More than a year after the racial calculation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has created one of its most thoughtful repair projects to date.
I don’t mean his return of some priceless artefacts to West Africa, or his treatment of past racial wrongs with a restitution funds to support diversity in the arts, or the acknowledgement by Dan Weiss, its chairman and CEO, on the first anniversary of the police murder of George Floyd, that “the Met is a brilliant institution that has failed to resolve these issues of race, d ‘equity and justice’.
I mean something much more speculative and symbolic. Its most recent installation, “The day before yesterday, we could fly: an Afro-futuristic room”, boldly confronts one of New York City’s greatest racial traumas: the 1857 destruction of Seneca Village, a vibrant and mostly free black community whose members owned land along West 82nd through West 89th streets from of 1825, but were forced to leave in order to make Central Park. A racist smear campaign targeting the community in 1856 described its housing structures as slums and its living conditions there as unsanitary and poor. The city used these stereotypes to further justify its need to purchase the land through a prominent estate.
That much exposure look back, the play is also anchored in the present. The Met, breaking with its own tradition of the immersive ‘period room’ shaped by a particular period or genre of decorative arts, has come up with a counterfactual fable: the piece here belongs to a resident of Seneca Village, a black woman. and his family, left alone and able to maintain the dignity, security and the right to vote that resulted from their land ownership. More strikingly, the ornamentation of the piece highlights the toll of the loss of the city and the consequences of denying blacks the opportunity to pass their wealth down through the generations.
The installation is a breathtaking recreation of one of its residents’ homes as it might have existed in its day, our time, and the distant future. The far-sighted curatorial team led by Hannah Beachler, the first African American to win an Oscar for designing the production of “Black Panther,” working with Met curators Ian Alteveer and Sarah Lawrence, and Michelle Commander, the consulting director and literary scholar, not only gives Seneca Village a much more empowering ending than it has encountered, but allows us to get a glimpse of what could be.
The exhibition takes its name from the 19th century legend of the Flying Africans, passed down from generation to generation through oral histories, about a group of West Africans who resisted their slavery in the New World on their way home from the coast of Georgia. The myth inspired Virginia Hamilton’s classic children’s book, “The People Could Fly” in 1985, and other artists. This installation is oriented more towards the fantastic with a few touches of flight.
Comprised of a clapboard-style home reminiscent of the exterior of a 19th-century Seneca Village home, while its open floor plan connecting the living room and kitchen evokes our free-flowing interior designs of today The room also includes Nigerian wallpaper. – born artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby – “Thriving and Potential, Out of Place (Again and Again and…)” This vinyl inkjet print, one of three commissioned works for the installation, is a collage that includes an investigative map of the village of Seneca , images of artifacts discovered during an archaeological dig at the site in 2011, period photographs, known as ambrotypes, from the 19th century of black New Yorkers and repetitive silhouettes of okra. The presence of the plant, in all of its various shades of green, also marks time as a remnant of the Old World brought to the Americas by African slaves during the Middle Passage and suggests the dense foliage that now envelops Central Park and protected these black villagers at the time.
Afrofuturism, invoked in its subtitle, is a fantastic aesthetic, from another world or based on science fiction which imagines a better and freer world for blacks. Such temporal and spatial collapses are at the heart of this whole experience, an act that could bestow a small form of memorial justice to those modern descendants of the village of Seneca who remain unknown to us today and whose ancestor stories have been largely forgotten. until Roy The Social History of Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar in 1992, “The Park and the People: A Central Park Story.”
I find such aesthetic gestures, while well-intentioned, to be only partially fulfilling and in large part a reminder that art cannot go as far as redressing the tragedy of American racism.
The Met’s real atonement lies in its reliance on the traditional period venue, a genre increasingly scrutinized by critics for its whitewashing of history.
“Every period piece is fictional, isn’t it,” Sarah Lawrence, the Met’s curator of European sculpture and decorative arts, told me when I visited. “It has a veneer of authenticity. As she acknowledged, “each period piece brings together floors, ceilings, objects that have never been together at the same time. So if we recognize fiction, how can we use it as an opportunity to bring stories into our museum that would otherwise be left out in our period rooms? She later added: “We have an incredible range of period pieces, but for the most part these are rich white Eurocentric interiors.”
In 2017, the Met began actively experimenting with its own period rooms by piecing together the finely detailed all-white closet of Sarah berman – an early 20th century immigrant who traveled from Belarus to Palestine – and placed it next to the recently installed Worsham-Rockefeller dressing room from 1882. The result was a dialogue about excess and simplicity of the modern life.
Corn “The day before yesterday we could fly”Is much more transformational, as it gives the museum a real chance to rethink the set of premises on which the period room was based – a verisimilitude compared to the past – and to embrace how the racial contradictions of history of New York and the utopian aspirations of the village of Seneca continue to shape our country today.
Nothing accomplishes this crossing of time better than Jenn nkiruof the five-sided television which is in the middle of the living room. Featuring a black and white short film featuring archival footage, reenactments of a 19th century African-American family from the village of Seneca dining together, and a black figure or griot calling out “Seneca / Senegal”, television is on display. both analogue and avant-garde – African Diasporic but deeply domestic, and disturbing the very ideas of periodization, or for that matter, of nationality.
But the longer I stayed in the room, the more I became absorbed by its vast assortment of household items. To name a few: a rubber hair comb patented by Charles goodyear in the 1850s; “Shine” 2007 by Willie Cole work of art, an assemblage of black high-heeled shoes carved in the tradition of a West African mask; The 2020 sculpture by Cyrus Kabiru “Miyale Ya Blue” a recycled boombox decked out in red, yellow, turquoise with its nine antennas alluding to the intergalactic while also being curved in the shape of a crown; Linocut of Sojourner Truth by Elizabeth Catlett in 1947; or a 17th century crucifix from the Kongo region. The collection was not dizzying but rather deliberative. Ultimately, these temporal juxtapositions became a form of continuity for the entire piece.
It remains to be seen whether such an exceptional approach to the period room is an outlier or will radically change the fate of the museum’s overall approach to similar facilities.
The grace and grandeur that connect these disparate times, objects, supports are fully exposed in a new commission from the Met, the Haitian artist “Justice d’Ezili” by Jean-Louis Fabiola a sculptural dress made of sheets of paper and clay, 24 karat gold, Swarovski crystals and resin. Belonging to the fictional black woman whose home we are visiting, it makes the split between what was and what was denied to its real-life inhabitants more brutal and astonishing.
In that sense, it’s good that “Before Yesterday, We Could Fly” is self-aware enough to know that he can’t heal such trauma. On the contrary, it’s truly a generative addition to those ongoing conversations about racial justice, healing and redress that cultural institutions like the Met and ordinary people across the country were asked to have during Black’s Fist. Lives Matter in 2020.
Ideally, the venue itself is so immersive and suggestive that its viewers end up traveling just minutes away to visit the sights in Central Park where Seneca Village once stood, and find the conflict between historical erasure and artistic speculation, forced displacement and dreams of Black Freedom is so shocking and unfair that we all mourn and begin the hard work of economic and emotional redress. .
The day before yesterday, we could fly: an Afrofuturist period room
This is a permanent exhibition. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, (212) 535-7710; metmuseum.org. Entrance to the museum is by timed ticket. All visitors aged 12 and over should be vaccinated against Covid-19.