paul Farber

Over three years ago, LSA American culture alum Paul Farber (M.A. ’09, Ph.D. ’13) and a team of researchers audited nearly 50,000 U.S. conventional monuments. He’s found that these monuments shape public perception of historical events, even though many do not tell the whole story. He founded Monument Lab in the name of public service, envisioning a world described in the organization’s value statement, in which “monuments are dynamic and defined by their meaning, not by their hardened immovable and untouchable status.” Now, in a new collaboration with the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), Farber invites the college to create public symbols of joy, regeneration, and repair.

LSA: In 2020, Monument Lab was awarded a grant by the Mellon Foundation to support the production of a definitive audit of the nation’s monuments—a project that garnered widespread attention. What were your findings?

Paul Farber: The National Monument Audit, a 2021 study produced in partnership with the Mellon Foundation, offered a composite portrait of the ways we as Americans have shaped our monument landscape across generations. The study set included conventional monuments from all 50 states, U.S. territories, and numerous Tribal communities. Our audit drew on sources from federal, state, municipal, Tribal, institutional, and other publicly available sources.

As for the key findings, we summarized them like this:

In conducting this audit and discussing its findings with people from around this country and beyond, we have been inspired by the ways place-keepers and stewards of memory have utilized this research in the service of the work they are doing to reimagine our public spaces.

Read the full interview in the Spring 2024 LSA Magazine.

U-M Museum of Art Unites with Art Museums on College Campuses Across the Country Ahead of 2024 Election

The U-M Museum of Art is set to play a crucial role in the 2024 U.S. presidential election season by presenting a series of non-partisan exhibitions and events with a coalition of 10 art museums, all on public university campuses, across the country aimed at showcasing the power of art in fostering civic engagement. 

U-M has a history of heightened engagement around elections, particularly through its Creative Campus Voting Project which creates a seamless voting experience for young—and often first-time—voters with the hopes of fostering a new generation of lifelong voters.

In addition to U-M, the coalition of art museums on college campuses includes those at Michigan State University, Penn State University, UCLA, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Iowa, University of Nebraska, University of Oregon, and University of Wisconsin-Madison. Many of the museums are in areas of the country often cited as “purple states,” where political divisions can be heightened.

Designed to unify disparate conversations around democracy and bridge political divides across their varied campuses, the coalition will host high-profile exhibitions, public programs, and collaborative initiatives each designed for their unique communities. Many of these programs have begun to roll out and will continue into the Fall 2024 election season. 

“There is no better place for this kind of community building and civic participation than art museums,” said Christina Olsen, Director of UMMA. “Art brings people together and helps us understand and accept our differences in ways few other things can. This partnership with other art museums on college campuses makes it clear how essential the role we all play in our communities can be.”

Read more from The New York Times.

NPR’s Anastasia Tsioulcas named U-M’s inaugural Knight-Wallace Arts Journalism Fellow

Anastasia Tsioulcas, Culture Correspondent for NPR, has been named the inaugural Knight-Wallace Arts Journalism Fellow in a joint effort between the University of Michigan Arts Initiative and the Wallace House Center for Journalists.

Tsioulcas is a correspondent on NPR’s Culture desk and classical music critic at The New York Times, the first journalist to hold such a dual role. Her reporting focuses on music at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity. 

Previously at NPR Music, she curated episodes of the Tiny Desk concert series, hosted live events, and created video shorts. Tsioulcas has reported globally from Africa, Asia and Europe. Prior to NPR, she was a reporter and critic for such publications as Gramophone and Billboard. A trained classical musician, she holds a B.A. in comparative religion from Barnard College, Columbia University. 

As a Knight-Wallace Arts Journalism Fellow, Tsioulcas will delve into Detroit’s classical music scene, researching the effectiveness and outcomes of efforts to diversify both performers and audiences. 

Since 2020, nationwide, classical music institutions and presenters have reshaped their offerings to appeal to more diverse audiences. Drawing inspiration from the university’s own programming, Tsioulcas will track initiatives and performances in Detroit and the surrounding region and examine how well these programs tackle systemic challenges and opportunities for growth.

