The Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art opened in late October 2014 in Cambridge, Mass., its exterior walls serving as both real and metaphoric grounding for the Hutchins Center for African and American Research at Harvard University (of which The Root’s editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., is director).

A handsome, angled entry of riblike verticals and extending beams in warm-hued wood pulls one’s eye in through the glass facade to Bodys Isek Kingelez’s Kimbembele Ihunga (1994), a brightly illuminated kaleidoscope of elements that form part of the miniature, fantasy-rich city block. Set before a large mirror, the work beckons pedestrians to come in and take a closer look. Constructed of paper, cardboard, polystyrene, plastic and found various materials, Kimbembele Ihunga reveals an idealized dreamscape of longing in a color wheel of pastel paper structures and cutouts. Details of the miniaturized theater set—roofs, windows and signage—get to the core of Western individuation and consumerism culture.

The exhibition of which it is part is the inaugural one at the Cooper Gallery: “Exploring Luminós/C/ity.Ordinary Joy: From the Pigozzi Contemporary African Art Collection.” Richly diverse, “Exploring Luminós/C/ity.Ordinary Joy” features a panoply of art from around the African continent. The exhibition of 98 pieces by 21 artists is curated by architect David Adjaye and independent curator Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt. Selections come from the art collection of Italian businessman Jean Pigozzi.

Here, as with so much historic African art, sculptures more than hold their own among the stellar array of contemporary African paintings, photographs, drawings and videos. Adjaye’s interior design suggests its own kind of mindscape in which these works punctuate key stopping points along the way. Deep-charcoal gray walls and floors direct the view through an angled path of discovery along intersecting passageways and alcoves, suggesting the gray matter of inner contemplation. A compact 2,300 square feet of exhibition space is divided into alleys and alcoves focused on multiple themes of engagement:

* Chroni/city: Planning a Future (Entry Gallery)

* Feli/city: Living in a Moment (Ramp Gallery)

* City/hall: Sin City (Tall Gallery)

* Trans/city: The Grand Passage (Low Gallery)

* Inter/city: Journey to the City (Transition Gallery)

* Luminós/c/ity (Media Room)

* Amphi/theatre (Niche Gallery)

* Atro/city: Homage (Long Gallery)

There is a lot packed into this space, but somehow it works. A number of the artists included are known for their now “classics” of African contemporary art, such as Congolese painters Chéri Samba and Chéri-Chérin. Through the lens of “Exploring Luminós/C/ity.Ordinary Joy,” it is insightful to re-engage Samba’s Le Nid dans le nid (The Nest in the Nest, 1996), an acrylic on canvas with sequins and glue, from the vantage of architecture and the “nestlike” shared spaces in which many city youths must dwell within their parents’ apartments.


Selections by Kane Kwei (a Mercedes-shaped coffin and airplane-decorated stool) give emphasis to cities as places where people are on the move. A parallel work to Kingelez’s future cityscape can be found at the rear of the gallery, in Titos Mabota’s massive, triple-life-size bicycle fashioned out of ropes and wood, Bicicleta rural (1998). Also visible from the street, this model writ large calls into question both function and form while also highlighting the themes of movement, agility and impediment in the city.

One especially surprising work for me was the haunting, untitled black-and-white gelatin silver photographic print by Ambroise Ngaimoko (Studio 3Z, 1977) of a young girl in a dark, yet boldly lit, chamber. Cities are as much about interiors as they are about streets, and this work speaks provocatively about the former. It is an apt complement to the powerful 2008 digital video by Nandipha Mntambo titled “Ukungenisa,” which explores interiors and landscapes of the mind, by way of an imagined scene featuring a female toreador as she confronts her unseen protagonist.


With the mixed-media constructions of Benin sculptors Romuald Hazoumé and Calixte Dakpogan, I was drawn both to how much their work is grounded in local 19th-century traditions of assembly (e.g., sculptures of Gu, the god of iron). With these artists one also grasps the nimbleness by which they meet anticipated desires of a very diverse and fickle Western market, some collectors wanting the historic Africa of masks and complex sculptures; others, the frisson of the artist as playmaker and intellect.

The latter approach is also brought into sharp focus with the series of set pieces by Kudzanai Chiurai. In these larger-than-life images from 2009, in UltraChrome ink on photo fiber paper, individuals flaunt their power, style and self-confidence as the masters of the new African city-state, performed distinctively through associated props, costumes and poses as Minister of Defence, Minister of Finance, Minister of Health, Minister of Education, and Minister of Arts and Culture. These works, like so many others on view, present us with a view of Africa that is at once foreign and familiar to Western audiences.


Exploring Luminós/C/ity” is at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art, located at 102 Mount Auburn St. in Cambridge, through Jan. 8, 2015.


An “Exploring Luminosity” symposium will be held Wednesday, Dec. 10, at 2 p.m. at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute, 104 Mount Auburn St., second floor.

Suzanne Preston Blier is the Allen Whitehill Clowes Professor of Fine Arts and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, as well as a member of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. She is a specialist in African art and architecture.