EJ Hill’s show “The Lily League,” at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is named for the Black Star calla lily, a delicate, funnel-shaped, deep purple blossom, and meant to counter the riotous climbing plant associated with the Ivy League. Hill, a gay black artist from Los Angeles who went to public schools, turns a clear eye on what and whom educational institutions value.
He came to Harvard in 2018 as a Radcliffe Institute Fellow, like David approaching Goliath. Perhaps more than any other American university, Harvard denotes excellence, and along with that excellence come privilege, exclusion, and a stacked deck. Such institutions barrel along in their broad-shouldered and competitive ways, creating systems for success that poke at and discard vulnerable students. These days, as students across the country call institutions’ attentions to microaggressions, “The Lily League” proposes to reframe educational systems and values.
Using educational materials in abstract paintings, Hill summons the air of many a classroom and breaks down school tropes. Some are made with familiar supplies such as college-ruled paper and decorative borders for bulletin boards. Others covered in velvet conjure softness, but they’re complicated; “Regalia (line drawing),” in green velvet, refers to academic costume and the rigors of achievement.
A blackboard with neon writing stands at the center of the gallery. It reads, “Tenderness is our superpower.” What if — in a high-powered institution such as Harvard — people led not with their smarts, not with their ability to lure funding, not with their extraordinary talents, but with their vulnerabilities?
A mirror on the other side of the blackboard and two chairs invite visitors to have reflective dialogues. Curator Meg Rotzel says that mediating a vulnerable conversation through a mirror is easier than having it face to face. Groups from Harvard and beyond, including Cambridge Rindge and Latin School’s intersectional feminist club and teens from Raw Art Works, a youth arts agency in Lynn, come to the gallery to consider their own tender places.
Can a powerhouse university be built around vulnerability? I’m skeptical. But it’s a pointed and necessary question, and “The Lily League” asks it well.