“I’m thrilled and honored to have been selected for this fellowship,” Tsioulcas said. “It’s a unique opportunity to look holistically at the evolution of classical music programming, and to share what I learn with students, NPR’s audiences, and the broader public.” 

This fellowship marks the latest collaborative effort from the Arts Initiative to expand access to the arts on campus and strengthen the arts ecosystem nationally and across southeast Michigan. As a Knight-Wallace Arts Journalism Fellow, Tsioulcas will actively engage in the Arts Initiative, collaborating with artists-in-residents and arts organizations to enhance learning, arts research and the campus experience for students.

Drawing from her extensive journalism background, Tsioulcas will lead a series of student workshops for budding arts journalists. Modeled after sessions she led at Stanford University, the workshops will help students develop their skills in arts journalism and explore their creative potential. Additionally, Tsioulcas will mentor students in crafting compelling short-form journalism for social media and other digital platforms. 

“The broad, enthusiastic response to this new partnership between U-M’s Wallace House and the Arts Initiative has demonstrated the vital importance of supporting arts journalism in this moment,” said Mark Clague, Interim Executive Director of the Arts Initiative. “Welcoming Anastasia as our first fellow opens up a host of opportunities to connect our campus to the community and to inspire our students to engage in arts criticism that addresses urgent cultural issues and social themes.”

Tsioulcas will be a member of the 51st Knight-Wallace Fellowship class and participate in bi-weekly Wallace House seminars, cohort-based workshops and training, and international travel to bring context to the economic and social forces shaping news coverage.

“This partnership with the Arts Initiative comes at a critical time when staff positions for arts reporters have all but disappeared in American journalism. We’re making an intentional statement about the importance of arts coverage in a healthy journalism ecosystem,” said Lynette Clemetson, director of Wallace House Center for Journalists. “Reporting that fosters engagement with artistic expression is as vital to society as reporting on any other pillars of our communities or public institutions.”

The Knight-Wallace Fellowships offers accomplished journalists access to the rich resources at U-M to pursue ambitious projects. From tackling pressing newsroom challenges, to digging into research for a long-term reporting project or developing a journalism venture, Fellows undertake a range of projects aimed at advancing the profession and fostering an informed and engaged public. The full class of 2024-25 Knight-Wallace Fellows will be announced in May.

Painted pianos across Ann Arbor in celebration of Make Music Day

Ashley Gray, a U-M student at the School of Kinesiology, approached the U-M Arts Initiative with a unique idea. “In my hometown of Danville, California, painted pianos were placed throughout unique public spaces,” said Gray. “The sounds of the piano lingered throughout the halls and streets of downtown, calling for pedestrians to walk over and tickle the ivories. Although these ‘art exhibits’ were temporary, it left a special imprint on community members,” Gray said.

She proposed a similar idea to execute here in Ann Arbor with colorful pianos set up across Ann Arbor.

The idea gained momentum and through the Initiative’s Projects in Partnership (PiP) (*formerly Collaborative Projects) funding program, which supports large-scale projects that activate the campus and local community, and collaboration with the Ann Arbor Summer Festival (A2SF), Community Keys was born.

From May 1-June 21 current U-M students and graduates will decoratively paint three pianos presented throughout Ann Arbor at the Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor Farmers Market and the U-M Shapiro Library. On June 21, the pianos will appear at Top of the Park as a finale for a Make Music Day community concert.

“I am eager to see the school community unified by such a unique experience,” Gray said. “The power of music is universal!”

All U-M undergraduate and graduate students across all U-M campuses were invited to submit design ideas for Community Keys.

Selected piano artwork designs came from first year U-M Biochemistry student Vivien Wang, first year Earth & Environmental Science student Avery Jura, and a team of undergraduate student members of the Michigan Sport Business Conference (MSBC).

“The mission of the U-M Arts Initiative is to support our faculty and students in making big, bold, and beautiful ideas come to life. Ashley Gray’s Community Keys not only invites everyone—on campus and off—to enjoy and even to make music, it sends a vital message about how art brings us together as a community,” notes Mark Clague, interim director of the Arts Initiative. “That the grand finale of the whole project will come together at this year’s Ann Arbor Summer Festival couldn’t be more perfect.” 

