Student Spotlight: Fernanda Villarroel Featured by the UW–Madison Graduate School

The UW Graduate School published a feature report on Art History PhD candidate Fernanda Villarroel‘s research. As Megan Chua reports, Villarroel has received two national fellowships that support her scholarship exploring the concept of the feminine through historical and contemporary art in Africa.

Villarroel came to UW–Madison for graduate school drawn by the reputation of the African Studies Program and inspired by the intellectual vibrancy of the Center for Visual Cultures on campus. In her dissertation “Figurations of the Feminine in Contemporary Art from Lagos, Nigeria” Villarroel writes about why Nigerian artists need a new way to talk about the concept of the feminine.

This spring, Villarroel received a Mellon/American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Dissertation Completion Fellowship. In addition, Villarroel has been awarded a 2021-22 Sylvan C. Coleman and Pam Coleman Memorial Fund Fellowship from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The fellowship is awarded to pre- and postdoctoral-level scholars from the U.S. and abroad with promising projects that will contribute to the field at large. Villarroel will work on a project focused on mythical and historic imageries of the feminine in ancient art from Benin and Ife, to re-envision aesthetic languages of blackness and feminisms.

To Villarroel, the concept of “feminine” does not simply restate one side of a masculine or feminine binary. Rather, it is an expression of freedom. Particularly in West Africa, Villarroel said women have historically had a large degree of autonomy, self-reliance, and independence – while the notion of girls and women as defenseless or vulnerable is relatively new.

Growing up in southern Chile inspired her interest in the relation between creativity, loss, and failing political structures.

“I have been drawn to the creative ways people devise to make do in spite of precarity and uncertainty, while not having consistent access to ‘power’ – even as electricity,” Villarroel said. Her dissertation explores this question through the work of three artists in Lagos, Nigeria, whose work spans a range of media from collage to performance to video but is united in exploring and expanding the meaning of feminine.

One example is Taiye Idahor’s series Òkhuo (which translates to “woman”). It features portraits of women in beads and elaborate hairstyles without including the faces or figures of the women wearing them. In Idahor’s works, once valuable beads exclusive to the semi-divine figure of the Iyoba (King’s-mother) and her court, are now a standard bridal fixture regardless of class.

“Far from mere representations of women, they foreground ordinary acts of re-appropriation through which women [such] as Idahor herself transform worthless plastic beads or pieces of paper into figurations of the feminine with the power and beauty to claim space in the social field,” she said.

The thread of history that runs through Idahor’s work is common for Nigerian artists, Villarroel said. “When people in Nigeria talk about making art, they are engaging with ancient and refined traditions of remembering dating at least to the 11th century,” she said.

At the same time, art historical discourses are often dominated by European traditions, making it harder for an artist trained in West Africa to engage with those discussions. However, art continues to be a powerful language to contest the largely dystopic projections produced by western media, Villarroel said.

“There’s so much that is unaccounted for in contemporary art discussions in the United States and Europe,” she said. “One of the reasons I’m interested in art as a language in itself is it offers the possibility of breaching limitations in terms of narrative language, in terms of language that is experienced and sensed and visual and acoustic.”

As a UW–Madison graduate student, Villarroel said she’s had great opportunities for interdisciplinary connection, whether that is by bringing visiting artists from Africa to campus or art directing for a cross-campus humanities workshop. In her African history seminars, she has been able to discuss key books with their authors, who are drawn here by the reputation of the African Studies Program.

She received two academic-year and one summer Foreign Language Area Studies Fellowship to learn Yoruba and Hausa to prepare for her dissertation research. Additional funding from the Chancellor’s Fellowship, Mellon-Wisconsin Fellowship, Scott Kloeck-Jenson Fellowship, and Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship supported Villarroel’s research in Nigeria and short-term fieldwork in the U.S., U.K., Germany, and Italy.

She has also enjoyed working with her advisor, Dr. Jill Casid, Professor of Visual Studies in Art History and Gender and Women’s Studies.

“Her mentorship and seminars always challenged the boundaries of the possible while opening such spaces for collaboration as curating the exhibition The Wet Archive at the Chazen Museum of Art and participating in a Center for Visual Cultures’ performance workshop with visiting artist Patty Chang on advance research for her artist book and exhibition The Wandering Lake at Queens Museum in New York and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles,” Villarroel said.

“There are always so many avenues to encourage interdisciplinary discussions, and I’ve never felt isolated or [unable] to move past the immediate field I’m working on. UW has been amazing in that sense,” she added.