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In Helina Metaferia’s show at the MFA, an ‘army of women’ wear history on their heads

‘Generations’ weaves together protest, performance art, and stories of BIPOC activism through decades

A detail of Helina Metaferia's "Headdress 30," from 2021.Helina Metaferia

Everyone carries the histories of their ancestors in their DNA. In “Helina Metaferia: Generations,” at the Museum of Fine Arts, women of color wear their histories on their heads.

The show makes space for stories of BIPOC activism — including many stories that have been erased — and for the way they guide the living, settling in their bones.

This exhibition, organized by Michelle Millar Fisher, the museum’s curator of contemporary decorative arts, is the capstone to the artist’s traveling fellowship from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, which she was awarded in 2019. Metaferia, a multidisciplinary artist based in New York, received her master of fine arts from the school in 2015.

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Artist Helina Metaferia in her New York City studio preparing works for the exhibition "Helina Metaferia: Generations." Tommie Battle

“She respectfully involves people in [BIPOC activist] communities as collaborators in her art-making practice, asking them to share their ‘everyday revolutions’ — the ways they navigate and negotiate a world that tries to put barriers in their way,” Fisher writes in wall text.

The resulting artworks cast a net of kinship across space and time.

Last March, Metaferia gathered femme-identifying BIPOC students, staff, and faculty from several Boston-area universities to discuss connections between protest and performance art. She photographed participants. Here, she outfits each bold portrait with a collaged headdress patched together from scanned activist ephemera from Northeastern University Library’s Archives & Special Collections and Schlesinger Library at Harvard.

Like the best regalia, these majestic crowns are replete symbols and signifiers. They elevate their wearers to a realm beyond rulership, plugging them like shamans into the worlds of their ancestors. It is daring and must be humbling to wear the history of your people this way — people without whose sacrifices you would not be here.

“Headdress 30″ features a woman in a leather jacket and high-top sneakers. She wears a towering art piece feathered with news clips and photographs of civil rights protests of the 1960s and 1970s. One sign says “End Police Murders in the Black Community.”

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"Headdress 30" is a 2021 mixed-media collage by Helina Metaferia.Helina Metaferia

The black-and-white reproductions that make up the bulk of this enormous crown read like the murmurings of caution and encouragement from those who have gone before. But the artist fringes the headdress with red, yellow, and blue ribbons and flowers, which float down like bubbles and gather festively at the feet of the woman wearing it — tokens of hope and grace, even as the battle continues.

Metaferia calls these headdress collages part of her “army of women” — work that celebrates citizens moving the social justice agenda forward.

But what army of women came before? The history of BIPOC women activists is even more lost than that of men. And how do they carry on, not just in the DNA of their children and grandchildren, but in their actions and beliefs?

An intimate, stirring video, “The Call,” is at the heart of “Generations.” Metaferia brought together descendants of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and comedian and activist Dick Gregory at the home of sculptor Paula Whaley, who is writer and activist James Baldwin’s sister. These three generations of women — Whaley, Ayanna Gregory, Melani N. Douglass, and Asherah A. Douglass — sit side by side on a love seat, testifying about responsibility, bravery, and community.

They bring out treasured photos of Gregory’s wife, Lillian Estelle Gregory; Douglass’s wife, Anna Douglass; and Baldwin’s mother, Emma Berdis Jones, to share those women’s stories, and to talk about the legacy of Black activism.

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“We spent so much of our history where we had to be willing to die,” Melani Douglass says in the video. “I think now we’re at a point in our history where we have to be willing to live.”

Their conversation is almost incantatory. Gregory sings; Melani Douglass performs a spoken-word poem. Metaferia cuts the film with shots of the women with their eyes closed, then gazing directly at us. They visit a former slave port at Fells Point, Md., where they toss single-stem roses into the water. “The Call” plays out like a ritual, as much an invocation of ancestors as a documentary film.

In addition to filming and recording oral histories, Metaferia researched Black and brown liberation movements in the United States. While she uses documents from institutional archives, this show doesn’t have the musty scent of the back stacks about it. You can see the past pulsing in the veins of the living. Indeed, the strands of her own artistic forebears, Black feminist artists such as Faith Ringgold and Betye Saar, are in the genetic makeup of this artist’s work. She links past to present again in “The Woke,” an installation of protest signs. Some are archival, echoing slogans once carried by female-identified activists. Viewers may scan a QR code to contribute their own slogans. There’s a maternal tone to signs such as “WE ARE THE HUMAN FAMILY — CHECK YOUR COUSINS.”

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Installation view of "Helina Metaferia: Generations" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.Helina Metaferia

In the video “The Call,” Ayanna Gregory speaks with that same essential caring: “There is a life force that is timeless,” she says, “a life force coursing through all of us that goes back to love. To ‘I love me, and you, more than you hate me.’ And that alone is powerful enough to save the planet.”

That’s what Metaferia evokes in “Generations” — a life force, going back to love, that has powered oppressed people through the ages.

HELINA METAFERIA: GENERATIONS

At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through April 3. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Instagram @cate.mcquaid.