A2SF champions performing arts, outdoor entertainment, and community spirit. In addition to a nearly four-week festival each June that attracts a diverse audience of over 80,000 people and offers over 200 concerts, art exhibitions, kids activities, spectacle, and film screenings, A2SF presents compelling experiences throughout the year on the campus of the University of Michigan and throughout Washtenaw County.The mission of A2SF is to present a world-class celebration of arts and entertainment that enriches the cultural, economic, and social vitality of the region. A2SF was founded as a partnership between the University of Michigan and the City of Ann Arbor and produced its first season in 1984. For more information on all events, please visit A2SF.ORG.

Beam us up, George: Takei to speak at U-M

The University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance has the unique opportunity to bring the teachings from their classrooms into a once-in-a-lifetime experience with activist and actor George Takei.

Best known as Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek, Takei has appeared in more than 40 feature films and countless television roles, and is a Grammy-nominated recording artist and New York Times bestselling author.

He is also a civil rights activist bringing valuable attention to the LGBTQIA+ movement, and has, importantly, shed light on an underrecognized piece of American history: the forcible incarceration of Japanese-Americans in internment camps during WWII, where his own family spent three years during his childhood.

Takei will speak Monday, April 1, to SMTD students about his internment camp experience and the Broadway musical that was inspired by it, “Allegiance.” A second talk by Takei, which is free to the public, will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 2, at the Power Center.

The many interwoven connections that conspired to make this U-M engagement possible start with Takei and Lynne Shankel, an SMTD professor who worked as the music supervisor, arranger and orchestrator on “Allegiance.” She was approached by the show’s director and her longtime friend, Stafford Arima, to work on the show.

Also starring in this production was actor Telly Leung, who is currently guest directing SMTD’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” opening next month. Leung and Arima will join Takei in the April 1 discussion with students.

But to really bring these connections home, Brent Wagner, professor emeritus and chair emeritus of U-M’s Department of Musical Theatre, has been teaching around “Allegiance” as part of his course curriculum since 2021, and has known Shankel since her time as an SMTD student. In fact, he saw “Allegiance” in its original Broadway run and met up with Shankel afterwards.

“Luckily we were able to film the Broadway version—it’s been shown in theaters across the country—and because of this, Brent Wagner is able to teach ‘Allegiance’ as part of his musical theater history class,” Shankel said. 

“He is very aware of pieces that expand the musical theater canon beyond the base of its history, which is a whole lot of white people. That is a big part of what he teaches, and a big part of why I’m here and what we do. The whole mission of the musical theater writing minor is to have different faces, different voices, involved in writing the material that we perform.”

Credited with starting the Department of Musical Theatre at U-M, Wagner began teaching “Allegiance” in an online-semester during the pandemic. He had Shankel and Leung join a Zoom class to speak with the students about their experience working on the show. In the time since those initial online class discussions, Shankel has joined the U-M faculty, and when Wagner asked her if she might speak to his class again in 2024, she said she had set her sights much higher.

This year, the stars aligned with timing and location, and she was able to arrange for Takei, Leung and Arima all to reunite and speak with students as part of her Monday Lab series—a weekly session for students to hear from guests and industry experts of different professional backgrounds, from casting agents, composers and lyricists to actors and directors.

“It’s always valuable for the students to go back and hear how a production originated and how it developed, because writing for musical theater is a very inexact science,” Wagner said. “These shows are tested and rewritten so many times, and even then, you really never know what you have until you put it in front of an audience. It’s a magical field, but getting there is a real challenge and I want the students to know they are a real part of this process.” 

“Allegiance” exemplifies the importance of musical theater and its unique ability to touch on political and difficult subject matter in a very accessible way, he said. For example, the show was in its preview run as the 2016 election cycle was revving up. Donald Trump had made a controversial statement regarding whether he would, or would not, have supported the Japanese internment camps during WWII.

“In response, George was all over the news media talking about how dangerous that comment was, and said that for every performance of the show that we had on Broadway, we saved a seat for Donald Trump,” Shankel said. 

