Graduate Student Spotlight, Summer Travel Series: MA student Hoyon Mephokee travels to France for new insights on Fontaine de l’Observatorie

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Mephokee presenting at the 2019 Matthias Conference. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Heine

“I felt like I was in a Dan Brown book, but without the car chases.”

Hoyon Mephokee, a second year Master’s student in Art History, filled three weeks of June and July with travel to France and research for his Master’s thesis on nineteenth-century French sculpture. Mephokee’s receipt of the Carol Bird Ravenal Art Award Fund and a CAS Graduate Student Research Award supported his travel to Paris and Valenciennes. Like many emerging art historians, his trip would not have been possible without university-level and departmental support.

Mephokee’s project focuses on the Fontaine de l’Obervatoire, a public sculpture by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux located in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. At the time of writing, Mephokee’s main interest is in “examining the placement of the work along the Paris Meridian, and between the Luxembourg Palace and Paris Observatory.”

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Fontaine de l’Obervatoire by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. Photo courtesy of Hoyon Mephokee

Mephokee’s research also grapples with the racial and cartographic iconography within the context of the Second French Empire and the Third Republic. The sculpture, dedicated in 1874, depicts four allegorical nude women that represent Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. The dynamic figures hold a sphere, representing the world, over their heads. Carpeaux utilized specific iconography to communicate racial differences between the women and Mephokee is interested in investigating how these symbols work to create meaning through these tropes within the socio-historical context of late nineteenth-century Paris.

Mephokee’s trip included archival research in various French national research collections including the Musée d’Orsay and the Archives Municipales de Valenciennes. While many emerging art historians hear horror stories of international bureaucratic red tape, Mephokee had a wonderful experience in the archives: “I was most surprised by how accommodating the staff were at these institutions. The archival staff at the Musée d’Orsay walked me through the processes and the paperwork necessary to access documentation and archival materials. The staff at the Archives Municiaples de Valenciennes were also kind enough to offer to send me scans of important primary source documents. It was quite surreal to handle documents, books, manuscripts, and photographs from the nineteenth century. I felt like I was in a Dan Brown book, but without the car chases.”

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Archival photographs. Photo courtesy of Hoyon Mephokee

Mephokee discovered not only new information about Carpeaux but the importance of connecting artworks to the historical, social, and artistic networks of their own time: “I gained new insights about my work and artist, but I was surprised by how much I learned about related artists and works. Going through the files and boxes on Charles Cordier and the Musée d’Orsay, for instance, I found that Cordier had published a volume of images of his sculptures, which were taken by Charles Marville and organized by ethnographic type. The aesthetic and formal relationships that Carpeau’s works share with those of Cordier’s raise further questions about sculpture and the politics of the medium that I had not considered.”

Congratulations Hoyon on an exciting and productive research trip, and many thanks to AU’s College of Arts and Sciences and the many individual donors and patrons of the program for supporting student research!

Carol Bird Ravenal, Professor Emerita and founding member of the AU Arts Council, funds the Carol Bird Ravenal Travel Award to give “AU students the same chance to learn about art firsthand… in the hope that exploring great works may inspire their own artistic sensibilities.” Travel is paramount for Professor Ravenal. “If you are creating art, or studying the many facets of art history, you need to explore, savor, and digest the wider world. A student’s world can expand exponentially with the first views of a strange and unknown place, whether it’s Paris, Berlin, New York, or California. Perhaps this experience will change lives. It surely has enriched and changed mine.” The awards are distributed yearly to studio art and art history students, both graduate and undergraduate, who display talent and academic excellence.

CAS offers travel and research grants to graduate and undergraduate students in the fall and spring semesters. For more information, please visit: https://www.american.edu/cas/research/student/

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