Monroe earns prestigious NEH Fellowship for African sculpture research

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What began as a hobby has now turned into a prominent humanities research award for John Warne Monroe, associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa State University. Monroe began collecting African sculpture in his free time a decade ago, and his interest in the art’s history has led to a 2015-2016 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Fellowship.

Monroe will use the fellowship to complete the remaining chapters of his book on African sculpture and its role in shaping the broader concept of “primitive art,” which first emerged in Paris. NEH Fellowships are prestigious awards that support individuals pursuing advanced humanities research.

The African artwork Monroe researches began arriving in France in the second half of the 19th century, as the country started expanding its colonial outposts in Africa. Considered crude and “hideous” at that time, African sculptures began to be perceived as works of art in their own right in the early 20th century by modernist painters in Paris.

They were also perceived as antiques, ancient and “primitive.” In fact, however, most of these objects were made not long before their arrival in France, and many were no older than the works of modern art they inspired. In the 1920s, this new way of seeing African art went mainstream and found its way into the general culture, said Monroe.

“I’m using my knowledge as a French historian to take a look at the question of how African sculpture came to be perceived as art rather than as ethnographic specimens or pagan idols as it had before,” he said. “I’m interested in what these objects tell us about the way France functioned both as an empire and as the capital of the Western art world. It’s a story worth telling.”

NEH Fellowships are very competitive and prestigious awards. “The Association of American Universities (AAU), of which Iowa State is a member, ranks the NEH Fellowships highly on its list of faculty honors,” said Beate Schmittmann, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “This is an outstanding award for John, and for the college as well.”

Monroe said he is delighted his proposal was accepted. “The NEH Fellowship gives me time to finish my book that I’ve been working on for a long time.”

In the classroom, Monroe introduces his research on African art in his French history survey course, where he uses it to illustrate the way France’s overseas empire shaped its culture at home.

“What I really like about teaching is the creative challenge to structure the lecture so the student can experience my enthusiasm on the topic,” he said. “The right stories can bring the big abstract stuff to life. My research helps me find those stories.”

In addition to the NEH Fellowship, Monroe has received a number of research and teaching awards, including the Western Society of French History Millstone Interdisciplinary Paper Award, a Cassling Family Faculty Award for Teaching, and an Early Achievement in Teaching award from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Most recently he was listed as one of the nation’s top teachers of undergraduates in The Best 300 Professors by Princeton Review Books in 2012.


About Liberal Arts and Sciences The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is a world-class learning and research community. Iowa State’s most academically diverse college, LAS educates students to become global citizens, providing rigorous academic programs in the sciences, humanities and social sciences within a supportive personalized learning environment. College faculty design new materials, unravel biological structures, care for the environment, and explore social and behavioral issues. From fundamental research to technology transfer and artistic expression, the college supports people in Iowa and around the world.

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Contacts: John Warne Monroe, History ( Laura Wille, Liberal Arts and Sciences Communications (