Exploring Black Subjectivity With Artist Helina Metaferia


“What does it mean to shift our attention to a celebration of Black rest, joy, and existential reflection?” - Helina Metaferia 



The multidisciplinary artist Helina Metaferia is presenting her solo show "(Middle) Passage for Dreams"  through April 7. The multichannel video installation is being exhibited at New York University's The Gallatin Galleries. 


Because of gallery restrictions due to COVID-19, the exhibition can be viewed in person from the windows of the gallery as a sidewalk show. Speakers are installed into the gallery windows and the sound from the video is audible from the street. Subtitles are displayed on all the screens for accessibility. An online screening of the video will occur on March 4 at 7pm EST, followed by a conversation between Helina and New York City based artist Steve Locke about themes of love, the body, and the potential for self-actualization. You can register for the online event through the gallery's website.


In this interview, we asked her about her creative process, her thoughts about building a new American justice system, her collaborations, and her personal voyage.


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Installation images for the exhibition "Helina Metaferia: (Middle) Passage for Dreams,"

on view at NYU's The Gallatin Galleries. Courtesy of NYU's The Gallatin Galleries. 



How would you describe this show? 


The exhibition is a six channel adaptation of a three channel video project that explores Black subjectivity. We are constantly exposed to spectacles of 

Black pain, trauma, and death in the media. We are even more dependent on our screens during the pandemic, and are constantly fed images of violence against Black bodies through social sharing platforms. What does it mean to shift our attention to a celebration of Black rest, joy, and existential reflection? 


"(Middle) Passage for Dreams", Helina Metaferia, multichannel video, 21:39, 2016-2019. Courtesy of the artist. 


What is the symbolism behind the title of the show?


The title "(Middle) Passage for Dreams" references the transatlantic slave trade, commonly referred to as the middle passage, while pivoting its meaning to simultanously describe something hopeful and poetic. The title nods to both the horrors and optimism of the American Dream, and its complicated reality for the Black American experience. 


The video in the exhibition takes images that echo American trauma -- such as Black bodies on the ground and brutality, or bodies against trees and lynching -- and transforms them into meditative moments in nature. The subjects return the gaze into the camera and narrate their own truths, turning moments of spectacle into moments of agency. In the video I incorporate the aesthetics of slow cinema and durational performance to see if I can slow down the pace and attention of the audience, providing an immersive and intimate experience with the performers. 


Artist Helina Metaferia. Photograph by Alejandro Flores Monge.


Helina Metaferia is an interdisciplinary artist working across performance, video, installation, collage, and social practice. Metaferia received her MFA from Tufts University’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. International recent solo and group exhibitions include Museum of African Diaspora, San Francisco, CA; Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Detroit, MI; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Smack Mellon, Brooklyn, NY; Modern Art Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and NOMAD Gallery, Brussels, Belgium, among many others. Metaferia’s work has been supported by residencies including MacDowell, Yaddo, Bemis, and Triangle Arts Association. She is currently an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow / Assistant Professor at Brown University, and lives and works in New York City.




What can you tell us about your creative process? 


As an interdisciplinary artist I made "(Middle) Passage of Dreams" over a three year period (2016-2019) in all four seasons and various geographic locations around the country. I spent four years after completing my Masters of Fine Arts degree as a traveling artist, living all over the country in several artist residencies. I felt overcome with gratitude for this experience, and thought to myself how many generations did it take for me to be a Black woman with this much freedom in this country -- to travel, to be a creative, to be an artist. 


During my first residency in 2016, at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, I was in moments of real creative bliss, but then would get rudely awakened outside of my creative bubble to the devastating news of police brutality, including the death of Philando Castile. I wanted to make art about the beauty, abundance, and joy that I found in nature, and in the conversation with other Black artists that I met on this journey, but I could not tell that story without addressing the jolting pain of such public communal tragedies from an unjust system. 


"I wanted to make art about the beauty, abundance, and joy that I found in nature, and in the conversation with other Black artists that I met on this journey, but I could not tell that story without addressing the jolting pain of such public communal tragedies from an unjust system."


