By Chloe Pingeon
The social message of Generations is powerful and clear: it’s time to be AWAKE + OUTRAGED.
Glass doors lead to a space of white walls, bright lighting and black text. To the left of the doors, the title of the show, Helina Metaferia: Generations(until April 3, 2022, at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts) is adorned with bold black lettering. On the right, a small label occupies a white wall. It reads THANKS. Below the title, text in italics explains that each exhibition is the result of collaboration, care and shared work. In this way, Metaferia pays tribute to those whose work has gone into all facets of the project. On its Instagram account, Metaferia points to the value of these acts of recognition, suggesting that artists are called upon to pay tribute to all the work and the voices of those who contributed to the realization of their creations. In the gallery, the “Acknowledgements” wall tag is small, to the point that it might be easy to miss at first glance. And yet it makes an emphatic statement – standing alone, the sole occupant of a large white wall.
Given the themes of this exhibition, Metaferia’s acknowledgments take on a visionary significance. Generations is dedicated to celebrating the overlooked impact of women of color, whose accomplishments have historically been downplayed or ignored. She is particularly interested in how activists have shaped (and are shaping) the future. Part of Metaferia’s moral/political/aesthetic stance is to ensure that her work does not contribute to the silence she criticizes in her art. On the show, she credits everyone she can, to the point that she notes names that are missing, names that MFA wouldn’t let her include in the acknowledgments. Obviously, there is still work to be done.
Metaferia is a New York-based interdisciplinary artist, one of many who work across mediums as they explore an interest in interrogating the body’s relationship with place and identity. In the past, she has used live performances to honor themes of heritage and physicality. Naturally, Metaferia’s work has strong ties to ancestry and lived experience. In her show at the MFA, Metaferia moves with comfortable fluidity between disciplines. Three large rectangular photographic portraits line the first wall of the gallery. They are part of the “Headdress Series” (2021): the models were female students and professors chosen from universities in the Boston area. The women wear a mix of streetwear and bright colors and their bodies are drawn on white canvases. Each female stands on a bed of glued flowers, the first tier orange, the next pink and white, the third yellow and blue. Each woman wears a headdress that, at first glance, pays a coordinated homage to the colors of the flowers on which they stand. A closer examination, however, reveals that the headdresses are made up of newspaper clippings, photos of figures in protest. The raised fist characteristic of the Black Lives Matter movement is prominent on a headdress; another features, in pink bubble letters, the words AWAKE + OUTAGED. These headdresses are crowns, their images pasted from the BIPOC release archives. Metaferia views every woman of color as an activist: the weight of the past and the potential for change hangs over their heads.
On the other side of the gallery, “THE WOKE” (2021) is assembled. A series of black and gray panels are mounted on staggered wooden sticks against a white background. Metaferia has engaged in interactive crowdsourcing of past solo exhibitions and this installation is the result. She posed the question “What’s your daily revolution” for an answer online. The protest signs on display were inspired by the responses. MAKE CHANGES MAKE WAVES, reads one of the signs in the center of the room. Behind, in gray letters on a black background, hang the words HISTORY IS STILL. At the top of the wall, to the right – hung behind vague calls for change that occupy the central space – are more concrete calls to action. ABOLISH CAPITALISM is written in white characters on a small black canvas. REPAIRS REPAIRS REPAIRS is written in different shades of gray and black on a light gray background. Almost hidden behind the messages in front: WE NEED SECURITY TO GROW. Resting on the floor in the far left corner, on a large canvas shimmering in silver, are the words I AM THE ANCESTORS TO WALK WITH ME.
Looking at these panels, you will hear the sound of THE CALL, a film directed by Metaferia. It’s a cross-generational story that looks at the lives of four women who were descendants of powerful civil rights leaders – Dick Gregory, Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin. The female story is finally told. George Michael’s song “Star People” can be heard in the background. “It’s time for you to do what you came to do” sings a woman’s voice. A little girl is then heard echoing the words of the woman. This combination continues – every lyric of “Star People” is sung, first confidently by the woman, then by a child whose voice is tinged with wonder, excitement and hope. “My dad always said the most important force is the black woman’s voice / It’s time for us to be what we were born to be, not taught to be,” the woman asserts. The social message of Generations is powerful and clear: it’s time to be AWAKE + OUTRAGED.
Chloe Penguin is a rising senior at Boston College studying film and journalism. She wrote regularly for the articles and arts section of Boston College’s independent student newspaper. Heights, and also wrote for the culture section of Lithium charger. She is currently a creative development intern at Foundation Films.