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Radcliffe Institute at Harvard Presents a Special Installation of Willie Cole's Haunting Beauties

Beauties—a series of prints by the world-renowned sculptor and printmaker—bear conflicting associations: oppression and resistance, precarity and permanence, violence and beauty.

Author By Radcliffe Communications Published 03.22.2019 Share this page on Facebook Share this page on Twitter Share this page on LinkedIn Copy Link

For Immediate Release

Contact: Jane F. Huber,
Director of Communications

CAMBRIDGE, MA—On March 27, 2019, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University ( opens a special installation of Beauties, a series of prints by the world-renowned sculptor and printmaker Willie Cole.

Willie Cole’s Beauties are full-scale prints made by stripping and flattening ironing boards, then inking them and running them directly through a printing press. Working with Highpoint Editions in Minneapolis, Cole transformed these humble tools of domestic labor into haunting images that bear multiple conflicting associations: oppression and resistance, precarity and permanence, violence and beauty.

Cole has used irons and ironing as central motifs in his work for 30 years, evoking everything from African masks to slave ship diagrams to the routines of domestic servitude.

“Willie Cole is best known for his work that explores the resemblance between the shapes of ships and the shapes of steam irons. His famous monumental woodcut Stowage (1997) equated ironing boards with slave ship diagrams, evoking the trauma of the Middle Passage in the Atlantic slave trade,” says Jennifer L. Roberts, the Johnson-Kulukundis Family Faculty Director of the Arts at the Radcliffe Institute and the Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities at Harvard.

“In his Beauties project, Cole has created new links between the complexity of the iron motif and the domestic labor performed by generations of black women in America, including the women in his own family,” Roberts explains. “Cole’s grandmother and great-grandmother were housekeepers who often asked Cole to fix their steam irons when he was a child growing up in Newark. In a testament to their strength and persistence and in recognition of the shared sensibilities of ironing and printmaking—both of which transform through pressing—each of the Beauties bears a woman’s name.”

“With the Beauties, the themes and associations that swarm around irons and ironing in Cole’s work reach a new intensity. For viewers, conflicting associations shoulder their way in, each refusing to yield to the others: the prints are slave ships, tombstones, portraits, shrouds, windows, monuments, shields, X-rays, and more, all at once.”

The exhibition runs concurrently with “Vision & Justice” on April 25 and 26. Vision & Justice is a two-day creative convening that will consider the role of the arts in understanding the nexus of citizenship, race, and justice. Vision & Justice—also hosted by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study—is presented with generous support from the Ford Foundation, and is co-sponsored by the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, the Harvard Art Museums, and the American Repertory Theater.

Exhibition organized by Jennifer L. Roberts, Johnson-Kulukundis Family Faculty Director of the Arts, Radcliffe Institute, and Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, with Meg Rotzel, arts program manager at Radcliffe.


March 27, 2019–June 29, 2019
Opening discussion: March 26, 2019, at 5 PM, in the Knafel Center
Reception to follow

Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study
Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery
Byerly Hall, 8 Garden Street

Works in the Exhibition

Anna Mae
Bertha Mae
Clara Esther
Fannie Mae
Jesse Mae
Jonny Mae
Lula Bell
Matti Lee
Willy Mae

2012, intaglio and relief, each 63 1/2 × 22 1/2 inches

Virgin of Enlightenment (ascending/descending)
2012, screenprint, 41 x 58½ inches

All printed at Highpoint Editions, Minneapolis, MN


A 36-page illustrated publication accompanies the exhibition. It includes an essay by Jennifer L. Roberts and images of all 28 of the Beauties (four of which are not part of the Radcliffe exhibition).

About the Artist

Willie Cole is a world-renowned sculptor and printmaker best known for his transformative assemblies of such household objects as steam irons, shoes, and hair dryers. He describes himself as a “contemporary artist, perceptual engineer, ecological mechanic, transformer,” and his work releases the complex histories at the intersection of African American experience, consumer culture, domestic labor, and rituals of bodily transformation. Cole studied at the Boston University College of Fine Arts, the School of Visual Arts in New York, and the Art Students League of New York. His honors include the David C. Driskell Prize, the Saint-Gaudens Fellowship, a Joan Mitchell Foundation grant, and an artist residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. His work has been exhibited and collected by institutions around the world, including the Birmingham Museum of Art, the British Museum, the Miami Art Museum (now the Pérez Art Museum Miami), the Museum of Modern Art, the Newark Museum, and the Saint Louis Art Museum. He lives and works in Mine Hill, New Jersey.

About the Printmakers

The Highpoint Center for Printmaking in Minneapolis is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the art of printmaking. Its goals are to provide educational programs, community access, and collaborative publishing opportunities to engage the community and increase the appreciation and understanding of the printmaking arts. Highpoint Editions publishes fine art prints made by invited professional artists in collaboration with Highpoint Editions staff and master printer Cole Rogers. Highpoint advances the work of artists by presenting artists’ projects to a broad public through gallery shows, lectures, and symposia and by placing Highpoint prints in important public and private collections around the world.

About the Gallery

As one of several exhibition spaces at the Radcliffe Institute, the Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery is part of the Institute’s effort to promote visual art as a form of advanced study and to provide a unique space for artistic experimentation and dialogue on the Harvard campus. Exhibitions feature contemporary art that advances interdisciplinary conversation across the vibrant intellectual communities at the institute, Harvard, and beyond. Gallery publications similarly emphasize experimentation and dialogue by providing artists, faculty, and students with the opportunity to engage creatively with the exhibition book form.

Willie Cole: Beauties Gallery Series

Throughout the course of the exhibition, the gallery will host a series of events in which Harvard students and faculty and staff members from across the disciplinary spectrum respond to Willie Cole’s work. Event speakers will include Chloe Chapin, Nelson Makamo, Julie Mallozzi, Darren Pollock, Aysha Upchurch, VISION LAB, and more.

About the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University

The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study is a unique space within Harvard—a school dedicated to creating and sharing transformative ideas across all disciplines. Each year, the Institute hosts 50 leading scholars, scientists, and artists from around the world in its renowned residential fellowship program. Radcliffe fosters innovative research collaborations and offers hundreds of public lectures, exhibitions, performances, conferences, and other events annually. The Institute is home to the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, the nation’s foremost archive on the history of women, gender, and sexuality. For more information about the people and programs of the Radcliffe Institute, visit

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