By Nyame-kye Kondo, Special to the AFRO

The late Peggy Cooper Cafritz was an artistic visionary, creator and influencer of dynamic proportions. Co-founder of the celebrated Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., Cafritz, was committed to breaking down barriers, and creating bridges for artists of color across the creative spectrum.

“Over five decades, Cooper Cafritz became a fixture of Washington’s educational, cultural and charitable firmament, as much a socialite as a social activist.” reported the Washington Post, when she passed in February 2018.

A portion of Peggy Cooper Cafritz’s art collection is on display at Duke Ellington School of The Arts. (Photo by Nyame-Kye Kondo)

Today, Cafritz’s legacy and influence are still alive and active through initiatives she launched prior to her passing, such as Ellington and her prized art collection. A second era of a tradition that Cafritz had been committed to for decades, the art collection came to fruition after the first was lost to a house fire in 2009. Cafritz did not allow this tragedy to deter her from building a new collection. 

Donating more than half of her collection to the Studio Museum in Harlem, an art enthusiast with a valuable collection, Cafritz bequeathed over 200 of her pieces to the Duke Ellington School Of the Arts, and for the first time in its history, the school’s Museum Studies Department is displaying a portion of its inheritance to the public. 

Titled “In My Shoes: Peggy Cooper Cafritz Collection At Ellington,” the exhibition is currently open in the front gallery of the newly renovated building at 3500 R Street N.W., and is open to the public. Considered to be one of the most valuable collections of Contemporary African American Art in the world, Cafritz’s collection includes work by Hank Willis Thomas, who is an Ellington alum, Jas Knight and Mark Thomas Gibson, to name a few. The exhibit also features student artwork and multi media responses to Cafritz’s collection.

Duke Ellington School of the Arts CEO Tia Powell Harris speaks at the opening reception for “In My Shoes: Peggy Cooper Cafritz Collection At Ellington.”

“One of the things that this exhibit is about is having our students be inspired and choosing works that spoke to them, so that they could extend the narrative. The more we can get students to think about extending their narratives, the better it is,” said Museum Studies teacher and established photographer Jarvis Grant. 

A piece of Cafritz’s narrative, Duke Ellington School of the Arts started as a series of workshops in the summer of 1968, and through the partnership with choreographer, Mike Malone eventually evolved into the Duke Ellington School Of The Arts in 1973. Dean of Students Donna Hollis reflected on the transitions the school has gone through recently- such as the passing of key members of the Ellington community and moving from R St. NW to the U corridor and now back to its original location- but also how good it is to have a piece of Cafritz, with them always.

“It feels good seeing Peggy’s artwork up. After being in her home and seeing them hung, it feels like Peggy is back home. That does something else because it feels like Peggy is here,” Hollis told the AFRO.

Featuring a dozen pieces of various mediums and styles, Cafritz’s collection is amplified by the student artwork that is positioned next to each piece.

Ellington CEO, Tia Powell Harris said she believes that the collection displays an important discourse between Cafritz and the student. “I love how they coupled the art- it’s almost like a talk back between Peggy’s collection and Peggy’s children. Because they are inspired by her art, they create in that inspiration, and the result is the show,” the CEO shared.

Marta Reid Steward, chair of Ellington’s Museum Studies department, noted that the collection was a reflection of Cafritz herself.

“You can find out about me by looking at what I collect,” Reid told the AFRO.  “Peggy is courageous, Peggy is thoughtful, Peggy is a giver. Her idea was to get artists while they were young, while they are finding themselves, while they have so many ideas to share and, when it will matter the most, that they have people who get what they are trying to convey.”

The exhibit closes Dec. 13.

For more information on “In My Shoes: Peggy Cooper Cafritz Collection At Ellington,” visit www.ellingtonarts.org.