Alka Patel Archive: Cuban Art and Architecture
The Alka Patel Archive comprises approximately 15,000 images of objects, buildings, and archaeological sites throughout South Asia (India and Pakistan), Iran, Afghanistan, and Cuba. It presents Dr. Patel’s scholarly research of the last 20 years, and her collaboration with Dr. Maureen Burns, visual resources consultant and project manager, and a number of students for metadata research and entry. In her teaching and scholarship, Patel has emphasized primary study of material culture, particularly of less-known artistic/architectural traditions. Given the uncertainty of access to many regions where Patel has led fieldwork, she has pursued a wide chronological and geographical range of documentation. She believes that providing well-researched images to scholars and teachers is essential for a thorough understanding of understudied world regions.
Dr. Patel’s fieldwork and documentation in Havana, Cuba and its surrounding areas brings an important focus to the island’s colonial period (16th-19th centuries) and the later inspiration of modern architecture in this culturally rich city of the Americas. Patel has documented a wide range of architectural types, spanning religious, residential and public architecture.
The elaborate woodwork in many churches, monasteries, and residences is unlike Cuba’s indigenous architectural traditions. Such remnants indicate the transplantation of artisans from Iberia, the center of historical Islamicate artistic traditions that marked a distinctive colonial architectural language on the island. Such practices continued in 19th-century structures such as the Church of St. Francis, indicating the perseverance of these traditions in Cuba well beyond their influence in Iberia.
The later buildings served as links for some of Cuba’s modern architecture, such as the iconic 20th-century Hotel Nacional, which relied on Maghribi geometric tile dados and intricate woodwork to evoke luxurious interiors for hotel guests during the island’s heyday as a holiday destination.
Alka Patel is Associate Professor in the Department of Art History and in the PhD Program for Visual Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She received her BA from Mount Holyoke College and her PhD from Harvard University. Patel’s research has focused on South Asia and its connections with Iran and Central Asia, including overland and Indian Ocean maritime networks. She has also maintained an ongoing interest in the Islamic history of the Maghrib (Iberia and North Africa) and Islamicate diasporas in the New World, which afforded her the opportunity to document colonial architecture in Cuba.
Dr. Patel’s publications include Building Communities in Gujarat: Architecture and Society during the Twelfth-Fourteenth Centuries (Brill 2004), Communities and Commodities: Western India and the Indian Ocean, for which she was guest editor of a special issue of Ars Orientalis XXXIV (2004). Patel also guest-edited Archives of Asian Art LIX (2007), an issue on reuse in South Asian visual culture. Her interests have expanded to mercantile networks and architectural patronage in modern South Asia, as evidenced in Indo-Muslim Cultures in Transition (co-ed. K. Leonard, Brill 2012). Her recent volume India and Iran in the Longue Durée (Jordan Center for Persian Studies 2017), co-edited by Touraj Daryaee, resulted from an conference analyzing Indo-Iranian connections over two millennia. Patel’s most recent book is Iran to India: The Shansabanis of Afghanistan, c. 1145–1190 CE (Edinburgh University Press 2021).
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