Hilton Als, Associate Professor, Collaborates With Celia Paul For Gallery Met Exhibition

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Hilton Als, Associate Professor in Writing, has collaborated with British artist Celia Paul for an exhibition at the Gallery Met. The piece, “Desdemona for Celia by Hilton,” is currently being exhibited in conjunction with the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Verdi’s “Otello.”
According to The New York Times, the collaborative piece between Als and Paul will feature 14 of Paul’s “dark, caustic self-portraits and portraits of women in her family.” A recording of Als reading his essay about about Paul, Desdemona (from Shakespeare’s Othello), Venice and race plays throughout the gallery.
Als told The New York Times that he wanted to explore the character of Desdemona because she is the “least explored and most symbolic character” in the play, and that Celia Paul’s paintings struck him as strongly symbiotic with such a study. “[T]hey’re among the most psychically fascinating works about women that I’ve seen in a long time,” he said.

In a statement about the origins of the exhibit on the Metropolitan Opera website, Als writes: “So, that’s how our collaboration began—by making a space that reminded us not only of Venice but of the walls in Paul’s London studio. We placed the paintings and drawings of women sitting in isolated space as Desdemona sits for so much of the opera in a kind of isolated space—misunderstood, cherished, destroyed. Desdemona is an innocent who wants to love, just like the women in Paul’s paintings desire to be seen. And while I thought about all of this I listened to Verdi’s masterpiece on full blast; his passionate voices helped shape our gallery of love, loss, and regret. Otello and Desdemona know one another without knowing anything at all. And their ‘mixed’ marriage and the hatred and violence surrounding it say as much about how difference is viewed, still, as any contemporary critique—or manifesto.”
Als is a longtime critic for The New Yorker and the author of two acclaimed nonfiction books, The Women and White Girls. He was recently appointed Associate Professor of Writing at the School of the Arts, after teaching a seminar on James Baldwin’s writing last spring.
“Hilton Als is one of the most exciting essayists and memoirists on the planet,” noted Phillip Lopate, professor and Nonfiction Director of the Writing program. “His prose is fearless and free: to follow his unpredictable mind in books like The Women and White Girls is to be in thrall to an original thinker who lets it rip, regardless of the conventional pieties.”

“The joy I feel at returning to Columbia thirty or so years after I left as a student verges on the ecstatic,” said Als, “which is not to say mystical: life has a way of returning one to one's beginnings, all in a bid, I think, to give back to those places and people who contributed to one's own maturity. I attended Columbia at a time when AIDS was just beginning to affect the student body; I lost a number of friends. I regard my appointment as a way of honoring their memory, and nurturing the young, curious, and vibrant who will go on to create their own rich and essential legacies.”
Click here to see Hilton Als in conversation with Celia Paul at the Victoria Viro Gallery in 2014.

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Columbia University School of the Arts offers MFA degrees in Film, Theatre, Visual Arts, and Writing, an MA degree in Film Studies, a joint JD/MFA degree in Theatre Management & Producing, a PhD degree in Theatre History, Literature, and Theory, and an interdisciplinary program in Sound Arts.