Last night, a star-studded crowd trickled into the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its annual gala beneath a gargantuan chandelier made of what appeared to be plastic water bottles. After the event took place, several members of the art community noticed suspicious similarities between the chandelier and the plastic works of American artist Willie Cole.
The controversy has taken place online, where supporters of Cole have accused the Met Gala of plagiarism.
The curator Ellen Hawley, who has previously worked with Cole, wrote on Instagram: “Willie’s work is on display at the Met and the second-floor Mezzanine store sells many of his prints and home décor. Interestingly, Willie wasn’t asked to be involved to collaborate on this installation, nor asked for his permission to use the likeness of his art … The fashion and art worlds face copycat challenges all the time. This seems like a blatant copy – at the Met of one of their exhibiting artists.”
Cole is a New Jersey–born sculptor whose work has been widely exhibited, including at the Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana. Among his works on view at the Met is Shine (2007), an assemblage of black women’s shoes that form the shape of a man’s head. The face, heavy-lidded and intensely focused, deliberately recalls 19th- and 20th-century masks from Cameroon.
Cole weighed in on the chandelier controversy earlier today in a blistering Instagram post. “I’ve been receiving message[s] since last night about the blatant rip off of my water bottle works,” he wrote. “I agree.”
He added: “Is this flattery or thievery?”
At the time of publication, the post had garnered nearly 500 likes. Among the prominent art figures to demonstrate their support of his statements were artists Michele Pred and Pamela Council, as well as curator Jasmine Wahi.
Though most lauded for his sculptures, Cole’s practice spans prints, sculpture, drawings, and photography. Over the past 20 years, he has had three touring survey exhibitions that visited institutions across the world. Throughout, wide-ranging materials are used to explore social and political matters, in particular the intersections of race, African artistic traditions, and history.
Cole created Spirit Catcher and Lumen-less Lantern, two large-scale chandeliers made of water bottles strung together with metal wire, as a statement on the water crisis in Newark, New Jersey, and the planet’s plastic reliance.
“We have a water bottle crisis and a water crisis in general,” Cole wrote on his website. “Plastic is killing the environment, and lead pipes have impacted big cities around the country, including in Newark. Making a public structure draws attention and makes people ask questions, which can lead to conversation and potential solutions.”
Both works are on view at Express Newark, where Cole is this year’s artist-in-residence, as part of the institution’s “Aliveness” series.
Tadao Ando, designer of the exhibition that the gala launched, “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty,” also created the chandelier. Event planner Raul Àvila told Vogue that every water bottle used was recycled. “Given today’s climate, we wanted to highlight the importance of giving our everyday items more than one life cycle,” he said. “We wanted to find a way to create a sustainable design that would implement the bottles in a breathtaking installation unlike anything we’ve done before.”
Cole and a Met representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.