Courtesy of David Coulson

As part of the partial reinstallation of the Laura and James J. Ross Gallery of African Art at the Yale University Art Gallery, a series of photographs from the British Museum have been projected on the gallery’s stairwell. These photographs, which document African rock art sites, transform the space into a “modernist cave,” according to James Green, assistant curator of African art.

The photographs are the work of Kenyan photographer and rock art specialist David Coulson, who has worked for decades to document African rock art. Forty images selected from Coulson’s collections are projected on the Louis Kahn stairwell over a 30-minute loop. The rock art works captured by these photographs are part of an ancient art tradition and are particularly susceptible to natural and human-caused destruction.

“The whole vast concrete expanse becomes like a cave, and it’s really quite magical,” Green, who curated the display, said. “The color and the texture of the concrete kind of breaks through the image, and it gives a rock-like [appearance].”

The photographs are projected onto the convex exterior of the stairwell. Since the surface was not flat, perfectly white or smooth, projecting the images was challenging. Green and his team manipulated the photographs so they would look accurate to a viewer.

The virtual display of African rock art projected onto the Louis Kahn stairwell, Yale University Art Gallery, showing designer Cecilia Estanislao standing in front of A Cow and a Figure, Algeria, Illizi Province, Tassili n’Ajjer Plateau, Oued Djerat site, 10000 b.c.e.–300 c.e. (Courtesy of David Coulson)

In order to understand how the photographs could be modified, Green worked with Eric Lin, a faculty member at the Yale School of Drama and projections supervisor, and Cecilia Estanislao, a graphic designer at the YUAG. Together, the group experimented with the images several times.

According to Lin, some images required spatial manipulations in order to avoid pockmarks on the stairwell’s surface, while others had to be color-corrected to compensate for the off-white shade of the wall. To accommodate for the wall’s convex surface, Lin subjected each image to a process called “warping,” or “geometric projection.”

Though the team had hoped to include students in their project, the pandemic made this difficult. But Lin was pleased to have Erin Sims DRA ’21 on the programming behind the installation to help control various aspects of the photographs’ projection.

Sims used a software called “WATCHOUT” — a multi-display software for creating shows by coordinating different media elements — to connect the projected images with a program giving gallery educators control over the images. The projections change from one photograph to the next at a slow pace. Each photograph is accompanied by contextual information about its artwork.

“It’s very, very slow, so it feels almost mediative,” Green said. “The idea is that you could be in that space, and you could look at one thing and then you could look back, and it would still be on that image.”

Green noted that these photographs act as important documentation of sites and artworks that are vulnerable to disasters and often difficult for people to visit. Accessibility to these sites and artworks is limited due to political situations, land geography and private land ownership.

Because of environmental conditions and human interference, many of these artworks are also physically deteriorating. Some have already been destroyed in the time since Coulson photographed them.

Green said the photographs are also an important reminder that, though many African artworks have been taken — often forcibly or without consent — from their countries of origin, many works of African art remain in place.

“I just think it’s important for an African art display to remind people of the art that is still there,” Green said. “That there are extraordinary sites of cultural heritage across the continent. This is just one example.”

Annie Radillo |

Annie Radillo covers museums and visual art. She is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College majoring in English.