Helina Metaferia Honors the Activist Legacies of Black Women across Collage and Performance

Ayanna Dozier
Mar 21, 2022 7:28PM

Portrait of Helina Metaferia in studio with Headdress 28, Headdress 29, and Headdress 30 in 2021. © Helina Metaferia. Photo by Tommy Battle III. Courtesy of Helina Metaferia.

Helina Metaferia links personal histories of Black womanhood with larger legacies of social justice through collage, photography, and video. Her work embodies and shifts the feminist mantra of the personal is political to the intimate is political. “I was attracted to research and collage because of the healing that it has done for my own grieving legacies, but also for its ability to cure social diseases like racism, sexism, classism, and patriarchy,” Metaferia said in an interview with Artsy.

Her solo exhibition “Generations” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was due to open in the fall of 2020, but was rescheduled for November 2021 due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The delayed opening provided Metaferia time to research and incorporate the history of social activism in Boston within the exhibition, on view through April 11th. Premiering alongside “Generations” is Metaferia’s solo show “All Put Together,” on view through April 17th at Praise Shadows Art Gallery in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. Both exhibitions feature new work that builds and extends her practice of creating collage portraits from archival materials.

Helina Metaferia, Headdress 28, 2021. © Helina Metaferia. Courtesy of the artist.

Helina Metaferia, Headdress 29, 2021. © Helina Metaferia. Courtesy of the artist.

Helina Metaferia, Headdress 30, 2021. © Helina Metaferia. Courtesy of the artist.


On view at MFA Boston, Metaferia’s “By Way of Revolution” (2018–present) series attends to the politics of labor and care practiced by Black, Indigenous, and women of color in activist histories. Each collage is a composite portrait of a contemporary activist or artist made with historical records and archival photographs of social movements specific to the city or practice of the depicted figure. Metaferia constructs a tapestry of relations that give these women a visual genealogy to their social existence.

Through collage, the artist literally weaves together women of color across time to create an intergenerational exchange of care and activist labor. Emphasizing the crown of their heads, Metaferia uplifts her figures as sacred, ancestral, and regal while centering their hair as a source of empowerment and divinity. Metaferia envisions these portrait-collages as the construction of an army of women, and refuses to cease creation until women of color achieve freedom from systemic oppression.

Helina Metaferia, installation view of The Willing, 2022, in “All Put Together” at Praise Shadows Art Gallery, 2022. Photo by Helina Metaferia. Courtesy of Praise Shadows Art Gallery.

The series has its origins following the passing of Metaferia’s mother in 2016. In her grief, Metaferia began to use performance, archives, inherited objects, and the photograph as a way to carry her mother’s legacy with her into the present. Metaferia’s mother, Maigenet Shifferraw, was a political organizer who worked across women’s rights to end child marriages, free Ethiopian political prisoners, and much more. Shifferraw and Metaferia’s father, Getachew Metaferia, a professor, came to the United States for school with the intention of returning to Ethiopia, but the outbreak of the Ethiopian Civil War in 1974 made that an impossibility. In a catalogue interview with “Generations” curator Michelle Millar Fisher, Metaferia explained that her parents would have likely faced imprisonment due to their activist and educator professions. Metaferia’s roots in activism are informed by her parents’ displacement from Ethiopia and their organizing in Washington, D.C., where they eventually relocated and Metaferia was born and raised.

Metaferia’s balancing of the personal and the political within social spaces is evident in the video installation The Response (2021)—featured in “All Put Together”—which follows the participatory workshop Metaferia held in the spring of 2021 with Black, Indigenous, and people of color living in Boston. Specifically foregrounding women and nonbinary people in social movements, the event was a continuation of the participatory performance workshops Metaferia organizes, in which she uses institutional space and critique as a way to repair the harm inflicted upon women of color within those spaces.

Helina Metaferia, installation view of “All Put Together,” at Praise Shadows Art Gallery, 2022. Photo by Will Howcroft. Courtesy of Praise Shadows Art Gallery.

In The Response, we see the participants from the Boston workshop name themselves as a feeling first, before presenting their chosen name to the camera. They then cite an ancestral figure they walk with, and conclude with what they politically and socially stand for. The three-minute video installation weaves these introductions into a spoken-word piece that plays over the backdrop of the “typical” sound of the revolution, chants and drums. The work edits intimacy with protest to create a cut that shifts the audience’s perceptions of protest from its larger symbols to the personal and quotidian.

To create the new collage portraits exhibited in “Generations,” Metaferia took photographs of the workshop participants and spent four months researching the history of anti-oppression activism by Black, Indigenous, and people of color across Harvard University and Northeastern University. Metaferia calls attention to the institutional structures that undergird her practice by redistributing inaccessible, gated histories to larger audiences. She mirrors the emotional and physical labor of the women in her studies through archival work. This is made legible to audiences not only through the accumulation of specific histories on view, but through the citation list that Metaferia makes available for each portrait. She describes this practice as a way to “demystify the labor across these narratives of activist and artist production.”

Helina Metaferia, installation view of “The Woke,” 2021, in “Generations” at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2021. Photo by Helina Metaferia. Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The attentive activist and archival labor seen in Metaferia’s practice is procedural, akin to a ritual. She links this method as part of her hyphenated nationality. “I’m interested in Ethiopian archives and relics that are intermediary, for much healing can be accomplished with work that can be activated in the process,” Metaferia said. In this way, her collages, performances, and video installations operate as activated relics within an institution, and restore autonomy to their form.

Metaferia’s work is not just regulated to documents but through the materialization of various ephemera related to activism and the familial. We see this clearly in “The Woke” (2019–present), a participatory installation series of protest signs that transforms each time it’s installed. Attendees can contribute to the work by scanning a QR code and answering the prompt: “What is your everyday revolution?” Metaferia curates the responses and uses typography and color to create signs that purposefully evoke signage aesthetics from a variety of mid-20th-century protests. She purposefully aestheticizes the slogans to ensure their occupation as an “art object” is retained, which speaks to her formal training and BFA in painting. Metaferia received her MFA in interdisciplinary art at Tufts University.

Portrait of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston workers on strike with copied versions of Helina Metaferia’s “The Woke,” 2021. Photo by Jess Silverman.

Helina Metaferia, Headdress 36, 2022. © Helina Metaferia. Courtesy of the artist.

Last November, “The Woke” was activated at MFA Boston in support of museum staff’s efforts to unionize. They reached out to Metaferia, who is in support of their cause, to download signage from the installation for their march. Metaferia described this transaction as an account of the trust she builds with the communities she works in. Her approach is informed by the “move at the speed of trust” mantra by Wide Awakes—a collective of cultural producers, by which Metaferia is a participant, who uses performance as a method for political outreach. This ethos enables Metaferia to decenter the individual and move towards a practice of collectivity.

Maigenet Shifferraw’s memory looms large over Metaferia’s practice as the artist enacts a care politic toward her subjects and objects that is attentive to their histories. In so doing, Metaferia crafts a space through her art that grants new generations legacies by which they can belong to and, ultimately, be remembered by.

Ayanna Dozier
Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.