“George knew Trump from ‘The Apprentice’ and said, ‘Donald, we want to invite you to this show so you can learn about what the internment was actually like.’ So we saved a seat that had a little card on it that said ‘Reserved for Donald Trump’ and it was empty every night of the run.

“Musical theater is a living thing and I think that sometimes we can address things in theater that are difficult to address in real life. Through acting and song and dance, we can kind of find our way to people’s hearts in a way that is hard to do when you’re just reading the newspaper with horrible headline after horrible headline.”

Wagner said, “The great thing about musical theater is that whenever the music comes in, we are sharing the heart and soul of the characters through the emotion the music conveys; I like to say, the words in a song appeal to our intellect and give us information, but the music gives us the emotional part of it.

“Unlike in a book or a documentary, musical theater conventions allow us to enter their world, find out what they’re thinking. The character can explore their own thoughts through music and lyrics and try to figure out issues they would have trouble verbalizing, and we get to be a part of their journey. Music really connects us to a character.”
Tickets to “An Evening with George Takei” can be reserved at the Michigan Union Ticket Office.

Unlocking creativity: Artist perspectives break free in Michigan Prison Art Exhibition

After 20 straight years of participating in the Annual Exhibition of Artists in Michigan Prisons, this will be the first time artist Duane Montney will personally attend the show. 

Released from a 32-year prison term this past November, Montney will have three pieces in its 28th edition March 19-April 2.

“I just want to be there to absorb it and enjoy being next to a lot of artist work that I admire,” he said. “Over the years, I have enjoyed the process of coming up with a concept and allowing my creativity to fill in the spaces. The way I could get lost in a piece took me away from prison but also allowed me to show the viewer something about prison or time they might not have thought of.”

This year’s edition will feature 750 works of art by 490 artists in two and three dimensions, including portraits, tattoo imagery, landscapes, fantasy and wildlife, as well as images about incarceration and entirely new visions.

"Days Gone," acrylic work by Aaron Rose.
“Days Gone,” acrylic work by Aaron Rose.

“Every time I see art from this year’s exhibition, I see something new and inspiring,” said Nora Krinitsky, the Prison Creative Arts Project Project director. “Some artists use materials in ways I’ve never seen before and others are making art under some of the most difficult circumstances I can imagine.”

This year, organizers will also emphasize storytelling and artists’ voices in the gallery in an audio tour through written artist statements and by installing the art thematically. 

“Our goal is to help visitors connect with the artists who can’t be in the gallery themselves,” Krinitsky said. 

Part of the show since 2003, Montney this year will be able to share insights about his work personally. Two of his pieces, he said, are highly personal since they portray his 32-year journey inside Michigan prisons. For example, “The Path” starts in dark charcoal, fades to graphite and ends with paint. 

“This piece has too many significant parts and people of me to list,” Montney said. “PCAP’s shows have meant so many things to me at different times. It has always been an avenue to explore the issues prisoners face, the dark stuff and eventually some fun things. I always wanted to give the viewer something to look at and think about.” 

Curatorial process 

According to organizers, this year’s exhibition stands out due to the increased participation of students throughout the art selection process. PCAP offered a new curation mini-course that required students to immerse themselves in the most critical aspect of the annual exhibition process: engaging with the artists directly and making informed selections of artworks for display at the annual exhibit.

“Through engaging in reflective art-making and writing, the students explored and encountered both their own humanity and that of the artists,” said Emily Chase, PCAP arts programming coordinator. 

Another addition was the Exhibition Design Meeting. PCAP’s curatorial team staff and many students who participated in the art selection process this past fall dedicated two full days to a thematic analysis of the 750 art pieces they chose for the exhibition.

“During this time, we immersed ourselves in the collection, allowing overarching themes to naturally surface and sparking enriching discussions about how to display the pieces best,” Chase said. “I hope this will infuse the exhibition space with the authenticity of the artists’ voices.” 

"Luxury Groove Bar," acrylic work by ꓘBurns.
“Luxury Groove Bar,” acrylic work by ꓘBurns.

Humor was one of the themes PCAP’s staff uncovered during the design meeting, like “Dreaming of a Way Out/Wishful Thinking” by artist Radu. This small watercolor illustration shows the perimeter of a prison. Inside the prison yard, a UFO is beaming prisoners up into outer space and away from thinking, while outside the prison, a unicorn watches.  

