What’s in a Bindi and a Hand? Or: The Way Monica Juneja Enabled Me to World Myself by Sharing Her Worlds

by Franziska Koch, Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies, Heidelberg University

Getting to know and working closely with a scholar and a personality such as Monica Juneja has been an absolute treat. It has been a process of becoming for me, an ongoing process of becoming aware of the cultural and ethical perceptions that govern my scholarly and general views. It has entailed puzzling over something she said and re-shaping my views in ways that find me a bit more flexible, and often, reevaluating the limits of my understanding. Sometimes, I slightly ache from the revelation of an unwelcome truth and struggle with an impulse to disagree but fail to formulate it quite as articulately as her. Normally, I am more sensitive and open to embrace new knowledge and always curious about what she is going to share next.

It is precisely the skillful and generous ways in which she shares: in her research, teaching, writing, and communication that make me think of her as a second mother. One who taught me the ropes of academic professionalism and has encouraged me (and many other emerging scholars) to believe in a scholarly world that is ultimately not separate from our social lives.

Working as an assistant professor for her newly founded Chair of Global Art History since July 2009, her 65th anniversary now provides me with an auspicious occasion to look back at the truly transformative work that she has achieved at the Heidelberg University’s Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context – Changing Asymmetries in Cultural Flows,” now known as the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies (HCTS).[i] I thought, why not bring both these perspectives together; my personal and professional experience of working with the distinguished Geburtstagskind and share in turn how I grew beyond my initial self while participating in the transformation she enabled.

When I asked myself how to creatively tell this two-fold story, an image and two gestures formed in my mind. First, Monica’s signature bindi: a relatively large, but otherwise unpretentious dot of dark red color and felt-like material. This image was followed by two hand gestures; a hand extending to give something and then the same hand shaping the palm as if to carefully hold or gently shield something. The ensuing stream of consciousness provoked a cascade of further images all evolving around my inner Monica that I happened to develop over the years spent next to the actual person.

Monica Juneja. Photograph: private. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

I can still see myself in that exciting first personal encounter, when I nervously sat in front of her for my job interview looking at her wide, curious, and friendly smiling eyes including a mystifying third one, the bindi. Looking back, I feel, to this day, that it must have been a rather humble performance on my side. In the process of trying to re-invent myself as a great fit for the position of an academic assistant of Global Art History, a denomination unheard of in German-speaking academia at the time, I was painfully aware of not being able to place my potential future employer. Of course, I had researched her curriculum vitae and publications, but it was perplexing for me, as she did not fit most of my (un)conscious criteria that stemmed from a limited range of art historians that I had interacted with in Germany so far. The immediate professors in my academic upbringing between Stuttgart’s Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste and Karlsruhe’s Hochschule für Gestaltung (with whom I was obviously comparing her) were exclusively male and German or Swiss. Despite the typically broad periodical scope of their various expertise in early modern to contemporary times; they almost exclusively worked on objects, images, artists, and discourses located in a European or North-American context, or were subjected to reception in these regions. Fortunately, I had already learned that Heidelberg’s Institute of East Asian Art History as well as the Institute of Sinology, which I frequented for my doctoral research on Chinese contemporary art, were home to a new generation of inspiring female role models such as Melanie Trede (Japanese Art History) and Barbara Mittler (an expert on modern and contemporary popular and visual culture of China). At the same time, it also made me question the increasing number of female professors becoming visible in German academia that seemed problematically tied to exploring the regional, theoretical, or methodological margins of how the discipline of Art History has been institutionalized in Germany, namely as European Art History. While meeting female professors of art history was therefore already a noteworthy thing in itself, meeting a professor without a European or North-American nationality was definitively an anomaly.

