Bodys Kingelezs fictional model of his Congolese hometown in the future is the first work you encounter at Harvards new Ethelbert Cooper Galleries of African & African American Art.
  • Bodys Kingelez's fictional model of his Congolese hometown in the future is the first work you encounter at Harvard's new Ethelbert Cooper Galleries of African & African American Art.

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It was only three years ago that Mariane Lenhardt opened her first art gallery, on Second Avenue in Seattle, called M.I.A. Gallery—and today, she's the co-curator of the big inaugural exhibition at the first African and African American art center at a major university anywhere in America. (Review by Holland Cotter of the New York Times.) The center is Harvard's, and her co-curator is young Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, who also happens to be in the middle of designing the National Museum of African American History and Culture, on the Mall in Washington, D.C. (Profile by Calvin Tomkins of The New Yorker.)

"It's been a nice adventure," Lenhardt has said.

This morning, I called her to ask directly what that adventure was like. I haven't heard back yet, but there's a good videotaped discussion between Lenhardt, Adjaye, and Henry Louis Gates about exactly that.

"How did you get involved, Mariane?" asked Gates, founder of the entity that includes the new, 23,000-square-foot Cooper Gallery: the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard.

"He sent me an email," said Lenhardt. "I didn't breathe until the end of the whole email. I was like 'Okay, maybe it's a joke.'"

"Had you two worked together before?" Gates wondered.

"It's the first time," Lenhardt said, modestly. "I hope it's not the last time."

This is architect David Adjayes new facade of the Hutchins Center at Harvard, where there are eight new art gallery spaces devoted to African and African American art. In an interview, Henry Louis Gates asked Adjaye what it was like to design the first black building in the history of Harvard Square. Was there a kiss-my-ass there?
  • Photo by Dean Kaufman
  • This is architect David Adjaye's new facade of the Hutchins Center at Harvard, where there are eight new art gallery spaces devoted to African and African American art. In an interview, Henry Louis Gates asked Adjaye what it was like to design "the first black building in the history of Harvard Square. Was there a kiss-my-ass there?"
Inside the galleries there's an exhibition of 98 objects by 21 contemporary African artists from the private collection of Jean Pigozzi, which is based in Geneva and includes more than 10,000 works. The show's title is Luminós/C/ity.Ordinary Joy (the first part is pronounced "luminosity"). It's based on the artists' visions of cities, and upending stereotypes that cast Africa and African artists as exotic, or non-ordinary.

In these works, "the city doesn't exist," Adjaye said. "It is an idea. It is a metaphor for the future."

The Cooper Gallery project, for Adjaye, was a highly meaningful, physically terrible job. Nobody wanted the building he was to refurbish. Its facade was commercial—it "sucked," Gates said. Adjaye transformed a nothing exterior into a facade that's his own take on a jewel-like forest, inviting at night but recessive, standing back from the street, using wood and glass to symbolize the Middle Passage materials of wood and water, he said.

Gates asked Adjaye about making buildings with a built-in black identity, and Adjaye talked about his early experience learning that "space curates society"—and not for everyone:

My brother is disabled, mentally and physically handicapped. It's only when I was around 18 that I finally started to fully understand the spaces of disability. This was in the mid-'80s, and it's kind of amazing where we've gone from that time even to now in terms of understanding the built environment... Because literally, pre-that, there was no world for disability, there was only one world, and that world was about able-bodied people.

So I became very traumatized by this condition of second-person in the environment. My degree and analysis was about re-placing this second citizen back into the citizenry of the built environment. They wouldn't be secondary, they wouldn't be back door. ...That ignited a whole world of invisibles in the built environment that I became quite angry about.

As for Lenhardt, she talks about the peculiarity of running her gallery in Seattle, where she finds herself having to do a lot of "education" for the people who walk through the door with bizarre ideas about contemporary African art. Basically, they've never seen it and don't even really know it exists, she said.

She tells a story about how one visitor complained to her that she only showed images of black people. She told the person, "Okay, for Black History Month, I will show white people. Only one month." She showed Justin Dingwall's photographs of South African albino model Thando Hopa.

"I tend to use that space," Lenhardt said of her Second Avenue gallery in Seattle, "to break every image that they have of Africa, either good or bad."

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Through January 3, M.I.A. Gallery is showing photographs by J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere and Malick Sidibe.

Malick Sidibes photograph Fans of Jimi Hendrix (1971) is at M.I.A. Gallery.
  • Courtesy of the artist and M.I.A. Gallery
  • Malick Sidibe's photograph Fans of Jimi Hendrix (1971) is at M.I.A. Gallery.

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