FEATURED FOUR YEARS AGO in the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask by Modern and Contemporary Artists from Three Continents,” Willie Cole recently returned to the museum to talk about his introduction to African art.

It was the late 1960s, after the Kennedy and King assassinations and the subsequent riots. Cole was in high school, and the black consciousness movement was coming to the fore.

“Our art department began discussing African art in the classroom. We were not searching for Africa but they were putting Africa on us,” he says in the above video. For one assignment, students had to make something. Drawn to its “graphic quality and symmetry,” Cole chose a Ci Wara headdress from Mali.

Today, Cole describes himself as a “perceptual engineer” and his artistic materials are everyday consumer goods. He uses high-heel shoes to create assemblage works that pay homage to the iconic forms of African masks and sculpture, for example, and makes prints based on marks made with clothes irons that reference African motifs.

When the Metropolitan Museum invited New Jersey-based Cole to participate in the second season of The Artist Project, its online series exploring “what artists see when the look at the Met,” what they are drawn to when they wander the institution’s galleries, he chose familiar objects—wood Ci Wara sculptures.

“Our education will make us see things differently. It inspires everything I see. So suddenly Africa is in my world and my referene points for shapes and designs are going to come from that too,” says Cole, in the Met Museum video. “It made me start to explore the word African American and I decided at that point that I would make African things out of American things. That opened the door anyway.”

“Our education will make us see things differently… It made me start to explore the word African American and I decided at that point that I would make African things out of American things.”
— WIllie Cole, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cole is among 20 artists announced yesterday as participants in the second installment of The Artist Project. The group also includes Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall and Hank Willis Thomas.

In five seasons, over the course of one year, the Met is inviting 100 artists from surrounding neighborhoods in New York, from throughout the nation and across the globe, to consider its holdings—5,000 years of art history—and share what inspires them and strikes their imaginations.

EXPLORE SEASON 1 of the The Artist Project featuring Nick Cave, Mickalene Thomas and Kehinde Wiley.

Glenn Ligon on The Great Bieri
Based in New York, Glenn Ligon is critically recognized for his text-based paintings that draw on American history and literature and explore issues of race and identity. At the Met, he focuses on The Great Bieri, the wood sculpture is the head of a reliquary ensemble from Gabon. “I often say that I don’t understand sculpture. What I mean is that I don’t make it so the problems of sculpture are foreign to me,” Ligon says.

Kerry James Marshall on Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
Painter Kerry James Marshall’s practice is based on recasting the art history canon with representations of black people and black narratives. Given this, it is fascinating to hear the Chicago-based artist discuss “Odalisque in Grisaille” by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and other portraits by the French artist. “I am a fan of Ingres as a painter. But the best is the portraiture. It’s stunning in its pictureness because we don’t know any of those people. Don’t care, in some ways, who they are. But they look beautiful in a picture. I am interested in the artifice of it all.”

Hank Willis Thomas on a Daguerreotype Button
New York-based Hank Willis Thomas calls himself a photo-conceptual artist. In his practice, he explores images and representation and how over time our understanding of history and the world changes. This shift in perception is exemplified in a button with a tiny, cropped daguerreotype inside of it. Once described as an abolitionist pin depicting a black hand and a white hand holding a bible, Thomas says now it is believed to be an image of one person’s hands and whether the book is a bible is up for debate. “That ambiguity,” he says, “is what makes most art both legible and eternal.” CT