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SHARE: How Do You Judge the Value of Social Practice Art?

Artist Helina Metaferia Developed Metrics to Determine if a Project Is Successful

By Folasade Ologundudu

Please view the original article, with photos, at: LINK

Helina Metaferia in her studio at Silver Art Projects at the World Trade Center in New York City.

Photo by Tommie Battle, courtesy of artist.

Thousands of years of art-historical movements have birthed language to describe and critique works of art in detail. Social practice, however, is in its infancy as an artistic movement—the term has only been in existence for the last half-century. And so it requires a radically different way of evaluating its effectiveness as both an art form and a vehicle for social change.

Artist and professor Helina Metaferia has developed a rubric for community engaged art: what she calls “metrics of integrity.” The key, she explains, is evaluating how the people you work with to create your work feel about the experience. She uses this rubric to inform her courses on social practice at Brown University.

Intrigued by the myriad ways in which she can communicate ideas through art, Metaferia approaches her practice with fluidity, never beholden to one material or mode of expression. Metaferia works not only in performance and social practice, but also in college, video installation, and performance. The through-line is her interest in amplifying the untold histories of people from BIPOC communities, specifically womxn/femme-identifying people.

Metaferia’s interest in political activism was nurtured early. Her parents, Maigenet Shifferraw and Getachew Metaferia, instilled a sense of social justice in her at a tender age. Her father taught political science at Morgan State University, an HBCU in Baltimore, Maryland, and her mother was an Ethiopian women’s rights activist.

Metaferia’s well-known “By Way of Revolution” series began as a tribute to her mother, who passed away in 2016. The series starts with interviews and private performance workshops for female activists, with whom the artist speaks about their lives, inspirations, and struggles. Then, she works with them to pull together imagery that she uses in photography, videos, and assemblages. Uplifting these women enables her to hold space to grieve and celebrate the life of her late mother, while the process creates space to examine the impact of Civil Rights eras of the past on today’s social justice movements.

Late this summer, I spoke with Metaferia to learn more about her activist background, how her work tells the forgotten stories of Black American life, and why making art is an act of healing.

What are some of the core ideas you focus on in your work?

My practice is interdisciplinary. I work at the hybrid of visual art, performance, and social practice. One of the core ideas that I focus on is the notion of belonging, from a citizenship perspective and being connected to one’s country but also how one feels connected to institutions that are supposed to serve the public. I’m interested in opening up my platform to those who have often been marginalized by systems and institutions that operate within white supremacy, oppression, and patriarchy. My practice contains the inquiry of what it looks like to have liberation and freedom and how we can coexist. Does capitalism provide that structure or do we need to work outside of capitalism? I’m thinking about previous liberation movements and drawing inspiration from activist histories to co-create what future generations of liberation look like. To do that, I activate through social practice workshops.

What does social practice mean to you?

Social practice is a new term. It’s only a couple decades old. Before it was considered community art, but the way that we think of it now is relationships as a medium of engagement. I’m interested in practices that bridge the ordinary and make it extraordinary. Some of that could be a relationship—building trust—and then some could be happenings or occurrences that are unexpected, where art takes place in public spheres that are not normally thought of as sites for art.

What are some of the things that initially drew you to art-making?

I’ve been a creative for as long as I can remember. The process of going from novice artist into a more developed practice was something that involved years of training and education but moreover it’s a commitment not just to art as a profession, but as a lifestyle. I say this because being an artist requires a lot of inquiry and curiosity about the world. There’s a lot of contemplation but there’s also this idea that one can intervene, make a statement, or provide a voice for what people are collectively experiencing.

As an artist, I have a lot of practices that don’t involve making an object but instead are tied to process. Whether that practice is movement, research, presence, or attentiveness to my surroundings—that’s part of being an artist. When one is a creative, one is always thinking about how creativity can take place in this moment or with this experience and it’s hard to turn off. I’ve been maturing the visual vocabulary that I have and the way I articulate it over a long period of time. That’s what makes a career, your commitment to your practice and your discipline in practicing it.

I love that. In your opinion, what is the function and purpose of art?

The function and purpose of art has changed over the course of human history. We’ve always used art as a mode of expression. Those are the primary ways that there’s been evidence left behind that humans have existed, so art becomes artifact. There are so many ways in which art lives: art for commerce, art as a way to elevate class. Then there are also the ways in which I’m interested in art. The function of art for me is actually healing. It’s community healing, it’s personal healing. I believe that within art there’s hope and art can be medicine. I’m familiar with practices in Ethiopian culture where visual art becomes visual medicine. We have a strong tradition. We have art that’s fused with spiritual practices. I’m interested in art that sits within my ancestral memory.

You work across collage, assemblage, video, performance, and social engagement. Tell me more about the various mediums you use to communicate your ideas and your multidisciplinary approach.

I work with a hybrid of mediums because I’m interested in communicating an idea. I find limitations within every medium and when I hit a boundary with the medium, I’ve found flexibility in my practice to maintain the integrity, the research, and the idea—to allow the work to take different forms. So I’m more committed to the idea than the medium and this has allowed me a lot of freedom in my practice. I started my practice like many people, in one medium. I majored in painting in undergrad and I was committed for many years after that.

I am also interested in activism as a performance. I’m interested in the ways in which people galvanize and find social solidarity to instill change. When I think about ways in which I can speak to the legacies of activism, performance or social practice is a very natural medium for me. Those are languages of community organizing. In the same realm, I’ve used the relics of my performances and social pra