“For My Project, Oral Sources Are of Major Importance” – Interview with Olga Nefedova

We regularly introduce scholars that work in the project by letting them answer three short questions. Today, we talk to Olga Nefedova. She is an art historian and holds a degree in Orientalism from the Russian State Academy of Fine Arts (Research Institute of Art Theory and History) with a thesis on “Franco-Flemish artist Jean-Baptiste Vanmour. XVIIIth century European Orientalism – theory and practice”.

Olga Nefedova is a former director of the Orientalist Museum in Doha, Qatar. She has worked for many years with private and government collections and museums in the Far East, South Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf countries (Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia). Currently she is an associate professor at the National Research University HSE, Moscow. Her current research project “Art and Artists Crossing Borders: the Early History of Art Education for Arab Students in the Soviet Union between 1959 and 1979” focusses on the early history of art education of students from Arab countries in the USSR. The research has been supported by the Orient-Institut Beirut: in 2018 Olga Nefedova was awarded Hans-Robert Roemer Fellowship for Visiting Scholars. She is a member of the research project “Relations in the Ideoscape: Middle Eastern Students in the Eastern Bloc (1950s to 1991).”

What will you be working on while being involved with the “Knowledge Unbound” project and what did you work on before?

During recent decades, interest in different facets of contemporary Arab art has significantly increased. Although recent developments have played a key role in bringing current Arab art into wider focus, there remains a gap in the academic discussion of certain aspects. My current research is dedicated to the new artistic practices and the art heritage of Arab artists, that were graduates of the Vasily Surikov Moscow State Art Institute and the Moscow State Stroganov Academy of Industrial and Applied Arts. More precisely I consider artists, who came from 1959, being the first post-War II students, to 1979 and include only students who eventually graduated or were postgraduate students during the same period. In the decades under consideration here, the Arab students came from countries such as Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The study is based on previously unpublished archival material from various archives. The research is undertaken and written with the aid of artists and / or their relatives and friends, based on the material about the meetings, interviews and correspondence with them.

What role does the concept of “knowledge” play in your own research?

Currently I am working on the subject of students’ graduation works, created within the ideological concept of social realism in art, their historical appearance and their political environments. Graduation work is a climax of many years of students’ studies and the final outcome of a knowledge transfer process. It can be seen and explored in the context of students’ relations on various levels, such as relations between a student and their mentor, relations between a student and their art institute at large, and relations between a student and the art education system within the ideology of social realism in art. The history of those artworks becomes perhaps as important as the artworks themselves. Paintings, graphics and sculptures are apprehended through their origins, contexts of students’ relations and perceptions. The aim of this study is to answer various questions surrounding the historical framework of those works of art, such as who, when, where and how they were created, and why those works became a manifestation of students’ everyday experiences. Explaining the history of artworks and artistic practice by means of the social, political and economic contexts within which works were conceived, produced, perceived and used, I will argue that students’ graduation works, as products of the final outcome of knowledge transfer process, are effectively documents of their time, responding to and reflecting their socio-historical context.

Have there been any surprising moments in your research recently?

First of all, there are a few methodological difficulties that I encountered and would like to briefly mention. To start with, the number of publications, articles, and the amount of academic research in foreign languages carried out in the field of Arab artists in the USSR is close to non-existent. For this reason oral sources are of major significance and importance. The second difficulty in addition to this lack of written sources is that many interviewees found it difficult to speak about their links to the USSR. However, conducting conversational interviews with artists and their relatives and friends, I moved methodologically from political history towards cultural and social aspects. These stories, from the problem of Arab students’ adaptation to the new environment and troubles caused by cultural differences to the Arab absolvents’ fates and their contacts with the USSR after ending their university studies and returning to their homeland, expressed the interviewee’s interpretations of those events and their significance. Thanks to this I gained a whole new point of view at the social history of Arab students in communist countries.

One of the most surprising moments, however, is the former students’ lack of knowledge and understanding of realities of the Soviet life, in spite of many years of studies that they spent in the USSR. This can be partially explained by a development of a strictly controlled dedicated program of foreign students’ adaptation in institutes and universities in the USSR.


Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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