Tucked away on a busy street corner in Harvard Square, in between the quaint green siding of Peet’s Coffee and Tea and the formidable red brick of the office building two units over, is a rather distinctive glass façade lined by thin pillars of light-brown cedar. At night, this small building transforms into a luminous beacon, shining a warm yellow glow through these wooden slats onto the bustling promenade of Mount Auburn Street.
During the day, one can enter this curious architectural work to find the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, which, since opening its doors late last October, has been one of the only exhibition spaces exclusively devoted to such works at Harvard University. Although its grand unveiling roughly coincided with the belated reopening of the Harvard Art Museums last November—which combined the University’s Fogg Museum, Busch-Reisinger Museum, and Arthur M. Sackler Museum over the course of an expansive six-year renovation process—the Cooper Gallery actually traces its origins to the office building next door, the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research.
Through a series of fortunate coincidences, the Cooper Gallery’s inception can be credited to two prominent Yale alumni—Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Ethelbert Cooper—who several years ago sought to establish a permanent exhibition space for African and African-American art on Harvard’s campus. In addition to addressing this historical need, the gallery serves as an idiosyncratic institution that exists at the intersection of art, academia, and sociopolitical discussion by developing and maintaining close, symbiotic relationships with both the Harvard Art Museums and the Hutchins Center.
A FAIRYTALE BEGINNING
Gates, the current director of the Hutchins Center, recalls attending Yale in the early 1970s with the gallery's namesake donor. Gates graduated in 1973, followed by Cooper a year later, but they were both members of the same secret society—the Society of the Book and Snake, Gates recalls. Cooper, a Liberian energy magnate, now serves on the board of the Hutchins Center.
Prior to Cooper’s donation, the Hutchins Center was already home to the Neil L. and Angelica Zander Rudenstine Gallery, the first exhibition space at Harvard specifically for artistic works by and about people of African descent, named after a former Harvard president and his spouse. According to Gates, his college years at Yale heavily influenced his emphasis on art in the Hutchins Center. “Because I was an undergraduate at Yale, where the study of African and African-American art were so much a fundamental part of African American studies under the direction of professor Robert Thompson, it’s just never occurred to me not to feature the study of black art in the curriculum and in the Hutchins Center,” Gates says. “And so when we moved over to Mount Auburn Street, we created a space named in honor of former president Neil Rudenstine—the Rudenstine Gallery—and it was very small, and we had many exhibitions there.”
But the Rudenstine Gallery, currently located on the third floor of the Hutchins Center’s 104 Mount Auburn Street property, was constrained by its size. Gates recalls an art curator friend advising him to search for a larger space; fatefully, he stumbled upon an available adjacent property the very next day. “I was walking home, and right at 102 Mount Auburn Street was this vacant space. So I had a person on my staff call, and the space was available,” Gates says.
By the end of the week, the rest of the pieces had miraculously fallen into place. “Literally, this was on a Tuesday, and I got the figure for what the rent would be, and that Friday, an old friend of mine named Bert Cooper…came to see me,” Gates relates enthusiastically. “It’s like a fairy tale. It is an absolutely unbelievable story…. This friend of mine mentioned it on Monday. On Tuesday I saw the space and found out how much it would cost. On Friday my friend comes to town saying he wants to make a major gift to the Hutchins Center because he loved the work that we were doing. And that was it—it was a done deal!”
The Cooper Gallery was designed by Tanzanian architect David Adjaye O.B.E., who previously held several teaching positions at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. According to gallery director Vera Ingrid Grant, the building’s unique glass-and-wood façade is inspired by Adjaye’s parental heritage. “These cedar planks are a metaphorical reference to the Ghanaian forest to invite everyone into the gallery,” Grant says.
The first visible piece of artwork from the gallery’s current exhibit, “Drapetomanía: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba” is an intricate, white leather sculpture called “Selva en las Paredes” by the Cuban artist Elio Rodríguez Valdés. The foyer’s Entry Gallery is one of what Grant terms “curatorial moments,” and it branches in one direction to the ensuing Ramp Gallery and other artwork and in another towards the auxiliary ACT (Art, Community, and Teaching) Room, which is a technology-enabled venue for community events. The building is home to eight “moments” in total, culminating in the final Long Gallery, which terminates at a currently closed egress to Winthrop Street that forces the viewer back through each of the individual curatorial sections.
