In this episode, Dr. Kantara Souffrant, Assistant Professor of Nonwestern/Global Arts History and Visual Culture at Illinois State University and Curator of Community Dialogue at the Milwaukee Art Museum, joins us to discuss her work in the public humanities, and her transition from academia to a career in public art and community engagement.
Kantara Souffrant is an artist-scholar, museum educator, and independent curator who brings her passion for community engagement, dialogue, and facilitation to her work as a performer, educator, and community member. She holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University, with certificates in Critical Theory, African and Diaspora Studies, and Teaching. Her scholarship examines visual and performance art in the Black Atlantic, African Diasporic visual aesthetics, Black feminist art traditions, and ritual and performance in the Haitian Diaspora. Kantara, at the time of this recording, serves as Assistant Professor of Nonwestern/Global Arts History and Visual Culture at Illinois State University. She is also the inaugural Curator of Community Dialogue at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Jason Mierek 00:04 (Podcast Intro)
This is PhD Futures Now, a podcast on collaboration, career diversity in graduate education in the humanities. This podcast is a project of Humanities Without Walls (HWW), a 16 University Consortium, headquartered at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, and funded by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Deepthi Murali 00:32 (Episode Intro)
Hello, and welcome to a new episode of PhD Futures Now. I’m Deepthi Murali, the producer of PhD Futures Now Podcast. In today’s episode, Jason Mierek, Director of Operations, and Maggie Nettesheim Hoffman, Associate Director of Career Diversity at Humanities Without Walls Consortium, are speaking with our guest, Dr. Kantara Souffrant, Curator of Community Dialogue at Milwaukee Art Museum. Kantara is also an alumni of the HWW Career Diversity pre-doctoral fellowship workshop, and she will talk to us about her experience transitioning from academia to a public humanities career in this episode. For more episodes on career diversity initiatives for Humanities PhDs, please visit our website, www.phd.futuresnow.org.
The question I get often from people when I tried to talk about my job is what the humanities even are. So how do you define the humanities? And why are they important in the 21st century?
Kantara Souffrant 01:37
I’m not gonna lie. When I saw that first question. I googled it because I was like, do I even know what the humanities? And then I was? Like, I can’t I can’t answer this with a Google question. So I’ll say that with a Google answer.
For me, that I’ll start with the the final part of that question, which is that I think that the humanities continue to be under attack, as we think about more prosperous careers that could be easily applied, like the engineering, the hard sciences, these careers that for me, are really rooted in transactional approaches to making money and capitalism. And for me, the humanities are the thing that centers people in questions about people in life. And sometimes those questions aren’t black and white, they are the shades of grey that I really love.
So for me, performance studies is a really great example of the humanities because it’s all thinking about human life as performance, and thinking about what does it mean to be human? What is it means to perform? What does it mean to sort of act upon and be acted upon by the world and all of these social and natural and manmade forces like the law, or race or gender or identity? And those are the things that I think can always be answered or quantified? For me, the humanities is rooted in sort of qualitative methods of study and inquiry and the pursuit of a question that may have no fixed answer.
So I want to hear more about performance studies. Oftentimes, you know, when people do think of the humanities, they oftentimes think of what we call the legacy humanities now, like, English or history, or a non English language, what we still call foreign languages, as as succinctly as you can. What is performance studies? And how does that differ from say, like a theater degree or something like that?
That’s a really good question. That’s what I spend my whole dissertation trying to answer. So performance studies, studies human behavior as performance, and it has its beginnings in theater, and these techniques of theater, so observing the world as a stage, if you will, so that they’re actors, there are scenes or scenarios and whatnot, but it combines if you will, theater, anthropology and ethnography, and that there are different ways in which people can approach their various questions and applications of performance. So at the time that we’re recording, we’re almost a week out of the assault in Atlanta that killed eight women of Asian ancestry. And for me, there’s a way in which you can think about that as rooted in a performance of race, gender, and colonialism and legacies of violence against people of color, but specifically people of Asian ancestry. So that’s the wide bandwidth in which you can think about performance. So me examining dance, but also me examining race and legacies of colonialism and us imperialism.
Yeah, I think you’ve implicitly addressed why it’s important for the 21st century. And so I want to try to try to segue from that into a question about your, your brand new job, your new position as the curator of community dialogue at the Milwaukee Art Museum, how do you see that degree in performance studies and your expertise connecting to the career that you’ve got now this new position as curator of community dialogue?
