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  • Writer's pictureKeiley Thompson

Helina Metaferia: We Are Here, We've Been Here

The Ethiopian-American artist Helina Metaferia (she/her) works with collage, assemblage, video, performance, and social engagement to amplify BIPOC femme narratives overlooked by the white male gaze. Metaferia’s inconspicuous childhood scribbles have now transformed into a thriving career in the arts. After exploring painting in high school, she received a bachelor’s degree in painting from Morgan State and an MFA from Tufts University, where she found her calling in performance and video. Now, she is an assistant professor at Brown University and an artist-in-residence at Silver Art Projects at the World Trade Center in New York City. Metaferia and I discussed her recent public installation, We’ve Been Here Before commissioned by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum, which examines Brown University and RISD museum archives of resistance movements that have taken place on campus from the ‘60s to the early ‘90s. The collaged vinyl murals connect contemporary local activist femmes and historical resources. We've Been Here Before is a part of the larger series By Way of Revolution. The overarching, interdisciplinary research project creates space for discussions about the role BIPOC femmes played in protest and progress. In past exhibitions, Metaferia asked visitors, what is your everyday revolution? Metaferia and I discuss how We’ve Been Here is a part of her everyday revolution.


Helina Metaferia, We've Been Here Before at RISD Museum, Interior. Courtesy of the artist.

We've Been Here Before combines historical resources from Brown and RISD archives with contemporary local figures to create collages relating to identity and protest. How do the collages speak to that dialogue between time periods?


My collages are very dense. There's also a bibliography that accompanies that. I'm very interested in crediting. That's the scholarly side of me: giving credit to those who––as much as I can, as much as a library could provide to the documenters and the newspapers––that were around and to point people back to public collection. What the work does is say, ‘Hey, this is what's in the public domain, these are the people in your community.’ Coupling all of these things together, we can sense that there's a lot more information out there than what has been archived.


It was also important for me to have the work archived, so the original collages are now in the permanent collection of the RISD museum. I want look back at the archive and think about what I can contribute, what's in the public domain, who's present here in 2022 taking up space in the Brown-RISD community and reflective of our current moment that we're in, and what are we responding to, so when people look back 30 years from now, or 40 years from now, there is a recollection that we are here, we've been here. That's the nature of the project.


Who and what shapes our past? How does the past inform our present and our future?

There's our personal past, and there's our collective historical past. Embodied knowledge systems––the knowledge that gets stored in our DNA, the knowledge that gets stored in our memory––is equally as important as the information that we read in books or that gets archived in a library. I'm interested in accessing that knowledge, whether that's intuition or body based practices that allow for an experiential moment.


They say, knowledge is power, and I totally agree with that. I’m arming an army of women that I'm building through these collages with information and with power so that they can make a better choice for themselves. When women benefit, and heal, we kind of heal others, and it's just something that we've been socialized to do. This is part of our nature. It's a part of how we take up space.


I started this project By Way of Revolution, when my mother passed away in 2016. She was a women's rights activist. I was thinking a lot about legacy and wanting to connect to her stories and her service. This came from a very personal place for me, but in the personal, there's always something that's global: turning personal grief into universal connection. Because we all have family that we may have lost, we all have matriarchs that we may have lost, we are searching for their stories and for the stories of others. My niece was in my last performance. She inherited it: I gave her the performance. I gave her the stories of my grandmother, my mother, and she told me her stories. There was this dialogue and exchange. Intergenerational sharing as a survival tool is very important to me.


Your work investigates the complexities of history and institutionalized oppression. Although you went to the HBCU Morgan State, attending Tufts and now working at Brown, how have you and do you navigate and assert your self in historically and actively white supremacist spaces? ​​


A lot of my work is a response to my experiences navigating predominately white spaces, which I had more experience in after graduate school. I was in a more diverse space growing up.

When I went to graduate school, I was 30 years old. I moved to Boston without having visited Boston before. I didn't know the history of segregation in Boston. They desegregated their last school districts in 1974 and ’76. I felt the effect of that decades later in the way that the city continues to act with these microaggressions and sometimes overt gestures of racism.


I was in school right when Black Lives Matter was picking up from 2013 to 2015. There was a cultural and national awareness that was starting to heighten, starting with hashtags and social media, and then marches, demonstrations, and responses to police brutality. I was thinking about survival. I knew I wanted to be an artist. I knew I wanted to make space for myself within the institution, but I'm very aware that these institutions were not designed for people that look like me that are not gendered like me that do not racially identify as I do. If they were designed for heterosexual, cis-gendered, white men in certain era, what needs to shift? What needs to give?


We're talking about this when the Supreme Court is rethinking Affirmative Action within institutions. Had it not been for a program that helped boost artists of color or academics within academia, I wouldn't be here as a professor. The ability that you and I are able to have this conversation right now, with links to a predominately white institution, is because of a lot of labor, protests, resistance movements, policy, advocacy, and activism that has happened over generations. That's what my work looks at. It looks at everyone that allows you and me to take up space here and why those liberties should not be taken for granted, because at any point, they could be overturned.


How does We've Been Here Before exemplify how you navigate predominantly white institutions (PWIs)?


I wanted to see what was archived, what wasn't archived; there's always a lack in what's represented. I'm interested in that lack, particularly around the representation of women, both cis and trans. I had this workshop last year. It was open to Brown and RISD students, faculty and staff, who identify as BIPOC and femme. From there, I selected four to be a part of the college.


I'm interested in reclaiming image, reclaiming the spectacle. Reclaiming images is a way activists have historically countered the media and the media's depiction of their movements.



Helina Metaferia, We've Been Here Before at RISD Museum, Exterior. Courtesy of the artist.

Public art reaches vast audiences. What is the intentionality behind having these art pieces in public space?


I'm really interested in the meeting place of a space, so that could be a church, a community center, a street corner, a public park, and in some cases, a cafe at an institution. These are the places where people gather to maybe to Kiki and have fun, but also to share ideas exchanged, communicate, and potentially begin a revolution.


Meeting spaces also can be considered very dangerous. In times of captivity, or enslavement, those spaces were essentially monitored. As we know, individually, we can feel very weak, but when we bind together––this is why I love the idea of a protest as a symbolic but also actual point of change–we can achieve much more.


We’ve Been Here Before creates space for BIPOC femmes–– who you mention are typically overlooked despite their essential contribution to care politics and activist labor. What is the role of Black femmes in our society, and who does the labor of liberation?


We've always been a part of keeping this country honest. Within this context of this country, our voice, our labor, our bodies have not had as much agency as it pertains to progress, but we've always been a part of upholding democracy in this country. We can allow for a reckoning with the contradictions that inherently exist. Being the moral compass of a whole nation state is a heavy burden. I am hoping that we will advance and grow to the point where we don't have to carry that burden alone. We do it because it doesn't serve us. We protect Black men through our efforts. It's not always returned in terms of the same amount of people who rally for our rights.


sMy hope is that people are willing to get uncomfortable. It will take certain people to not just listen to stories made by artists, but to let go of some of the privileges that they have received, through no effort of their own but simply by what they've inherited:essentially an ask of compassion. I do have a little bit of a concern that, can we really have that level of selfless compassion in the state of capitalism? Because ultimately, there's greed embedded within that economic structure. And so maybe the answer is a different economic structure that allows for some sort of inherently like, the ability to look at our humanity, rather than as this extractive force for labor and for accumulation. But how do we move forward as Black femmes I feel? To do less honestly, to do less and receive more. That's my, that's my goal for us.


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