Against a Sharp White Background

The title of Helina Metaferia’s first solo exhibition in Boston pays homage to Zora Neale Hurston, anthropologist, folklorist, and author of the classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. In a 1928 essay, Hurston reflects on her racialized lived experience:

I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.

Metaferia layers the original Hurston reference onto the monochrome walls of the modernist “white cube” gallery. Canonical works of twentieth-century American and European art (predominantly by white men) were — and largely continue to be — given visual and spatial primacy in major arts institutions, rendering women of color distinctly “out of place.”

By way of response, and in chorus with artists and activists such as Glenn Ligon, Shirley Chisholm, and Solange Knowles, Metaferia brings her own seat to the table: in this case, a folding chair and performative intervention into Joseph Kosuth’s foundational conceptual art installation, One and Three Chairs (1965). Throughout her performance work, Metaferia choreographs her own body’s mark-making in relation to the “sharp, white backgrounds” of famous characters in western art history’s exclusionary narrative: Mark Rothko, Sol Le Witt, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock.

In her collages, Metaferia addresses the broader social, economic, and political structures in and through which art is displayed, circulated, and consumed. She combines photographic stills from her performances with found materials from auction catalogues, scholarly books, and art magazines (drawn mostly from her birth decade of the ‘80s) which function as the “legitimating ephemera” of the art world. Refiguring these materials in her own image, Metaferia reclaims space in art history for under-recognized and marginalized women and artists of color.