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Helina Metaferia. Photo by: Yu Young Don.

Interdisciplinary artist and educator Helina Metaferia is making her debut solo exhibition in Boston at Northeastern University’s Gallery 360. Against a Sharp White Background pays homage to a quote from novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” The exhibition opens on January 29, 2020, with a reception on Thursday, January 30 from 5 – 7 p.m.

Metaferia’s work is devoted to asserting the black body in sites of systemic oppression, including institutional spaces, art history, gentrified communities, or those landmarked by historic trauma. She uses performance, video, installation, photography, and mixed media collage – mostly based on her own body –  to engage directly with urgent issues. She also invites community members to interact and respond, through workshops and participatory elements in her exhibitions.

The exhibition at Northeastern University offers an expansion of Metaferia’s Refiguring the Canon series, which interrogates notions of western exceptionalism in art history through performative interventions into iconic works of modern art.

“In all works within the series, I want to make the simplest intervention to canonized artworks while performing for a live audience, for a photo, video, or on paper. I like working with photographic images, which are often documentation from past performances, because they insinuate that something real or authentic has been captured,” Metaferia explained. “Although I use my own subjectivity a lot through performative documentation within the exhibition, I’m more interested in facilitating a conversation that has less to do with me, and more with rethinking institutional spaces and the narratives told within them….

The social and interactive components of the exhibition are about finding ways to share the platform I’ve been given, and give voice to those in the Northeastern and Boston community.

Metaferia studied painting during her undergraduate education, and performance, video, and installation for graduate school so that she could incorporate more lived experience into her practice.

“Work that is rooted in experiences—and not objects—is sometimes the enemy of the art market and is sometimes difficult to exhibit in galleries or institutions,” she added. “There are plenty of art objects in the show, but it took me a while to figure out how to blend genres to articulate what I wanted to say. I’ve been researching this for a while. Performance driven exhibitions that have inspired me include the Radical Presence exhibition at YBCA in San Francisco, and shows like Adrian Piper’s 2018 retrospective and William Pope L.’s 2019 retrospective, both at MOMA in NYC.”

Metaferia’s Against a Sharp White Background is an especially exciting and meaningful exhibition for College of Arts, Media and Design’s Amy Halliday, Director of the Center for the Arts (CFA) and Curator of Gallery 360. “As the first project I’m curating and originating in my new role at Northeastern, I’m delighted to be working with Helina Metaferia, whose work is so resonant in our institutional setting, and also in relation to current movements to decolonize museums, and to rethink whose stories are told or valorized, and how, and why. There’s also been a great response from faculty who will be bringing their classes (currently almost 20 different courses across curricula!) to teach with the exhibition, catalyzing conversations on everything from architecture and the history of the ‘white cube’ gallery space, to sociological discussions of race, class, culture and power. My aim as a new curator here is to position the Gallery not only as a contemporary art hub in the student center where you can encounter cutting-edge artists like Metaferia, but also as a dynamic resource for teaching, learning, research and community building at Northeastern.”

This exhibition will encourage and challenge visitors to question their own privilege and power in community spaces, through five self-reflective questions mounted on the walls in vinyl. The questions were created as a collaboration between Metaferia and Northeastern University student and Gallery Co-Op, Danielle Bettio, who is studying Anthropology, to inspire participants to uncover how Metaferia’s art relates to them as individuals.

“I talked to students to help shape these questions to see what would be most relevant to us, the students,” Danielle said. “I hope people will reflect on the exhibition, but also look at their role as a student at Northeastern—and in the larger Boston community.”

Everyone is welcome to submit their answers at the exhibition in exchange for someone else’s thoughts on institutional reform. Throughout the duration of the exhibition, Metaferia will have her favorite responses placed onto buttons that will be given out to participants. There is also a By Way of Revolution performance workshop designed for women of color, which will investigate the impacts of past social justice movements on today’s current moment.

The real material in my work is archives, bodies, and conversation. If I have those three elements, I’m able to build my practice…

“It’s a pleasure to create a living and evolving exhibition in conjunction with the community, and social engagement and performance add life into the work, particularly work that cites those who are no longer living,” Metaferia explained.

On her creative influences, she states: “I am inspired by the work of Betye Saar, Simone Leigh, Howardena Pindell, David Hammons, Adrian Piper, and my former professor at SMFA, Maria Magdalena Campos Pons. Lately, I’ve been feeling the literary work of adrienne maree brown, James Baldwin, Maaza Mengiste, and Audre Lorde.”

Metaferia is excited to return to Boston as an alumna of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) at Tufts University. “I left Boston right after graduating, so this is a homecoming of sorts,” she said.

As a graduate student in Boston during a time that The Boston Globe had reported the city as the “most unwelcoming city for black people,” she was motivated to move the needle forward—and have this reflected in her work—to push people to face issues head-on around diversifying curriculum, institutional spaces, and representation.

Please join us in welcoming this exhibition to Gallery 360, running from January 29 to April 5, 2020, with an opening reception on January 30, 2020.