Transylvania alum, scholar of African art, discusses benefits of cultural immersion

Joseph L. Underwood ’12 (left), assistant professor of art history for Africa and its diaspora at Kent State University, spoke to classes at his alma mater. Also pictured are professors Simonetta Cochis and Brian Arganbright.

While in Lexington to give a lecture at the University of Kentucky, art historian and curator Joseph L. Underwood ’12 made time to stop by his alma mater of Transylvania University and meet with students. He was in town to talk about The View from Here: Contemporary Perspectives from Senegal, a traveling exhibition he organized for the OFF Program of the Dak’Art Biennale of Contemporary Art, and the Kent State School of Art Collection and Galleries.  

An assistant professor of art history for Africa and its diaspora at Kent State University, Underwood paused to share some thoughts about the impact of cultural immersion on his personal and academic development. The opportunities to travel as an undergrad — including as a Benjamin A. Gilman Scholar (a program of the U.S. Department of State)  — continue to resonate deeply.

“Living in other parts of the world and gaining the skill of adaptation really made me into a global citizen,” he explains. “Through an independent summer study (Senegal), a semester abroad (France) and a May term course (China), I left the country for the first time and was challenged to live and learn in another language. The perspectives I gained from language acquisition and cultural immersion have led not only to lifelong friendships and new ‘homes’ in these cities, but also to my field of study and career.” 

Underwood, who graduated from Transy with a B.A. in art history and French language and literature, earned a Ph.D. in art history and criticism, with a focus on modern and contemporary African art, from Stony Brook University, where he was a Goldberger Fellow and a Hensel and Jeannette McKee Scholar. 

As a curator he has contributed to exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and the Musée Boribana (Dakar, Senegal). The classes he teaches include Arts of Africa; Contemporary African Art (1980-Present); Race and Art in the Capital (a travel course to Washington, D.C.); and Liberation, Nationalism, and Globalization: African Art 1930-1980.

“As a professor of African art history,” he reflects, “I am constantly applying my cross-cultural lens to archives, books and artworks that speak to diverse histories and spaces.”