That is a really good question. And thank you for asking it. I would say that when and this is maybe why I was attracted to that inaugural hw w symposium because or gathering of people, because I knew within my second year of my PhD program, that I didn’t want a traditional academic career for a few reasons. One, I wasn’t necessarily interested in to republish, or perish, lifestyle. And two, I was always really interested in these places of dialogue, and what it means for learning to happen beyond the classroom and these informal spaces and learning from my peers. And that might be… I want to say that that was really honed for me the importance of these spaces for conversation, discourse, and engagement. I think that’s something that I was interested in high school very much when I think about my extracurricular activities, but it was honed at Oberlin College in my work, and also in my training as a mediator that happened through the Center for Dialogue and Conflict Resolution.
So for me, in my second year, and meeting with my advisor, telling my advisor, you know what, I think that I might be interested in public pedagogy, and museums in particular, because I was also very much committed to the arts and the ways that the arts could be a platform for having these conversations, and for archiving experiences and histories and how the arts act or perform on us, right, influenced our emotions and our engagement and how we see the world. So for me, the this job ends up being, if I sit about it, and I think about it, through the language of faith and hard work, I think that all of my experiences led me to feel like dialogue through a museum and a museum as a public space for engagement and community building, and more importantly, creating cities that really honor and reflect the people who live in those cities. That’s, that’s, I think the thing that ties it all together.
Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann 07:44
Just wondering if I could ask a question here. I’m wondering since this is a new position for you that the at the Milwaukee Art Museum, if you could speak a little bit to what you think that this position means in a city like Milwaukee, which as we know, is one of the most racially segregated if not the most racially segregated city in the United States.
So I will, I will answer that through a bunch of arcs that I hope I can bring together. So the first is that this is a it’s not only new to me, but it’s new to the institution. Right. So I’m the inaugural curator of community dialogue, which is both amazing and, like, creates a lot of anxiety for me, because I’m building it as I go. But I will. I think that, for me as a person who identifies as Haitian American, broadly and politically black, in terms of a global blackness, that descends from the African continent and the politics of black people.
I think this position is one where I want to be able to honor that Milwaukee is, is an is often named as the most segregated city in America, and the worst place for black people. And on the flip side, to nuance that with the fact that I know lots of black people living in Milwaukee, my husband is one of those people who live laugh, raised children, have families organize, make art, find joy and pleasure and pain in their lived experiences in the city. And I mentioned that flip side of a black experience in Milwaukee, because for me, this position is really one that is rooted in thinking about the nuances in the city, what it means for an art museum to be reflective of those nuances and honor those nuances and have the capacity to be a flexible, responsible partner that is able to honor the humanities and the richness of people’s experiences and to not create a singular narrative about our city. And I will say that, um, I think this position demonstrates the museum’s institutional commitment to centering race and class, and audiences who are who have historically been seen as other and museum spaces. So black, brown, low income, indigenous, BIPOC, broadly defined. And I would say that it is part of a larger shift that’s happening in museums across the US. And I would also say, across the globe, to rethink who their audiences are, and to be accountable to that. Some of it is posturing and sort of Black Lives Matter light and adjacent. And I think that the museum, the Marquette Museum, at least, has been working for a few years now to figure out how to undo the imperious legacies and the harms that it’s done in our city. And I think this position is one of the ways that it’s trying to reckon with its history.
Well, I was gonna ask, you mentioned the, I think you said rotating door. And that’s opposed to a revolving door, let’s get that out of the way, because revolving doors are bad things and politics and business but rotating door, you before this position at the Milwaukee Art Museum, you were an assistant professor at Illinois State. And before that, you were at the Milwaukee Art Museum as the manager of school and teacher programs. So I’m thinking about that rotating door that you mentioned, between communities. And I’m wondering, it’s like, there’s also you’ve discovered a rotating door in what is normally seen as a wall between the academy and the larger world. And so with that in mind, um, do you feel like you use your PhD in your current position? And it’s so what ways that are similar with how you use it, when you were teaching at Illinois State? And and in what ways are there different?
