If you are a regular visitor to the ASA’s website, you will have seen the official image of the 56th Annual Meeting. The image was chosen for its visual appeal and its suggested narrative, in relation to the theme of the upcoming conference. The image suggests homecoming and new beginnings, clean slates and starting over. At the same time, it suggests identity (perhaps shared identities)… and maybe a sense of loss.

The Great Migration: People of the African Diaspora image is actually a wall mural painted in Washington, D.C. by Helina Metaferia, a very talented artist. The photo of the image we used was taken by Kim Baker. We are lucky to have Helina attending this year’s Annual Meeting, and she will be in the registration area if you would like to meet her and learn more about her work. Some of her pieces will also be on display, and she will be bringing several of them with her for sale.

In this article, Helina tells us about herself:

What are some of your experiences as a young woman of African descent and living in the United States, and how does this influence your work?

I am a first generation Ethiopian-American. I was born in Washington, DC to Ethiopian parents who moved to the United States in the 1970’s for educational opportunities. I have visited Ethiopia as a youth and as an adult, and was raised to understand the language, culture, and heritage of Ethiopian people. However, being born and raised in the United States, I identify as being an African-American as well. My background has allowed me to have a very pan-African viewpoint, and this identity has become an integral part of my artwork. 

Your mural is multi-layered, and speaks to issues of migration, diaspora, and even identity. What inspired you to paint it?

I was invited to paint this mural by artist Joel Bergner, who received a grant through the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities to facilitate five murals along the Georgia Avenue corridor. As one of the five artists chosen to paint a mural, I was asked to create a mural that depicts a social or cultural issue concerning Washington, DC. The city has a large African population from all over the Diaspora. As an Ethiopian-American, I immediately considered the Africans who have come to the United States, either by force or by choice, as a subject for the mural. It fascinates me that this country has a history of Africans who have come to this country voluntarily through immigration after many years of involuntary migration through slavery. I wanted to address a sense of unity in the narratives of all Africans who have come to the United States in a pan-African sense. So often we look at our differences as people of African descent. I wanted to express the powerful idea of the collective. I was hoping to look at our shared experiences through this mural. This is my personal narrative, as well as the narrative that I felt that the diverse communities on Georgia Avenue can relate to.56th Annual Meeting Image: The Great Migration: People of the African Diaspora

You told me that the building the mural was painted on has since been torn down?

I painted the mural in 2008. Since then, there has been some development in the neighbourhood. Last summer, the building the mural was painted on was torn down for the construction of condominiums. This is the impermanent nature of public art. I received emails from people in the community who wanted to salvage the mural in some way. I have accepted that public art is not a permanent art form, as there are many factors that can contribute to the removal or destruction of a mural. However, I am happy that the mural has been documented and still continues to live on in some capacity. 

Why did you pick that particular place, and is there a story behind you choosing to locate the mural there?

When I came onto the project, I was given a wall to work with. It was next to a Caribbean corner store. I befriended the owners and started to think about the population that live in that particular part of Georgia Avenue in the Petworth neighbourhood. I had also lived in that community at one point. The neighbourhood was undergoing some gentrification (thus the tearing down of a Caribbean market for very lush condominiums) and I was thinking about how to depict a community that may or may not continue to live in that neighbourhood in the coming years. And interestingly enough, five years later the mural is no longer there and the community is indeed changing. 

Does any artist and/or body of work in particular influence or inspire you?

I have many inspirations. I knew I wanted to create public art as a teenager when I was exposed to the massive mural art scene in Philadelphia. The striking images and representation of everyday people in the murals stuck with me, and drew me into the world of public and community based arts. I have been working in that field for ten years and have created over twenty public art pieces. I also show my fine art as a studio artist in galleries and museums. My own fine art is largely inspired by the legendary work of Ethiopian artist Skunder Boghossian and Mexican artist Frida Khalo, and by contemporaries such as Wangechi Mutu, Renee Stout, Maria Magdalena Compos-Pons, and Mickalene Thomas.

You are currently pursuing a Masters degree in Fine Arts. What do you think the next steps will be in your career as an artist?

I am enrolled in an MFA program at Tufts University’s School of Museum of Fine Arts. My program has an interdisciplinary art focus. The faculty and resources in this program have been amazing and have allowed me to explore various contemporary mediums, such as live performance art, video art, and installation work, as well as traditional mediums, such as painting, drawing, printmaking, and photography. With my background being in public art, I continue to work large scale and consider space in my artwork. I can feel my art practice growing, not just technically, but also theoretically as I am being forced to go deeper into the content of my work. Upon completion of my MFA degree, I would love to return to New York, which hosts one of the largest market places for contemporary art. I would also like to travel and exhibit more internationally, as my art is largely inspired by travel. In addition, I am considering teaching art in a college setting.