Since that summer, the country and the world kept being even more politically intense, and I kept filming wherever I went. There were no scripts, no extensive camera crew. It was just a few people that I invited to share in a collective moment in front of a camera. The words are entirely their own, but the editing is what provides the poetics in the film. I'm an interdisciplinary artist, so I work in whatever medium can drive the concept and research forward. Video felt like the best medium as it could serve as a time capsule for these experiences. 


How is "(Middle) Passage for Dreams" different and/or similar to other series that you have worked on? How was working with the space and the curator?


I've screened this video recently as a three channel video on three TV screens at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, and as a single channel video projection at the Modern Art Museum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I've never screened it as a six channel video, and really worked with the curator, Keith Miller, on this adaptation. It's a combination of projection and TV screens so that the images and text can be seen strongly from the gallery's large windows. It's a great solution for dealing with the university's guidelines around the pandemic while still having an in person exhibition. 


Installation images for the exhibition "Helina Metaferia: (Middle) Passage for Dreams," on view at

NYU's The Gallatin Galleries. Courtesy of NYU's The Gallatin Galleries. 


Like most of us, I've never imagined that we'd experience a global pandemic in our lifetime and deal with such restrictions in viewing art. I think that the sidewalk exhibition is a strong adaptation, which transforms the ordinarily private "white cube" institutional gallery experience into a more dynamic public art platform. I'm excited to know that people who weren't expecting to see an art show will get to experience the video. It's an opportunity to get people to have necessary conversations in the world at large, not just the art world. 


Throughout 2020, more people have been demanding racial equality and talking about it either virtually or in person. How do you feel about this? And moreover, how were you and your work affected by the historical context of 2020, including the health crisis?


America has very old wounds that need to be addressed. Until we collectively heal from the violence and devestation caused by the effects of the transatlantic slave trade, colonization, genocide, patriarchy, homophobia, xenophobia, climate change, and capitalist greed, it will be very difficult to create a new healthy and equitable system together. Unless we address the wounds of this country at the source, at the root, we will never be able to fully address the battle going on for the soul of this nation. The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last month and George Floyd's death last May are drastic examples of how this wound of racism, fear, and hate resurfaces time and time again. Our recent president played on that wound to form a division for his own political purposes, which is like a script from the fascist dictator playbook. 


"(Middle) Passage for Dreams" Video stills. Courtesy of the artist. 


Many of us have been yelling, screaming, and marching for racial justice, way before 2020, way before hashtags were a thing. This labor of activism, advocacy, and healing isn't just reserved for Black people. We've been holding the space for accountability, but we alone cannot make change happen. It's got to be a global movement. This is the work of everyone. 


Change is inevitable and necessary. Everything changes, nothing remains the same over periods of time. Our institutional and justice systems must eventually evolve, and we can help shape the direction of that change through holding accountability, protest, policy, advocacy, and yes, through our art. My hope is that when the world speeds back up again after the pandemic, and the headlines change, that those who are privileged enough to forget this moment won't, and we continue to do the work that needs to be done to collectively heal this planet, this country, our communities, ourselves. 


The curatorial text by Keith Miller says: "By inserting Black bodies into natural spaces and asking the speakers to share their experiences, Metaferia rejects the colonialist denial so prevalent in the storytelling of this country. History is the narrative of journeys taken, told by all on that voyage. Who tells which story and how is the history of liberation—or oppression." - What is your voyage - either physically, mentally, spiritually, philosophically?


What's my voyage? That's a great question. At the risk of sounding hoaky, the voyage is love. Love is the movement. Love is the medicine. Love is the healing. There's a James Baldwin quote that I have been trying to take a part and analyze for years: "The war of an artist with his society is a lover's war, and he does, at best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself, and with that revelation, to make freedom real." 


