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Immaterial: Space, Part 1

Giving form to a feeling.

June 18

Sky with puffy blue and white clouds. A light blue sky peeks through the top right corner of the image.

How does an artist give presence to absence?

Bronze, wood, paint, and stone—classic materials for art making. But what if you're trying and struggling to convey a vast expanse, a terrible loss, or a haunting presence? In this episode we'll look at two artists who turned to the material of space to express what nothing else could.

Read the complete transcript below.

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Season 2 of Immaterial is made possible by Dasha Zhukova Niarchos. Additional support is provided by the Zodiac Fund.


RACHEL WHITEREAD: So in 1988, Closet was the first sculpture that I made. I would call it the first sculpture.

It was thinking about a childhood memory of being inside a wardrobe and just hiding away in this sort of black, furry space.

Large black wardrobe, set on a concrete floor against a white wall. Dark gray paneling and orange grooves accent the doors of the wardrobe.

Rachel Whiteread (British, b. 1963). Closet, 1988. Plaster, wood, and felt, 63 x 34 5/8 x 14 1/2 in. (160 x 88 x 37 cm). © Rachel Whiteread, Courtesy the artist 

CAMILLE DUNGY: That's Rachel Whiteread. She’s a contemporary British sculptor. As a young artist, Rachel wanted to capture a very specific feeling from her childhood: a memory of a space, but also the sensation attached to that space inside the wardrobe.

WHITEREAD: As children, they're the places we hide to feel safe, the places that adults don't necessarily fit. I suppose off the map and a bit secret and a bit naughty. And I wanted to somehow encapsulate that in an object.

DUNGY: She could recreate the object itself. But that wouldn't necessarily capture the visceral feeling.

WHITEREAD: I went inside the wardrobe and fixed all the shelves in position. And, I coated it with plaster and then poured around it.

DUNGY: The process of capturing that space in plaster summoned all sorts of sensations for Rachel.

WHITEREAD: When you use plaster, it, it goes from being cold and soft to being hard and hot and you get heat from it and you get a dampness from it and you get a smell which comes from the sort of sweating of the material against the old wood and the varnish and it sort of unleashes these, these odors. And all of those things are very evocative when you're actually making it.

DUNGY: Once she completed this casting, she waited for the plaster to set. Then she peeled off an exterior, the skin of the original piece of furniture. 

She was left with a solid version of empty space. A cast of the interior.

And then, she went one step further. She covered the object she’d just created in black felt.

WHITEREAD: The felt sort of, absorbed the light. So it felt almost like this three-dimensional black space. Once it was covered in felt, the kind of strangeness of it and the sort of uncanny feeling that it had…

I think all of the work I do starts with an emotion or something that's happened in my past or something that I imagine might have happened or could happen. I think the places that I use to make my work, they're the kind of forgotten places or the places of reverie. Sort of unconscious thought.

DUNGY: From The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I'm Camille Dungy, and this is Immaterial.

This episode: Space. We consider two artists who have used space as a kind of material for their work. First up, Rachel Whiteread.

DUNGY: Artists like Rachel Whiteread find opportunities in space and draw our attention to it—to spaces unseen, unconsidered, overlooked, previously intangible. They take what some would see as empty and help us see what is very present. What Rachel created was an uncanny thing. Something familiar transformed into something unfamiliar.

BRINDA KUMAR: Just that, that little deft tweak, that takes something, very familiar, allows you to see it in new light makes you suddenly aware of its thingness, of its place in the world, of its significance in your life, suddenly imbues it with a certain kind of meaning that you would not ordinarily accord an everyday object.

DUNGY: We spoke with Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Brinda Kumar. She’s worked with another one of Rachel Whiteread's sculptures, this one in The Met's collection.

Bulky, rectangular plaster sculpture against a gray background. Grooves on the upper side of the sculpture outline the underside of three tables.

Rachel Whiteread (British, b. 1963). Untitled (Three Tables), 1995/1996. Plaster, 28 3/4 in. x 10 ft. 6 3/4 in. x 24 in. (73 x 321.9 x 61 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Lin Lougheed Collection, Gift of Lin Lougheed, in celebration of the Museum’s 150th Anniversary, 2018 (2018.940a–f). © Rachel Whiteread

KUMAR: We installed Rachel Whiteread's sculpture in an installation called Home is a Foreign Place. And, in this particular installation, we explored the different ways in which artists map out space, think about space, conceive of it in their work, whether it's the physical space around them or the space of imagination.