In contrast to myself, who had only studied a year abroad in South Korea in 2001 and half a year in the People’s Republic of China in 2003 during the senior years of my undergraduate studies, Monica, the daughter of an Indian diplomat, had already gathered European experiences as a high school student in Rome. I am guessing that this might have contributed to her studying history with a focus on art at the University in Delhi, also her hometown. This was later followed by an art historical dissertation on the rural image in French painting from Millet to Van Gogh, completed at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris in 1985. It was also where she met the German historian Friedrich Huneke, who later became her husband. Soon after the doctorate studies, she assumed a teaching position at her alma mater in New Delhi, where, as I learned to my naïve astonishment, art history was not institutionalized as a separate discipline but figured as part of the history department. Leaving the tenured position in India behind for visiting professorial positions in Hanover and Vienna during the 1990s, and teaching assignments between Universität Bielefeld as a Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation (1992-1994), Universität Halle an der Saale (1999-2001) with a research project funded by the Volkswagen-Foundation, and as a guest lecturer at Heidelberg University’s South Asia Institute (2004-2005), was surely not an easy decision. But it meant to step by step overcome the even longer distance that her international marriage had meant when she was still in India. Monica was a Visiting Professor at Emory University, Atlanta, when she received the call to take the Chair of Global Art History at the Heidelberg University at the end of 2008.

Even though I only knew some parts of this cosmopolitan vita upon my first meeting with her, I clearly felt that I sat in front of a person embodying the kind of transcultural experiences that I had longed for when deciding to study in East Asia. But only partially found as I was mostly suffering from the shock of what it meant to learn how German I actually was and still am. For me, the red dot she was so graciously wearing worked as the quintessential i-Tüpfelchen to mark a situation that would allow much more than just an introduction into an academic career and carried the promise to world myself beyond what I could have imagined so far.

I do not know what the real Monica would think when reading these lines. But I see my inner Monica chuckle—no, she is actually schmunzeln as only the German language can—followed by a generous sigh, while briefly rolling up her brightly smiling eyes in an expression signaling somewhat ironic understanding; as if to say, ‘but isn’t curiosity about what we don’t know, what we find exotic and mystifying a good starting point for both, intellectual and cultural engagement, a way to question our own worlds and start moving beyond our comfort zones?’

I was more than enthusiastic when days after my job interview she called me to offer the position. I, indeed, embarked upon an exciting journey that saw me assisting her in establishing the chair of Global Art History through a continuous flow of academic activities. Since she was the first of the five chairs founded by the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context,” she was practically operating in a still largely empty Karl Jaspers Centre (KJC). This is when the first summer school titled “Objects on the Move – Circulation, Social Practice and Transcultural Intersections” was conceived. Asked to assist right upon joining, I found myself sitting rather breathlessly next to twenty international students in Heidelberg listening to the keynote by Richard H. Davis (Bard College, New York) discussing the biographies of Indian sacred statues on the move. Monica’s program had indeed directly catapulted us in the middle of a very international and also cross-disciplinary discussion on objects

subject to appropriation, display, reuse… [and becoming] the site of contesting interpretations, conflicts or productive dissonances born out of the space they occupy at the intersection of cultures,[ii]

as outlined in the program’s description.

Poster of the Summer School “Objects on the Move” from July 13 to 16, 2009, showing tulip bulbs whose contract prices in the 1630s reached levels several times higher than most people’s annual salary. SAI Report 2009.

Consequently, she had the dubious pleasure to copy-edit my first English review that touched upon diverse things such as Japanese banknotes of the Meiji era, Indian middle-aged bronzes of the god Shiva, and Dutch tulips in the 17th century in a mind-boggling discussion connecting economic to religious studies and art history, while branching out into material culture, museum studies, anthropology, and psychoanalysis. At that point, I did not know that her didactical ways to openly track-change my clumsy writing would ultimately allow me to publish my first peer-reviewed academic English article in the Journal of Transcultural Studies (which she has been co-editing since 2012) but I immediately understood what a natural and mindful teacher she is.

Generously extending her hand, taking me by the hand, and passing me along things that I could then hold on for a while, develop further, before passing them back to her or passing them on to others.

Looking back, I continue to wonder how she ever managed to find the time to patiently nurture and care for her newly configured team that included a post-doctoral researcher, half a secretarial position, and a student assistant apart from me. As at the same time, she was co-conceiving the Cluster’s signature MA program for Transcultural Studies, with Global Art History as an integral part of the Visual, Media and Material Culture (VMC) focus, and organizing the summer school, while simultaneously publishing as well as presenting as many as nine different papers between Frankfurt, Bern, London, Berlin, Heidelberg, Pennsylvania, Munich, Wassenaar, and Paris in 2009 alone.[iii] Surely, she was supported by the foundational enthusiasm of collaborators with equally bright and dedicated minds who, by then, had started to fill the rooms and floors of the well-funded KJC and visibly illuminated our faces on the occasion of the institute’s first joint excursion.