“I marveled at the use of humor and fun that we saw across facilities this year overall,” Chase said. “Satire can be a way of getting through rough, hopeless or painfully absurd moments. But it can also communicate complex ideas or states of being in a way that is both accessible and clever.” 

The exhibition, free to the public, is presented with support from the Michigan Arts and Culture Council. It runs March 19-April 2 at the Duderstadt Gallery, 2281 Bonisteel Boulevard, on U-M’s North Campus in Ann Arbor. Gallery hours are Noon-6 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. 

Prestigious Chinese object program moving to UMMA from Smithsonian

The University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) has been selected as the new home institution for the renowned Chinese Object Study Workshops, created and administered by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Asian Art and funded by the Mellon Foundation. The workshops offer a vital platform for training graduate students enrolled in PhD programs in the Chinese art field.

The Chinese Object Study Workshops offer graduate students in Chinese art history an immersive learning experience, emphasizing close observation and art historical analysis through direct interaction with exceptional museum collections of Chinese art in North America.  Under the National Museum of Asian Art at the Smithsonian, the program has been extremely impactful for more than ten years in the training of the future generation of art historians and curators who will concentrate on Chinese art.

Now, thanks to a significant investment from the Kingfisher Foundation, UMMA will use its strengths in Chinese art scholarship and conservation, along with its extensive Asian art collection, to sustain and strategically advance this important program.

Learn more on UMMA’s website.

ISR to host artist residency in partnership with Arts Initiative

The Institute for Social Research will host Houston-based artist Rick Lowe as part of the U-M Arts Initiative’s Creators on Campus program.

Lowe is a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” Fellow recognized for his community-based art projects over the past two decades. For this residency, he is collaborating with Abigail Winograd, an internationally renowned curator he has worked with since 2018.

Beginning this fall, Lowe will work closely with ISR and U-M faculty to conduct research that explores the social impact of the arts in the region which will lead to producing a work of public art.

“We are thrilled to welcome Rick Lowe and incorporate his innovative, community-focused vision into our work,” Cagney said. “Lowe will engage with social science scholars at ISR and across the university to identify ways in which social science and the arts can come together to seed novel research and inform creative practice.”

The residency is supported by the Arts Initiative Visiting Artist Integration Project, which partners artists with campus units and is one example of the broader Creators on Campus program.

Read the full story at The Record.

Ni Une Más: Transforming Trauma into Healing Power Through the Arts

Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra, a composer and U-M instructor, has co-created a trailblazing world premiere production, “Ni une más,” with alumni of U-M’s Knight Wallace journalism fellowship. The show braids together music, theater, and dance to tell the stories of those who have survived gender-based violence and to showcase their growing agency. The show empowers survivors to share their stories as a healing ritual through music, dance, and theater.

Unfolding in three acts, the show moves from Mexico City to Puerto Rico to Ann Arbor. 

Act One takes place in Mexico City, where former Knight-Wallace fellow Ana Ávila fights machismo culture and takes a stand against assault on public transit. Act Two unfolds in Puerto Rico, where engineer Alexandra Ruiz Costas bravely honors the memory of her sister Andrea, who was murdered by her ex-partner. Act Three is set in Ann Arbor, where athlete survivors Jon Vaughn, Trinea Gonczar, Tad DeLuca, and Chuck Christian have built close-knit survivor supporter networks on college campuses across the country. The production culminates with a communal ballad, “We Can Heal Together,” a fight song of solidarity, “Hail to the Victims,” and a signature piece offering hope for the future, “Lookin’ for Love.”

The production of “Ni une más” (“Not One More”) is funded in part by a grant from the U-M Arts Initiative and premieres March 15-16, 2024 at Bethlehem United Church of Christ in Ann Arbor. The show is presented by Healing Bells and IRWG and moves the often silenced topic of gender-based violence to center stage.

