National Endowment for the Humanities Supports Work at UH

Grants Fund Collaboration with MFA-H, Book on Independence Literature From French-speaking Countries

Julie Tolliver
Funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities will allow Julie Tolliver to complete a book.
Rex Koontz
Rex Koontz will oversee an ambitious collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston.

The latest round of funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities includes grants for two University of Houston faculty members, funding an ambitious collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston to expand access to the museum’s digital archive of Latin American art, along with support for a book exploring literature from French-speaking countries during the independence era of the mid-20th century.

Rex Koontz, director of the School of Art in the UH College of the Arts, will oversee a two-year collaboration with the MFA-Houston, using graduate students in art history, Hispanic studies and creative writing to expand a digital archive of Latin American art and art criticism.

Julie Tolliver, assistant professor of French in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, received funding to complete her book, “Tongue Ties: A Poetics of Solidarity in Francophone Independence Literatures.”

The grants, made earlier this month, underscore what NEH Chairman William D. Adams described as the central role of the humanities.

“The humanities help us study our past, understand our present, and prepare for our future,” Adams said.

The work with the MFA-H is part of the NEH’s Humanities Initiatives, aimed at humanities education and scholarship at Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Tribal Colleges and Universities. UH is a Hispanic-Serving Institution.

Koontz said the $102,000 grant will allow graduate students to work with the museum’s curatorial staff to expand the museum’s noted digital archive of Latin American and Latino art. The archive is free and available to the public, including educators.

“The Museum of Fine Arts-Houston is the world’s most important repository of Latin American art, art criticism and art history,” he said. “We don’t talk a lot about Latin American art in universities and especially in high schools, but it’s been very important in the United States from the 1930s on.”

Graduate students will expand and organize the archive’s contents: creative writing students, working under Roberto Tejada, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor of creative writing, will lead the translation work, Koontz said, while students from the Hispanic studies program, working with associate professor José Ramón Ruisanchez Serra, will focus on Latin American art criticism and identifying, annotating and organizing documents. Art history students will focus on the relationship between criticism and the museum’s collections.

“This is the sort of real-world experience in cultural works that will allow the students to develop experience at a world-class institution in Latin American art,” Koontz said.

Tolliver’s $50,400 grant is part of a fellowship program for scholars pursuing advanced research in the humanities. Her work – the study of novels, short stories, monologues, film and other texts from French-speaking countries in the latter half of the 20th century – focuses on a time when many French-speaking countries were gaining independence or otherwise asserting their identities in a post-colonial world.

“I study the literature, even the letters people wrote to one another, as they imagine new ways to be French-speaking in a changing world,” she said.

That literature both inspired and reflects the political changes of the times, Tolliver said, and resounded in other French-speaking regions around the world. Quebec, in the 1960s still a rural, isolated and conservative Canadian province, was deeply affected, she has found, despite its differences from the African and Caribbean countries where much of the upheaval was taking place. 

Not all of the societies became independent – Quebec remains part of Canada, for example – “but all were transformed by the movement,” Tolliver said.