Group photo of the Cluster’s first joint excursion to Molkenkur, Heidelberg. HCTS Press Area.

In the following decade, she took on more than twenty doctoral students, while enabling me to successfully defend my thesis at the Philipps Universität Marburg on exhibitions mediating the so-called Chinese avant-garde in a global context as my second supervisor. Patiently, she also supported the lengthy process of its publication as a monograph that was interrupted by my first maternal leave.

Again, I see her bindi overlooking my concerned face when I conveyed the news of my pregnancy, unsure of how she would take the news of her assistant taking time off. I do not think that she is aware of how crucial her reaction was for me, and the existence of my firstborn, by now two girls. She seemed overwhelmed with joy, rather than irritated by what other professors in her position might have considered an additional stressful factor in the demanding daily management of their chair. Monica’s mindful ways to swiftly re-adjust her team actually meant a temporal opportunity for the next emerging scholar to learn her ways around the assistant position. Her touching trust in the ability of scholars to make their way as fathers and mothers or other kinds of caretakers by dynamically working around our reduced office and conference presence, accepting temporarily limited flexibility in keeping up with writing or project deadlines that often meant shouldering more work herself is just another sign of how much she cares and how extensively she shares.

It is here where I imagine little hands joining hers, as if she were not only my Doktormutter, but actually the godmother of my children; taking care of many emergent careers and at the same time extending it to a future generation, one that will hopefully be well equipped to deal with transculturation’s manifold challenges.

Needless to say, Monica has been a great role model in terms of how she allows others to participate in her individual research. I envy the way she makes her listeners pause when skillfully combining entertaining historical facts with theoretically thrilling and methodologically inspiring discussions of images and objects that are, more often than not, unknown to her audiences—experts and amateurs alike. I wonder how much of the discursive threads that I now retrospectively see connecting; the summer school, her inaugural lecture in Heidelberg—“Das letzte Abendmahl in der roten Wüste – wandernde Bilder, asymmetrischer Austausch?” (February 3, 2010)[iv]—and her opening remarks on the occasion of the Cluster’s 4th Annual Conference “Things that connect – pathways of materiality and practice,” had she actually planned out, and how much of it materialized because she keeps her ‘third eye’, a keen sense for critical topics and like-minded collaborators from all stages and status, wide open? This resulted in prestigious figures from the international cultural community following her invitation to Heidelberg such as Neil MacGregor, who was then the Director of the British Museum, London, as the keynote speaker of the Cluster’s 4th Annual Conference. Furthermore, curators and artists have jointly explored transcultural perspectives with her in different collaborative projects such as “Mensch. Natur. Katastrophe – Von Atlantis bis heute” (Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen Mannheim 2014-2015), “Miniatur-Geschichten. Indien-Bilder in Barock und Romantik“ (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, 2014-2016), and “museum global – Mikrogeschichten einer exzentrischen Moderne“ (Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, 2018-2019).

Top: Impressions from the Annual Conference “Things that connect” in 2012. Bottom: Collage by Franziska Koch. Photographer: Susann Henker, Design: www.illius.de. Annual Conference eZine, HCTS Press Area.

Most amazing for me, is to see how she always seems to literally recharge whenever she manages to return to her writing desk, despite the growing number of institutional tasks and responsibilities that have kept her very busy as the leader of several Cluster projects and co-speaker of its Research Area D “Historicities and Heritage,” that included twenty-one projects altogether. Apart from that, she has been an influential member of the Cluster’s steering committee and subsequently a part of the HCTS directorate. In recent times, she also served as the Vice Dean of Heidelberg’s Faculty of Philosophy. In addition to this, she is the editor of the Journal of Transcultural Studies and the distinguished Routledge series Visual and Media Histories, besides being in various advisory positions to museums between England, India, and Germany.

This foundational joy in writing seems to have been a way of balancing out whenever her great intuition about people, objects, themes, and moments as well as her strategic mind was not enough to make things work or when collaborations occasionally failed. Naturally, this journey has not been without its obstacles, and there have been moments when even for a sympathetic, rational, diplomatic, and a communicative person like Monica, caring and sharing has been an exhausting task and she has had to recognize the limits of her abilities. Moments of intellectual disagreement, occasional personal conflicts, and institutional power struggles also mark the successful trajectory of the Cluster/HCTS as any other large, multi-headed, and multi-vocal research institution.

