Light Years

The Met’s Afrofuturist period room thinks inside the box

View of “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room,” 2021–. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Anna-Marie Kellen.

IN HIS INTRODUCTION to Period Rooms in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1996), the longest-serving director of the New York museum, the now-retired Philippe de Montebello, notes the popularity of his subject. “Virtually everyone who visits the Museum’s American Wing finds there the opportunity to experience a sense of the way our forebears lived,” he writes. A period room is a museological device that combines architecture, furnishings, decorative art, and functional objects to represent an interior of a certain time, place, and style. A feature of many museums, the rooms purport to represent domestic settings in authentic and preservationist ways.

Cloistered among the armor, European, and American art sections at the Met, “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room” troubles de Montebello’s implicit assumptions as to who “everyone” is and who “our forebears” are. The exhibition, which brings together some fifteen contemporary artists, challenges the established conventions and stuffy connotations of the traditional period room. Instead of reconstructing a discrete historical moment, the exhibition “embraces the African and African diasporic belief that the past, present, and future are interconnected.” Instead of a nostalgic re-creation of white gentility, black imagination under violent conditions.

Located in an almost suffocatingly small rectangular room, the exhibition is organized around a wooden structure conceived to resemble a possible home of residents descended from the nineteenth-century Seneca Village community. The first free black settlement in New York City, Seneca Village, like many black neighborhoods in this country, was razed using eminent domain, in its case to build Central Park, in 1857; the Met opened its Fifth Avenue building a few minutes’ walk away just fifteen years later. Viewers tour the home—consisting of a kitchen and a living room, with art, decor, and furniture that come together in a lush, maximalist, evocative style—on a narrow path between Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s vibrant floor-to-ceiling collage wallpaper; there is enough space for one person to peep through the many cutouts while another passes by. Organized around a brick hearth, the home abounds with artifacts and trinkets (warming pan, churn, pipe box, hair comb, saltbox, palm-wine vessel, sculptural plates, bowls, vases); chairs and tables; new acquisitions, including work by Chris Kabiru, Roberto Lugo, and Tourmaline; herbalist paraphernalia; books by Octavia Butler, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Frederick Douglass, and Saidiya Hartman; and sounds from a hypnotic five-channel, six-minute video installation by Jenn Nkiru. On the exterior of the building’s shabby-chic clapboard walls is the majority of the wall text, which, overlaid on wood and glass, is not easily legible. To read parts of it, the adult viewer must crouch, a possible allusion to the fragmentation, effort, and multiple perspectives inherent to history-making.

View of “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room,” 2021–ongoing. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Anna-Marie Kellen.

The exhibition does its own time traveling. In addition to several works commissioned for the show, there are art and artifacts dating from the sixteenth-to-nineteenth centuries (kettle, pan, jar, shovel, crucifix) and more recent work by William Henry Johnson, Magdalene Odundo, Lorna Simpson, and others. Though the United States dominates the mood, the national origins of the display are diverse: Benin, Cameroon, Kenya, South Africa, Italy, Germany, Haiti, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and elsewhere. The show’s title draws on The People Could Fly, a 1985 collection of intergenerational African folk tales, and the references to flights past and future, a keystone of the exhibition, are vast. At the entrance, a nineteenth-century metal bird staff from the kingdom of Dahomey references “spiritual flight.” A 2020 stoneware vase by Andile Dyalvane is adorned with feather imagery. I see flight even in Ini Archibong’s cosmic table Orion, 2021, and in Willie Cole’s 2007 Shine sculpture, which cobbles high heels into a gloriously twisted mask. Not visible in the exhibition is another modality of flight in black literature and culture—a flight that, from the enslaved jumping off ships to the opening of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, isn’t toward futurity or fugitivity but toward death.

