Black female-presenting bodies stand proud before an indefinite background. They strike poses associated with figures of power and wear crown-like headpieces. Getting closer to the images, one recognizes that they stand on flourishing soil; the headwear a patchwork of figures, slogans, and forms celebrating Black history. They ground power in collective actions and forms of community empowerment that make up the decolonial struggle. These images are part of the series By Way of Revolution (2018–ongoing) by the Ethiopian-American artist Helina Metaferia.
Her interdisciplinary, research-based practice interrogates histories of institutionalized and systemic oppression, and considers her community’s everyday revolutions throughout the artistic process. Weaving together archival and social knowledge, written and oral archives, dialogical art, and somatic practices, she tells stories that center BIPOC and femme voices and bodies. The artist also examines the intersection of art and ritual through performances that activate and infuse her works with greater depth and meaning. Challenging the Eurocentrism of art historical canons, amplifying the labor of BIPOC women activists, and evaluating notions of citizenship in the context of forced migration, Metaferia seeks to elucidate the contradictions at the core of American identity.
In the frame of Sharjah Biennial 15, Metaferia presents The Call (2019), a film documenting video performances by the descendants of celebrated American civil rights leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Dick Greggory, and James Baldwin. Through a combination of song, spoken word, and sculptural works, these performances espouse more active and enduring social solidarity in an era defined by rising racial tensions and violence against Black bodies. Wearing tapestries that echo the African-American tradition of quilting, and activating photographs and sculptures, such as Crown (Sheba) (2023), the trio circulate a handmade brass crown, inscribed with archival etchings, as the narratives unfold. The works evoke the aesthetic of royalty as a symbol of triumph within a society rife with racialized and gendered injustice.
In By Way of Revolution, featured in this issue, Metaferia examines BIPOC women and labor within the narrative of activist histories and the politics of care, determining whether or not previous generations of social change were affected by the historic documentation of those groups' experiences. The artist reclaims a space in which grassroots organizing has determined the repairing of a severed social bond, one that has uplifted generations of women by enabling spaces for them to grieve and celebrate the lives of ancestors both close and distant.
This text is an edited re-publication of the artist' profile featured in the Sharjah Biennial 15 guidebook. Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present is curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, based on the concept originally devised by Okwui Enwezor, who was invited to curate SB15 before his untimely passing in 2019.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Cover: Headdress 29, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
fig. 1: Nina, 2023, Installation with black sand, inkjet print, brass frames. On view in the 2023 Sharjah Biennial, United Arab Emirates. Courtesy of the artist.
fig. 2: The Willing, 2023. Live performance. Courtesy of the Sharjah Art Foundation and the artist.