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Career Stories: Helina Metaferia, MFA ’15


Helina Metaferia is an interdisciplinary artist and educator working in performance, video, assemblage, and collage. Her work is devoted to “asserting the black body into sites of systemic oppression—including institutional spaces, art history, gentrified communities, or land marked by historic trauma.” Throughout her work, she is “constantly reflecting on the notions of ‘home’ and how our racial and gendered body complicates this.” She has exhibited and performed internationally and is currently a postdoctoral fellow teaching at Brown University.

We recently caught up with Helina, who shared the latest on her art practice, inspiration, and recent work, in her own words:

I'm interested in thinking about ways that we can build community and build a sense of collective responsibility. My work draws upon written archives and oral histories, particularly sourced around Black Liberation Movements. I'm also working with art history and ideas of ownership of those stories—who gets to preserve legacies, and how does that relate to histories of colonialism? So, a lot of my work has been taking place in institutions. I surround myself with a lot of books. I guess my desire for information really kicked in during graduate school. I was really curious about how documentation exists, how it gets archived, and who it serves. I'm really interested when I get a hold of an archive. A lot of times I access archives through being invited to do a residency at a university, and then being given access to their library and special collections. Or I'll create my own archive by sourcing materials that are relics from a performance or assemblage installation project. For instance, I made an archive out of the remnants of gentrification when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. Most recently I've been working with an archive of photographs taken by Italian soldiers in 1935 when the Italians were trying to occupy the Ethiopian region.

As a professor at Brown University, I teach social practice and I'm really interested in challenging the status quo narratives around greatness when it comes to the canons of art history. I think of teaching as an extension of my practice. Because my work is so research based, it works well within academic institutions. There's a wide field of information there, and I like collaborating across disciplines. I loved being able to do that at SMFA as a grad student. I try not to let my work get too academic though. It can be challenging to try to reach multiple audiences, but I think that's a good challenge. I think artists should work towards that. I don't think we should just be making work for a very small percentage of the population who get to experience things within a museum or a gallery. I'm always trying to push that. For me, the biggest compliment is when somebody who doesn't have an arts background can come to the work and have a breakthrough.

While I was at SMFA I was really interested in classes in African American film and theater and Latin American film. Obviously, there's crossover with performance art, film, and theater, but I just thought it was an interesting way to see the differences in the ways the art world looks at the body and movement. Or the way the body is captured through moving image and other systems. It's good that SMFA has such a rigorous art program, but it's also good that it’s part of a university, and it has those resources too. I never really wanted to go to an art school that was just an art school. You can get some really good conversation when you're in a classroom full of people with different backgrounds. Students in majors like medicine or architecture have such interesting things to say about art and community. It's just so engaging, and I welcome those different perspectives. You can really feel like you're talking to yourself in a bubble if you're only around artists. That being said, it is good to have an art community because somebody has to nerd out about what you care about!

When I was at SMFA I knew that I wanted to take advantage of every professional development opportunity while I was there. I had a standing meeting with a professor every Monday to help me through writing, not just for my artist statement, but for grants and residencies, too. My teachers were really great because they would go over strategies for getting residencies and I could just pick their brains. My first job after school was teaching through the AICAD fellowship. I got it through asking professors questions like, ‘how do I get a teaching position?’ I really used all of the professional resources available. 

While I was in school, I won the Montague Travel Grant, the President's Research Grant, and the Tufts Graduate Student Grant. All of that really prepared me to get good at writing and applying for residences and grants on a national and international level. Getting those smaller school grants helped me to feel confident in my ability to access funding. And I tried to make the most of those grants—like traveling to Ethiopia for my thesis project and researching there for two weeks. I did some performances and video work there, and my thesis show was the culmination of that research. Making that body of work and documenting it well really helped me when I got out of school.

My advice for graduate students is to make the most of every single resource. When I got to SMFA I took advantage of all the knowledge of my professors. I looked at them as serious working artists, which they are. And I wanted to know how to become a serious working artist. And they were so generous. Faculty members would bring their students with them to assist with their shows internationally. Like one of my teachers brought her students to help her with shows in Cuba and at the Venice Biennale. And that's something I try to do in my teaching. When I have big opportunities, I involve my students—in museum performances, as studio assistants, or as my research assistants.

While I was a student at SMFA I had the opportunity to perform in the Museum of Fine Arts. It really came about pretty organically. I had met the curator somewhere and just sent her the documentation of my performance and she invited me to do it at the MFA. What I would say about that is—when I say use every resource, I mean go to every artist talk where people are coming to the school. Connect with every visiting artist that you can connect with—you never know who’s going to be there. I know people who've gotten big shows because they met with a visiting artist and that artist remembered them when an opportunity came around. That’s how I learned to be a working artist. I really learned through mentorship and through examples, and I went to SMFA because there were examples for me. I knew I could be supported there.

Image courtesy of Helina Metaferia.

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