RECAP: Juneteenth at the MFA

Last Wednesday, The Museum of Fine Arts collaborated with the Transformative Culture Project and hosted its sixth annual Juneteenth Community Day. This special programming was held celebrate he oldest national commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.  The evening was full of thoughtful conversations, allowing visitors to engage in discussions with artists, with additional remarks from Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley. The museum also offered free guided tours of Juneteenth specific exhibits and led different art-centered workshops within its galleries. Alongside the art, beautiful musical and dance performances could be seen throughout the museum, giving the historic building a unique sense of life that is not often seen on the day-to-day.

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The Art

I had the pleasure of speaking to local artist and educator Chanel Thervil at the beginning of the evening, who gave some insight into her new mirrored works (pictured below).

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She noted that while both works were visibly different, they were both born as a visual interpretation of her emotions. She intends for both pieces to evoke and capture a sense of empathy, though toward different things.

The first image portrays feelings of pride and admiration, displaying people she views as mentors in her life. They are all based on photographs she took of people while interviewing them. Chanel believes that she was better able to capture their true selves by evoking real emotion in them. Through asking questions and taking photos, then basing her work off of that, she can use the emotional subtleties that are brought to the forefront from the personal touch of conversation. For example, the carving of the man on the very left of the top photo is based on a picture she took of him while he was telling her about the first time he fell in love.

The second image has contrasting feelings of anger and frustration that the artist herself after President Trump’s first round of legislature. She states that the marks she includes throughout the carving are “not for curiosity, but for intent and purpose,” a technique she used to further the emotions she was visually capturing. Just as in the first one, she placed focus on emotional subtleties and empathy in this work but working off of a different set of emotions.

The Performances

At the very center of the museum was a whirlwind of lively performances. The evening started off with Valerie Stephens beautifully leading the crowd in “Freedom’s Song.” An enormous uproar of applause and tears erupted and gave way to another touching performance by the Front Porch Arts Collective.

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Following the music performances came the dancing. Numerous dances were gorgeously put on by the children from the Origination Cultural Arts Center and the Boston Latin School Step Squad. The energy and positivity were contagious, filling the entire hall with a strong sense of love and community.

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Later on, the soft sounds of local Boston artists Anjimile could be heard from the fairylight-lit courtyard at dusk, bringing about a calming sense of peace among the crowd.

The Community

As previously mentioned, the entire event brought with it an unprecedented sense of community at the MFA. Boards asking “What does Juneteenth mean to you?” were propped all around the museum, encouraging people to bring their own experiences to the event. People of all ages, genders, and backgrounds could be seen adding their own words and engaging in meaningful conversations with strangers at every corner.

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The individual experiences of every person made up the whole that was the event and contributed to the overwhelmingly joyous celebration of community and freedom. Speakers shared personal stories and words of inspiration to crowds, an open mic gave visitors a chance to share their voice, and there was never a moment of silence or suppression of genuine emotion. The MFA has provided a unique avenue for self-expression and celebration within the Boston community, that will give rise to more major events and stimulate more crucial conversations around topics of race, freedom, and justice.

Natalie Novak