Of the eight recipients of the Luce/American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Dissertation Fellowship in American Art, seven focus their research and writing on the continental United States. Breaking the mold is UC Santa Cruz’s Margaret Wander.

Wander is a sixth-year doctoral candidate in the History of Art and Visual Culture (HAVC) department, and the eighth 2021 Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellow. Her research focuses on Oceanic contemporary art that engages with topics of settler colonialism and climate justice. 

This fellowship in American Art hasn’t gone to a UCSC student in more than 25 years, and rarely goes to a student focusing on art outside of the U.S., something that Wander is hoping her fellowship work changes. 

“They’re starting to do better considering Native American art or migration diaspora populations. They’re starting to really expand and diversify what they define as American,” said Wander. “I made a case for the fact that the field of Pacific visual studies or Pacific art history doesn’t really exist in the United States. And that is part of the bigger problem that our country has, which is this really weird amnesia, or blindspot, about our connection to the Pacific Ocean.”  

Wander studies modern Oceanic art with an emphasis on climate change and settler colonialism, and how those factors impact aesthetic and curatorial strategies of artists in the region. This study draws focus to the realities of U.S. colonialism, military presence, and resource extraction in Oceanic regions such as Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, and New Guinea.  

A year of Wander’s high school education was spent with relatives in Australia, one of the many places she finds inspiration to continue her research in this field. During that time, Wander made a connection with the Aboriginal Australian community and learned more about Australia’s history. Learning about the violence associated with Oceania’s colonization forced Wander to recognize gaps in her American education, leaving her both shaken and inspired. 

Coming from European descent, Wander feels it is important to acknowledge her own background when conducting her work. She ensures that her writing and research does not uproot traumas of settler colonialism in the regions she studies or uphold the ivory tower, a phenomenon in which those who are removed from issues of imperialism or colonialism are the ones educating others about them.

“When you’re studying something traumatic and ongoing, like settler colonialism, resource extraction, climate change, and climate justice, that aspect of potentially doing harm with your work is heightened,” Wander said. “For me, it’s been a challenge to make sure that I’m doing things ethically and that I’m not this white person speaking for Indigenous people, or people who are marginalized or oppressed, because I think that’s another form of clientelism or academic imperialism.” 

Wander says that she’s embracing this challenge, and wants to ensure that her work does not reproduce the structures of imperialism that she’s aiming to critique.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Wander.

Wander has been studying art history since her undergraduate education, earning her Master’s degree in HAVC at UCSC. When she began looking into graduate schools after a three-year hiatus from the university, Wander realized that returning to UCSC was the only option for pursuing a doctorate in Oceanic contemporary arts. 

UCSC is one of the few colleges that offer a graduate program focusing on Oceanic contemporary art and has both the faculty and curriculum to support graduate students like Wander. One faculty member supporting this work is Professor Stacy Kamehiro, Wander’s mentor and graduate advisor. 

The two met in Wander’s earlier years at UCSC, Kamehiro acting as another inspiration for Wander, through her expertise and knowledge in the colonization of Hawaii and colonial Hawaiian visual and material culture.

“[She] wants to learn other stuff, wants to change her position on things. So I think we have great conversations because we can always teach and learn from each other, with each other,” Kamehiro said. “She’s brought a whole other world of information to me. I’ve learned a lot from her, and I feel like we can become really great partners.”

In addition to forming connections with faculty, staff, and other students, Wander has received awards such as the UCSC Arts Dean’s Fund for Excellence, and the Mellon International Dissertation Research Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council. Wander has also worked as a graduate student instructor and teaching assistant, experiences she considers the most rewarding elements of her time at UCSC. 

With the Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellowship, Wander no longer has the financial need to teach courses and instead will focus solely on writing her dissertation. However, she hopes that after graduating from UCSC, she will continue educating at the college level.

Kamehiro says that Wander’s passion for teaching can be seen in her student evaluations and the impact that Wander leaves on her students. Former student Chloe Murr agrees, and says that Wander’s classes were collaborative and engaging. 

“[Classes] were places to be building ideas and to be theorizing, not places where you have to have the answer, because often we don’t have the answers to these things,” said Murr. “It was a place where you could have the beginning of a thought and it would be an open environment to propose that thought.”

Wander frequently says she is both lucky and privileged to have received the honor of the Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellowship, and is quick to forget the hard work she’s put in to earn her awards and degree. 

But Wander also feels that with great honor comes greater responsibility. She hopes that she can use the Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellowship to continue changing the narrative around American Art, along with continuing her work writing, publishing, and teaching about contemporary Oceanic art centralizing on issues of colonial imperialism and climate justice. 

”Now that people are listening to me and funding my research, I really need to make sure my writing and my teaching is making a difference. It’s kind of terrifying, but really validating at the same time,” Wander said. “I have to always keep that mission in mind, I’m getting my Ph.D. so that I can be an educator, because I think education, researching, and writing is where I can make the biggest difference.”