In Helina Metaferia’s MFA Show, ‘Army of Women’ Wears History on Their Heads

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Artist Helina Metaferia in her New York studio is preparing works for the exhibition “Helina Metaferia: Generations”. Tommie battle

“She respectfully involves people in [BIPOC activist] communities as collaborators in her artistic practice, asking them to share their “daily revolutions” – the way they navigate and negotiate a world that tries to put barriers in their way, ”Fisher writes in the text on the wall.

The resulting works of art cast a net of kinship across space and time.

Last March, Metaferia brought together BIPOC students, staff and faculty from several Boston-area universities to discuss the links between protest and performance art. She photographed the participants. Here, she dresses each daring portrait with a glued headdress assembled from digitized activist ephemera from the Northeastern University Library Archives and special collections and Schlesinger Library at Harvard.

Like the best badges, these majestic crowns are filled symbols and signifiers. They elevate their carriers to a realm beyond rulership, plugging them as shamans into the worlds of their ancestors. It is bold and must be demeaning to carry the story of your people in this way – people without whose sacrifices you would not be here.

“Headdress 30” features a woman with a generous afro in a leather jacket and high top sneakers. She carries an imposing piece of art adorned with news clips and photographs of civil rights protests from the 1960s and 1970s. A sign reads “End Police Killings in the Black Community”.

"Headdress 30" is a multimedia collage from 2021 by Helina Metaferia.
“Headdress 30” is a 2021 multimedia collage by Helina Metaferia.Helina Metaferia

The black and white reproductions that make up the bulk of this enormous wreath read like the whispers of caution and encouragement from those who came before it. But the artist bangs the headdress with ribbons and red, yellow, and blue flowers, which float like bubbles and festively gather at the feet of the woman wearing it – signs of hope and grace, then. let the battle continue.

Metaferia calls these hairstyle collages part of its “Women’s Army” – work that celebrates citizens advancing the social justice agenda.

But what army of women has come before? The history of BIPOC activists is even more lost than that of the men. And how do they continue, not only in the DNA of their children and grandchildren, but in their actions and beliefs?

An intimate and moving video, “The Call”, is at the heart of “Generations”. Metaferia brought together descendants of abolitionists Frédéric douglass and actor and activist Dick Gregory with sculptor Paula Whaley, writer and activist that of James Baldwin sister. These three generations of women – Whaley, Ayanna Gregory, Melani N. Douglass and Asherah A. Douglass – sit side by side on a loveseat, witnessing responsibility, bravery and community.

They bring out valuable photos of Gregory’s wife, Lillian Estelle Gregory; Douglass’ wife, Anna Douglass; and Baldwin’s mother, Emma Berdis Jones, to share the stories of these women and talk about the legacy of black activism.

“We spent a lot of our history where we had to be prepared to die,” says Melani Douglass in the video. “I think now we are at a point in our history where we have to be prepared to live.”

Their conversation is almost incantatory. Grégoire sings; Melani Douglass performs a spoken poem. Metaferia cuts the film with shots of the women with their eyes closed, then looking directly at us. They visit a former slave port in Fells Point, Maryland, where they throw single-stemmed roses into the water. “The Call” plays out like a ritual, as much an invocation of ancestors as a documentary film.

In addition to filming and recording oral histories, Metaferia has researched black and brown liberation movements in the United States. While it uses institutional archival material, this show doesn’t have the musty smell of back stacks. You can see the past pounding through the veins of the living. Indeed, the strands of his own artistic ancestors, black feminist artists such as Gold Faith Ring and Betye Sarre, are in the genetic makeup of this artist’s work. She again connects the past to the present in “The Woke”, an installation of protest panels. Some are archival, echoing slogans once worn by activists identified as women. Viewers can scan a QR code to add their own slogans. There is a motherly tone to signs such as “WE ARE THE HUMAN FAMILY – CHECK YOUR COUSINS”.

Installation view of "Helina Metaferia: Generations" at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Installation view of “Helina Metaferia: Generations” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.Helina Metaferia

In the video “The Call”, Ayanna Gregory speaks with the same essential focus: “There is a life force that is timeless,” she says, “a life force that runs through each of us and comes back to love. To ‘I love myself, and you, more than you hate me.’ And that alone is powerful enough to save the planet.

This is what Metaferia talks about in “Generations” – a life force, which comes down to love, which has fueled oppressed people through the ages.

HELINA METAFERIA: GENERATIONS

At the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., until April 3. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org


Cate McQuaid can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on twitter @cmcq.



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