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. These images are the outcome of Dr. Patel’s documentation and scholarly research during the last twenty years, and her collaboration with Dr. Maureen Burns, visual resources consultant and project manager, and a number of undergraduates and graduates for metadata research and entry. In her teaching and scholarship, Patel has consistently emphasized primary study of material culture, particularly of less-known artistic/architectural traditions. Given the uncertainty of access to many global regions where Patel has conducted fieldwork, she has pursued a wide chronological and geographical range of documentation. Dr. Patel believes that making well-researched images available to scholars and teachers is essential for a more thorough representation and understanding of understudied world regions and their histories.
Dr. Patel’s fieldwork and documentation in Havana, Cuba and its surrounding areas brings an important focus on the island’s colonial period (16th-19th centuries) and the latter’s inspiration of modern architecture in this architecturally and culturally rich city of the Americas. She documented a wide range of architectural types, spanning religious, residential and public architecture.
The elaborate woodwork in many churches, monasteries, and elite residences is unlike Cuba’s indigenous architectural traditions. Such remnants indicate the transplantation of artisans from Iberia, the heir of a long history of Islamicate artistic traditions ultimately utilized in creating a distinctive colonial architectural language on the island. Such practices continued in 19th-century structures such as the Church of St. Francis, signaling a greater longevity for these traditions in Cuba than in Iberia.
The later buildings served as vital links for some of Cuba’s modern architecture, such as the iconic 20th-century Hotel Nacional, which relied on the recognizably Maghribi geometric tile dados and intricate woodwork to evoke luxurious interiors for elite Cuban and other guests at the hotel 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), a special issue on reuse in South Asian visual culture. Patel’s interests have expanded to include 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 with ancient Iranist Touraj Daryaee, resulted from an international conference convening a wide range of specialists analyzing Indo-Iranian connections over two millennia. Patel’s current book project on the Ghurids of Afghanistan and northern India is titled India, Iran and Empire: the Shansabānīs of Ghūr, ca. 1150-1215, underway with the support of the Getty Consortium Scholar Fellowship (2017-18).
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