DUNGY: Putting together a group of works by different artists, Brinda and her colleagues sought to explore how meaning and art can change our relationship to our surrounding environment. How can art make us think about spaces we usually don't pay attention to?

The thing about Rachel's work is that at first glance, in the context of a museum gallery, it can often be difficult to make sense of what the object actually is.

Imagine walking through a museum gallery with Brinda…

KUMAR: What you encounter is a long, solid rectangular block of plaster, laid directly on the ground. There are grooves that run along its sides and deep impressions within its top surface.

When you stand or walk around it, it reaches up just below your hip. You begin to realize, this may be a little high for a bench, but it's something that you could perhaps lean on.

You know, once I saw a lady almost putting her handbag on the edge of the object and, you know, you kind of have to leap across and say no.

Gallery shot from Home is a Foreign Place. A bulky, cream-colored rectangular sculpture sits in the center of the checkerboard wood floor. Large-scale artworks hang on the surrounding walls.

View of Rachel Whiteread's Untitled (Three Tables) (2018.940a–f) in Home is a Foreign Place. The Met Breuer. April 2019.

DUNGY: There's a reason someone might feel compelled to put their bag on the object. As you continue to walk around Rachel’s piece…

KUMAR: You realize that ah, this is a relationship more to a table. And it suddenly begins to make sense that, yes, this would be the height of a table. This would be something that you could draw a chair up to and sit next to, and that proportion makes a lot of sense.

DUNGY: Rachel Whiteread took three folding tables and made a plaster cast of the space beneath them.

KUMAR: The table is removed, leaving in the plaster blocks, the impression of where the table once was. Very simply, she's created positive space from where there was once negative space.

Bulky, rectangular plaster sculpture against a gray background. Grooves on the upper side of the sculpture outline the underside of three tables.

Rachel Whiteread's Untitled (Three Tables)

WHITEREAD: Everywhere we look there's space, you know, we are completely surrounded by space, but often space is sort of encapsulated by an object, so, the underside of a table is this big sort of oblong space, which gets used as storage and whatever, but sometimes it's just there free to put your legs under.

DUNGY: There's this dawning realization of what exactly this object is. It's not a table. It's the underside of three tables.

KUMAR: And that slow awareness of something that's familiar is, I think, what her work and her practice is very adept at activating in somebody who encounters it.

DUNGY: Because her work has this relationship to our bodies, people are compelled to interact with Rachel's sculptures.

WHITEREAD: Everything is sort of human height, because they were always objects that we've had in our daily life so yeah, people are very provoked into working with these things. So they might be looking at them, but very often people want to touch them or get in them or sit on them.

DUNGY: Rachel has seen it all.

WHITEREAD: People have got into bathtubs and got onto beds, and yeah, people are very curious when it comes to that kind of thing, which, I find it really touching that people have this connection. That somehow they feel that it's a part of their world that they can do that.

DUNGY: Rachel thinks there's a reason for that.

WHITEREAD: People are so familiar with the objects that we use. I suppose it's just something that's sort of deep in our psyche and it's how we navigate the world, isn't it? You know, if you see a blind person walking around, you see them feeling for the things that we see and we take for granted, but they are our pointers in how to get around a room.

They're our kind of roads and furniture. I think we do the same thing, but sort of subconsciously.

DUNGY: Perhaps another reason we connect with Rachel’s sculptures of the space around objects is they contain the unseen presence of people.

WHITEREAD: I think a lot of the other works evoke the sort of presence of a human by sitting at a table or sitting on a chair.

So, it always has this sort of spectral presence of a human being, but they're never actually there.

DUNGY: Brinda, the Met curator, takes Rachel’s thought further…

KUMAR: I think about how plaster, which is a material that she uses in this particular sculpture and indeed in many other sculptures, was used often to make death masks, for instance.

DUNGY: Death masks are casts made of a person's face after they die. A death mask preserves the memory of a person, freezes them in time. And that's a story that Rachel Whiteread is very familiar with.

