Student Spotlight: Madison Paulk, 5th-year Ph.D. Candidate in Cultural Anthropology

Madison Paulk is a current student in the Graduate Program in Development at the Watson Institute. She is involved with the Africa Initiative as her research interests specifically include urban anthropology and public art in South Africa. She is completing her dissertation research in Durban. 


Buffalo, New York 

Field site: 

Durban, South Africa

Could you explain a bit about your dissertation research in South Africa? 

My research broadly examines the artmaking of Black South African artists in the city of Durban and artists’ efforts to disrupt its traditional art terrain. Durban, and the larger KwaZulu-Natal Province in which it’s situated, is an incubator for visual artists, producing many of the country’s distinguished talents. This is juxtaposed with the city’s struggle to retain artists as a result of its institutionalized art scene, limited buying public, and diminishing public sector funds. Through sustained collaboration with Black/African independent artists and art collectives, my project explores their efforts to negotiate Durban’s institutional pillars to reimagine the city as one of Black/African arts.

Through extended fieldwork with independent artists and staff of prominent cultural institutions, my research ranges from 1) looking at independent Black arts spaces, or lack thereof, and trying to make sense of the persistence of the institution in the city's artscape; 2) examining Black contemporary artists' articulations of indigenous knowledges and urban Black/African futurity in their works and the perceived impact of these influences; and finally, 3) understanding the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on both artists and art institutions and in turn their relationship to one another. As I am deeply committed to an anthropology of art that views artists as change agents, this dissertation research considers the active and imaginative ways in which Durban’s Black/African artists demand a say in shaping the cultural identity of their city. 

How or why did you choose South Africa for the undertaking of your research?

I first traveled to South Africa as an undergraduate to study social and political transformation. While I have maintained a steady record of conducting qualitative research in Durban spanning several years, artists have not always been my interlocutors, nor has the arts and culture scene been my primary site of engagement. My past research in Durban focused primarily on francophone refugees, culminating in a master’s project on the intimate labor practices of Congolese salon workers who dominate the city’s informal hairdressing sector. As a young graduate student, I had challenging conversations with myself and others on the ethical challenges of conducting research with refugee populations and particularly questioning my own ethics of responsibility and care within the contours of space dealing with large-scale xenophobia and lack of adequate structures to address its perceived migration crisis. While I made a choice to shift away from researching within the Congolese community, my previous work, shaped around theoretical inquiries of beauty, labor, and belonging, pushed me to further interrogate aligned realms of creative economies, Black subjectivity, and other forms of community-centered praxis in the city space. 

The arts have long been a personal passion of mine, and in Durban, the art scene was a space where I found myself building a research-adjacent-community over the years. Creating intellectual space to understand the emerging dynamics within the arts and cultural sector was for me an organic next step in my evolution as an anthropologist and as my personal identity evolved through my early adulthood. 

What does the future hold for you, both academically and personally, after your dissertation?

Pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology has been both intellectually rewarding and an incredible challenge to my ideas about academia as an institution. Navigating this period of dissertation research has been a grounding reminder that research and teaching take many forms and happen within a multitude of spaces. I hope to take away from this experience the clarity to embrace the lulls, the quotidian acts of being and relating in which the most generative moments of learning occur. Most importantly, I hope to maintain the many meaningful and enduring relationships I’ve built with collaborators, interlocutors, and friends in my time here. 

Regarding my dissertation research in South Africa, my main priority as an anthropologist and public human is to tell honest and meaningful narratives of the human condition. Providing tangible products to my interlocutors in a spirit of collaborative, reciprocal, and mutually beneficial knowledge production is central to my process. To this end, I’m looking forward to continuing with the numerous collaborative projects I’ve had the opportunity to both facilitate and participate in. 

Presently, I am working with academic partners to plan walking tours of the city focused on different modes of engagement, such as public art, mapping, soundscapes, and archiving. Additionally, I received a student grant from the Brown Arts Initiative for web design to expand, build, and enhance the digital presence of a local art collective which will increase visibility of Durban’s young talent and contribute to the collective’s mission of creating a sustainable city for the visual arts. 

In my personal time, I look forward to more beach days on the Indian Ocean, perfecting Durban curry, working on my isiZulu language skills, and avoiding South Africa’s diverse array of venomous snakes.