Imagined Museums

Katarzyna Pieprzak, Williams Professor of Francophone Literature, French language and comparative literature
Katarzyna Pieprzak (photo by Scott Barrow)

Katarzyna Pieprzak was a graduate student studying Arabic in Fez in 1998 when she took a road trip across Morocco with friends. Their journey took them to Tangier, where one of her companions wanted to drop in on the Museum of Contemporary Art.

They arrived to find the building locked, though the posted hours clearly stated it should be open. When someone arrived a few hours later and let them in, “We were the only ones in the museum the whole time,” recalls Pieprzak, now an associate professor of Francophone literature, French language and comparative literature at Williams. “It was kind of interesting that it was a place that was entirely unvisited.”

The oddity of it all left her wondering how a national museum of contemporary art could be so disconnected from the public it served. She has spent the years since answering that question for herself and others, most recently in her book Imagined Museums: Art and Modernity in Postcolonial Morocco (University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

Inspired by her experiences, she frequently incorporates contemporary texts discovered during her travels into her teaching. For spring 2012, she has developed a comparative literature course taught in English examining the role of museums—primarily French and European—in imperial history. For the final project, students will design their own gallery or museum based on their reading of the materials.

Meanwhile, she spent spring break 2011 completing a brief residency with an influential arts collective called La Source du Lion, which is responsible for community art throughout Casablanca. The highlight of her stay was a lecture she delivered to about 60 people, including artists, anthropologists and a museum director, at the collective’s studio. A philosophically and emotionally charged session on the future of Moroccan museums followed and lasted more than an hour.

Though the government has made overtures to create formal spaces for artists, the Moroccan art community remains skeptical. In the meantime, Pieprzak says, artists continue to improvise in the absence of permanent, physical, well-curated space.

Read more about Katarzyna Pieprzak in the June 2011 William Alumni Review. (For the text-only version, click here.)

You can also visit her website.