Helina Metaferia Honors Black Women’s Activist Legacies Through Collage and Performance

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Ayanna Dozier

Portrait of Helina Metaferia in studio with Headdress 28, Headdress 29, Y headdress 30 in 2021. © Helina Metaferia. Photo by Tommy Battle III. Courtesy of Helina Metaferia.

Helina Metaphere links the personal stories of black womanhood to broader legacies of social justice through collage, photography, and video. Her work embodies and shifts the feminist mantra from the personal is political to the intimate is political. “I was drawn to research and collage for the healing it has done for my own legacies of grief, but also for its ability to heal social ills like racism, sexism, classism, and patriarchy,” Metaferia said in an interview with Artsy.

His solo exhibition “Generations” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was supposed to open in the fall of 2020, but was rescheduled for November 2021 due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The delayed opening gave Metaferia time to research and incorporate the history of Boston social activism into the exhibition, which runs through April 11. In conjunction with “Generations,” Metaferia’s solo show “All Together” will premiere, running through April 17 at the Praise Shadows Art Gallery in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. Both exhibitions feature new work that builds on and extends her practice of creating collaged portraiture from archival materials.

Helina Metaphere, headdress 28, 2021. © Helina Metaferia. Courtesy of the artist.

Helina Metaphere, headdress 29, 2021. © Helina Metaferia. Courtesy of the artist.

Helina Metaphere, headdress 30, 2021. © Helina Metaferia. Courtesy of the artist.

On display at MFA Boston, Metaferia’s “By Way of Revolution” series (2018-present) attends to the politics of work and care practiced by Black, Indigenous, and women of color in activist stories. Each collage is a composite portrait of a contemporary artist or activist made from historical records and archival photographs of specific social movements in the city or practice of the figure represented. Metaferia builds a tapestry of relationships that give these women a visual genealogy of their social existence.

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Through collage, the artist literally weaves together women of color across time to create an intergenerational exchange of care and activist work. By emphasizing the crown of her head, Metapheria elevates her figures as sacred, ancestral, and regal while she centers her hair as a source of empowerment and divinity. Metapheria views these portrait collages as building an army of women and refuses to stop the creation until women of color are freed from systemic oppression.

Helina Metaferia, installation view of the willing, 2022, in “All Put Together” at Praise Shadows Art Gallery, 2022. Photo by Helina Metaferia. Courtesy of Praise Shadows Art Gallery.

The series originates from the passing of Metaferia’s mother in 2016. In her mourning, Metaferia began to use performance, archives, inherited objects, and photography as a way to bring her mother’s legacy into the present. Metaferia’s mother, Maigenet Shifferraw, was a political organizer who worked for women’s rights to end child marriages, free Ethiopian political prisoners, and much more. Shifferraw and Metaferia’s father, Getachew Metaferia, a teacher, came to the United States to attend school with the intention of returning to Ethiopia, but the outbreak of the Ethiopian Civil War in 1974 made this impossible. In a catalog interview with “Generations” curator Michelle Millar Fisher, Metaferia explained that her parents would likely have faced imprisonment due to their professions as activists and educators. Metaferia’s roots in activism lie in her parents’ displacement from Ethiopia and her organizing in Washington, DC, where they eventually moved and Metaferia was born and raised.

Metaferia’s balance between the personal and the political within social spaces is evident in the video installation. The answer (2021), featured on “All Put Together,” which follows Metaferia’s spring 2021 participatory workshop with Black, Indigenous, and people of color living in Boston. Specifically, highlighting women and non-binary people in social movements, the event was a continuation of the participatory performance workshops that Metaferia organizes, in which it uses institutional space and critique as a way to repair the damage inflicted on women of color within those spaces.

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Helina Metaferia, installation view of “All Put Together”, at Praise Shadows Art Gallery, 2022. Photo by Will Howcroft. Courtesy of Praise Shadows Art Gallery.

In The answer, we see the Boston workshop participants name themselves first as a sentiment, before presenting their chosen name to the camera. Then they cite an ancestral figure with whom they walk and conclude with what they represent politically and socially. The three-minute video installation weaves these introductions into a spoken word piece played against the backdrop of the “typical” sound of the revolution, chants and drums. The work combines intimacy with protest to create a cut that shifts audience perceptions of protest from its larger symbols to the personal and everyday.

To create the new collage portraits featured in “Generations,” Metaferia took photographs of workshop participants and spent four months researching the history of activism against black, indigenous, and people of color oppression at Harvard University and the Northeastern University. Metaferia draws attention to the institutional structures that underpin their practice by redistributing inaccessible and closed stories to broader audiences. She reflects the emotional and physical labor of the women in her studies through archival work. This is made readable to the public not only through the accumulation of specific stories on view, but also through the list of citations that Metaferia makes available for each portrait of her. She describes this practice as a way to “demystify work through these activist and artist production narratives.”

Helina Metaferia, installation view of “The Woke”, 2021, in “Generations” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2021. Photo by Helina Metaferia. Courtesy of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The attentive archival and activist work seen in Metaferia’s practice is procedural, ritual-like. She links this method as part of her nationality with her hyphen. “I’m interested in the Ethiopian archives and relics that are intermediaries, as a lot of healing can be accomplished with work that can be activated in the process,” said Metaferia. In this way, her collages, performances, and video installations by her function as activated relics within an institution and restore the autonomy of her form.

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Metaferia’s work is not limited solely to documents but to the materialization of various ephemera related to activism and the family. We see this clearly in “The Woke” (2019-present), a series of participatory protest poster installations that transforms each time it is installed. Attendees can contribute to the work by scanning a QR code and responding to the prompt: “What’s your daily revolution?” Metaferia curates the responses and uses typography and color to create signs that deliberately evoke the aesthetics of signs from a variety of mid-20th century protests. She purposefully aestheticizes the slogans to ensure her occupation as an “object of art” is maintained, which speaks to her and her BFA’s formal training in painting. Metaferia received the MFA from her in interdisciplinary art at Tufts University.

Portrait of striking Boston Museum of Fine Arts workers with copied versions of Helina Metaferia’s “The Woke,” 2021. Photo by Jess Silverman.

Helina Metaphere, headdress 36, 2022. © Helina Metaferia. Courtesy of the artist.

Last November, “The Woke” was activated at MFA Boston in support of museum staff’s efforts to unionize. They contacted Metaferia, which supports their cause, to download installation posters for their march. Metaferia described this transaction as a story of the trust it builds with the communities in which it works. Her approach is based on the “move at the speed of trust” mantra of Wide Awakes, a collective of cultural producers of which Metaferia is a participant. , which uses performance as a method of political projection. This ethos allows Metaferia to decenter the individual and move towards a collective practice.

The memory of Maigenet Shifferraw looms large in Metaferia’s practice, as the artist enacts a policy of care for her subjects and objects that is attentive to their stories. In doing so, Metaferia creates a space through her art that gives new generations legacies by which they can belong and ultimately be remembered.

Ayanna Dozier

Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s staff writer.

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