However, she rapidly overcame each one of these hurdles, perhaps by reconsidering the reasons for her ongoing dedication and spending some time writing. I, thus, most clearly remember her enthusiasm when she prepared the first Heinrich Wölfflin Lecture Series as a guest scholar at the Universität Zürich in 2014. She extended this project further into a three-month fellowship at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles for the year thereafter. It formed the foundations of the book Can Art History be made Global? Meditations from the Periphery, that she is completing these days, thanks to the Opus Magnum grant from the Volkswagen Foundation that, for once, has her blissfully writing without having to teach, present, and administer at the same time.

Poster of the XXIV. Deutscher Kunsthistorikertag featuring an artwork by Eberhard Havekost, Feuerland, B08, 2008, 4 color hand offset, 0,7 × 28,3 cm, courtesy Galerie Gebr. Lehmann. © by Eberhard Havekost. XXXIV. Deutscher Kunsthistorikertag.

How happy, even proud I was to see her giving the Festvortrag “‘Did you come here to find history?’ Globalität als Horizont und Praxis für die Kunstgeschichte” in front of a large, partially conservative, and not necessarily theoretically oriented art historical audience on the occasion of the XXXIV. Deutscher Kunsthistorikertag at the Technische Universität Dresden in March 2017. Compared to the much more diverse and expert audience that I had witnessed on two earlier occasions of the Annual Conference of the College Art Association in New York and Los Angeles, this mostly German-speaking art historical community gathered in Dresden appeared problematically homogeneous in many regards. However, having Monica addressing this community in a city that had repeatedly made the news for a new kind of right-wing activism, pronounced racism as well as islamo- and xenophobic anxieties definitely felt like a radical change. Particularly, since her talk exemplified a dialogic scholarly ethos that refuses to reduce or simplify the complex entanglements that mark artistic and visual practices across history and the globe. A fragile, but an adamant stance that directly addresses colonial, imperialist, nationalist, and cultural essentialist or -centrist structures, practices, and categories that have marked the coming-into-being of art history as a modern discipline with its own dose of epistemic violence. But Monica manages to do so without losing faith in its methodological potential, scientific relevance, and ongoing achievements pointing out that contextualizing, explaining, and situating art-related works, practices, agents, and institutions is not just an intellectual pleasure but a social and cultural necessity. Dismissing ideological fixation Monica thus embodies a critical but flexible attitude when proposing in her own words

Art history as a form of world-making – of grappling with the past and of glimpsing the contours of emerging possibilities as embodied in art production is dependent on the criticality of a transcultural approach to rethink its epistemic foundations. This also means, then, that the transcultural approach has to be constantly sharpening its tools and refining its methods in response to ever-fresh challenges. It needs to move beyond studying connectivity or mobility or interaction per se, a characteristic of much of transcultural research to date, to be able to arrive at the transformative potential of transculturation that opens up from ‘behind the horizon’ (Koselleck 1978), to grasp the intellectual gains that are secreted from the connectedness of cultures. A transcultural art history needs to find ways of theoretically incorporating new factors that impinge on the relationships it investigates: paying attention to scale, to ‘anachronic’ temporalities, to textures of affect and to different modes of knowledge beyond that of our scholarship—the artistic, the everyday and non-professional—that might bring with them conflicting claims to authority.[v]

Poster for the presentation of Can Art History be made Global? at HU Berlin, featuring an artwork by Atul Dodiya, Meditation (with open eyes), 2011, mixed media installation with 9 wooden cabinets, 1193.8 × 269.2 × 274.3 cm, on display at Tate Modern. © by Atul Dodiya and HU Berlin, poster provided for the blog by Monica Juneja.

When I try to pinpoint what Monica’s work and her person mean for me today, it is this kind of critical, but also comprehensive “world-making” that comes to my mind, a way of viewing and approaching things, persons, and concepts alike that is of course deeply intellectual, but always also includes and respects the everyday or “the personal” in a larger sense. Thus, she not only allowed me to grow beyond the doctoral stage, finding and shaping my Habilitation project on collaborative authorship and transculturation in Fluxus, but made time and space for me to successfully apply for third-party funding.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this has me now co-leading a small Heidelberg based team of four persons with her, who are all at different stages in their career and contributing to a transatlantic research platform with partner institutes in London, Amsterdam, Ottawa, and Montréal pioneering transcultural and transnational research in the arts. Together with prestigious museum partners like the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Tate Modern, London; the Museum of World Cultures, Amsterdam (formerly known as Tropenmuseum) and the Institute of Cultural Inquiry in Berlin, we work towards “Worlding Public Cultures: the Arts and Social innovation” (2020-2022).[vi]

