Rebecca M. Brown

Associate Professor

Gilman 182
Personal Website


I am a scholar of colonial and post-1947 South Asian art, architecture, and visual culture. I also chair the Advanced Academic Program in Museum Studies at Johns Hopkins. I have served as a consultant and a curator of modern and contemporary Indian art for the Peabody Essex Museum, the Walters Art Museum, and the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation. My academic career has enabled me to teach across North America and in the UK, at institutions including St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Swansea University, Georgetown University, and George Washington University. I have had the privilege of speaking to a wide range of audiences, at venues from the Art Seminar Group of Baltimore to the Clark Art Institute and the National Museum of Korea.

I received my BA in the History of Art from Pomona College and my PhD in South Asian and Islamic Art History from the University of Minnesota, working with both Frederick M. Asher and Catherine B. Asher. Throughout my career in academia, I have actively developed undergraduate courses in Asian and Islamic art, created innovative approaches to the art history survey, and led seminars in Asian studies, gender studies, museum studies, postcolonial theory, film studies, and art historical methodology.

My research engages in the history of art, architecture, and visual culture of South Asia from the late eighteenth century to the present. I am particularly interested in the tensions and struggles that emerge within visual culture at moments that present themselves as transitional (but usually do not constitute a true “break”)—the early British presence on the subcontinent, the anti-colonial movement of the early twentieth century, the decades after India’s independence in 1947, and the economic and political machinations of the long 1980s. I’ve written on urban space, architecture, cemeteries, amateur lithographs, popular painting, photography, modernist painting and sculpture, film, television, and museum display. Throughout my work I am attentive to the interplay between space and the activities it shapes and enables, as well as the sometimes hidden movements and durations embodied by objects like textiles, photographs, and portable paintings. At the core of each of these engagements lies an attentive commitment to visual culture in its materiality, its instability, its active role for history, and its reconstitution in different epistemes under changing political demands.

I welcome graduate students who wish to pursue questions related to colonial, modern, and contemporary South Asian art, architecture, and visual culture and also those interested in the emergent area of the global modern.

My initial research focused on the built environment, specifically the city of Patna, today the capital of Bihar, during a transformative period in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when a growing British presence reshaped the already well-established, diverse walled city on the Ganges. This research was published in The Journal of Bengal Art, Res, The Journal of Urban History, The Journal of Asian Studies, and Archives of Asian Art.

My second major project turned to painting, architecture, sculpture, photography and film in the decades after India’s independence in 1947. This research sprang from dialogue with my undergraduate courses around the questions of modernism, and began with an article on the artist P.T. Reddy (1915–1996) published in Art Journal. The monograph that resulted from this project, Art for a Modern India, 1947–1980 (Duke 2009), argued that rather than think of the twentieth century as a time of multiple modernisms we should instead consider the global interrelations of the modern and the way each country, region, and locality negotiated the demands of an ostensibly universal modern with the emergent needs of, in the case of India, an unstable and continually constructed national identity. I continue to be involved in rethinking the modern, and have published several related articles, written catalog essays, and curated exhibitions of twentieth-century South Asian art.

In my subsequent project, I turned to a genealogical examination of the imagery of the spinning wheel from the early nineteenth century through to Gandhi’s deployment of it for the nationalist movement in the early twentieth century. Delving into painting and photographic archives, I sought in this project to articulate a path toward what might be called visual political rhetoric, using the case of the practice and imagery of spinning as my focus. Gandhi’s Spinning Wheel and the Making of India (Routledge 2010; paperback 2012) engaged questions of aesthetics, craft, gender, and politics. Drawing on both this research and earlier work on nineteenth-century Patna, I developed a smaller project unsettling our understanding of early nineteenth-century Indian painting, culminating in an article published in Visual Anthropology.

I am currently working on a book that will explore the durations and temporalities at play in galleries and museums by critically situating the many art exhibitions of the 1985-86 Festival of India in the US. A portion of that research, on the exhibitions of contemporary art at the Festival, is forthcoming in Art Bulletin.

Graduate Seminars
  • The Active Body
  • Politics and Visual Culture
  • The Epistemology of Photography
  • Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art
  • Readings in Material Culture (with Elizabeth Rodini)
  • Provincialising Europe
Advanced Undergraduate
  • Encountering South and Southeast Asian Art (with Robert Mintz, Walters Art Museum)
  • The Politics of Display in South Asia
  • Key Moments in East Asian Politics and Visual Culture since 1850
  • Murals, Monuments, and Museums
  • The Harem and the Veil: Space and Gender in the Islamic World
  • Gender in Asian and Islamic Art
  • Stories with Pictures: Narrative in Asian and Islamic Art
  • Critical Approaches to the Analysis of Art
  • Contemporary Asian Art and Architecture
  • Asian Art after 1945
  • Colonialism and Nationalism in India
  • Politics of the Middle East and South Asia
  • Cinema, History, and Politics
  • Introduction to Art History (disciplinary and global survey)
  • Introduction to Asian Studies
  • Introduction to Asian Art
  • Monuments of Asia
  • East Asian Art, Culture, and Politics
  • South Asian Art, Culture, and Politics
  • Indian and Southeast Asian Art
  • Indian Art in the Museum
  • Arts of Japan
  • Arts of China
  • Art of the Islamic World
  • Buddhist Art of Asia
  • Understanding Global Politics
  • Rock Paper Sword: Ancient and Medieval World Art
  • Art in Wales, 18th–21st c. (e-learning)
Select Articles and Book Chapters

“A Distant Contemporary: Indian Twentieth-Century Art in the Festival of India.” Art Bulletin 96.3 (September 2014).

“Colonial Polyrhythm: Imaging Action in the Early Nineteenth Century.” Visual Anthropology 26.4 (2014): 269–97.

“Revivalism, Modernism, and Internationalism: Finding the Old in the New India.” In A New India? edited by Anthony D’Costa, 151–78. London: Anthem Press, 2010.

“P.T. Reddy, Neo-Tantrism, and Modern Indian Art.” Art Journal 64.4 (Winter 2005): 26–49.

“The Cemeteries and the Suburbs: Patna’s Challenges to the Colonial City in South Asia.” The Journal of Urban History 29.2 (January 2003): 151–73.

Please see my CV for a complete list.