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Cooper Gallery Imbues Collecting With Storytelling

By Rick Li, Contributing Writer

Bathed in warm light, the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery’s newest exhibition, “Wole Soyinka: Antiquities Across Times and Place,” provides a critical take on a collector’s purpose. Slated to run through December 21, the show provides the setting for a series of related book talks scheduled in the coming few weeks. The exhibition skirts canonical Western museum practices and speaks instead to the act of collecting as a living, breathing tradition meant to promote dialogue.

The gallery showcases artworks related to the life of playwright, poet, and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. The artist has earned acclaim and renown for both his work and his criticism of the Nigerian government. The exhibit, curated by Awam Amkpa, a dramatist and professor at New York University, speaks to Soyinka’s interaction with his Yoruba heritage and with contemporary civil rights conversations.

The exhibit is composed of artworks relocated from their original contexts and combined in new ways. Soyinka is quoted in the gallery text, “I had not known—in a personal, tactile manner—of the systematic robbery of African artifacts, only read about it as part of African history, did not know that, progressively, African art had changed homes, becoming denizens more of Europe and America than of their ancestral home.”

The collection, therefore, aligns with the Cooper Gallery’s mission of instigating cultural conversations. Overlooking the entryway is Osaretin Ighile’s “Oba Ovonramwen,” a statue of a king draped in reclaimed plastic. Director Vera I. Grant said that introducing a predominantly Yoruba collection with a Benin sculpture was a deliberate choice. “This combination is disputing any type of understanding that creates these different ethnic groups as singular, insular cultures that do not communicate with each other or are only in conflict,” Grant says.

As one moves through the gallery, this idea of cultural dialogue emerges as a common thread. The media room features several sculptural pieces from artist Olu Amoda. Depicting characters from Soyinka’s award-winning play “Death and the King’s Horseman” and complemented by a performance on video, the room serves as an extended interpretation of [Soyinka’s] seminal work and seeks to further bridge the visual and performative arts.

This confluence of medium has resonated with the student community. Reflecting on his experience at the gallery, Caleb C. Rak ’21 says, “I think exhibitions like this have a tremendous value. I think it’s really important to show a wide array of different art styles and, eventually, too, then to give a venue for a variety of different artists to share their work.” The exhibition takes this idea of dialogue a step further, juxtaposing more historical pieces with modern works from contemporary artists including Moyo Okediji and Peju Alatise.

Indeed, by combining oft-isolated artworks, “Antiquities Across Time and Place” gives the act of collecting new life. One example is the exhibition’s Ife sculpture: such a piece, which is more modern and perhaps perceived as less authentic than its counterparts, would not usually be in a gallery of older artwork.

As a whole, the exhibition invites its viewers to create new understanding from its pieces. Romil A. Sirohi ’21, another visitor to the exhibition, said, “I think that, more than making just a statement about Africa, it makes a statement about humanity as a whole and people coming together to overcome a great challenge.”

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