A Painting of Amanda Gorman Enters Harvard’s Hutchins Center

The poet’s alma mater has accepted Ghanaian artist Raphael Adjetey Adjei Mayne’s portrait of her reading “The Hill We Climb” at Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Raphael Adjetey Adjei Mayne, Amanda Gorman (2021). Courtesy the artist and Destinee Ross-Sutton

Amanda Gorman’s star was already ascending when she was named the inaugural National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017, while studying sociology at Harvard University, but it wasn’t until she read “The Hill We Climb” at Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration that her hopeful words resonated with millions. As the story goes, Dr. Jill Biden was so moved when she saw Gorman recite “In This Place (An American Lyric),” written in response to the violence of Charlottesville’s white supremacist Unite the Right rally, that she asked the 22-year-old poet to compose a new piece of writing specifically for the inauguration. 

Inspired by the inauguration performance, the Ghanaian artist Raphael Adjetey Adjei Mayne painted an evocative portrait of Gorman during her star-making moment. Mayne completed the work, which depicts a faceless yet charismatic Gorman mid-speech against a floral background, within five days. It shows her wearing her red satin headband and sunny yellow coat, both Prada, as well as an ornate bird cage ring that references the late poet Maya Angelou—who performed at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration—and her famous poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Mayne, whose visceral work highlights diverse facets of Ghanaian cultural experiences, studied at Accra’s Ghanatta College of Art and Design with the rising painters Amoako Boafo and Otis Quaicoe.

The painting instantly captivated the gallerist and collector Amar Singh, who purchased it from Ross-Sutton Gallery, the recently opened New York City space focusing on Black art helmed by curator Destinee Ross-Sutton. “This work must be in an institution,” said Singh, an activist who has championed women’s issues and helped legalize homosexuality in India. He was first introduced to Mayne’s work through the gallery’s current exhibition “Black Voices: Friend of My Mind,” which features works by David “Mr. StarCity” White, Glenn Hardy, and Dodi King. 

Singh, who describes the painting as “a celebration of women, a celebration of Black women, a celebration of hope,” has now donated the work to Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, headed by prominent literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. The painting isn’t the first trace of Gorman to be appear in a museum’s collection. In 2018, she donated her manuscript for “In This Place (An American Lyric)” to New York’s Morgan Library, where it appeared alongside works by Carson McCullers and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. 

Gorman’s widely admired performance has made her an instant star and cultural icon. Since the inauguration, IMG models announced representation of Gorman for fashion and beauty endorsements. She’s currently working on two books—The Hill We Climb, a poetry collection; and Change Sings, a picture book—slated for release later this year. Gorman also announced that she is performing an original poem at the Super Bowl LV pre-show, making her the first poet ever to do so. 

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