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Introducing Dr. Emily Thames

Published April 20, 2022

Congratulations to Dr. Emily Thames, who defended her dissertation “Empire, Race, and Agency in the Work of José Campeche, Artist and Subject in Late Spanish Colonial Puerto Rico (1751-1809)” under the direction of Dr. Paul Niell this spring. Emily’s research centers on the visual and material culture of the colonial Atlantic World, with a focus on the Spanish Americas and the Caribbean (c. 1500-1900).  She studies the relationship between art and empire; art in the age of revolution and nationalism; the history of colonialism, imperialism, and global exchanges; identity, self-fashioning, and portraiture; the intersection of art and race; and the visual and material cultures of the African diaspora.

As a PhD student at Florida State University, Emily has received numerous fellowships and awards, including the Joe and Wanda Corn Predoctoral Fellowship at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the College of Fine Arts Dean’s Student Achievement Award, the Mason Dissertation Research Award, the I.N. Winbury Award, the COGS Conference Presentation Support Grant, and the Helen J. Beard Conference Travel Grant.

During the summer of 2018, Emily held the Object Research and Teaching Programming Internship position at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Emily has also served as a graduate assistant for several courses at FSU and independently taught the History of African Art and the History and Criticism of Art I and II. She recently chaired a session titled “18th Century Portraiture in the Americas,” at the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies annual conference. In addition to her academic and professional activities, Emily had two sons – Ellis and Bennett – while writing her dissertation.

This summer Emily will co-edit “Black Artists in the Atlantic World,” a special issue of the journal Arts with Paul Niell. She has also been invited to speak at a forum being held by the Historic New Orleans Collection in New Orleans this summer, the theme of which “The Spanish South,” complements their forthcoming exhibition Spanish New Orleans and the Caribbean, which will open October 22, 2022.

I first visited FSU in 2012 as a presenter in the Art History Graduate Symposium, and the warm welcome I received from the students in the department is the reason I decided to apply to this program. I am very happy that I decided to come to FSU to pursue my PhD studies, not only for the amazing people I’ve met who have gone through the MA and PhD programs during my time here, but also because of the courses I was able to take, the opportunities I was afforded to teach and design syllabi as a graduate student, the research trips that the department funded that allowed me to perform research for my dissertation, and the steadfast support I received from my advisor, Paul Niell, and every member of the Art History Department staff.

Dr. Niell describes Emily’s contributions to the field:

Emily’s dissertation critiques a common scholarly narrative of the prolific late eighteenth-century Puerto Rican painter José Campeche (1751-1809), renowned for his portraiture and Neoclassical style, as the first artist of the island. Critically reconsidering the notion of “artist” at this moment in terms of Campeche’s practice as well as the social history of art production across the Hispanophone Caribbean in such places as Cuba and Hispaniola, Emily exposes this idea of premier artist as belonging much less to fact and more to the heritage processes associated with the island’s proto-national identity formation, which began in the eighteenth century and continues to this day. Emily argues that important questions have, indeed, been eclipsed by this myth. What do we make, for instance, of the role of drawing pedagogy in the constitution of the Spanish Bourbon empire and the diffusion of drawing through myriad channels, including those of military draftsmanship to which Campeche contributed? What is an “artist” in the sense of he who draws plans for fortifications? What role did race play in the professional life of Campeche, a man of African descent? How did Campeche as an active and aware subject negotiate and contribute to a complex colonial visual culture that reified structures of race, class, and gender; reinforced asymmetrical power relations; and normalized the institution of slavery? Emily’s work raises these vital and under-investigated questions as she positions Campeche’s work in a complicated field of production, reception, and colonial subject formation of great relevance to Atlantic Studies and Caribbean art history today.