WHITEREAD: Shallow Breath. It was the space underneath a single bed.

Sculpture of a white mattress set longways against a wall in a white space. The mattress bends gently and bears horizontal lines across the middle, suggesting slats from a bed frame.

Rachel Whiteread (British, b. 1963). Shallow Breath (1988). Plaster, polystyrene, 74 7/8 x 36 1/4 x 7 7/8 in. (190 x 92 x 20 cm). © Rachel Whiteread, Photo by Mike Bruce, Courtesy the artist and Gagosian

KUMAR: It takes the impression of the underside of a bed, where you register the mattress that is sagging through the indentations of the bed frame.

WHITEREAD: And the bed was sort of placed up against the wall. It had this sort of feeling of a chest or lungs, almost like a rib cage.

DUNGY: On its surface, this seems like a simple gesture. Solidifying negative space. But it was more than that.

WHITEREAD: Around the same time, my father was dying.

And I think that was sort of thinking about what I was going through and what he was going through and what our family was going through.

DUNGY: The cast of the negative space below a bed is a monument to an intimate relationship that has irrevocably changed. The sculpture gives form to feeling. Brings solemn presence to a searing absence.

KUMAR: It's an instance where an impression is taken of literally a life that has passed. Whiteread’s often spoken about how in these works, she's mummifying air.

And what Whiteread does in these kind of works, is really transform that space into mass and makes us stop and realize those kind of…it's not even the in-between spaces. It's the negative spaces of our lives, they become in some ways unavoidable. They become unmissable. You are confronted by the space. You don't take it for granted.

WHITEREAD: It's using it as a building block and as a way into our world, I suppose.

Because I can't cast all the messy bits around that. You know, you have to somehow put edges on things. And that's a way of doing that.

DUNGY: When we come back, we're going to look at how another artist transforms space.


SHANIA HALL: Like, reality is behind me. You have all these expectations, and people wanting stuff from you, and then you're just standing there, looking at nothing. Space, space and hardship, hardship and rawness and circumstances. And a month ago, two months ago, I remember being on that hill…

My name is Shania Hall. I'm currently living in Great Falls, Montana.

DUNGY: In 2015, standing in The Met's exhibition of art and items from “the Plains Indians,” Shania Hall looked up at a series of photographs she took. Images that she had created of her home. The panorama was expansive, covering an entire wall, creating a sense of space, a sense of place. From her perspective.

HALL: The picture, it was so beautiful, and blue, and emotional, and raw, and I'm really thankful that they used my story. As the backdrop. Because behind that picture is a story.

Landscape photograph. Dark blue, stormy clouds give way to hazier gray clouds. In the distance, snow-capped, blue mountains. The ground throughout the shot is dark gray.

Photograph taken by Shania Hall for The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky exhibit installation, 2014. © Shania Hall

DUNGY: The Met exhibition, called The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, gathered work from more than forty sovereign tribal nations and spanned over two thousand years of history, up to the present.

A decision was made to commission a young photographer of Plains Indian descent. The directive was simple: Take a photograph that conveys the sense of scale that you experience in your landscape. A call went out to high schools in the region…

A call that reached Shania Hall in her senior year in Missoula, Montana.

Shania's family is from the Blackfoot Nation. She split her time between their Tribal Lands in northern Montana (you can find it on the map around Browning) and Missoula, the state’s second largest city, over two hundred miles to the south.

HALL: My family's from the reservation, but I was raised in the city. So like an urban Native American. So I kind of went through a cultural identity crisis, I would say.

So it was like, either I'd come back to school and I would talk too res or I'd come back to the res and talk too white and I was just really made fun of.

And was very much ashamed of who I was. And I hated being Native. I hated how I looked. So I would try my hardest not to be tan. Or I'd constantly dye my hair.

DUNGY: One part of her identity was never in crisis. Shania was always drawn to art.

HALL: Every single year up until high school, I won an art award.

DUNGY: She really loved art class. Though, even that was complicated. She remembers her teacher presenting a work of contemporary art by an artist named Jaune Quick-to-See Smith.

HALL: And the piece is called Trade. I remember seeing this piece as an 8 year old.


