Tue. November 10, 2015
Associate Professor Stephennie Mulder’s book on medieval Syrian shrines took the $10,000 top prize at the 2015 University Co-op Robert W. Hamilton Book Awards. Announced November 2, Mulder is the fifth recipient connected to the College of Fine Arts to receive the university-wide award.
College of Fine Arts Dean Doug Dempster said Mulder’s receipt of the Hamilton Book Award is another great credit to the original scholarship coming out of UT Austin's Art History program.
“Our Art History faculty, one of the most productive research faculties in the humanities at UT, now accounts for five of the twenty Hamilton Book Awards ever given—an unparalleled winning streak for any department,” he said. “The Art History program is one of the research gems of The University of Texas at Austin.”
Mulder’s book, The Shrines of the ‘Alids in Medieval Syria: Sunnis, Shi’is, and the Architecture of Coexistence, is the first illustrated, architectural history of these shrines, increasingly endangered by the conflict in Syria. Mulder, a specialist in Islamic architectural history and archaeology, holds a joint appointment in the College of Fine Arts’ Department of Art and Art History and the College of Liberal Arts’ Department of Middle Eastern Studies. She is the fourth Middle Eastern Studies professor to take home the Hamilton Award.
“It is enormously meaningful for me to have my work recognized among my peers at the university,” said Mulder. “I think that culturally, we tend to think of Art History as being less serious than some other fields. We tend to see images and works of art and architecture as aesthetically pleasing, but only worthy of study as a luxury or as a leisure activity—as only worth thinking about on a weekend visit to an art museum,” Mulder said. “But nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout the history of humanity, art has been at the forefront of how we have communicated about who we are and what we believe. Even before humans invented the first alphabet, created the first city, wrote the first history book, or conducted the first scientific experiment, we made art.”
During her career, she’s spent years in the field in Syria and throughout the Middle East and works on the conservation of antiquities and cultural heritage sites endangered by war and illegal trafficking. She is a founder of UT Antiquities Action, a group dedicated to raising awareness of the loss of cultural heritage.
“I have worked as an archaeologist in Syria since 1998, and fell in love with the country upon my first visit,” she said. “I began the research for this book in 2004, when I lived and worked in the vine-covered, winding streets of the ancient city of Damascus for a year and a half.”
During that research period, she never imagined that as she completed the book between 2011 and 2013, Syria would descend into a warzone.
“As this was unfolding, it was painful to write about a time in the medieval era when Syrian rulers used architecture to emphasize coexistence and sectarian harmony,” Mulder said. “My Syrian friend Ubayda lost his life during the time I wrote the book, and I dedicated the book to him and to the broadminded, cosmopolitan and democratic Syria in which he wished to live.”
Mulder has served as an expert for media reporting on the losses of those antiquities she studied. In September she was quoted in the International Business Times about the destruction of a 2,000-year-old temple in Palmyra. In 2014, she wrote an opinion piece for Al Jazeera arguing that the West’s desire to purchase ancient artifacts is the cause for looting, not the Islamic State.
She also used her expertise on the Middle East to co-write an op-ed for the Huffington Post with the History Department’s Erika Bsumek about the textual subversion techniques used by Middle Eastern artists in Western pop culture—particularly for the TV series, Homeland.
“Stephennie’s research may revolve around the 12th century, but it could not be more relevant to our current moment,” said Jack Risley, chair of the Department of Art and Art History. “The overwhelming reception to her book and her presence in the media, show that her research has consequence in the contemporary world, and that there is a role for scholars in public discourse.”
As her book gains recognition and support, Mulder said she hopes it illuminates those beautiful qualities of Syria that she researched, instead of the war-torn country in the news.
“Syria has always been a place where people of many faiths and beliefs lived together and created pragmatic systems of coexistence,” she said. “We can see in that picture a model for how coexistence can one day return to the region. Syria was and remains a beautiful country, with a rich and ancient past as one of the world’s great crossroads of human knowledge and civilization. I hope to see the day that it becomes so again.”
Tue. November 10, 2015
Beili Liu lectures at the University of Michigan as part of a professional practice speaker series. Her lecture will take place November, 10 at 12:30 p.m.
Tue. November 10, 2015
Fri. November 6, 2015
Rebecca Ward (B.A. in Studio Art, 2006) is the subject of the recent AnOther article "The Female Artist Subverting Male-Dominated Minimalism."