Although I see this as just another new chapter where Monica has helped me to world myself by sharing her worlds, it is where I thought my two-fold story would end for the purpose of this blog. But it does not. The growing staff, students, and colleagues, who are also collaborators, gravitating around her chair have always been full of promising, engaged, and independent thinking. These creative minds, each of whom, I am sure, feels that she would allow them to grow in one way or the other. It, thus, was rather easy for me to discuss my initial ideas of the bindi and the hand that shares and shields with the present team at the Chair of Global Art History. What I did not quite expect at the time was how sharing these ideas would be warmly welcomed but also lead to critical discussions, be creatively extended, individually adapted, and ultimately translated collectively in the film that opens the birthday blog for Monica now. I am very grateful to be a part of this team and although I still cannot say what (else) embodies a bindi, I have learned to world myself a bit more, yet again. Happy birthday, Monica, may you continue to inspire, care, and share in these wonderful ways!


[i] The Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies is a central institute of Heidelberg University and was founded in April 2013. It builds on the structures that were established by the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context” in two funding periods (2007-2012, 2012-2017). It is part of the Centre for Asian and Transcultural Studies (CATS), which opened in early summer 2019. For more information see the website of the HCTS, accessed December 29, 2020, https://www.asia-europe.uni-heidelberg.de/en/institute.html.

[ii] See the news report of the Summer School “Objects on the Move,” accessed December 29, 2020, https://www.asia-europe.uni-heidelberg.de/de/aktuelles/nachrichten/detail/m/cluster-organises-summer-school-on-objects-on-the-move.html.

[iii] See for a list of presented papers the website of the Chair of Global Art History, accessed December 29, 2020, https://www.asia-europe.uni-heidelberg.de/en/research/hcts-professorships/global-art-history/events.html.

[iv] For a YouTube documentation of an evening lecture at the IEG Mainz’s international colloquium “Menschen – Bilder – Eine Welt. Menschenbilder in Missionszeitschriften aus der Zeit des Kaiserreichs” (October 6 to 8, 2016), in which Monica has further elaborated on M. F. Husain’s Last Supper in Red Desert (2005), see Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte Mainz, “Monica Juneja »Über das Nachleben christlicher Ikonen auf Weltreise«,” October 26, 2016, accessed January 7, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kki2h5DX6a8.

[v] Monica Juneja, “‘A very civil idea…’ Art history and transculturation with and beyond the nation,” in Engaging Transculturality: Concepts, Key Terms, Case Studies, ed. Laila Abu-Er-Rub et al. (New York: Routledge, 2019), 293–316, 310.

[vi] For more detailed information on the aims of WPC and the activities of its Heidelberg team see HCTS, “Worlding Public Cultures: The Arts and Social Innovation,” accessed January 7, 2021, https://www.asia-europe.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php?id=5075.


Franziska Koch is Assistant Professor of Global Art History at the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies. Her habilitation project “The artist works (trans-)culturally. Nam June Paik and other Fluxus artists negotiating collaborative authorship” is funded by the Elite-Program for Post-Doctoral Researchers of the Baden-Württemberg Foundation. She co-leads the German team of the Trans-Atlantic Platform “Worlding Public Cultures: the Arts and Social Innovation” (BMBF, 2020-2022). Franziska is author of Die ‘chinesische Avantgarde’ und das Dispositiv der Ausstellung. Konstruktionen chinesischer Gegenwartskunst im Spannungsfeld der Globalisierung (Bielefeld 2016) and co-editor of Negotiating Difference. Chinese Contemporary Art in the Global Context (Weimar 2012). The theme issue “How we work together – histories, ethics, and epistemologies of artistic collaboration” guest-edited by her will appear in the e-journal Transcultural Studies (HeiUP) in February 2021.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Jennifer Bürk (December 30, 2020). What’s in a Bindi and a Hand? Or: The Way Monica Juneja Enabled Me to World Myself by Sharing Her Worlds. Art History and Transculturation. Retrieved July 25, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/czqq

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