To that effect, I think the most radically honest form of communal care that we can offer is a deeply introspective spiritual inquiry into the meaning of our existence. Are we on this earth to accumulate things, to breed, and die? Or are we here to grow through a set of experiences that can bring us closer to union with our maker, ourselves, and each other? These are ethical, spiritual, or maybe religious questions that each of us need to discover answers to on our own. But that philosophy can guide our decision making, and at the end of the day all we have is our actions. What kind of footprint do we want to leave behind? What kind of marks are we committing to making in this world? 


There's been so much death in this last year alone. Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one or has come close to it themselves have had to confront their own mortality, and perhaps consider what contributions they have made to humanity. The video "(Middle) Passage for Dreams" attempts to untangle some of that deep reflection while engaging with visual aesthetics and composition that makes art engaging. Art has the capacity to make the heavy, the deep, the sacred, and the profane aspects of our bodies and experiences beautiful. 


Installation images for the exhibition "Helina Metaferia: (Middle) Passage for Dreams," on view at

NYU's The Gallatin Galleries. Courtesy of NYU's The Gallatin Galleries. 


Do you tend to collaborate with other artists and professionals? If so, who?


As a socially engaged artist, most of my projects tend to be participatory, collaborative or site specific (where I am essentially collaborating with an environment). In this era of social distancing and online everything, I've had to adapt a lot of this engagement to include virtual forms of meeting and gathering with people. For example, I had plans to facilitate a performance workshop I've been doing at institutions around the country since 2018 for BIPOC folk. Because of the pandemic, these workshops are now taking place virtually. Rather than exploring movement and sharing oxygen in the same space, we are now attempting to share embodied gestures in this disembodied technological platform. 


I have also found a way to bridge the distance by working collaboratively in the spirit of activism with other artists in the form of art collectives, such as the Wide Awakes collective. This has been both cathartic and powerful. So often visual artists are taught to work alone, in isolation and in competition with each other. This model often disempowers us and perpetuates the myth of the sole genius artist, which I suspect has a capitalist agenda. Artists are much stronger and able to amplify each other and our causes when we work collaboratively.


I am also collaborating with Booker Prize shortlisted author Maaza Mengiste on a new project, who like myself is Ethiopian-American. I'm producing a series of experimental collages, performances, and videos as a call and response to her writings on a little known archive of Ethiopian women soldiers during the 1935 Italian occupation war. The project seeks to decolonize the hyper-sexualized gaze in colonial military photography. It's nice to work with a creative who is working in a discipline outside of my own. We both share such wonderfully varied perspectives on how to intervene in an archive, it's been a joy to find the overlaps in our practices. 


What is coming next for you in 2021? Are you exploring new themes / disciplines / spaces?


I'm preparing for a number of national and international exhibitions in 2021. One of them includes my next solo exhibition is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in Fall 2021. The exhibition is titled "Generations," and speaks to the legacies of activism that inform our present day contemporary moment, and the often overlooked role that women of color play in them. The show will include video, installation, and collage work. I'm also facilitating a series of virtual performance workshops for BIPOC folks in Boston in advance of the exhibition. 


Is there anything that you would like to say to young and emerging artists?


My advice for young artists is to fall in love with the process. Being an artist is a long windy road of discovery. It's both a personal and professional journey that you have to believe in, because no one else will care as much about your practice as you will. Not your parents, teachers, friends, haters, or admirers, and certainly not society. There will be long hours in the studio, frustrations over "failed" works of art, and setbacks. Success is the audacity to keep believing and persevering despite all of this. If you don't love the process, it's too easy to give up. Protect your artistic time and your practice, and find a place of reassurance within yourself outside of validation, accolades, money or acknowledgement. 


I would also suggest that young artists take their time in finding their voice and developing their work. Have a writing or some kind of reflection process where you can underscore what your consistent interests have been over the years. I have learned that most artists have one underlying story in their work, and we spend our entire career trying to build up the vocabulary to express it. In practicing art we are refining our chosen language. In mastering our work we are ultimately mastering ourselves. As I am maturing my voice as an artist, I have learned that the story that I am telling, and have always told, is that of political, personal, and spiritual liberation as it relates to Black people, and specifically Black women. 




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