A Gift for Connecting People through Art and Culture

Romita Ray, Associate Professor of Art History at Syracuse University, employs both arts and culture to forge connections between people across disciplinary boundaries. In her scholarship and teaching, she focuses on the art and architecture of the British Empire in India, and she serves on the editorial board of the Journal of South Asian Studies, but her strengths lie in creating opportunities for all kinds of people to take part in common human experiences.

A “Networker in the Best Sense”

Ray facilitates human connections in impressive ways, reaching out to a variety of constituencies to gather diverse audiences for the events and groups she organizes on Syracuse University’s campus. According to Tula Goenka, Professor of Television, Radio, and Film at Syracuse, Ray is a networker in the best sense; she has the ability to find synergies among groups of people and has a rare enthusiasm for building community. Goenka says that Ray, a generous colleague, continually strives to build interdisciplinary bridges, both within and outside of the university.

One way Ray has created an ongoing interdisciplinary space for the past several years was by organizing a landscape studies group for faculty across campus. Professors in departments that would normally never interact had the chance to be in the same room and talk about their intersecting interests. One early member of the group—Stephanie Parker, Assistant Teaching Professor in Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition at Syracuse—says that Ray is interested in people, helping them to connect not just in the landscape group, but even on the short daily bus ride from town to campus. Parker says that Ray has a gift for making people feel that they belong, building on her knowledge of individuals’ interests to point out commonalities with the work of others.

Natural Mentor

Ray’s interests in people and their work make her a natural mentor, according to Tammy Hong, Syracuse graduate in three majors—history, art history, and studio art. Hong says that Ray is an incredibly “loving, caring, supportive professor” who gets to know her students so she can present them with opportunities. Ray found the posting for Hong’s current job as Andrew W. Mellon Research Assistant in Modern Materials at the National Gallery, which combines art materials and art history research. Ray told Hong, “Just apply and see what happens!” And indeed, Hong was hired for the position.

Hong values how supportive Ray was throughout her years at Syracuse. As Hong tried to complete her thesis research into the “Moses” statue created by Mestrovic—a sculptor and Syracuse professor in the 1940s and 50s—she faced challenges finding archival materials. Ray, however, kept encouraging Hong to pursue the ides. Hong ended up receiving a research grant to visit the Notre Dame archives, where she found valuable sources for her thesis, among them the original mold for the “Moses” sculpture. Beyond Ray’s keen interest in and support of her mentee’s academic and professional work, Hong says that their mentor-mentee relationship spans “culture, personal identity, cultural identity, and the global framework.” Their relationship can be lighthearted, as well; they also enjoy texting each other about Korean dramas.

The Power of the Visual

Because visual emblems have power and are culturally situated, Ray says that this particular moment in United States history is crystalizing the powerful role art plays in culture. Statues are coming down, and these works of art can have a big impact on how we view and understand the past. According to Ray, the human image in particular stirs our emotions, ideologies, thoughts; when we take down statues, we are also tearing down someone’s version of history. For these reasons, Ray says, “It behooves us to engage in dialogue,” moving beyond the spectacle of destruction. Recent events have made clear that people in the United States cannot move forward without reconciling the past because it keeps resurfacing. In thinking about how those of us living in the U.S. might grapple with our complicated histories, Ray emphasizes the importance of dialogue—as well as considering the source—in telling competing versions of history.

Having grown up in Kolkata under a communist government that removed buildings, statues, and public art—thereby erasing public memory in many ways—Ray believes that cultures need these memories to be able to assess themselves. In Kolkata, entire generations have now grown up without a sense of those markers. Ray points out that every person is part of local histories. If we must tear down statues and monuments, Ray says that we can’t stop at the satisfaction of tearing down; we must think towards what comes next. As a scholar of empire, Ray points out that when we read history, we are consulting records form a particular cultural point of view. After taking down statues, she reiterates, the time comes to look closely at the harder discussions. Ray says we must think deeply about how we are approaching the questions of whose history we are narrating and whose history we tell and value. She wonders, “How do we live with the burdens of history, and how do we make multiple narratives more visible and more widely available to many different kinds of people?

