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MFA exhibit highlights women in activism

Helina Metaferia explores activist histories through film, collage and installation

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
MFA exhibit highlights women in activism
Installation view, “Helina Metaferia: Generations.” PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE ARTIST, © HELINA METAFERIA

“Helina Metaferia: Generations,” at the Museum of Fine Arts is the culmination of several years of the artist’s work and research in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) liberation movements. While traveling the country with support from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) at Tufts Traveling Fellows Program, Metaferia explored matrilineal inheritances in these movements. This exhibition, running through April 3, 2022, showcases the often-overlooked contributions of women in liberation work.

The show features three styles of artwork: a film titled “The Call,” which was the direct result of the fellowship; a series of collage works highlighting women in Boston and local activist history; and a participatory installation titled “By Way of Revolution.”

Installation view, “Helina Metaferia: Generations.” PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE ARTIST, © HELINA METAFERIA

For “The Call,” Metaferia traveled to Baltimore to meet with direct descendants of civil rights leaders throughout history. She gathered with Paula Whaley, James Baldwin’s sister; Ayanna Gregory, activist Dick Gregory’s daughter; and Melani Douglass and Asherah Douglass, descendants of Frederick Douglass. In the film and in the exhibition, highlighting the women in these movements is paramount.

“It was a day of song and storytelling and oral histories about the traditions of the matriarchs in their family,” says Metaferia. “That’s not what usually gets the attention of people who want to document history. So I’m bringing light to invisible labor, and a lot of that invisible labor is done by women.”

In the subjective narrative of history, BIPOC stories are often left by the wayside, and women of color experience that the most brutally. “Generations” creates a new archive that centers and celebrates their stories.

The collage series showcases photographs of BIPOC women from the nearby Fenway corridor educational institutions. The subjects wear collage crowns made of archived images from Boston’s civil rights history. “There’s something very regal about the women when they’re wearing the headdresses, but there’s also something very heavy about that burden of carrying so much history on their head,” says Metaferia.

“By Way of Revolution” is a much larger interactive installation project that ran first at the University of Michigan and then at Northeastern University in early 2020. In those iterations, Metaferia asked visitors to anonymously contribute how they participate in their communities and enact everyday revolutions. These responses have been mounted on protest signs and grouped together in an installation for the “Generations” exhibition.

The piece encourages visitors to consider their own contributions to this liberation work and to perhaps be energized by the work of others. A QR code on the curatorial text takes views to a page with additional stories.

“Generations” was meant to be launched at the MFA closer to the time of the Northeastern University show but was postponed due to COVID-19. After a year and a half of protests and pandemic, Metaferia feels Bostonians now are even more prepared to receive this work.

“I myself and many other Black women artists have been making work about these issues way before they became trendy or popular,” she says. “But I think that people are much more willing, both personally and professionally, to have difficult conversations. I think the world is a lot more ready.”

activism, arts, film, visual arts