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The city of Ann Arbor boasts the beautiful University of Michigan, which has its very own art museum in the heart of the campus. Called the UMMA (University of Michigan Museum of Art), the museum holds many levels of history and global art. Since the city itself has a large diaspora of South Asian people, I was looking forward to seeing what type of art they have to represent the countries that encompass South Asia. Thanks to the help of the curator of Asian Art at the museum, Natsu Oyobe, I was able to look in detail at the pieces and learn about where they came from, what they represent, and how it’s being shown to visitors.

Walking into the museum, you are welcomed by a gift store and a large atrium, where if you turn right and go up a few levels, you’ll find yourself in the South Asian and East Asian galleries. The South Asian section is a small space, where instead of paintings on the walls, you’re surrounded by ancient sculptures. If you enter from the main hallway, you’re greeted by a large Thai Buddhist sculpture next to various Japanese pieces. On the wall, there is a paragraph discussing Chinese technology and taste for porcelain, and how it moved about the countries in Southeast and East Asia, the Middle East, the eastern coast of the African continent, and then to Europe and North and South America. This particular inscription disrupted the flow of galleries because the placement of the words didn’t lead immediately to those Chinese objects, meaning that a visitor could be confused when they turned and saw sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses.

There are especially beautiful pieces, mostly donated generously by the Figiel family. The Figiels are not South Asian art scholars nor do they identify with South Asian ethnicities, demonstrating how ethnic art in the West is often circulated and shared. This approach is also in contrast to the Cleveland Museum of Art which borrowed art from the Palace Museum in Udaipur, intending to return the art to its rightful place safely. That being said, the UMMA still boasts beautiful statues with accompanying plaques that allow the visitor to digest the information easily. For example, the plaques offer a simple yet effective foundation for the piece, illustrating who is in the art, and their role, and then proceed to discuss the time period and artistic style used. When prompted about the popularity of the pieces with visitors, Oyobe commented that K-12 visitors enjoyed these pieces the most because of their approachability and “fun” atmosphere. While I was there, kids were respectively enjoying a scavenger hunt throughout the museum, which, wonderfully, included art pieces from every corner of the museum.

It should be noted that the majority of the pieces in the section were predominantly Hindu, which, though beautiful and informative, are not representative of all of South Asia and South Asian art. I hope the UMMA takes this into consideration, particularly since they have not rotated this gallery in over ten years.

All in all, this museum is worth visiting, but I would urge visitors to consider what is being shown and how accurately it represents South Asia as a whole. Ann Arbor is home to a large diaspora of South Asians (14.9k Asians of which 24% are of Indian heritage), so I feel there is an opportunity for both the museum to be more representative and inviting, and for the local South Asian community to get more involved in the curation of the gallery.


Talia Dave is a senior at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. She studies Anthropology, Sociology, and Religion, and recently completed her thesis, titled "Monstrous, Sensual, and Unapologetic: Shurpanakha and Lilith, the Villainesses of Cautionary Tales." Talia's work on this project has allowed her to expand her knowledge of South Asian art and awareness of how it is presented. She visited and reviewed the Cleveland Museum of Art and the University of Michigan Museum of Art. 

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