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Portrait of an Artist: Julia Katherine Fiori ’24

May 3, 2024

Isa Cruz
STRIKE A POSE: Julia Katherine Fiori ’24 traces the lineage of female symbols of the state through art and history, including coins and iconography. Her exhibition focuses on the transformation of the Greek Athena, British Brittania, American Columbia and other figures of female statehood, from antiquity to the twentieth century.

Now on display at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA): new exhibition “Empires of Liberty: Athena, America, and the Feminine Allegory of the State,” curated by Julia Katherine Fiori ’24. Drawing upon scholarship within the fields of archaeology and Francophone studies, Fiori traces the evolution of female personifications of the nation state from antiquity to contemporary times.

Fiori was guided by how abstract depictions of women incarnate different aspects of a nation state’s identity. “Empires of Liberty” focuses on the transformation of the Greek Athena, British Brittania, American Columbia and other figures in coins from antiquity to twentieth-century propaganda, highlighting themes such as gender, imperialism and nationalism.

“I wrote a paper tracing the development of these female state personifications alongside the development of proto-nationalism. That led to me applying [to curate an exhibition] because I wanted to do more,” Fiori said.

The inspiration for the exhibition originated in an archeology class taught by Associate Professor of Classics Jim Higginbotham that focused on numismatics, the study of coins.

“I loved the way [Higginbotham] talked about how archaeological remains are the physical remnants of culture and how you can learn so much about a community and a culture or people from what they’ve left behind,” Fiori said.

From this class, Fiori began developing a list of pieces to be included in the exhibition, ranging from coins to iconography. She also relied on BCMA Curator Casey Braun, Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow Sean Kramer and Special Collections Education and Engagement Librarian Marieke Van Der Steenhoven for knowledge about the College’s historical collections.

“We started realizing that the collections here at the museum had a lot of strengths specifically in representations of Britannia and Columbia,” Braun said. “So, the project actually ended up shifting more towards looking not only [at] how the personification of Athena and Roma transformed into Marianne in the French context, in Columbia in the American context and Britannia in the British context, but really about the colonial relationship between the American colonies and Great Britain.”

“Empires of Liberty” was Fiori’s first time curating an exhibition. While Fiori learned how to locate an object in its historical context, she had to consider how it related to other pieces within the exhibit as well as the physical composition of the gallery.

“What was really new for me was thinking about things not just in terms of what they are and what they show about their own history, but what they show about the history of everything that’s in the gallery,” Fiori said. “If I describe one piece here, in this way, talking about this theme, how does that connect with this piece all the way on the other side of the room, and how can you tell people that that’s connected?”

While this exhibition was Fiori’s introduction to museum curation, it also marked a new experience for BCMA staff. Previously, Braun had only worked with students interested in exhibitions because of academic or extracurricular projects.

“To curate was totally different with [Fiori] because she approached us outside of any class and any student organization. But I was really impressed with [Fiori’s] ability to meet deadlines and remain organized as a student without the benefit of the structure of a course,” Braun said. “Her enthusiasm about the material was just so infectious.”

Fiori purposefully posed questions to encourage the exhibition’s viewers to reflect on the prevalence of female allegories throughout history, but also in present-day towns, cities and institutions.

“The more I thought about it, the more I realized how important it was to make people not only aware of the tradition that it derives from within antiquity, but also the perpetuation and continuation of it today. [It’s important] for people to understand that we are using female bodies in various ways, not just as a thing of the past,” Fiori said. “What does that showcase about how this tradition has continued, why it has continued and what that might mean about where we are today?”

Reflecting on Fiori’s success, Higginbotham hopes that other students will draw inspiration from her experience with the exhibition.

“[Fiori] sets up a wonderful model. If students can appreciate what she’s been able to accomplish, then maybe more will come and think about what they can do in a setting like that,” Higginbotham said. “[Fiori] has already been contacted by writers and scholars outside [of the College]. Now we’re going to create an interactive web component that will have a life beyond the exhibition.”

Because of her success with the exhibition, Fiori hopes to return to archeology and curation later in her life.

“I would love to do more museum work at some point in the future, but I don’t know what that will look like,” Fiori said. “I’m starting medical school in July, so I’m going on a different path in the immediate future. But I know that my love of archaeology, Francophone studies and museum work is also going to be a part of who I am. Even if I go off and become a doctor, I will always find a way to pursue those.”

Fiori’s exhibition is on display now through June 2 in the Becker Gallery. Fiori will be giving a tour of her exhibition to other alumni during Reunion Weekend.


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