In recent years, Ruiter-Feenstra has composed musical works shining light on diverse collective traumas — from the Pulse nightclub shooting’s aftermath to Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. Most recently, she focused her artistic advocacy on the harrowing tales of former U-M athletes Tad DeLuca, Chuck Christian and Jon Vaughn, who suffered sexual abuse by a university doctor. Pamela’s work on sexual violence starts with her connection to Knight-Wallace fellow Ana Ávila and then María Arce. Pamela is currently teaching a Composing for Change: Healing Arts course this Winter 2024.

The production team includes GRAMMY-nominated composer and artistic director Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra, journalists and storytellers Ana Ávila and María Arce, and athlete Tad DeLuca. Additional co-creators include: choreographer and filmmaker Natalia de Miguel Annoni; dancer Isa Huembes; Ana Ávila, María Arce, Jon Vaughn, Chuck Christian, Tad DeLuca, and Trinea Gonczar as themselves; lead singer, actor, dancer, and visual artist Mahi Ruiter-Feenstra; actors, dancers, and singers DelShawn L. T. Akpan, Angelina Kretz, Hannah Clague, and Karen Flahie; emcee, moderator, research lead Mark Clague; production student coordinator Annabella Paolucci; sound design and voice-over speaker and singer Natalia Quintanilla Cabrera; recorded singer Micah Christian; voice-over artists Alexandra Ruiz Costas, Georgie Correa, Gabriel Correa Acosta; lighting designer and crew Jade Guerriero and Jada McCarthy; audio engineer Dave Schall; producer Suzi Peterson Steward; and stagehands Tony Griffiths and Jack Hanna. 

Over the last year, they co-created new material by and for survivors and inadvertently created a survivor network in the process. “Although working with traumatic topics is challenging, remaining silent allows abuse to continue, which is not an option for us,” said Ruiter-Feenstra, “Most of our team members are survivors. Collaborating together via the arts is inspiring, empowering, and healing. As a result, we’ve built a tight-knit community of arts activists. We can’t change what happened to us, but we are passionate about having an artistic voice to prevent the violence from occurring to others.”

The title of the production, “Ni une más,” references a slogan often used to stand up to domestic violence and femicide in many Latin American countries. Through transforming trauma into healing power via the arts, “Ni une más” spotlights the local and global problem of gender-based violence as a global health crisis.

The show is survivor-centered and features all true stories. The production team deliberately avoids giving the spotlight to perpetrators and does not depict violence. Instead, it focuses on the survivors’ agency and paths to healing. Brief moments of survivors recounting trauma and decades of silencing may evoke emotions for attendees, but ultimately the production reveals empowerment through solidarity.

“Ni une más is a showcase of courage, creativity, and friendship that aspires to make real the promise of the arts to make a difference in our lives, not just for the individual survivor but for society as a whole,” notes Mark Clague, interim executive director of the U-M Arts Initiative. “The show invites us as a community to confront a harrowing public health crisis and, ultimately, proposes love as a vehicle for healing.”

Bringing the stories to life through movement, the production’s choreography aims to capture the emotional and physical trauma of sexual assault.

“My process for creating the choreography came down to thinking about how the human body instinctually reacts to this type of trauma and where a person can experience these emotions on a somatic level,” said choreographer and filmmaker, Natalia deMiguel Annoni, “Isa [the main dance performer] and I took a lot of time talking about these stories along with our trauma to figure out how we can use it to further inspire the way we approach the movement. Being Latinx people, Isa and I both hope to bring power and honor to Andrea, Alexandra, and María’s stories. We will never forget what we have learned from these three incredibly strong and inspiring women. Ni une más.”

“Ni une más” exemplifies how the arts can foster empowerment and social change around the often overlooked public health crisis of sexual abuse worldwide.

For more information on “Ni une más” and to secure free tickets, visit this link for March 15, 2024, and this link for the March 16, 2024 performance. Both performances take place at 7:30 p.m. at 423 S. 4th Ave., Ann Arbor, MI.

This project is made possible by a grant from the U-M Arts Initiative and is co-sponsored by IRWG, ODEI, SMTD’s Research Catalyst Initiative, the CEW+ Frances & Sydney Lewis Visiting Leaders Fund, Communications & Media, SAPAC, Sociology, Avalon Healing Center (Detroit), and Bethlehem United Church of Christ.