According to Grant, the exhibit’s name comes from a supposed mental illness that described the tendency of black slaves to escape from captivity—a derogatory term that has been re-appropriated and recontextualized by exhibit curator professor Alejandro de la Fuente, who aimed to showcase the complex racial themes of Grupo Antillano, a collective of Cuban artists who were only active during the short period of 1978-1983. A professor of Latin American History and Economics, de la Fuente also serves as the director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at the Hutchins Center. “The Gallery becomes a space for us to view from art what the Hutchins Center is trying to do in other areas, which is to really be the leading center—not just in the country, but in the world—in the study of black life globally,” he says.
Indeed, the Cooper Gallery serves a unique role as a space for the exploration of African and African American diasporic identities, something highlighted by the “Drapetomanía” exhibition. De la Fuente says its most provocative piece lies at the end of the Long Gallery. Titled “Resurrección,” the sculpture is an original work by Rafael Queneditt, the original director of the Grupo Antillano, and was created exclusively for this exhibit. “If you stand in front of the sculpture, what you find is this Christian figure with the colors of the Cuban flag on its wings. That’s the Cuba that you see. That’s the first Cuba that you encounter: This sort of white-looking, European-looking Cuba,” de la Fuente says. “As you walk around the sculpture, you find another, deeper Cuba: one that is perhaps not so easily visible, but one that is always there. And the sculpture from the back—instead of a cross, what you see is a slave stock, and instead of a Christian angel, what you see are different visual references to Afro-Cuban religions and particularly to Santería, the Yoruba-based Afro-Cuban religion.”
According to Gates, this exhibit’s focus on exploring the Caribbean context of the African diaspora was a very deliberate decision on the part of the Gallery. “I wanted to show that the Gallery was truly pan-African in its scope,” he says. Prior to the Afro-Cuban stylings of “Drapetomanía,” the gallery’s inaugural exhibit last fall explored contemporary Africa through a showing of modern African art from the collection of Italian businessman Jean Pigozzi ’74. Titled “Luminós/C/ity.Ordinary Joy,” this exhibit was curated by Adjaye and Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt, the founder and curator of the M.I.A. Gallery in Seattle. “When we approached the Pigozzi collection, which is one of the biggest collections focused on contemporary African art…. David and I were very into creating a form of a city,” Ibrahim-Lenhardt says. “We wanted to offer a critical view of the contemporary condition of the continent through…the situation of the artist who still lives in Africa.”
NOT ‘SEPARATE BUT EQUAL’
The opening of the Cooper Gallery—a smaller and separate space from the Harvard Art Museums—was also the impetus for some to criticize Harvard’s historical perceived lack of commitment to African and African-American art. In a December 2014 op-ed in The Crimson, Suzanne P. Blier, a professor of the History of Art and Architecture, wrote, “The separate and notably unequal treatment of African art at Harvard reinforces a long and deep history of racial prejudice in this country that sadly is still present and, in some contexts, even growing today.” Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times art critic Holland Cotter ’70 agrees that African art has been historically underserved on campus. “Up to this point, Africa has made guest appearances within the larger Harvard museums,” he says. “I think there should be a permanent place for Africa in that larger art historical picture, just as there should be always courses taught on the art of Africa in the Art History department.”
Nonetheless, the Cooper Gallery is a victory in many regards for the representation of African and African-American art at Harvard. “I think one of the great strengths of it is that very fact, that it’s able to bring in cutting-edge, provocative exhibits, or engage students in the mounting of exhibits in a relatively short space of time,” Blier says. However, some argue that the Cooper Gallery pales in comparison to similar offerings at other Ivy League institutions. According to Cotter, African art is a central focus of the Yale University Art Gallery. “It has an entire gallery and curator devoted to the art of Africa, old and new,” he says. In contrast, the lone exhibit on Africa within the Harvard Art Museums is in the University Collections Gallery, which currently features an impermanent exhibit guest curated by Kristina Van Dyke that displays African artifacts from Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
Blier does acknowledge the tension inherent in making curatorial decisions, which by definition must exclude certain works from being displayed. “It’s one of the dilemmas of modern museums that it takes so long to organize shows, and often there isn’t enough space in large museums to have the kind of sort of diverse exhibits that are brought into play in the Cooper Gallery. And the fact that the Cooper Gallery is dedicated to the extraordinarily rich traditions of African diaspora art and really focuses on those traditions specifically also gives it a special importance,” she says.
