SFU establishes first interdisciplinary and practice-based PhD in contemporary arts in Western Canada

School for the Contemporary Arts, Art & Design, Performance & Culture

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September 15, 2021
This fall, SFU welcomes its first cohort of six PhD students into the School for the Contemporary Arts. The program is the first of its kind in Western Canada.
By Tessa Perkins Deneault

The highest academic degree traditionally available to artists was the Master of Fine Arts. In recent years, PhD programs in the fine and performing arts have expanded scholarly work in these areas and provided an environment in which contemporary artists and art scholars can set their work within an academic context.

This fall, SFU welcomes its first cohort of six PhD students into the School for the Contemporary Arts (SCA). The program is the first of its kind in Western Canada.

“The program supports professional practice and also the need for us professionals to have graduate degrees at the PhD level,” says Joni Low. “As a curator and writer, I’ve been drawn to many artists that have studied at SFU, and I realized there must be something exciting going on there and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Curator and writer Joni Low is among the first PhD cohort in SFU's School for the Contemporary Arts.

The research-intensive program supports both scholarly and practice-based research, meaning scholars in fields such as performance studies, visual culture, media arts, sound studies, film studies, curation, and art history will produce a written thesis and study alongside practicing artists whose artistic work forms the basis of their research, culminating in a major original artwork or public presentation.

“To have that artistic, creative component within research allows it to expand and deepen in ways that I think are unique to the arts,” explains Josephine Lee, an interdisciplinary artist who works in sculpture, installation and performance. “Having a PhD programme that allows students to gain mentorship, network, and have the space and time to be able to delve into their research is a gift.”   

Josephine Lee is an interdisciplinary artist who works in sculpture, installation and performance.

The incoming students were attracted to the program for a variety of reasons, but one common theme is the interdisciplinarity of the program and the SCA.

“I was looking for something that was more transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary, and other institutions didn't seem to have the same level of cross pollination that I had experienced, and really enjoyed, in my master's program,” says Lee. “When I took a closer look at SFU, everyone seems to work together in this great interdisciplinary way and that really attracted me.”

Dave Biddle, who works in video and performance, completed his MFA at SFU and had first-hand experience of the school’s interdisciplinary nature.

“The idea of interdisciplinarity makes for good discussions, and research creation is a way of including interdisciplinarity at the PhD level in order to consider creation and different modes of thinking through different media,” he says.

Having completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts at the SCA, Simon Overstall was familiar with the school, and had been collaborating with a faculty member on their music projects. 

Artist Simon Overstall joins the PhD cohort with a good understanding of SFU, having completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts at the School for the Contemporary Arts.

“To do a PhD level degree with the opportunity to focus on making art, as opposed to solely written output, was definitely important to my decision,” he says. “The program is interdisciplinary and very contemporary in terms of having less focus on traditional styles or forms.”

Coming to SFU from Uganda, Edward Sembatya is founder and director of Dance Theatre Uganda (CLPGU) Ltd. His research focuses on socio-historical knowledge, narratives and practices that are embedded in traditional or Indigenous dances from East Africa and new contemporary dance practices. He was looking for a PhD program that would allow him to pursue his academic interests while continuing to work as a practicing artist.

Edward Sembatya's research focuses on socio-historical knowledge, narratives and practices that are embedded in traditional or Indigenous dances from East Africa.

“The PhD program opens doors for new knowledge perspectives in the university, so it becomes the centre of knowledge collection from different parts of the world. I consider myself as an addition to the versatility and diverse artistic culture at SFU,” says Sembatya. “I’m interested to see how I can reenact my traditional dances so that they can be embodied by a non-practitioner body (white, Asian, or Black diasporic bodies).”

Also part of the incoming cohort is Niusha Hatefinia whose research interests include film and media studies, film-philosophy, and Iranian cinema. A number of other PhD studentsare currently studying within the school under special arrangement.

The program’s unique design and focus places creative and critical work in conversation while fostering an environment in which the conditions for how knowledge is produced in the contemporary arts become the impetus for further research.

Niusha Hatefinia's research includes film and media studies, film-philosophy and Iranian cinema.

To learn more about our School for the Contemporary Arts PhD Program, click here.