Before Yesterday We Could Fly

Recently, I found the Virtual Opening of Before Yesterday We Could Fly, which is an Afrofuturist Period Room at the Metropolitan Museum that opened in November of 2021. Afrofuturism is a cultural movement that uses modern media to re-imagine the African Diaspora, with the idea that the past, present, and future are all interconnected. Curated by Hannah Beachler and Michelle Commander, Before Yesterday We Could Fly looks at the history of Seneca Village, which was located in New York City before it was destroyed. The period room, therefore, recreates the past and presents a present and future Seneca Village that could have existed had it not been destroyed.

The video is about 27 minutes, and we hear from both curators who describe the decisions made with this period room. Their intent was to move away from the Eurocentric period rooms of the past and create one that spoke to the present and future. There are two rooms situated in the house: the kitchen, which represents the past, and the living room, which represents the future. The two rooms are connected by mud flooring, that keeps viewers grounded, linking the entire space to the earth. The kitchen space is made of complete walls with small windows to look through, while the living room area is open with only a bone-like structure. This is meant to convey to the viewers that, while the past is made up of glimpses due to lost history, the future is wide open.

The two curators were able to brilliantly convey the interconnections between the past, present, and future. In the center of the kitchen is a fireplace, which is reminiscent of story-telling and oral tradition. In the living room, there is a five sided television, which is interpreted as a modern day hearth. Where we once sat around a fire to tell stories and pass on traditions, we now find ourselves sitting around a television to learn, find out news, and have quality time together. I find this particularly fascinating. I often speak about social media in my blogs, and how it allows us to stay connected to each other, especially during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Something I am now thinking about, in regards to modern media, is traditions. To many, the word ‘traditions’ suggests a larger event or idea: maybe this is Christmas at your grandparents, or breaking the wishbone at Thanksgiving. Traditions, however, can be much simpler, such as taking the same road home from school or Sunday morning bagels. Do you watch your favorite show once a week with your mom, or get dinner after a swim meet, win or lose? Traditions are inherent in society, and they exemplify the human need for companionship. Viewers can imagine themselves or others within this room, can understand the love that was felt here and the liveliness that could have continued.

Something that I found interesting in Before Yesterday We Could Fly was the nod to European colonization and the effects it had on African people. Atang Tshikare, a South African Designer, created two chairs that are placed by the hearth (see here and here). They are modeled after 18th century French chairs, but are done using indigenous artistry, such as using charred wood and woven grasses. These are techniques that Tshikare had learned from his grandmother. Using these techniques to create an otherwise French inspired chair suggests a reclamation of his culture from French colonialism. Fabiola Jean-Louis, a Haitian born artist located in Brooklyn, achieves this goal in a similar manner. For the exhibit, she created a mid-19th century dress our of paper, using colors and adding in references to Haitian culture (see here). European colonialism had such a devastating impact on African cultures, to the point where much of the history has been lost. I think this period room did an excellent job at portraying this influence, while also placing African cultures at the forefront. While the past has been demoralizing, the future is inspiring.

I found this exhibit inspirational. I enjoyed seeing history and the future in the present day; the exhibit emphasizes that life is a full circle, with the past apparent in everything that comes after it. There is an understanding that the experience created in this room is not limited to Seneca Village or to New Yorkers, but can be applied nationally or even worldwide. If you have the time, I strongly suggest watching the video. If you have even more time, I would suggest seeing it in person, as the exhibit is still ongoing. Otherwise, you can learn more about Before Yesterday We Could Fly here, and see the many objects and artifacts included in the period room. I unfortunately did not have the rights to include images, as per the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website, so I urge you to take a look. It’s so fascinating to see contemporary art paired with artifacts, and it really gives viewers the feeling of the persistence of history. I believe that everyone can take something away from this exhibit; it shows humanity in its rawest form, which is something to be admired.

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