Lumen Scholar studies artistic expression to dispel myths on Africa

They are common stereotypes of Africa often portrayed in media: poverty, AIDS, a “primitiveness” of people who live there. As Elon University senior Maggie Pahos prepared for a semester abroad in Ghana, she wanted to find ways to dispel those stereotypes through her own research, photography and creative writing, and her project is the latest to be featured in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2011.

Pahos has worked for two years with her mentor, assistant professor Evan Gatti, on an ongoing project that she hopes will help other students prepare for and engage with their own study abroad experiences.

Pahos’ project broadly focuses on cross-cultural expression – namely, why and how people form preconceptions about a place with which they are unfamiliar. Those interpretations can then affect how a culture is characterized through art, dialogue and writing.

That’s the rub, the Illinois native says. When such expressions are inaccurate or incomplete, they reinforce common stereotypes. After research and time spent abroad, she found that the size and diversity of Africa make it complex and prone to misleading labels that are hard to combat.

Pahos spent two years conducting research in the history of photography, art and post-colonial theory, including a semester where she produced an exhibition of works of African art from Elon’s Art Collections. She also studied for a semester in Ghana where she made photographs and wrote creative pieces that directly reflected her personal experiences, while also interviewing Ghanaians on the perception of both Africa and the United States.

The final piece of her project focuses on the how her experience integrating a semester abroad into her academic interest might offer insight to other Elon students who choose to study abroad. From preparations before leaving to the transition into American culture upon return, Pahos says cross-cultural perception plays a large role in a student’s individual experience.

The art history and English double major knew a social issue would be at the heart of her Lumen Prize project and wanted to create a conversational exhibit. That exhibit went on display in the Center for the Performing Arts last fall – and Pahos hopes to visit Ghana this fall to present a new exhibit and speak about the importance of her experiences.

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements.

The program includes course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad, internships locally and abroad, program development, and creative productions and performances.

Pahos recently sat down with the Office of University Relations to share details of her work.

How did the idea for your research develop?
“I was very interested at the beginning of my project in looking at social photography. I knew some kind of social issue would be at the heart of what I’m doing. I had to figure out a way to include both my art historical discipline and creative writing discipline, so that’s how I ended up where I am, with all the different components.”

What led you to studying abroad in Ghana?
“When I began trying to figure out where I was going and what exactly I would move forward with, knew I wanted to study abroad. Within this idea of social photography and cross-cultural perception at large, Africa seemed like a great place to start considering the stereotypes and generalizations that often surround it. I was aware of those from my experiences with the media and with conversations I had with people.

“Once I decided Africa would be the place I would work with, Ghana became my focus because of our study abroad program there and the relationships Elon has with the University of Ghana. I knew I’d be able to be successful in working there.”

How did your research challenge the common stereotypes?
“I had done some research and writing before I left about specific perceptions of Africa in general. I read a few books about issues in the media and looked into the ‘I am African’ campaign, so I had a concept of where these stereotypes and generalizations came from. I was able to work away some of the perceptions I had of Africa and Ghana and I spoke to students who had been there before. I felt like I had a good footing on some level for what I was going to experience.

“Once I got there, a lot of my expectations were met and a lot weren’t. I felt like I adapted well to things that I had perceived would happen to me before I left, but then there were things I didn’t expect.”

Where has your Ghanaian photography been displayed and where else do you hope to see your work published?
“My exhibit went up last semester in the performing arts center. It began with perceptions in the media and advertisements and then moved to the part of my project I did in Sarasota the first year I was a scholar, which dealt heavily with photographic image and perception. It then moved to my semester before Ghana, where I began studying African and Ghanaian art and contemporary art. It then moved into my experiences in Ghana, including photographs, writings and blog posts. I finished the exhibit with an article of clothing I had made while I was in Ghana.”

What are some of the conclusions you’ve drawn?
“I don’t think I have come to a conclusion. I wasn’t looking for answers. I was trying to think in conversation and hit different areas I hadn’t thought of before. Some of the larger concepts I’ve gathered are very focused on student experience abroad.

“This final semester, I’m focused on the Elon study abroad experience and how cross-cultural perception fits in there. This includes preparations for leaving, going somewhere new, the process of being there and interacting and then transitioning back into the culture of the United States and life at Elon. At the end of the day, one of the bigger focuses of my project will be that experience cross-culturally.”

How has the Lumen prize impacted your project?
“I think the Lumen Prize helped me hone in on what I wanted to do. I worked very closely with my mentor and other faculty members on campus. I think another way it will help me is to give me impetus and drive to bring the project to Ghana. I understand my project in full because of that push to bring it full circle and the Lumen Prize has allowed me to focus on the details of that, and it’s given me the financial support to follow through.”

– Interview with Caitlin O’Donnell ’13