Some of the individual work is stunning. The Met benefits from the exquisite vision of lead curator Hannah Beachler—a production designer by trade who helped engineer the aesthetic of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther—and consulting curator Michelle Commander, of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, who worked with the museum’s curatorial team, including Sarah E. Lawrence and Ian Alteveer. Henry Taylor’s huge portrait of Andrea Y. Motley Crabtree, the first woman deep-sea diver in the US army, is stirring and melancholic, haunting and ambivalent in its reference to the military. Tourmaline’s luscious 2020 photographs Summer Azure and Morning Cloak I have already loved on record. For the abolitionists of this century, Elizabeth Catlett’s 1947 linocut of Sojourner Truth, pictured plainly in the artist’s typical realist style but for her slightly oversize skyward-pointing right hand, is as galvanizing as it is indelible. The powerfully tactile portrait, titled In Sojourner Truth I Fought for the Rights of Women as well as Negroes, acknowledges both the ordinary yet coercive circumstances of black women’s labor and their defiance without succumbing to heroine worship. Other pieces, such as Zizipho Poswa’s sculpture Magodi-Noxolo, 2020, and Fabiola Jean-Louis’s corset dress Justice of Ezili, 2021, invite solemn contemplation even in their animated, intricate designs.

“Before Yesterday We Could Fly” is rather sanguine about the contemporary moment, not through what it says but through what it doesn’t.

When I go back on a Tuesday morning, it’s quieter than my Sunday funhouse experience, and I’m better able to attend to the concepts at stake. One big one: The “Afrofuturism” of the title is, according to the wall text, “a transdisciplinary creative mode that centers black imagination, excellence, and self-determination.” The nod to black excellence in 2021 leaves me wondering about the “critical” component of the exhibition’s attempt at “critical fabulation” (a term Hartman coined to describe her method of fusing historical-archive research with theory and creative narrative). If Afrofuturism here is plainly a way to stress speculation, fabula, make-believe, and imagination, this framing can sometimes seem forced, especially when overtures to the “future” take the form of predictable references—to technology, science, outer space, time travel, check check check—retrofitted to bolster a curatorial premise that remains frustratingly undertheorized. The show has little to say in response to the various critiques of Afrofuturism, as a cultural movement or political imaginary, that have been made since the term permeated popular culture—to the charges of its intellectual vagueness, its aesthetic exhaustion, its naïve utopianism, its toxic positivity, its escapist obsession with alternative worlds over a frank analysis of material conditions. As the artist Martine Syms writes in her darkly comic “Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto”: “Earth is all we have. What will we do with it?”

View of “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room,” 2021–ongoing. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Anna-Marie Kellen.

Despite the title, which challenges tidy historicist periodizations through its simultaneous signals to the past and to the future, the show still props up the former as a site of factual narration, a locus for depoliticized celebration of culture and difference. A display of Venetian glassware from the sixteenth-to-nineteenth centuries explains how such objects were exchanged for enslaved people, but the wall text’s proposition that the residents of this invented home are “reimagin[ing]” and “repurposing” this “long-standing generative and exploitative relationship between Venice and Africa,” instead of highlighting the inescapability of that relationship, falls flat. In other words, history links smoothly rather than intrudes, which is curious because, at its best, “Before Yesterday We Could Fly” destabilizes the period room through imagination, fiction, adaptation, ornamentation, and refusal.

This neutralization of history is due, in part, to the show’s treatment of the present. It is rather sanguine about the contemporary moment, not through what it says but through what it doesn’t. While Met curator Sarah E. Lawrence says that plans for the exhibition predated last summer, it does not seem unreasonable to expect some awareness here of 2020’s unprecedented worldwide protest against anti-black police violence, or at least a sense of today’s black New Yorkers and the lives they live. Rather, the exhibition’s view of the present often falls back on trite pop-cultural references, as in Roberto Lugo’s Digable Underground, 2021, which puts Erykah Badu, hip-hop, and graffiti in strained conversation with Harriet Tubman. In the main wall text, which operates as an empty land acknowledgment, an indistinct “we” “remember[s] and honor[s]” the Seneca Village community, and “recognize[s]” its location on Lenapehoking, “acknowledg[ing]” Black and Native struggles and the “historical erasure that connects both communities.” Given the proximity of this mammoth institution to inequality and brutality in this city and well beyond—the presence of private-equity oligarchy Blackstone Group’s J. Tomilson Hill and James Breyer on the board of trustees, for example, and David Koch’s $65 million donation—such statements of recognition and commemoration ring hollow. For an institution with money, resources, and space, “Before Yesterday We Could Fly,” to those all too familiar with weak-tea DEI efforts, can feel like crumbs assembled from beneath the boardroom table. The second time I see the show, I walk down the Met steps and head ten minutes west to present-day Seneca Village. Not much remains, other than sixteen signs installed by the Central Park Conservatory. After the Met, I can only see a graveyard.

Tiana Reid is a postdoctoral research associate in the department of English at Brown University.