Grace Figueroa ’24 had a love for Greco-Roman mythology and history from an early age. Like many in her generation, she was an avid reader of the Percy Jackson book series, which features a world with Greek gods in the 21st century. That love of mythology evolved into a passion for studying the Classical world and, as she progressed through her academic career at Randolph-Macon College, an interest in art.
Her interests led her to an art history and arts management double major with minors in Classics and film studies, and her scholarship has particularly focused on political art. She layered these varied interests into this summer’s Schapiro Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) project as she sought to investigate how American white supremacist groups appropriate Classical and classicizing iconography to promote racist agendas.
Figueroa looked at groups, among them Identity Evropa (now known as the American Identity Movement), which is designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and their use of Classical and classicizing statues in print material advancing their white nationalist positions. From an art history perspective, the question Figueroa sought to answer is why?
“I had to establish a lineage for these appropriations before I could actually look at the modern era,” explained Figueroa. She studied similar phenomena in the early 20th century among Lost Cause advocates in the United States and Nazis in Germany. “Art is intrinsically tied to the sociopolitical context in which it was made, so I also needed to go back and understand how creating these pieces of propaganda would further those political aspirations.”
According to Figueroa, it’s key to understand that it is a misappropriation.
“They have this very deeply—and this is critical to know—misconstrued idea about what ancient Greece and Rome looked like,” Figueroa said. “They thought it was the pinnacle of white greatness; they did not understand the sheer amount of racial diversity in both of those locations in the Mediterranean.”
This analysis, which required extensive reading and writing from Figueroa, is important in identifying trends in the current sociopolitical landscape, but also in providing a historical context for them.
“In art history, obviously history matters. It’s part of our disciplinary component. In both my classes and in research projects, the emphasis is in context,” said RMC art history professor Evie Terrono, who also serves as the Co-Director of SURF and was Figueroa’s SURF advisor. “We live in a political climate that reflects in some ways the sociocultural anxieties in the 2020s that were present in the 1920s, regarding immigration and social, racial, and economic concerns.”
Figueroa’s research proposal has already been accepted to the Southeastern College Art Association Conference, the second-largest conference for art history in the United States, held this October in Richmond, Va. The conference will give her the rare opportunity to present her research in a national professional conference as an undergraduate.
In addition to her interest in the subject matter, Figueroa chose to participate in SURF to bolster her resume for graduate school and to discover if long-term research was something she would enjoy in her future career; the answer is yes.
“It’s been great, the collaborative aspect has been really interesting. The one-on-one discussions with Dr. Terrono have been critical to my development as an undergraduate researcher,” Figueroa reflected.
“We work as colleagues, essentially. I learn from Grace as much as she learns from me,” Terrono said. “She is a tireless researcher. She can go into endless rabbit holes of research. She is able to see the details, but also understand the kind of overarching questions that she should be asking.”
Figueroa’s work compiling and analyzing these appropriations will be a resource for other scholars. She hopes it also provides a clearer lens for the public without dampening appreciation for the art.
“I think for many people outside my academic field, it can be helpful for them to understand that a lot of these narratives they may see on Twitter, or they may see in the news, are very misconstrued perceptions of Classical studies, or Greco-Roman society,” Figueroa said.