Support from Academic Institutions

Ray draws on the wide array of opportunities available in her academic setting to engage in this ongoing work of creating spaces for people to interact with other cultures and narratives, saying that academia has the ability to bring people together around these visibilities. She takes seriously her opportunity and responsibility to “broker conversations” on her campus. The field of art, she contends, needs more representation from people of color in order to give audience to their voices in real ways. Within individual academic disciplines, conversations can get siloed to like-minded people, with some voices left out; however, in performing arts centers and museums, scholars can be responsible for including as many voices as possible. Ray stresses the importance of engaging with a wide variety of other cultures in these spaces. People often self-select racially or culturally when choosing which art exhibits to view, but, as Ray points out, everyone can go to all sorts of art shows to see what connections might be made. As museums create a broader portfolio of telling stories from more and different kinds of people, Ray argues, eventually more people will regularly engage with the museums’ work.

College museums, in particular, can help with examining history and narratives. Ray works with Dr. Susan Wadley, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at Syracuse, to present folk art from female artists living in rural northern India. Ray and Wadley are currently working on an online art exhibition of this Mithila art through a collaboration of the ArtRage Gallery and the Syracuse University Art Museum. This exhibition focuses on art relating to Covid, with one piece showing the experience of a pregnant woman’s 900-mile journey home (and giving birth on the road) when the country imposed an immediate lockdown; another shows a goddess destroying the virus. This theme focusing on Covid allows Ray and Wadley to present this collection to people who know nothing about Mithila art because of the worldwide commonality of grappling with the effects of Covid in daily life. The artists, according to Wadley, use a traditional style of art to paint for social justice. Wadley says that she sees art more as an anthropologist, so she appreciates Ray’s attention to the artistry and techniques used by the artists in the exhibition.

Ray also makes use of the strengths of her academic institution by consistently bringing in speakers and scholars to the campus. According to Goenka, she works hard to schedule events that last several days so that the people on campus can build reciprocal relationships with the guests. One example is when Ray scheduled Bunker Roy, who started an organization called the Barefoot College in Rajasthan; he’s a leading activist and change maker who teaches women from rural areas to build solar systems to bring energy to their communities. This speaking engagement exemplifies the sorts of connections that Ray focuses on and brings into being.


Another way that Ray depends on the potential for arts and culture to bring people together is by organizing an annual Diwali celebration on the Syracuse University campus. Ray says that cross-cultural communication can be difficult, but trying to increase communication between groups is important. Syracuse University has holdings of folk art from India, but students often have challenges connecting with them because they are different from the more familiar European standards. According to Ray, Diwali—a festival of light—is an excellent choice to engage students and give perspective because it’s not a sectarian celebration; all people from all religions in India participate. Plus, participation in the festival can allay fears in a visceral way; a celebration allows people to engage in something that is beautiful—and the food adds to the experience.

Ray’s goal in organizing the celebration is to make the cross-cultural connection more approachable. She invites her whole department and everyone on campus. She finds that bringing people together is powerful, and seeing people in other contexts can be helpful for making connections, too. Starting at dusk, 2500 luminaries are lit on campus. Students and faculty members of many different backgrounds attend; some are familiar with Diwali, and it a new experience for others. This annual event is one way to bring community together, to connect with people who are different from one another. Ray encourages others on college campuses to try in their own ways to create this type of community and such cross-cultural experiences.

And Next—Tea 

Given her strengths, it comes as no surprise that Ray finds the human connections even in her most recent research on the visual cultures of tea in India and Great Britain, spanning the 18th through 20th centuries. Ray began research for her book with a year-long NEH research grant in 2016, visiting many tea plantations to have conversations with planters, tea workers, and botanists. With Kolkata at its center since the 18th century, the tea trade in India is a heritage industry with structures established during the colonial era. For this project, Ray has explored a wide range of potential sources, from botanical history and archives to dried tea specimens, as well as a variety of unique personal archives. As she explores her interests in the visual cultures of tea, one thing is sure—Romita Ray will continue sharing her experiences with everyone around her in ways that connect others in common human experiences.

About the Author
Cynthia Mwenja, PhD, teaches Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Montevallo and is a staff writer for PUPN Magazine.