Making a Statement
Helina Metaferia, MFA '15, entered the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University (SMFA at Tufts) as a painter. She left as an interdisciplinary artist with a commitment to sparking meaningful conversations about race, gender, and other key social issues through her art.
Over the past six years, Metaferia has had her work shown in venues ranging from the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco to the Modern Art Museum Gebre Kristos Desta Center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In November, her latest exhibition will open at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
"The Museum of Fine Arts is one of the few contemporary art spaces in Boston, and it's where I did my first performance show, as a student at SMFA," Metaferia said. "This is an important exhibition to me because of my relationship with the Museum School. And I frequented the museum often as a student, so there's that personal connection there too."
A Change for the Better
Metaferia grew up in Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C., the daughter of parents who emigrated from Ethiopia in the 1970s. After beginning her undergraduate studies at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University, she had to transfer to Morgan State University for financial reasons. It turned out to be a change for the better.
"I got a lot of love from my faculty at Morgan State," she recalled. "They believed in me. That taught me that in the art world, you need support and role models. And that's why I think it's so important to advocate for representation in my work and as an educator."
Metaferia graduated from Morgan State with a bachelor's degree in fine art. Over the next eight years, she consistently painted in her studio while also working in community arts and as a teaching artist.
When she started exploring graduate programs, one of her former professors put her in touch with Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, an Afro-Cuban artist who taught at SMFA at the time. Metaferia immediately felt a strong connection.
"I wanted to study with a Black woman, and I also saw a lot of myself in her diaspora story," Metaferia said. "Also, she used her own body in her work, and that was something I was just beginning to figure out in my work through the lens of photo, video, and performance."
SMFA's interdisciplinary environment suited Metaferia perfectly. She complemented her painting skills by delving into new mediums, including performance, video, and installation.
"It was a stretch for me—a good stretch," she said. "Before SMFA, I was doing figure painting. Now I was becoming the figure. I was using my body to do the things that I wanted to express in my work and documenting that through video or live performance. Sometimes I even built the set that I was performing within."
A Series of Fellowships and Residencies
Metaferia's post-SMFA career has been a healthy mix of educating, creating, and exhibiting. After graduation, she taught at the San Francisco Art Institute on an Association of Independent Colleges of Art & Design fellowship. That experience helped her land a teaching residency at Michigan State University.
Artist residencies, such as at Yaddo, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and The MacDowell Colony, have been another staple of Metaferia's post-SMFA life. These opportunities, she said, have allowed her to develop her practice and inspired her to do progressively better work. She credits Patte Loper and Kim Hébert, two of her professors at SMFA, for providing valuable guidance on applying for residencies and grants, respectively.
Jumping from one fellowship or residency to another resulted in a nomadic lifestyle, but Metaferia was determined to do whatever it took to get by.
"There are so many ways to be an artist, but that was the path that worked for me," she said. "I didn't want to make art for money. I just wanted to keep creating things and see what would happen."
In 2019, Metaferia accepted an Andrew W. Mellon Gateway Fellowship/assistant professorship at Brown University. Since then, she has taught one course each spring semester but focused primarily on her art. Starting in July, she will transition into a tenure-track assistant professor position and teach courses in sculpture, social practice, and performance art. She commutes to Brown from her apartment in Harlem.
Exhibiting at the Museum of Fine Arts
Metaferia has taken part in dozens of solo, two-person, and group exhibitions, performances, and video screenings since her time at SMFA. Among the recent highlights was By Way of Revolution, a 2019 solo exhibition at Michigan State examining the link between past and contemporary social justice movements. Against a Sharp White Background, her 2020 solo exhibition at Northeastern University's Gallery 360, aimed to assert the Black body in art institutions and other traditional sites of systemic oppression.
These two shows served as the springboard for Generations, a solo show scheduled to run at the Museum of Fine Arts from November 6, 2021, to April 3, 2022. Metaferia was selected to exhibit as a result of earning an SMFA Traveling Fellowship.
As a precursor to the pandemic-delayed exhibition, Metaferia led two virtual workshops in March 2020 examining resilience gestures that women of color can employ to heal trauma associated with cumulative microaggressions and/or inherited histories. The workshops—a collaboration with SMFA, the Museum of Fine Arts, and Northeastern University—were open to women of color from SMFA and local communities. Some participants volunteered to be photographed for a collage that will be featured in Metaferia's show.
For Metaferia, the exhibition and workshops are an extension of her commitment to involving community "in a way that doesn't use brown, black, female bodies as material."
"I'm not into using people to tell my story; that's how social practice goes wrong," she continued. "I'm working with the Museum of Fine Arts to form mutually beneficial relationships that make people feel like they're being heard and not just taken advantage of in the name of art, which is one way that black and brown bodies have been exploited again and again."
Lead image: Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Jason Miller.