Drs. Shireen and Afzal Ahmad with Professor Nachiket Chanchani and University of Michigan students at the South Asia Institute in Chicago, 2020.

The College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA)’s Department of History of Art is adding a professorship in South Asian Art and launching a collaboration with the South Asia Institute in Chicago thanks to a new  gift from Drs. Shireen and Afzal Ahmad. The $2.75 million gift will endow the Shireen and Afzal Ahmad Professorship in South Asian Arts, and enrich the field of South Asian art by fostering the next generation of scholars, curators, conservators, and critics.

“We are delighted by the Ahmads’ gift to further the study of South Asian art,” said Anne Curzan, Dean of the College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts. “Endowed professorships have long been recognized as both a hallmark of academic quality and a means by which a university honors its most esteemed faculty. This gift will allow the Department of History of Art to support a scholar whose work will both elevate the study and teaching of South Asian art at Michigan, and influence generations of students to take their understanding and appreciation of South Asian art with them into the global community.” 

The Ahmads, who are physicians and philanthropists in Chicago, are the founders of the South Asia Institute, which preserves, exhibits, and interprets the work of renowned and rising modern and contemporary artists from South Asia and its diasporas, including highlights from the Ahmads’ extensive collection. Their interest in collaborating with the University of Michigan was sparked by an introduction to LSA Professor Nachiket Chanchani, who visited the South Asia Institute while in Chicago with students in his curatorial studies seminar. The Ahmads were impressed by Michigan’s already strong commitment to the study of South Asian art, and saw the opportunity for partnership in advancing their goal to secure and grow learned, culturally sensitive, and socially responsible leadership in the field of South Asian art locally, nationally, and internationally.

“We are very pleased to further our support for the study and critical awareness of South Asian arts, architecture, and visual cultures by bringing the Department of History of Art at the University of Michigan an exceptional faculty member whose training and teaching will enhance the stature of South Asian art and promote its integration into mainstream narratives,” said Shireen and Afzal Ahmad. “We very much look forward to sharing the work of the South Asia Institute with wider audiences through our new partnership with the University of Michigan and are excited to continue collaborative initiatives.”

The endowed position allows the Department of History of Art to spotlight the importance of the global academic study and teaching of a region that has generated some of the world’s most diverse cultural, religious, and artistic traditions for millennia.

Professor Christiane Gruber, chair of the Department of History of Art, further noted that “the department’s dedication to the scholarly study of Asian art dates back almost a century, and today it is among the strongest departments in the world thanks to its faculty expertise in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Central Asian, Islamic, South Asian, and Southeast Asian art. The Ahmads' transformative gift will allow U-M to become one of very few universities in the Western Hemisphere to include two professors of South Asian art, expanding Professor Chanchani's expertise in the material and visual cultures of the region.”

The University of Michigan has one of the three largest departments of art history in North America, with specialists covering every major continent. Its commitment to the study of Asian art began over 100 years ago with a gift from the Detroit railroad magnate Charles Lang Freer.