EAST LANSING, Mich. — For artist Helina Metaferia, perhaps the most important part of her solo exhibition By Way of Revolution, at Michigan State University’s (SCENE) Metrospace, is a circle of folding chairs that stands in the middle of the space, visible to passers-by on the downtown sidewalk.
“The space is meant to be activated,” she said during a walkthrough of the gallery with Hyperallergic. “It’s a living exhibition that changes depending on who is in the space. So much about this show is about dialogue and the power of conversation.”
In some cases, the dialogue is literal, to be undertaken informally by people who enter the gallery space and feel entitled or invited to take a seat — which in and of itself is a kind of social survey, according to Metaferia — but the artist also took pains to schedule a host of events that invite groups to hold activities and conversations in the space, including the monthly meeting of the Black Student Union; a healing retreat by the NY-based group Harriet’s Apothecary; a performance workshop led by Metaferia; and a day of celebrating Black love, joy, and political power organized by Black Lives Matter Michigan. Metaferia’s objective is clear: to highlight this space as available to women of color (especially Black women) in East Lansing and to make the conversations they are having more visible to anyone who happens by.
But there are other kinds of conversations, as well. Near the gathering circle, Metaferia installed a “comment card” station, asking gallery visitors to answer a two-question survey about their definition of the word “revolution,” and what their everyday revolution looks like. She then selects among the responses and converts the pithiest into protest signs, an installation collectively titled The Woke (2019) that will continue to accumulate along the adjacent wall throughout the exhibition run. The rest of the gallery space is devoted to Metaferia’s film and collage works.
“As a creative practitioner, critical race studies is the study of race and how it can be analyzed, and because I’m not a scholar in the traditional sense,” she explained. “I use creative object-making, I use social experience, I use performance as a vehicle to construct and deconstruct the notions of race — as it exists in the US, and also from a diasporic perspective.”
The Call (2019) is a single-channel video work taped by Metaferia in Baltimore last year and completed during her time at MSU, where she is serving a year as a visiting assistant professor and artist in residence of critical race studies. Over a full academic year at MSU, Metaferia is given time and support to complete her own work, as well as being charged with the creation of public engagement and programming to help broaden conversation between students, faculty, and the wider community around race, art, and activism. This meshes nicely with Metaferia’s ongoing practice, which combines performance, drawing, writing, collage, and video.
The Call features four female subjects in a kind of conversation, all of whom are the blood relations of Black civil rights activists: Melani Douglass and her daughter Ashera (descendants of Frederick Douglass), Ayanna Gregory (daughter of comedian and activist Dick Gregory), and Paula Whaley (sister of author James Baldwin). Over the course of the 17-minute film, the Douglasses, Gregory, and Whaley reminisce not so much about their name-brand family members as the host of women that provided a support system in myriad unsung ways. There is an acknowledgment of the great men that fought to make progress on behalf of the Black community, but moreso an acknowledgment that a great deal of the emotional and practical labor of activism and social progress is made by women, and goes unrecognized.
Metaferia is of Ethiopian descent, and interested in protest movements throughout the diaspora. The final body of work bridges the ideas present in the conversation circle and gallery of protest signs, and notions of women carving out their own space within Black history and Black liberation. While at MSU, Metaferia made a short film titled The Bold (2019) which features footage of students and faculty members that are women of color posing with images of Black Panther newspapers and African liberation movement posters, shot during a workshop on the history of protest gestures, including standing, kneeling, and sitting. Along with the presentation of the 10-minute video, Metaferia created a series of altered still photographs of students and faculty, physically interspersing their images with collage elements from copies of archival protest materials and documentation. “Stand” (2019), “Sit” (2019), and “Kneel” (2019) all directly reference the workshop activities, and a second Headdress series picks up on the incorporation of traditional Ethiopian motifs in the collage portion of the gestural series, converting flocks of protesters, raised fists, and slogan-bearing signs into elaborate headdresses for three portraits of Metaferia’s female subjects.
The Critical Race Studies Residency Program is in its second year, bringing two artists per academic year to teach classes, work on their own projects, and create an exhibition; in addition to Metaferia, this year’s other resident is artist, designer, and educator Qais Assali. Assali’s solo show, Costume Party at the Moslem Temple, opened on March 15, with an artist lecture on the 20. The program is the brainchild of Karin Zitzewitz, interim chair of the Department of Art, Art History, and Design, who was offered an opportunity as interim chair to introduce the concept of the visiting post-doc, common in art history departments, to the fine art department.
“I’m a specialist in South Asian modern and contemporary art,” Zitewitz said in a brief interview with Hyperallergic, preceding an artist talk by Metaferia at MSU’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, “so I’ve been engaged in thinking about widening the canon and thinking about the barriers to widening the canon for the entirety of my professional career … But what’s interesting is that this is the first time a bunch of people have said yes [to a position of this nature in the fine arts]. I think the whole university recognizes that the creative arts are an enormously important area to think about the world, and that this was a chance to do that.”
Meanwhile, the crowd gathering for Metaferia’s artist talk has eclipsed the number of available chairs — students and other visitors crowd into the lecture space and spill out into the cafe. It’s clear that she is providing something that students in East Lansing are looking for, whether it’s guidance in the direction of a broader perspective, or simply space to connect with something that’s been there all along.