Harvard University Graduate School of Design visitors to the neighboring Science Center building may encounter a familiar face upon entry. A series of portraits by recent graduate Annie Liang (MLA '18) depicting GSD and other Harvard facilities staff is on view through the end of November for the show Harvard Works 2.0.
Originally conceived for the course “Painting for Designers” led by Ewa Harabasz, Liang's project recognizes a part of Harvard that is absolutely essential but often operates out of public view. “While the GSD has empowered me to develop my own voice and identity, I saw the opportunity to address issues of inclusion and diversity from within,” says Liang. “By recognizing a normally invisible portion of the social landscape that make up the daily life of Harvard, I aim to recognize all staff that support us, seemingly unconditionally.”
Subjects are presented in three-quarter view, their gaze aimed directly at the viewer. “The confrontational view of each worker highlights the dignity and honor these individuals carry; giving voice and value,” states Liang in the exhibition text. Each figure is presented in a single color while the backgrounds depict various building materials found around Harvard—brick, stucco, Gund Hall's iconic concrete walls. Through an overlay, the background textures permeate the figures, illustrating how integral each worker is to Harvard as well as how their work often fades into the background.
Liang initially painted the portraits with acrylic on unstretched, unprimed canvas meant to be attached to the walls of Gund Hall. She later moved to oils and square, stretched canvas frames when she decided to expand upon her project through an Independent Study. Three of the portraits were completed in the fall of 2017, during which time Liang, who had little experience painting before enrolling in Harabasz's course, was still honing her technique. The remaining five were completed the following summer.
Along with each painting, Liang provides text from interviews she conducted with her subjects about their work at Harvard and their immigrant experiences. Doris Landaverde, a custodian at Harvard's Extension School and mother of three, shares her fears about living in America today. She and her husband are “extremely concerned for their family's living situation as Trump's decision to terminate Temporary Protected Status for El Salvadorian citizens could result in Doris' deportation,” states the text under the portrait of a woman with a warm smile. In response to her concerns, Landaverde has become active in the local movement to achieve permanent residency for TPS holders and their families, and is an elected shop steward of her her union, SEIU Local 32BJ.
The exhibition ends with a recent New York Times article on employment at Harvard. “Harvard Is Vaulting Workers Into the Middle Class With High Pay. Can Anyone Else Follow Its Lead?” asks the article's title. The feature profiles a range of University employees, including Landaverde.
After November 30, the show—which was sponsored in part by the Dean's Diversity Initiative and Dr. John Silvanus Wilson, Jr., senior adviser and strategist, Office of the President, Harvard University—is looking for a new venue. “I'm hoping to use [the paintings] as a platform to raise awareness of the political protests going on within the Harvard community as related to larger issues on immigration, such as protecting TPS families,” says Liang.
During the exhibition's opening reception, some of the Harvard workers portrayed were in attendance along with their families. Guests mingled, taking selfies and group shots with the portraits. Jeanne Jeanlouise, a custodian at the GSD and an immigrant from Haiti, smiled as her image loomed over visitors. “She is grateful when she sees her painting, to know that her position as a custodian is valued,” states its accompanying text.