Museum  February 1, 2022  Megan D Robinson

Fabiola Jean-Louis & The Met’s “Before Yesterday We Could Fly”

Courtesy the artist, commissioned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2021

Fabiola Jean-Louis (Haitian, born 1978), Detail view of Justice of Ezili, 2021. Paper, gold, Swarovski crystals, lapis lazuli, labradorite, brass, ink, and resin.

The first female Haitian artist to exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fabiola Jean-Louis was commissioned to create a piece for its groundbreaking current exhibition, Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room, inspired by nineteenth-century Seneca Village—the first free Black community in New York—and classic folktales of Blacks who flew to freedom. The exhibition celebrates the art, history, and creativity of the African diaspora, bringing together a multi-disciplinary collection, combining pieces from the Met’s vast collection with newly commissioned work.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen.

Installation view of Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Encompassing past, present, and future, the exhibition creates an Afrofuturistic example of a Seneca Villager’s home, if the Village had not been destroyed to build Central Park, a first step in remediating the harm caused by past erasures and destructions of African American history and culture.

“I wanted to create something that spoke to my Haitianness, ” Jean-Louis says about her breathtaking couture sculpture, Justice of Ezili. Calling on the legacy of Haitian voodoo, Jean-Louis crafted a dress for the loa Ezili Dantor. Jean-Louis says Loa are spirits who “help people to connect or to communicate with the Almighty God.” A fierce protector, Ezili Dantor is associated with motherhood, justice, and vengeance. “This dress really was a call to arms,” Jean-Louis says. Embodying Ezili’s spirit, “It’s a dress of war or armor. I was imagining what a queen, a Black woman, might wear if she was going into war.”

Courtesy the artist, commissioned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2021

Fabiola Jean-Louis (Haitian, born 1978), Justice of Ezili, 2021. Paper, gold, Swarovski crystals, lapis lazuli, labradorite, brass, ink, and resin.

Imposingly baroque, Justice of Ezili is sculpted primarily of paper and clay. Jean-Louis says paper is the only material she knows whose role as a tool and material morphs and shifts through time, while its changing roles shape our society. “For me, using paper symbolizes many things. It’s speaking about currency to buy human bodies, it’s speaking about power and the fragility of power, and strength—in the ability for the underdog to create something out of nothing.”

Embellished with brass, Swarovski crystals, and gems, the dress projects wealth, status, and power. It also features a white neckcloth anchored by a floral brooch, ruffled shoulder epaulets, a dove gray bodice and overskirt, gold mesh sleeves, and deep red and green underskirts, all adorned with detailed pattern work. The decorated bodice—with golden edging extending down the center as to highlight inlaid lapis lazuli cabochons—resembles an ornamental breastplate.

Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen.

Installation view of Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In designing the piece, Jean-Louis used culturally significant colors, envisioning how they would interact with the period room as a whole. The entire exhibition was a long-distance collaboration; artists and curators all worked together, considering how the disparate pieces would fit into a coherent, amazing whole.

Jean-Louis feels the exhibition is a historical turning point. “This is the first step in a practice that I think is going to be much larger in the future,” she explains. “The Met was making a promise by having an all Black and Brown lineup of artists—something that they've never done before. They weren't going to answer everything in this one exhibition. There's so much more work to be done. And they know that, but what they were able to accomplish in that small space is impressive.”

Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen.

Installation view of Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Another important aspect of the exhibition for Jean-Louis, especially in relation to her own work, is the importance of spiritual connection and imagination. 

“Connection to spirit, to spirituality and to that part of the world, or, that part of us that makes us magical,” she explains, is an essential human need that can be filled through art. “That's what this exhibition really represents to me, too. It's not just about memory, but about having hope, and hope for the future in ways that I don't think that we've done collectively.”

While her work is centered on Black identity, experiences, and memory, it's also very inclusive, sparking “a broader conversation about magic and how we should be tapping into that. That we're better when we tap into magic.”

Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room is an ongoing exhibition installed at The Met Fifth Avenue.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

Subscribe to our free e-letter!

Webform

Latest News

Feminism & Violence Coexist in Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith
Gentileschi’s Judith stands out because it shows the act of a woman forcefully…
“Quiet as It’s Kept”: Whitney Biennial Returns with Middling Show
Silenced by the pandemic last year, The Whitney Biennial returns with an…
“William Klein: YES” at the International Center of Photography
The International Center of Photography (ICP) will present a major…
Claude Monet's Life & Works in 10 Surprising Facts
Monet was a master painter whose works are synonymous with the Impressionist…
The History of Copying Art: A Learning Tool or a Cheat? 
Copying within the context of the art world has evolved over the centuries.…