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Myth, monsters and multitudes fuel Hakeem Adewumi’s photographic installation at the Gardner Museum

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Myth, monsters and multitudes fuel Hakeem Adewumi’s photographic installation at the Gardner Museum
“Hakeem Adewumi: Possession of A Recalcitrant Dream, 2024” on the Anne H. Fitzpatrick Façade at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. IMAGE: ARTIST RENDERING, COURTESY ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM

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In “Possession of A Recalcitrant Dream,” Hakeem Adewumi’s photographic installation on the exterior of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, myth, monsters and identity merge. From a reclining nude body, the multiple sharp-toothed heads of a hydra emerge, mouths open and fangs bared. But unlike in the Greek myths of the hydra, this monster isn’t the villain.

The hydra is a regenerative creature: When one head is cut off, another appears, and in some stories 10 or more might appear after one is severed. This historically has been positioned as a challenge for whichever generic hero (Hercules, for example) is battling the monster. But Adewumi latches onto this concept as a way of recognizing that no matter the challenges faced, people and communities can grow back stronger than ever.

“The hydra is also connected to my desire to express reckoning with the fact that trans people, specifically Black trans women, are murdered quite often by men who also desire them,” says Adewumi. “So this is very dangerous threshold of desire and violence.”

Hakeem Adewumi, Possession of A Recalcitrant Dream, 2024. PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

This creature lives in the tension between worlds and ideas —desire and violence, life and death, beauty and horror. In Greek mythology, the hydra guards the door to the underworld, leaving its perch only occasionally to wreak havoc on neighboring villages. This association with death and the underworld is intended to be frightening, but once again Adewumi reframes this perspective.

“My interpretation, and the interpretation of many folks of color from around the world, is the underworld is a very sacred place,” says Adewumi. “It’s not necessarily hell, where people go to burn for eternity, but a place where we bury the dead and honor them.” Viewed in that way, the hydra is doing almost a spiritual duty guarding the souls of our ancestors.

In this self-portrait at the Gardner Museum, the hydra replaces Adewumi’s head with its own, multiple heads. Here the artist resists being seen as a singular person with a singular identity and explores what it might be like to hold multiple facets at the same time and to air the hidden components of oneself that are often stuffed into a more societally acceptable box.

This installation is shown in tandem with “On Christopher Street: Transgender Portraits by Mark Seliger” and “Portraits from Boston, With Love,” two additional photographic exhibitions inside the museum that explore queer and trans experiences locally in Boston and on Christopher Street in the West Village of New York City.

Adewumi is a Texas-based Nigerian photographer and creative director as well as the director of marketing and communications for The Theater Offensive, a Boston-based theater company that addresses issues facing queer and trans people of color.

Though Adewumi has been entranced by mythology since childhood, he has rarely explored it in his work. He says this piece may be the catalyst for a new thematic exploration in his art. Mythological themes are everywhere in the Gardner Museum, where Adewumi was an artist-in-residence in July 2023. It was these small symbols, tucked into the gilded ornamentation on a mirror or tiled into the garden floor, that caught the artist’s attention.

“Possession of A Recalcitrant Dream,” on the exterior façade of the Gardner Museum, is accessible and viewable to all, free of charge, seven days a week.

“It really is about relation to other people,” says Adewumi, “and how that relationship can be disrupted because of the thought patterns that we’ve been conditioned to create about other people, especially in a way that feels like there’s a clear boundary between us.”