Mixed media artwork including a large-scale painting of a canoe. Anglo objects related to indigeneity in the US, such as a Washington Redskins baseball cap, are strung above the painting.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Enrolled Salish member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation (b. 1940). Trade (Gifts for Trading Land with White People), 1992. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 14 ft. 2 in. x 86 in. (431.8 x 218.4 cm). Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia, Museum purchase in memory of Trinkett Clark, Curator of American and Contemporary Art, 1989-96 (93.2) Photograph by Scott Wolff © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

And our teacher kept talking about, “Shania, what does this mean to you?” You know, being like a native kid, like, “Shania, tell us, tell the class what this piece means to you.” And I think that's why it stood out so much, because I was always put on the spotlight. “What does being native mean to you?”

I don't even know. I don't know, I'm just Shania!


DUNGY: But in her senior year Shania was approached by an advisor named Scott Matthews. He knew she was interested in photography…

HALL: Scott sits me down, he reads me an email. They're looking for a high schooler of Plains descent that is into photography. I'm like, “Okay, cool.”

Scott Matthews, he's like, “How about we go take a road trip up to Browning, and go take some pictures of the reservation?”

He's like, “That can't be any harm, go take a weekend.” I'm like, “Scott, I'm failing two classes. I graduate in like a month.” He's like, “Oh, you could do homework in the car. We should be there in, like, two hours.” I'm like, “Okay.”

I'm doing math, like, going through nowhere. Like, half of Montana is nowhere. He drives up to this little tiny hill, in like the middle of nowhere. It's like a freaking thunderstorm.

The next morning was just a shit show. We head out there. I'm getting pelted by rain. And he's like, well, they want scenery. He's like, but the pictures are only like this big. I'm like, we could do like a panoramic. I'm like, “ksh, ksh, ksh.”

DUNGY: The Met sent Scott a kind of Polaroid camera.

HALL: That's like, I swear to god, it's like the size of this book. It's freaking huge!

DUNGY: The camera spit out the undeveloped photos, which in the storm…

HALL: The photos are like going over me. And Scott's in the back catching them.

So, I'm like taking these pictures, “Scott, how do they look? Are they good, are they good?” He's like, “They won't develop for another minute, just keep going.” [CAMERA SOUND] I do like two rounds, I'm like, “Are the first set, like, done?” He's like, “Nah, they're good, they're good.” I'm like, “Oh my god.” [CAMERA SOUND] He wouldn't let me look at them.

I think that's what made it so special at the time, cause I didn't even get to look at them, really.

DUNGY: But she knew what she saw—

HALL: It was, I've lived in Montana my whole life, but it was actually the most beautiful thing I'd seen in a while. I just remember it being a really blue, blue, emotional type of storm, just like really raw. Because at the edge of the reservation there's no fences, it's all open range.

Long landscape photograph showing dark blue, stormy clouds gradually giving way to white and gray clouds in the distance, with patches of blue skies peeking through. The ground is darkened by the clouds, but the snow-capped mountains in the distance are cast in blue light.

Photograph taken by Shania Hall for The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky exhibit installation, 2014. © Shania Hall

DUNGY: Bruise-colored clouds stretched as far as Shania could see. And the landscape was endless, with the dark blur of mountains far away.

But part of the composition, part of what Shania chose to show, was what she left out of the space around her—

HALL: So behind me are a bunch of Amish and Hutterite colonies, so it looks like farm, you know. But in front of me was just green, wild, western. Free, and nobody around.

It was just, you know, this is where I'm from, type of thing, like, not to be super cliché or emotional, but looking into the vast distance, this is where I'm from. In front of me, I can see my family, Glacier National Park, Bob Marshall, and no fences. And then also, the wild weather, everything going on.

You don't appreciate it until you don't see it for a while. Like family. You don't appreciate your family until they're gone.

DUNGY: And then, just as quickly, they were done. Scott and Shania piled back into the car to get out of the storm. Shania did her homework and doesn't remember ever seeing her pictures.

HALL: It was just really quick, and then he mailed them.

DUNGY: Shania was finishing her senior year, hoping to graduate…

HALL: So, after that, I end up passing the classes, barely, and graduating. So, the day I was practicing our walk, we just finished and we're leaving the stadium. And Scott Matthews—it's almost like a movie—Scott standing by this big bear statue, and he's just smiling.