I, I actually, I have to bring it back to the HWW workshops, because I think the workshops were the opportunity where I got to really assess and slow down and process what earning a PhD or working towards a PhD allows you to do. So if it hadn’t been for those workshops, I wouldn’t be able to answer this question just Jason? And my answer to the question is, I think that I’m able to apply my PhD when I’m able to think about research, you know, in a wider capacity, right? And I’m able to think about all right. I’m interested in community dialogue. And there’s a lot of people in the city who I want to meet, how do I start researching that? But not only that, like how do I do this research alongside of thinking about like a history of our city, right? So thinking about thinking about research, and how I research my work thinking about time management, because it Oh, it continues to be a thing, right, especially in a new position. But also, one of the things that I learned, and this is especially true, I believe in a department that is so new, like performance studies and requires translation across multiple disciplines, even within the humanities. I think that I’m always writing and aware of who my audience is. And not in a way that is about being condescending, but in a way that’s about being truly inclusive. And being able to share my message in multiple ways and with multiple, like being able to answer the so what in a variety of spaces, right from, like Board of Trustees, to my senior leadership team, to my colleagues, to organizations that I want to partner with, but who might be like, why should I work with the Milwaukee Art Museum, right.
So I think the ability to speak to multiple audiences, and to write broadly defined to multiple audiences is something that I use with my PhD. I will also say that the reason why I was drawn to the walkout Museum in the first place is because it has one of the largest and oldest Haitian art collections in the US and outside of Haiti. So for me, it’s a way of directly being able to apply my research on Haitian art and performance and diaspora to the to the work that I’m doing, and then my future plans to work with that collection and to to curate. So I would say I use my PhD research skills all the time in a variety of ways.
I asked this question semi tongue-in cheek but only semi tongue-in-cheek… does the fact that you have a performance studies PhD. Do you think that gives you additional strength in being able to relate to different audiences, since there is an element of seeing the performative nature of these, or do you think that’s something that PhD students in any humanistic discipline can learn to do?
Sometimes I wonder if my superpowers are my own or my disciplines? the humanities? And I will say that, I think I think that having I think that having the training and performance studies fundamentally allows me to see power and the different ways that power is inactive. Whether or not it’s in a meeting, whether or not it’s in a title, whether or not it’s within like, cultural institutions that maybe have a lot of cultural clout or social cloud, right, but maybe not the finances to support all of the endeavors that they want to be doing. So I think that my PhD allows me to be discerning and to sit back and to question or just like, watch what is happening and to be able to interpret it in real time, and sometimes even later, so that I can go back and make connections. And then I yeah, so I think that’s what the performance studies PhD allows me. Ironically, I left the museum. Because I wanted to go back into academia, because I thought that I would have more autonomy and academia, I was really burnt out by the nonprofit industrial complex, and museums in particular. And I just felt like, in the position that I had as imagined school and teacher programs, I could only do so much to ensure that people who look like me, who identified as black and brown and are first generation and low income would feel welcomed, right, if I wasn’t there. And I just, I was carrying a lot of weight being one of the few by pop people on our staff who were not frontline workers. And so when I went back into academia, I ended up going into a formal or a legacy humanities discipline, art history, which I think allowed me to be I loved my work on paper to be a little bit more intelligible to people in museums, right. But I’d say that that’s another reason why coming back was so important to me, because now we’d have this traditional capacity and the leverage to ensure that regardless of who’s coming to the museum, that they would feel a sense of comfort and safety in the institution, I think it continues to be my performance studies PhD that allows me to and just my drive in my values that allows me to assess that through the language of power and spaces and safety.
What advice would you give to graduate students who are interested in developing a similar type of career path? But since the career path you’ve got is kind of unique? I would rephrase my original question, say, what advice would you provide the graduate students who are interested in developing that rotating door, or that community facing or whichever aspect is of the career that you’ve got, that incorporates your academic background, as well as these career directions, directives, motivations, etc. That might be other than the standard tenure track?
I um.. I have two gifts that I’ve carried with me as part of my tool bag that I think are important for thinking about careers. So the first was gifted to me, in a class that I took at NYU, where I got my master’s in performance studies, and it was with the class was led by Anna Deavere Smith, um, noted, performer scholar, and she was talking about some speaker who talked about the pursuit of the research question. And I remember like putting that in my back pocket the pursuit of a research question, like, What’s something that I really want to answer? So I, I’ll put that on the shelf and say that the next thing that became a tool in my toolbox was when I first entered Northwestern, and there was a scholar elder, a friend of mine, Celia Weiss Bambara, who’s a dancer and performer and had our performance art space and had a PhD as well. And she told me, that institution doesn’t own your soul.
