Helina Metaferia , Headdress VIII, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Addis Fine Art.
August 2021 – Interdisciplinary artist Helina Metaferia works across collage, assemblage, video, performance, and social engagement. Helina will be presenting work for the first time at 1-54 London 2021 and took the time to speak with us about her work her practice ahead of the fair.
Can you introduce yourself and tell us about the main forces that inform your artistic practice?
I am an interdisciplinary artist, working at the intersection of performance and visual art. My work is informed by an interrogation of institutionalized oppression, and how this informs our personal experiences and interpersonal relationships. I integrate archival research, dialogical art, and somatic experiences into my practice. My art evolves over a series of projects. My most recent project, “By Way of Revolution,” advocates for the overlooked labor of BIPOC women activists.
You started off as painter and are now an interdisciplinary artist working across performance, video, installation, collage, and social practice. How do you decide which medium to use to embody your ideas?
I started as a painter because that was how I was introduced to art in high school and undergraduate school. That was the medium that I knew I could use to express myself. As my training evolved during graduate school, I became exposed to new genres, and that created a breakthrough in my practice. I had much more vocabulary and tools to work with. I went from being a figure painter to being the figure in my work, or staging interdisciplinary interventions with other members in my community. Integrating movement and speech, which is the language of protest and activism, felt intrinsic to the subject matter of my work. And still, I often return to 2D art, and sometimes paint, when I want to explore figuration as a single gesture, suspended in time.
You are very concerned with documenting past and present Black social liberation movements with the use of archives. How do you incorporate these into your work?
As an artist and as a professor, I investigate archives, often from university libraries, from a place of criticality. How have these archives come into being? What is included and what is omitted? How are they acquired? What power does the ivory tower that houses them hold? I am interested in how Black people choose to represent their own activist histories, rather than how the media has portrayed them. The archives can tell us something, but what they are not telling us is equally or even more important.
You are known to hold a performative workshop where you invite participants to embody ‘gestures of resilience’ as an act of self-care to reclaim their own life narrative. Can you tell us what this entails?
I’ve been conducting a performance-as-protest workshops since 2018 in cities across the U.S. These workshops are often supported by wealthy, predominantly white institutions, but are only open to BIPOC female identifying cis, trans, or gender non-conforming people across socio- economic classes. The workshops serve as intimate moments of collective reflections on the traumatic effects of systemic oppression on the body, and how we can use performance and psychosomatics to release these effects. There is no documentation during the workshop so that people can feel safe to be vulnerable, other than a voluntary moment at the end where people can be photographed in their “power pose” for one of my collages.
Can you talk to us about the works presented at 1-54 London 2021?
I am presenting a few of the collages from my “By Way of Revolution” series, which either feature participants of my workshops, or Black women activists who are on the front line. I’ve worked with several activists across the United States, including Black Lives Matter co-founders and chapter leaders, NYC and LA artist-activists, and people making micro to macro differences in their community. The models are collaged with crowns of adornment made of historical archives of Black liberation movements. These “headdresses” are often seen as both heavy and beautiful, burdensome and celebratory, regal and accessible.
What would you like the visitors to experience when encountering your work at the fair?
I’m hoping that my work can lure an audience with it’s beauty, but get people to sit with it longer because of its complexity. Perhaps, in the search to identify moments of familiarity or to understand the narrative within the collages, the viewer will be reminded of all that it took for us to get to where we are today as a human race, with all its challenges, and how Black women have contributed to this legacy.
To view Helina’s work in person, book your ticket to 1-54 London 2021 this 14-17 October at Somerset House here.