Art history professor set to lead UNM’s Africana Studies as it transitions from a program to a department

bright spotKirsten Pai Buick said the University of New Mexico was the one place she interviewed that didn’t ask her whether her study of African American art and history qualified her to teach American history.

She knew then, two decades ago, that UNM was the right place for her. The university announced that it has appointed Pai Buick as director of the Africana Studies program. She will oversee the area of study transition from a program to an ethnic studies department. The UNM Faculty Senate voted Feb. 22 to make the change.

“Africana history is American history,” she said. “When I interviewed here, I was never questioned about my credentials. They get it. But, after I got hired, when I was shipping my books here, the guy asked if I needed a passport to come here.”

Transforming the program into a department will allow students to earn a master’s and PhD in Africana studies. As a program, Pai Buick said they are limited to offering a bachelor’s degree, which may not be enough time to thoroughly explore the topic. The current course of studies looks at politics, culture, music, dance, how race and racism gets codified into law, and how African Americans have negotiated representation in history.

“The history of African people in the diaspora, that history is complex,” she said. “It is involved. It’s a story that can’t be told in programs.”

UNM has had an African Studies program for 51 years. Pai Buick said it was formed alongside the Black Power, Chicano and American Indian movements in the ’70s.

Pai Buick, whose title will change to chair when the program achieves the status of department, said she hopes to build a tenured track with faculty who can teach courses at the master’s and eventually doctoral level.

“I’m looking to make it a place of excellence,” she said. “A place of intersectionality. We do not exist in a vacuum. I want to honor that. I want to honor the people who came before me who kept it going long enough so we could get to this point.”

A leadership role in Africana Studies is not a role completely unfamiliar to Pai Buick. About 10 years ago, she served as the associate director of Africana Studies when talks of turning the program into a department had already began. Now at the helm, she’s hoping those efforts lead to results.

“The promise then (10 years ago) was that I was to help transition the program to departmental status, but big ships turn slowly, and we were unsuccessful,” she said. “I have signed back on as director because under the new leadership (at the university), that promise will be made a reality.”

The College Art Association recently named her a distinguished scholar for 2022.

Pai Buick, a native of Chicago, has written several books and essays including “Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject.” She participated in the unveiling of the 45th Black Heritage stamp featuring Mary Edmonia Lewis that was released in January. Lewis was a sculptor and the first African and Native woman to receive international acclaim.

In 2015, the High Museum of Art presented Pai Buick with the Driskell Prize, a national award that recognizes the contribution of artists, who are just starting or in the middle of their careers, to the field of African American art.

In addition to her role as director, Pai Buick, is a professor of art history, associate dean of equity and excellence, and special assistant to the dean of Arts and Sciences.

“The department’s guiding principles will continue to ensure that students of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds have access to a full understanding of the global linkages between peoples of Africa,” she said. “And other African-descended people throughout the Black diaspora.”

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