And these two things, the pursuit of the research question, the institution doesn’t own your soul became these parallel tracks. For one realizing that yes, I’m at Northwestern, yes, I’m pursuing this PhD, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that my whole life to be caught up in this PhD, and it meant that I had other questions and interests that I was pursuing alongside being a student. And if anything, I was leveraging the resources and the time that I had as a student to support those questions. So it included, like connecting with. So rather than going to storytelling mode, which is what I’m doing right now, I will synthesize that by saying, honor all the questions that come to you, even if those questions don’t seem directly related to your academic research interests, because I think it’s in the pursuit of those other questions like for me, thinking about how the Haitian community in Chicago was wildly different than the Haitian community that I grew up with on the east coast. And they also like, they had this way of performing blackness and Haitian this that I found so fascinating, and like the performance of a scholar, and he was like, Oh, I wonder how much of this is rooted in redlining and Chicago’s segregation is history, right? Like how much of that allows like a Haitian community to have to reckon with and talk about, like, what it means to be black and to name that identity. So that allowed me to think about Well, why don’t people talk about this anymore? Like, where’s the research on like, patients in the Midwest, and not only like the research, but the research that’s looking at patient artists and performers and curating them community members and organizers? Like how do we how do we do this? So that led to getting funds to host a symposium that is not part of my dissertation. But it was part of leveraging my resources to pursue a question that was filling my soul, right, and not necessarily tied to my academic pursuits. And that symposium led to the person who became my future boss, and who later like, drafted this description for my new position coming to the museum because of these contacts. And that led to me cultivating skills and grant writing and building a team and like moving from vision to actual material event, I would say that my ultimate career advice then becomes live in the in between between the university or the institution, not only your soul, and the pursuit of the research question, because that I think, is the space of freedom and fun and play. And those are the spaces where you cultivate all of the skills that then lead you to this career that you could never have imagined.
One of the things that we’re really seeking to do with this iteration of Humanities Without Walls, the students seem to use my favorite word they grok that there’s a problem. But in the existing job market, and in the way that graduate students are trained for the existing job market. What advice would you give to the faculty right now, who would like more information about how they advise the students for careers? They themselves really haven’t been trained to advice for careers outside of the academy? If you had advice at all? And it can be completely impromptu? What would you know, what would that advice be?
Stop holding on to your antiquated ways of doing things.
We’re all clapping, by the way.
And I don’t, I don’t think it’s everyone. But I think those legacy departments and I say this specifically, because a few weeks ago, I did an informational interview with someone who’s a PhD student in history. And she or I should say they were not getting any departmental support for thinking beyond a traditional tenure track position, which feels so limiting. And also like a setup for people to feel one as though they are not worthy or successful if they don’t land a tenure track job, but to like, there’s a variety of enriching careers that you can have outside of academia, and you will be okay. Trust me. So I feel like if you’re looking for a place to start, because I understand that me saying, stop doing stop holding on to the antiquated ways that you’ve been doing things may not be helpful for you. If you’re looking for a place to start, I would start by just what are your alums doing? Check in with the ones who aren’t in academia, bring them back so that if you need to have a conversation, and that’s one of the things that performance that he was always doing, because I think that performances at Northwestern was highly aware that we’re a new discipline, and we’re not necessarily legible or intelligible to people outside of the field. So they brought in alumni all the time. So I felt like I was always getting that. Post humanities training and professional development. So I would say start with your alums. Just see what they’re doing. Open up your ideas of what success could look like. And then connect with area partner Organizations like ah ww who are leading these conversations and see how you can tap into that network.
Fantastic. Fantastic. Thank you so much Kantera it has been so awesome to see you even if only on a screen. Or after six years it really has been great to see you and catch up on I’m so excited about your new position at what is probably the most beautiful art museum I’ve ever been to. Which doesn’t say much I’ve only been to like four art museums, but still, Caltrava architecture is incredible.
It is, thank you all for having me. I love HWW and I literally talk about you all at least once a month with someone so thank you for being such a resource and all the work that you’re doing.
Glad to be here. Glad to be here.
Deepthi Murali 25:46 (Outro)
PhD Futures Now podcast is now available on Apple, Spotify, and anywhere else that you listen to your podcast. For full audio transcript for this episode, and other episodes, please visit our website at www.phdfuturesnow.org in our next episode, we will be talking to Dr. Derrick Attig Assistant Dean for Career and Professional Development at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Derek will talk to us about non-academic careers for Humanities PhDs in higher education. Thank you for listening to this episode. Please stay safe until we see you in the next one.