Further, De la Fuente finds it significant to emphasize the differences between African artifacts and art. “It’s incredibly important to share with the Harvard community that African and Afro-diasporic peoples are also creators of art. Not a folk culture, but of real art, including contemporary art, which is what this exhibit does as well,” he says. Jeffrey Quilter, the director of the Peabody Museum, realizes the complexity of such discussions. In an emailed statement, he writes, “The issues concerning why collections of art/material culture at Harvard or in the world at large are in different kinds of institutions and are treated as ‘art’ or not, are due to both specific historical events as well as larger scale socio-cultural-political processes that are complex and difficult to unravel for a wide variety of reasons including the conditions of the bequests of donors, the history of The Academy and museums, and many other issues.” He adds, “Whether the Cooper Gallery should or should not be a separate institution, too, also is not an easy question to answer.”
The question that Quilter poses is one that many involved with the gallery have contemplated at great length. Grant says the Cooper Gallery’s unique development makes it a one-of-a-kind institution, especially because of its partnerships with both the Harvard Art Museums and the Hutchins Center. “[The Harvard Art Museums] have a legacy they’re dealing with—how was it dealt with in this new renovation? And what was decided would be forefronted and what became marginalized? Those are huge decisions and they’re not going to make everyone happy. And I think in terms of African and African-American art, we would have hoped for a much more expansive inclusion,” she says. “At the same time, this project absolutely was a separate and individual endeavor on the part of the Hutchins Institute, Bert Cooper, and Henry Louis Gates.”
While the project was conceived separately, Gates adds that a collaboration with the Harvard Art Museums was critical to allowing the Hutchins Center to establish this gallery. “I think of the Cooper Gallery as being part of the Art Museums. And we conferred with them to get their advice about how to set it up…. We have different committees and we have different people from the Art Museums sitting on those committees. I didn’t want it to be ‘separate but equal,’ in the old phrase. It’s just a specialized gallery focusing on art from the black world,” he says.
A UNIQUE SPACE
Although the existence of the Cooper Gallery does not necessarily override Harvard’s lackluster history with African art, or serve as a substitute for the lack of permanent African exhibitions in the Harvard Art Museums, it does function as a versatile space for the intersection of different communities. Cotter believes that the gallery serves a crucial role on campus in addressing such an important gap in Harvard’s artistic landscape. “I think it has to serve as a kind of multipurpose space, given that there’s no other place at Harvard that is devoted to art from the African continent,” he says.
Despite its smaller square footage compared to the Harvard Art Museums, the Cooper Gallery has already managed to execute an impressive display of programming during its first months. Just this calendar year, the gallery has featured regular film screenings as part of a Cuban Cinema Series and even held a Valentine’s Day Cuban chocolate tasting as part of a guided tour event featuring Rodríguez Valdés. “The array of programming around the exhibit has been really terrific too, whether it’s been films or discussions or engagements with artists,” Blier says.
The Cooper Gallery is a separate institution from the Harvard Art Museums, but one that is now inextricably integrated into the artistic conversation at Harvard. According to Grant, the Gallery’s relationship with the Hutchins Center yields it the opportunity to be more innovative and audacious in its operations. That said, the gallery still serves an important primary purpose in providing a permanent exhibition space for different types of African and African American art and allowing the public to interact with it in novel ways. “Look at our political-social landscape. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Art provides a wonderful healing and restorative space for some of the actions and experiences that are happening,” Grant says.
“There’s no other entity,” Gates adds. “We’re educating the American public about the nature of African and African-American art, and nothing could please me more.”
—Staff writer Alan R. Xie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org