RISD Museum announces new installation Helina Metaferia: We’ve Been Here Before

The RISD Museum announces Helina Metaferia: We’ve Been Here Before, a mural project on view July 2, 2022 through June 25, 2023.

This installation of collaged images by Metaferia, an Ethiopian-American artist based in New York City, considers the body and its relationship to notions of identity and citizenship. Developed in a 2021 workshop with the RISD Museum Education Department and through research at RISD’s and Brown University’s libraries and archives, these images extend Metaferia’s ongoing series honoring the histories of social-change movements by focusing on BIPOC women and femmes (individuals adopting a feminine appearance, manner, or persona). Her work recognizes those who are often overlooked, and centers on marginalized bodies.  The project comprises three “headdress” profile portrait collages that are presented as direct transfers onto the walls of the RISD Museum’s Café Pearl and a full-figure collage portrait banner placed on an exterior wall adjacent to the museum’s Benefit Street entrance. Elements within all of the collages, as well as framing graphics around the café-based works in particular, evoke aspects of each individual’s identity and history—from Jamaican, Navajo, and Japanese cultural ancestries, to activism within the queer community. The original collages developed for the project as well as the digital files used to create the installation have been acquired by the RISD Museum for its collection to preserve the project and the moments of continued activism in history that it celebrates.

“My work considers how gatherings can be a site for change, akin to how histories of protest give way to political and social change,” says Helina Metaferia. “I do this by gathering community members in private workshops where we consider somatic and performance tools to release institutionalized trauma and make space for joy in our bodies; by later photographing these same participants, and gathering research on activist histories specified to their identities; by utilizing collage as a form of gathering, in which disparate information comes together to create something cohesive and new. Ultimately, my work is about the poetics of transformation.”

Curator Dominic Molon states, “Metaferia’s work dynamically demonstrates the profound impact of historical events, activism, and protest on our present-day sense of identity and personhood. We are excited to not only present Metaferia’s urgent images at one of the key entrances and social gathering hubs of the museum but to also add her pictorial vision and message to the Providence cityscape.  The museum is also proud that the project in its development and in its finished state included the incredible participation of individuals from the school and the local art community.”  Ahmari Benton adds that “Metaferia challenges the authority of a singular institutional voice in these collages of resistance and empowerment.”

 Helina Metaferia: We’ve Been Here Before is curated by Dominic Molon, Richard Brown Baker Curator of Contemporary Art, and Ahmari Benton, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet Fellow.

RISD Museum is supported by a grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, through an appropriation by the Rhode Island General Assembly and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and with the generous partnership of the Rhode Island School of Design, its Board of Trustees, and Museum Governors. This exhibition is also made possible with support from the RISD Center for Social Equity and Inclusion (SEI).