Headshot of Prabhnoor KaurFor senior art history major Prabhnoor Kaur, research is much more than long academic papers. It’s a way to communicate, express, and paint people’s stories.

Kaur spent last summer participating in SURF – the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship – which is overseen by the Center for Undergraduate Excellence. During her fellowship, Kaur explored the history of violence and indentured labor in the West Indies. Upon researching artists that emerged out of the South Asian Diaspora, Kaur soon found artist Suchitra Mattai who is based in Denver.

“Mattai’s work focuses on the sugar industry in Guiana, particularly in the context of personal histories,” Kaur explained.

Dr. Wendy Salmond, Helena Walker, and Kaur sit down and discuss art history research project

Dr. Wendy Salmond, Helena Walker, and Kaur discuss art history research project

With SURF funding, Kaur flew to Denver and visited art galleries that represented Mattai’s work including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver.

She also met with Mattai herself in her studio in Denver and had a meaningful conversation about Mattai’s family history in Guiana. This was an invaluable experience for Kaur that enriched the quality of her research, as well as humanized it.

“I didn’t want to be just interpreting people’s histories; I wanted to have a personal one-on-one meeting to go in and talk to them about it,” Kaur reflected. “It was so important to understand the context in which she was producing work.”

Although SURF was challenging in some ways, Kaur said it helped her understand how to conduct independent research. This gave her the practical experience of knowing how to manage her time and remain accountable to herself.

“Nothing is due technically, but you create your own due dates. You are responsible to yourself,” Kaur said.

Kaur’s research – at the intersection of art and politics – also forced her to think about how people “perceive and conceptualize national identity.” Passionate about interdisciplinary learning, Kaur likewise enjoyed talking to the other SURF fellows who were doing work that they were “really passionate about,” especially those engaged in political matters.

Kaur consulting with faculty mentor about research

At the conclusion of SURF, Kaur did not write a traditional paper. Instead, she hosted an engaging art history exhibition.

“Often, art papers sound so authoritarian and I have to change how I talk. I wanted to do something more experimental,” Kaur said. “SURF really pushed me to think about the form that I’m presenting my research in serves the content.”

Kaur’s exhibit featured 20 colonial prints of indentured colonial women whose images were reproduced as postcards that colonists would send back home. During the exhibit, Kaur played a video she received from Mattai of The Middle Passage, the ocean which indentured laborers had to cross to get to Guiana. Kaur’s exhibit also showcased a stream of Zines and bundled up Sari fabric from where sugar dripped down.

“A lot of Mattai’s work uses textiles,” said Kaur. “I wanted to really engage in the language that she was speaking in to represent it.”

Kaur described her experience with research during SURF as a “fork in the road” that changed herself and her career path.

“It really confirmed for me that I want to do research because this is what I’m passionate about,” Kaur said. “It encouraged me to do better—to think about the ways in which I’m talking about what I’m talking about.”

Are you interested in becoming a SURF fellow, or applying for scholarship and grant opportunities? Stop by the Center for Undergraduate Excellence or email us at cue@chapman.edu!