And he's like, “We did it!” I'm like, “What do you mean we did it?” He's like, “They like the photo, your picture's gonna be in New York City, in The Met.” I'm like, “Really?” And so we're just standing there, like, a bunch of nerds, hugging, and, everyone's walking by us, just trying to go home.

DUNGY: Having her photograph selected by The Met was a huge accomplishment. But once the congratulations wore off, Shania wasn't entirely sure what it meant.

HALL: I didn't even know what The Met was. I've only been to local museums in Missoula. Or the Children's Museum.

When I pictured The Metropolitan, I imagined a stinky old museum no one went to. And I thought the picture that was gonna be used was maybe a couple feet. I thought it was gonna be just like a little background in the corner. You know, maybe for an art piece?

DUNGY: There was another part of folks in New York City being interested in Shania’s photo that reminded her of a story she’d heard about her grandfather…

HALL: My grandfather, who, you know, was like the pillar of the family, he was like a medicine man. He was called like a morning crier. So he would sit on top of the hill and pray to the sun every morning.

DUNGY: …and a trip he took to New York City in 1913.

HALL: There's a funny story. So my grandfather was brought to New York as an advertisement. As, “Come to Montana. These are the Wild West Indians.”

DUNGY: The owner of a U.S. railroad company brought a group of 10 Blackfoot men and boys, including Shania’s grandfather, to New York City as an advertisement. This tycoon had lobbied for the creation of Glacier National Park, and he wanted to show off some of the sights that awaited passengers on his railroad if they'd come west. He organized a press conference…

HALL: And so, they brought their teepees as a billboard.

DUNGY: Held on the roof of a midtown hotel where he claimed the Blackfeet were staying instead of the rooms downstairs, because…

HALL: They felt so comfortable being in their teepees, they allowed them to set it up on top of a skyscraper.

Two black-and-white photographs from the early 1900s. At left, portrait of Chief 'Fish Wolf Robe' with a calm expression, wearing a feathered headdress and necklace with many strands of beads. At right, 11 indigenous people standing on an NYC building rooftop and pointing at their environs.

Left: Photograph of Shania's grandfather, Blackfoot Chief “Fish Wolf Robe.” Byron Company, Chief “Fish Wolf Robe,” 1913. Museum of the City of New York ( Right: The group on top of a New York City skyscraper. Arthur Vitols, Byron Company. [West from Hotel McAlpin 6th Ave. & 34th St.], 1913. Museum of the City of New York ( 1913)

DUNGY: It was a publicity stunt, but in an attempt to lure white folks west, Shania’s grandfather was brought to New York.

HALL: I kind of want to say history repeats itself.

DUNGY: Not long after her photo was chosen, Shania graduated from high school. And while so many commencement speeches talk about launching into an exciting life after school, full of possibilities, Shania’s life took a different turn.

HALL: My mom passed away. I was just in limbo. I didn't even know if I look back at it, I was just couch surfing with people I didn't know. I was homeless. Hitchhiking.

And then, somehow I found out my grandma passed away. And then, you know, after my grandma's funeral, that's when I found out, I got a phone call from someone that worked at The Met. She said, “Shania, we just want to let you know that we're going to have an exhibition here next month.”

“And we want to fly you and Scott Matthew out for a week, all expenses paid.” And I was already crying from the funeral, and then, an hour later I'm like, more bawling. And I felt like I had no one to be happy for me.

And I couldn't even be happy for myself.

DUNGY: A few weeks later Shania and Scott were in New York City and attending the opening reception for the exhibition.

HALL: And then it was like a Great Gatsby movie. Like everyone's dressed dapper. I felt so overwhelmed and everyone in that area was probably millionaires cause it's New York.

We got stopped by like five security guards, like, “Artists only. The exhibition doesn't start for another hour and we can't have people in here.” And Scott, very posh: “Well, if you want to know, this right here is one of the artists.” And at that time I was 18, but I probably looked like I was like 14, 15.

I was also one of the youngest artists there.

So they're all like, “Oh, well, okay.” And we're walking through marble statues getting escorted like VIP, and we're just passing all these like, old pieces.

