Research News

VanDiver and Lieberman selected for NEH Summer Stipend awards

Rebecca VanDiver
Rebecca VanDiver, assistant professor of history of African American art (John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

Rebecca K. VanDiver, who studies 20th-century black women artists and African American engagements with Africa, and Phillip I. Lieberman, who researches the history of Jews in Islamic lands during the medieval period, have been awarded 2019 Summer Stipends from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

VanDiver, an assistant professor of history of African American art, is in the early stages of research for her second book manuscript, provisionally titled “States of Emergency: Politics of Ephemerality in African American Art, 1965 to 2015.”

“In this new project, I will examine the ways in which African American artists working during the past 50 years have engaged with ideas of ephemerality, producing temporary materials like prints and posters as well as larger-scale projects, like site-specific community murals,” VanDiver said. “An example of that would be the Wall of Respect that existed on Chicago’s South Side from 1967 to 1981.”

She will use the NEH funding to conduct primary source research for the first chapter, which will focus on prints and posters made in connection with the 1960s civil rights movement and the early black feminist movement.

“For this research, I am using a somewhat broader definition of the word ‘ephemera,’” VanDiver said. “While the word is traditionally defined as something fleeting and transitory, I am expanding the definition to include the news media as a vehicle for ephemerality.”

The latter half of her book will focus on how African American contemporary artists such as Kara Walker and Titus Kaphar have responded to the 24-hour news cycle by producing permanent works of art.

VanDiver, who came to Vanderbilt in fall 2013, teaches courses on modern/contemporary African American and African art and visual culture. Her research has appeared in American Art, Archives of American Art JournalSpace and Culture, Callaloo and Transition. The Pennsylvania State University Press is publishing her first book on the painter Loïs Mailou Jones.

Phillip Lieberman, assistant professor of Jewish studies (submitted image)

Lieberman, an associate professor of Jewish studies, classical and Mediterranean Studies, religious studies and law, will use the stipend to complete a book-length project examining Jewish urbanization in Iraq under the early Abbasids and their subsequent migration to the Mediterranean region. The manuscript is titled “The Shifting Fate of World Jewry from Iraq to North Africa in the Early Islamic Period,” and focuses on the medieval period from 750 to 1200.

“When did the Jews evolve from being primarily an agrarian population to one that is more urbanized?” Lieberman said. “I argue that the settlement of the Jewish population in the Islamic-controlled cities of North Africa began at a much earlier date than previously thought. My research characterizes the Jews as maintaining a prominent presence in North African history throughout what many scholars have termed a ‘dark period’ for which we have little information.”

Lieberman agrees that that there was some migration of Jews to North African cities controlled by Islamic regions because they wanted to take advantage of economic opportunities for long-distance trade. However, he thinks the migration occurred in much smaller numbers than many scholars would argue.

“There was already a Jewish population that settled in North Africa hundreds of years before they were joined by a group of Jewish migrants from the east (Iraq),” Lieberman said. “Therefore, the core of the Jewish population that was in North Africa is much older than we first believed.”

Lieberman, who joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 2009, hopes that his research will show the importance of viewing Jewish studies through a broader historical lens. “Students and scholars of Judaism need to understand that Jewish studies is relevant and important to Islamic studies as well as European studies,” he said.

Lieberman’s other publications include The Business of Identity: Economics, Culture, and the Jews of Medieval Egypt, which was a finalist in the category of Sephardic Culture for the National Jewish Book Award in 2014. In addition, he co-edited A Jew’s Best Friend? The Image of the Dog throughout Jewish History with Rakefet J. Zalashik.

Lieberman is also currently working with Lenn Goodman, professor of philosophy and Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities, to complete a translation of Maimonides’ 12th century work The Guide to the Perplexed: A New Translation, and with Marina Rustow of Princeton University on The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume 5.

The NEH Summer Stipends program is highly competitive. The awards to Lieberman and VanDiver were the only ones in the state of Tennessee this year.