By Adriana Burkins, Education Associate

How might museums inspire students to think critically about the objects they see and the narratives they read in our galleries? With some states pushing back against incorporating critical race theory into school curricula, how might we as museums and educators help equip students with the tools necessary to engage with difficult objects and histories and still be able to relate them to their own experiences? Inspired by the Afrofuturist exhibition, Jon Gray of Ghetto Gastro Selects (on view through February 13, 2022), Cooper Hewitt Education commissioned Brooklyn-based artist and educator Oasa DuVerney to create six drawings for the Learning Lab, a free, online interactive platform where users can explore content from the Smithsonian’s nineteen museums and research centers. In these drawings, DuVerney explores how design objects can be refigured through critical thought, storytelling, and the creative process. As an example of how we might relate to objects through creative world-building, DuVerney reinterpreted six Cooper Hewitt collection objects into vibrant visuals of rest, power, and resistance, illustrating a narrative inspired by how her children experienced the protests of the summer of 2020 and the United States’ acknowledgment of the realities of inequity, inequality, and violence against black and brown bodies.

Opera glasses (France), ca. 1910, mother-of-pearl, aluminum, metal, optical glass

Jon Gray of Ghetto Gastro Selects presented a unique opportunity to expand how we tell stories and interrogate who we consider to be the keepers and interpreters of those stories. The exhibition challenged us to ask how we can encourage young visitors to take ownership of their own imaginative thinking. Jon Gray, the co-founder of Ghetto Gastro, a Bronx-based food and design collective, selected objects from Cooper Hewitt’s collection—many related to Black culture and history— and reinterpreted them through an Afrofuturist narrative. After DuVerney was commissioned to create drawings that brought this narrative to life, the Education department also commissioned her to create six additional drawings featuring items from the exhibition. Afrofuturism, with its roots in African-American science fiction, is a broad genre and cultural expression that fills the gaps where people of color have been left out of the narrative. Among other elements, Afrofuturism combines fantasy, science fiction, African traditions, and speculative thinking to analyze the past and present to build worlds that interrogate or abolish racialized colonial structures and celebrate Blackness and Black culture through film, fashion, dance, music, visual art, and literature. Examples of Afrofuturism include the literary works of Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin, the music and aesthetic of artist Janelle Monae, and the comic series and 2018 Marvel film, Black Panther.

I saw your light. And it was shining, Oasa DuVerney, 2020, watercolor and ink on paper, 10 x 8

In one drawing, DuVerney reinterprets a pair of early 20th century opera glasses from the French company, Lemaire. These glasses, made from iridescent mother-of-pearl, imply that the owner had the ability to purchase an object of such material, afford to attend an event where they could use the object, and show off its marker of status. However, in her work, DuVerney explores the value that comes with sight and what it means to “see” by switching the Lemaire opera glasses for the metaphorical Sankofa symbol. This term, which comes from the Akan people of Ghana, speaks to the wisdom of looking back to the past to guide your future. In DuVerney’s drawing we see two seated teens holding glittering gold variations of the Sankofa symbol, from which a gorgeous spectrum of colors radiate—yellow, orange, magenta, green, and blue. It’s anyone’s guess as to what the teens see through those golden spirals, but from their expressions we can surmise they are looking at the possibilities for their futures that are as varied, warm, and bright as the watercolor pigments painted on the paper.

Comb case with wig and lice combs, 1671, tortoiseshell, paint

In another drawing, DuVerney reinterprets a tortoiseshell comb case with two combs dating back to 1671 to Port Royal, Jamaica. After making their fortunes through the exploitation of enslaved Africans in colonies like Jamaica, European merchants returned to Europe carrying these objects as markers of their wealth and status. Tortoiseshell objects like these were considered luxury souvenir items due to the labor and intense processes required to hunt hawksbill turtles and manipulate their shells. However, In DuVerney’s reinterpretation we see a profile view of her daughter against a background of pink watercolor. She wears long braids twisted into even larger braids. Instead of the tortoiseshell combs, we now see small, golden fist-shaped hair pins in an image that celebrates Black hair care practices. Created a year after California became the first state to sign the CROWN Act in 2019 to protect Black women from hair discrimination in schools and in the workplace, this drawing recontextualizes the original hair accessories into objects signifying protection, validation, and a warning against unwarranted touching.

The hacksaw has two blades, Oasa DuVerney, 2020, watercolor and ink on paper, 10 x 8

Each drawing will have its own dedicated Learning Lab collection where users will be prompted to reflect on their lived experiences and use DuVerney’s work as an example of creative and speculative imagining. Targeted for middle school and high school-age audiences, DuVerney’s drawings demonstrate the honest and transparent conversations we are invested in having about what is in our collection. Through projects like this, we aim to create a space where students, as future content creators, can learn about the histories of institutions such as museums, which were created with colonialist and Eurocentric ideologies, and still be able to feel a sense of ownership and agency in how they share and make sense of what they see and hear. This project is the first in a series of Learning Lab collaborations where BIPOC designers will be contracted to help interpret and tell design stories. Additionally, thanks to grant funding, these collections will be translated into Spanish. As we continue with educational and interpretive initiatives like this, we are excited for the opportunity to expand the impact of the Learning Lab and its ability to offer relevant and relatable entry points into our exhibitions and collections.


Adriana Burkins is an education associate at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, where she supports and facilitates programs that introduce audiences of all ages to design.


Jon Gray of Ghetto Gastro Selects is made possible with support from Crystal and Chris Sacca and the Marks Family Foundation Endowment Fund.

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