Canonical studies of modern art continue to assume “Western” art as the “universal” modern. But modernism has always been a global enterprise, happening for different reasons at different times. In the mid-twentieth century, artists experimented with a range of artistic modes of art-making to reflect on shifts in economic, political, and social structures. As scholars today retrace the story of modernism – one that is more diverse and complex – how does this change the way we understand the history of art, and what it means to be modern?

Join Dr. Vishakha Desai, (Senior Advisor for Global Affairs at Columbia University), Dr. Fereshteh Daftari, (scholar and curator), and Sarah-Neel Smith (Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the Maryland Institute College of Art) in conversation with Lynn Gumpert (Director of Grey Art Gallery at NYU in New York) on modernisms in India, Iran, and Turkey respectively.


Fereshteh Daftari

Curator and scholar Fereshteh Daftari received her Ph.D. in Art History from Columbia University. Her dissertation, The Influence of Persian Art on Gauguin, Matisse and Kandinsky, was published in 1991. During her tenure as curator in the department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1988 – 2009), she curated a number of international exhibitions including Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking (2006). Her curatorial work in the field of Iranian modernism includes Between Word and Image at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery (2002) and Iran Modern at the Asia Society in New York (2013). She has also focused on contemporary art. Action Now, the first exhibition of contemporary Iranian performance art, was held in Paris (2012); Safar/Voyage: Contemporary Works by Arab, Iranian, and Turkish Artists at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology (MOA) in Vancouver (2013); and Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto (2017). It then traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and is now on view until May 2022 at the Asia Society Museum in New York. Daftari’s most recent publication is titled Persia Reframed: Iranian Visions of Modern and Contemporary Art (London: I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury, 2019).

Sarah-Neel Smith

Dr. Sarah-Neel Smith is on faculty in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She specializes in art history of the Ottoman Empire and Middle East from nineteenth century to today. Her first book, Metrics of Modernity: Art and Development in Postwar Turkey, explores the intersection of modern art and geopolitics in the burgeoning art world of 1950s Turkey. Metrics of Modernity will be published in February 2022 with University of California Press. Her writing has appeared in Art Journal, ARTMargins, Third Text, Bidoun, and frieze, as well as exhibition catalogues for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and MOCA, Los Angeles. Her research has been supported by the ACLS, Terra Foundation for American Art, and the Fulbright scholar program.

Vishaka N. Desai

Dr. Vishakha N. Desai is Senior Advisor for Global Affairs to the President of Columbia University, Senior Research Scholar in Global Studies at its School of International and Public Affairs, and Chair of Columbia’s Committee on Global Thought. She has published and lectured extensively on the intersection of traditional and contemporary arts and policy in diverse countries of Asia and is author of World as Family: A Journey of Multi-Rooted Belongings. She continues to contribute frequently to numerous publications and broadcast television programs in both the US and Asia.

Dr. Desai joined the Asia Society as the director of its museum in 1990 after having served as a curator and as the head of academic programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In 2004, she was appointed as the President and CEO of the Asia Society, the first Asian American, and a woman to hold the position. During her twenty-two-year tenure at the Society, she developed major new initiatives, ranging from a robust program of contemporary art exhibitions and performances and the establishment of the Center on U.S.-China Relations to Asia 21, the first major program for young leaders from Asia and the U.S. In 2012, in recognition of Dr. Desai’s leadership in the museum field, President Barack Obama appointed her to serve on the National Museum and Library Services Board.

Lynn Gumpert (Moderator)

Since 1997, Lynn Gumpert has served as Director of the Grey Art Gallery, New York University’s fine arts museum. She has overseen more than seventy exhibitions at the Grey are including: Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish, and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection (2019); The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal (2018); Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965 (2017); Global/Local 1960–2015: Six Artists from Iran (2016); Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera (2015); The Poetics of Cloth: African Textiles / Recent Art (2008); The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene, 1974–1984 (2006); and Mapping Sitting: On Portraiture and Photography, A Project by Walid Raad and Akram Zaatari (2005). From 1980 to 1988 she was curator and senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York. As a writer, she authored the first major monograph on French artist Christian Boltanski (Flammarion, 1992) and has contributed essays to numerous publications. In June 1999 Ms. Gumpert was honored by the French government with the distinction of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.