Miss World’s return to India after 28 years provides global cachet

India will host the 71st Miss World pageant in Mumbai March 9. This is India’s second time hosting Miss World, the oldest existing international beauty pageant, after a controversial first time in 1996. 

Swapnil Rai is an assistant professor in the Department of Film, Television, and Media at the University of Michigan. As an interdisciplinary scholar, she works at the intersection of media studies, critical cultural communication, women’s and gender studies, and industry studies. Focusing on the Global South, she investigates how transnational networked cultures intersect with the media industries and with questions of policy, geopolitics and audiences. 

Tell me about your work on the Miss World pageant. 

The Miss World Pageant, held in Bangalore, India, in 1996 and organized by Indian megastar Amitabh Bachchan’s company ABCL, was a big step in the evolution of essential institutions that helped the broader realm of entertainment. My work looks at what the Miss World contest did for the Indian entertainment industry structurally. I focus on how it added a new crop of global beauty queens to Bollywood, who went on to embody and symbolize the rapid globalization of India and the nation-state itself as a worldwide brand.

Why do you think Miss World is so important to India? 

The first Miss World pageant held in India was the center of many controversies. It came at a time when India opened its doors to economic liberalization and things were changing rapidly. The Bangalore pageant site was where Indian anxieties about globalization played out. The event garnered massive protests from all manner of activists, including women’s organizations, left-wing parties, conservative right-wing groups, religious groups, farmers, and even Phoolan Devi, India’s infamous female bandit, referenced it as a “foreign invasion.” 

Miss World symbolically represented the threat of the Western world infiltrating a nation that had been rooted in socialism up until that point. It was an easy target because it was a foreign pageant where women’s bodies were on display for global consumption, and it represented a leisure, commodity culture, which was new for India at that time.

What is the significance of having the pageant in India this year? 

India is now a huge market and one of the world’s most important emerging powers. The pageant is providing large corporations an opportunity for expansion in the country. It also serves as one of the many prestigious global events being hosted in India recently (Cricket World Cup, G20 summit, etc.), further solidifying the nation’s branding. Miss World and its winners provide a global cachet and recognition.

I know India has won Miss World six times (and Miss Universe three times). What’s helped with India’s success? 

The repeated Miss World victories were very strategic. There was an impetus to create a strong foothold for luxury brands and industries in India. After two wins, there was a well-established model to keep churning out beauty queens. In fact, after the initial wins of Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen, Indian women went on a pageant-winning spree and, in some years, brought home all three crowns of Miss Universe, Miss World and Miss Asia Pacific. In essence, there wasn’t just a desire for India to win but a well-established and well-rehearsed formula for honing and mentoring global pageant winners.

Some of India’s Miss World winners have become some of India’s most prominent stars globally. Explain how/why you think this happens. 

The early stars like Aishwarya Rai were pathbreakers. Rai had an excess of aesthetic capital that positioned her as “corporeal transnationality,” meaning that with her gray-blue eyes, pale skin and lighter brown hair, she represented a “global” face of beauty. The cosmetic industry loved her, and Hollywood tried to recruit her for international projects. She created visibility for Indian entertainment that helped the next pageant winner, Priyanka Chopra, with more traditional “Indian” looks. It helped develop an infrastructure to promote the crossover of Indian stars into global markets. Now, most pageant winners get offers for films and international projects, which hadn’t happened in India before. 

Your work focuses on the star power of Indian celebrities. How does that relate to your work on Miss World? 

I look at how Miss World winners became a part of the Bollywood industry and their perception and prestige have changed. The beauty pageant winners Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen marked a new phase in which beauty pageant winners became closely tied to national identity. Compared to the Miss Indias of the 1950s, the latest global beauty queens possessed abundant symbolic and sociocultural capital, which lent them power. 

Rai and Sen were a class apart from the Miss Indias of yesteryear, who were diminutive starlets, considered less than Bollywood actresses. An example is when Rai returned from her pageant win, she visited with the prime minister and conveyed Mandela’s message to him. This marked an inflection point when the pageant winners were elevated to cultural ambassadors and utilized for national branding. Of all the beauty queens, including Miss Universe winners, the most prominent are Rai and Chopra, who both started their careers with a Miss World victory.