Home is Where Her Art Lies

September 14, 2020

Alumna Nadiah Rivera Fellah's research on Latinx art embraced her family's history and led her back home to Ohio and her curatorial job at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Nadiah Rivera Fellah
Nadiah Rivera Fellah

Nadiah Rivera Fellah (Ph.D. ’19, Art History) was a senior at Oberlin College in her home state of Ohio when she had the chance to curate a show at the campus art museum. Fellah says for her, “that was it.” She had found her career. She developed it as a doctoral student at The Graduate Center where she specialized in Latin American and Latinx art with her adviser, Professor Anna Indych-López (GC/City University of New York, Art History). Starting with a fellowship through the Mellon Foundation, she gained curatorial experience at The Graduate Center’s James Gallery and at the Newark Museum. 

Last November, having completed her degree and a dissertation on the role of photography in stories of migration in the US-Mexico borderlands, which tapped into a hot topic at the time, she became associate curator of contemporary art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Although the museum has begun reopening, she and other staff are working primarily from home.

The Graduate Center asked Fellah about her research, the role of a curator, and what advice she might offer graduate students.

The Graduate Center: Your dissertation grew out of your own family's history.

Fellah: Yes, my mom is from Texas and grew up in the borderlands. Her family was there for so long that it was like the border crossed them instead of them crossing the border. I felt a very deep personal connection to that project. And I think that helped me, ultimately, to finish because the stakes were higher and I believed in the importance of it. And that helped a lot with getting in touch with artists and their families and getting access to archives. 

GC: Your father's heritage is Middle Eastern. 

Fellah: My dad, being the first-generation child of immigrants, absolutely changed the way that I thought about how I could envision working with arts from different parts of the globe and also how I could connect contemporary art to a more diverse audience. Just coming from a working-class immigrant family, you know, we're not the stereotypical people that you expect to go into museums that much. So I really want to make sure that I connect with an audience that isn't academic or doesn't have English as the first language. How can we create an experience or shows or artwork that have lines of connection to multiple different communities and types of visitors?

GC: Tell us about your work as a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Fellah: The first project when I came in was to reconceive of reinstalling the permanent collection in the contemporary galleries. I'm working on that with the curator of contemporary art, and we're also making some acquisitions to fill some gaps in the collection, trying to bring in more diverse and younger artists.

The contemporary collection is not that large at the Cleveland Museum of Art and in recent years, they've wanted to build it in a more global direction. When they were searching for someone to fill the position, they were interested in someone who had a global focus. My specialization in American and Latinx art ultimately was my path to getting the position.

GC: Has your work changed since the start of the pandemic? 

Fellah: I have been involved in the production of more digital content for the museum's website, which is new. Otherwise my projects have stayed the same.

The events of the last few months have reinforced my interest in focusing on our local community, and this has been a trend across departments at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I'm looking forward to being involved in initiatives that deepen this commitment as projects that I'm working on progress. 

GC: Any advice for Graduate Center students interested in becoming curators?

Fellah: I would say that finishing your degree is the number one thing. Staying the course and being practical about the parameters of your dissertation and choosing topics that can be finished. 

And you know, life happens. I had twins before I graduated. Oh my gosh, that was a hurdle and a delay in finishing. But I stuck with it and I had incredible support from my adviser and professors. 

After that I'd say it’s making connections, taking advantage of opportunities given, and applying for fellowships. Having a wide knowledge base is key for curatorial work. Take those opportunities and see where they can take you.