Dr. Tara Mayer is a historian of colonial South Asia whose scholarship traces material and aesthetic exchanges between India, Britain, and France in ways that blur the boundaries of her discipline. Through visual and textual sources that connect the metropole to the colony, her work examines the tension between Enlightenment ideas and the praxis of empire in the construction and contestation of European racial and gendered identities. It explores the deeply reciprocal processes of appropriation, assimilation, and influence that took place at the intersections of European and Asian material culture, as well as the role of racism and colonial power in shaping these exchanges. She has served as a research consultant for international exhibitions on Indian art, Orientalism, and European portraiture and has forged new collaborative partnerships between UBC and the Museum of Vancouver, where she leads an object-based, experiential learning course in the museum’s South Asia collection. She is a Research Associate at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) and led an International Research Roundtable (2019) on the theme of visual literacies, funded by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies. She is a recipient of a Killam Teaching Prize (2019), Wall Scholar (2019/20), and holder of the first Peter Wall Residency in Innovative Pedagogy (2020/21). Her teaching practice is centred on challenging historical norms and values around objectivity, neutrality, and safe-space. A recent project exploring pedagogies of social justice, is an interview series entitled On Feeling and Knowing: Radical Conversations About Teaching and Learning.
My scholarship is centred around two main themes: Critical Visual Literacy and Teaching Historical Controversy.
Critical Visual Literacy
We are living in a visual age, in which images have become the central medium for representing and interrogating all aspects of human experience. Digital technologies have fundamentally shifted the traditional ratio between textual and visual communication. As the beating heart of digital culture, visual communication has come to permeate almost every aspect of our personal, professional, and political lives. From a historical perspective, this explosion in our use of, and access to, images represents as radical a turning point as did the first information revolution brought about by Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press.
Defining, promoting, and implementing an agenda for visual literacy is a central part of my scholarly agenda at UBC. It is animated by my conviction that there can be no social justice without visual representational justice. My commitment to expanding our conversations, questions, and critiques about visual culture and consumption have led me to hold a symposiums on teaching through material culture, an international research roundtable on visual literacies, and to develop new, hands-on research opportunities for undergraduate students in local museum collections.
Teaching Historical Controversy
As a historian of colonialism in South Asia, my research and teaching practice also engage deeply with difficult and traumatic histories. The modern history of the subcontinent is rife with human tragedy perpetuated by the multifarious violences of colonial ideology and action. I’ve sought to cultivate radically new ways of engaging with historical memory, trauma, and justice through emotion, subjectivity, story-telling, embodied expertise, and personal narrative. Supported by a seed grant from the Institute for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at UBC, I have led an expansive pilot study of student perceptions, experiences, and learning outcomes in teaching the traumatic histories of Partition in India, through pedagogies of discomfort. I have presented this work at international conferences, including as part of a special roundtable on “Teaching about Ethnic, Racial, and Religious Conflict” at the 2019 Association for Asian Studies conference. Most recently, as the inaugural recipient of the Peter Wall Residency in Innovative Pedagogy at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, I created an interview series entitled On Feeling and Knowing: Radical Conversation on Teaching and Learning, which explores the influence of emotion on epistemologies and disciplinary practices within higher education.
Mayer, “Crafting the Future”, in The Offbeat Sari: Indian Fashion Unravelled, London: The Design Museum, 2023.
Mayer, “One British Thing: Jodhpurs” Journal of British Studies, Vol. 58, no. 2, pp. 394 – 398, 2019.
Mayer, “From Craft to Couture: Contemporary Indian Fashion in Historical Perspective”, South Asian Popular Culture, vol. 17, no. 1, 2019.
Mayer, “Artisanat et haute couture: une perspective historique sur la mode indienne contemporaine”, in Artisanat et design: un dessein indien?, Bruxelles: Peter Lang, 2018.
Mayer and Unwalla, P., “Global 1918”, in Memory, Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2018.
Mayer, “Clothing the Enlightened Body: European Dress in India during the Age of Reason”, Purushartha: Éditions de l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, no. 31, pp. 13-33, 2013.
Mayer, “Cultural Cross-Dressing: Posing and Performance in Orientalist Portraiture”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 281-298, 2012.