Yeah, it was freaking crazy because where we walked down this corridor and Scott's all like, “Hey look, there's Van Gogh.”

I'm like, what? Van Gogh's over there. And you have this whole freaking area, just full of beautiful ancient buffalo hides and eagle headdresses and all this beautiful stuff.

DUNGY: And then she saw her photo.

HALL: I thought they were going to do a little tiny, like, I don't know…

DUNGY: For months, the Museum had been seamlessly combining and printing the polaroids Shania had taken.

HALL: I honestly didn't think it was going to be like 15 feet tall, and like 130 feet long.

DUNGY: Even taller than that. Enlarged and printed out as a series of three monumental panoramas, Shania’s images filled the room. Filled Shania's entire field of vision. The largest was 16 feet tall and almost 113 feet long.

Gallery view from Plains Indians. Indigenous artworks are displayed in glass cases against a wallpaper of blue clouds.

Views of Shania Hall's photography as installed in the exhibition The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. March 2015.

HALL: And they used it as space. They used it as space.

You gotta think, I'm homeless last week, and eating cheese at the bottom of statues like four days later.

Reality is behind me. You have all these expectations, and people wanting stuff from you, and then you're just standing there, looking at nothing. Space, space and hardship, hardship and rawness and…circumstances. And a month ago, two months ago, I remember being on that hill.

The picture, it was so beautiful, and blue, and emotional, and raw, and I'm really thankful that they used my story as the backdrop. Because behind that picture is a story. And it's a canvas for these other artifacts. 

Native American culture is so beautiful. I grew up around beadwork and regalia and powwows and traditional prayers and being a part of that. And then, when other people ask me, like, “Oh, what's the experience like?” It's just, if you're surrounded by that space 24/7, you don't get to appreciate it. Maybe if you're put into a different environment, then you come back to it. You can have a different sense of appreciation.

DUNGY: Walking through the exhibition, Shania saw something she recognized.

HALL: I was like, I know that from somewhere, but I can't, like, deep core memory. I know that.

DUNGY: It was the actual work by Jaune Quick-To-See Smith that she'd been shown as an 8-year-old in art class.

HALL: And I think that's kind of what has always stood out, like, Shania, what does this mean to you? Cause I'm still questioning that myself. What does this mean? Who are you? That experience, it’s kind of like, still haunting me.

DUNGY: Her work is still at The Met. A small part of her panoramic photo is currently on view. Look closely, and you’ll see the artist credit:

HALL: This little plaque, like the size of my phone. But, it's better than nothing. I'm so grateful. Photo taken by Shania R. Hall in Browning, Montana

DUNGY:Enrolled member of the Blackfeet tribe.

At left, in-gallery view of Shania Halls's photograph as wallpaper, in front of an installation of Gail Tremblay's baskets. At right, a close-up of the wall attribution for Shania.

View of Shania Hall's photography as installed in The American Wing, Art of Native America (Gallery 744). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. June 2024.

HALL: Just a little snippet of my life sitting in The Met.


DUNGY: Immaterial is produced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Magnificent Noise.

Our production staff includes Salman Ahad Khan, Ann Collins, Samantha Henig, Eric Nuzum, Emma Vecchione, Sarah Wambold, and Jamie York.

Additional staff includes Julia Bordelon, Skyla Choi, Maria Kozanecka, and Rachel Smith.

This season would not be possible without Andrea Bayer, Inka Drögemüller, and Douglas Hegley.

Sound design by Ariana Martinez and Kristin Mueller.

This episode includes original music composed by Austin Fisher.

Fact-checking by Mary Mathis and Claire Hyman.

Special thanks to Adwoa Gyimyah-Brempong.

Immaterial is made possible by Dasha Zhukova Niarchos. Additional support provided by the Zodiac Fund.

This episode would not have been possible without Associate Curator Brinda Kumar, artist Shania Hall, and artist Rachel Whiteread.

And special thanks to Exhibition Design Manager Dan Kershaw, Associate Curator of Native American Art Patricia Marroquin Norby, and Lawrence A. Fleischman Curator in Charge Sylvia Yount.

To see images of the artworks featured in this episode, visit The Met’s website at

I’m your host, Camille Dungy.

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