Curating a future: Junior receives prestigious art fellowship


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Art history junior Mai Kolkailah is one of ten students in the nation to be awarded the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship. | Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Art history junior Mai Kolkailah is in a cohort of only 10 students in the nation awarded the prestigious Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship for 2015 to 2017.

Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the fellowship aims to provide specialized training in the curatorial field for students across the U.S. from diverse backgrounds.

When Kolkailah found out she received the fellowship, she was standing in line at Starbucks, without any expectations of an award.

“I didn’t want to get my hopes up,” Kolkailah said.

“But when you have no expectations to get it, and then you get it, it’s so great. It was the first time I felt on track and accomplished in a really, really long time.”

Kolkailah’s fellowship, administered by the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, honors two outstanding students in the region who will work at MFAH on curatorial research projects tailored to their interests.

Kolkailah began her new position as a fellow in the field of Islamic art at the MFAH this September.

Assistant professor of art history Sandra Zalman first met Kolkailah a year and a half ago when she took her Art and Society: Renaissance to Modern Art course and noticed the student’s sharp eye for art.

“This was a 200-person lecture, but Kolkailah stood out,” said Zalman. “She caught my attention because she answered questions I posed in lecture – questions that were sometimes rhetorical – in thought provoking ways that refreshingly offered a new vantage point from which to consider the material. We often discussed elements of art history that were beyond the purview of an introductory course.”

Despite Kolkailah’s passion for art, she did not start in this pathway.

“I used to be a biology major, and I even got into the honors biology program at (the University of Texas at Austin), but I came to study at UH,” Kolkailah said. “Everyone seemed to be caught off guard except for my parents, who have always supported me. They told me there are enough doctors in my family and we needed an artist.”

Maghill admires Kolkailah’s intense passion for art, and she hopes that her admiration for its physical mediums will still be there as she moves up in her career.

MFAH’s University Program specialist Kelley Maghill met Kolkailah in the summer during the Mellon Summer Academy, a week-long intensive program for the potential fellows.

“Mai’s enthusiasm and interest shined through in the summer academy,” Maghill said. “Her academic performance at UH also made her a great candidate, and I’m glad we can build a bridge between that museum and the university through her fellowship.”

Maghill’s duties are far and wide; however, they are central to Kolkailah as she progress through the fellowship.

“My role is to mentor her and point her in the direction of research,” Maghill said. “I make sure she has other resources at the museum (and) help her navigate those next steps along with her curatorial mentors.”

After her time at UH, Kolkailah plans to her skills internationally to her home country to help revamp the art scene.

“I want to go back to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo,” Kolkailah said. “What I’m learning here, I want to take over there. I don’t want to lose sight of what I want to do, which is to learn and absorb experience here and take it home.”

She also plans to study French in the hopes of attending the American University in Paris for her masters and apply the skills she has acquired in Houston.

“I’d like to think that I am not just doing this for me, but for my school and the faculty who have helped me,” Kolkailah said. “I am doing my best for UH.”

Kolkailah said that the support of MFAH coordinators and UH professors have created a network of opportunities for her to take advantage of by giving her access the city’s Museum District and Houston art scene in general.

“We have such great people in MFAH alone and several more in the other institutions in the city. They are all so supportive of each other,” Kolkailah said. “Houston is the town for museum curators, pretty much.”

As a fellow, Kolkailah can renew her love for art outside of the classroom and on display instead of in the pages of a textbook.

“The fellowship has given me opportunities to get closer and have fun with the art,” Kolkailah said. “(In school) you get so caught up in writing papers and not missing deadlines and projects. You lose those fresh set of eyes. I want those eyes to be always be there.”

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