Boston’s Most Compelling Summer Art Projects Are Found Outside Museum Walls
Days can be spent exploring Boston’s art museums for the treasures contained within. They’ll still be there when the weather turns cold. Make hay while the sun shines by discovering the city’s most compelling artworks this summer, all of which can be found outside of museum walls.
Start on the front lawn of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston with its Garden for Boston project where local artists and activists Ekua Holmes (African American, born 1955) and Elizabeth James-Perry (Aquinnah Wampanoag, born 1973) are taking on Cyrus Dallin’s Appeal to the Great Spirit (1909) statue, the focal point of the MFA’s main entrance for more than a century.
James-Perry was searching for the appropriate platform to express her anger and frustration about the traumas of 2020 when contacted by MFA curator Ethan Lasser about transforming the front of the museum, doing so in a way that reckoned with the Dallin statue. For years now, the MFA has efforted to recontextualize Appeal to the Great Spirit—a depiction of a Native American man astride a horse with his arms outstretched and dressed in a mix of Lakota- and Diné-syle regalia. Today, MFA interpretation recognizes that the sculpture is based on an inaccurate accumulation of Native symbols and ultimately capitalized on the degrading myth of the “vanishing race,” which portrayed Indigenous peoples as disappearing in the face of modern civilization—both appropriating and misrepresenting Native American culture.
“2020 started odd and got a whole lot worse beginning with the 400-year celebration of the Mayflower–que the Aquinnah Wampanoag artist; I received a lot of what I refer to as ‘Posable Pocahontas’ opportunities, like, ‘be in an IMAX film opposite Christopher Lloyd and tell us how poor the soil is in New England Miss Perry,’–hard pass,” James-Perry told Forbes.com. “Discuss Sovereignty? Not so much. Our detailed quillwork, wampum shell carving, or Native regalia? Nope. And zero traction talking about the hundreds of years of environmental change in a meaningful way, about how drastic changes have strained and retrained life here.”
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Those appeals stopped when the pandemic started.
“Everything stopped, except for suffering,” James-Perry remembers. “Folks changed things up quickly–marching, demonstrating in number, I no longer felt it was just my lone voice in the weeds anymore, speaking out against systemic racism made especially obvious by the pandemic, and senseless killings.”
Summer of 2021 would be the right time for her message. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s lawn, the right place.
“Questions revolved around evolving the fortress-like museum façade–my description–and irritating, stagnant statue–also my words–to become a more welcoming space, and here I mean welcoming by demonstrating diverse viewpoints about history and the present,” James-Perry said. “The curators did not try to control how I expressed my heritage as an Aquinnah Wampanoag artist.”
James-Perry’s installation, Raven Reshapes Boston: A Native Corn Garden at the MFA, draws on planting techniques that have been used by local Indigenous people for thousands of years, centering reciprocal relationships between humans and the land. The artist and her collaborators created a field of corn, beans and sedges—grown in mounds using a traditional Woodlands Native American method—in the shape of a horseshoe crab and framed by crushed quahog shells. Over time, the corn will surround Dallin’s Appeal to the Great Spirit—made by a white artist for white audiences—emphasizing continued Native presence and serving as a counterproposal to the misrepresentations and erasures embodied by the sculpture.
“Raven Reshapes Boston is a nod to the eastern Native story about the traditional knowledge keeper, Raven, who brought corn to the region for Native women to grow and sustain their families,” James-Perry said. “The horseshoe crab shape, along with the white quahog shell border, connects the planting to my coastal identity. It recalls rich sea harvests and coastal feasts, and is a reminder of the shell middens once ubiquitous in what is now a concrete cityscape. The garden is a reclamation of Boston as Indigenous land.”
Holmes’ installation, Radiant Community, features some 3,000 sunflowers of four varieties, planted in collaboration with United Neighbors of Lower Roxbury Community Gardens. The planting, on the east side of the MFA’s Huntington Avenue lawn, is an extension of Holmes’ ongoing “Roxbury Sunflower Project,” which uses sunflowers to spread beauty and hope throughout the historically Black Boston neighborhood where the artist has lived since childhood.
Both installations will be on view into September.
What does Jones-Perry see when looking at the Dallin sculpture?
“Probably not what the artist intended,” she said.
Neither will anyone else after having experienced Garden for Boston.
That’s the point.
To the Harbor!
In summer 2018, the Institute of Contemporary Art opened to the public its new ICA Watershed, expanding artistic and educational programming on both sides of Boston Harbor—the Seaport and East Boston. Located in the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina, the ICA Watershed transformed a 15,000-square-foot, formerly condemned space, into a vast and welcoming space to see and experience large-scale art.
The ICA Watershed presently features a newly commissioned, monumental sculpture by artist Firelei Báez (b. 1981, Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic). In her largest sculptural installation to date, the artist reimagines the archeological ruins of the Sans-Souci Palace in Haiti as if they were emerging from Boston Harbor’s sea floor. The Watershed’s location—in a working shipyard and as a trade site and point of entry and home for immigrants over decades—provides a pivotal point of reference.
The work’s intricately painted architectural surfaces include symbols of healing and resistance, patterning drawn from West African indigo printing traditions (later used in the American South), and sea growths native to Caribbean waters. Báez’s sculpture points to the centuries-long exchanges of ideas and influence between Europe, the African continent, and the Americas.
Báez’s sculpture, on view through September 6, is adapted from the Sans-Souci Palace in Milot, Haiti, built between 1810 and 1813 for the revolutionary leader and first King of Haiti, Henri Christophe I. The Haitian Revolution, led by self-liberated enslaved people against the French colonial government, was an early precursor to the abolition movements of the United States. Once a space of splendor, since an 1842 earthquake, the castle has been an archeological ruin.
“Growing up, I was always told–especially after coming to the United States–that the Caribbean was this ahistoric space, essentially the place I came from, because of the many hurricanes that erased architecture, the fact that many of us came from the Atlantic Slave Trade, that we didn’t have family histories to go back on and recreate our past,” Báez said of the installation’s inspiration.
Accompanied by an undulating blue expanse overhead—evoking both water and the night sky—this immersive sculptural installation includes a soundscape created from recordings of Boston Harbor and the Caribbean, featuring sounds of the sea and maritime bustling, as well as personal stories of migration. In addition, a large-scale mural created by the artist for the Watershed—featuring a seascape populated by Ciguapa, a mythological creature from Dominican folklore—creates a multi-textured viewer experience. These elements weave together various histories and stories, setting the stage for visitors to be transported into new realms.
Lastly, directly across a Harbor channel from the Watershed, at the New England Aquarium, artist Shepard Fairey, known for his ‘HOPE’ portrait of President Obama, has painted a large-scale mural. Fairey’s will be one of 11 new murals going up throughout East Boston as part of the “Sea Walls: Artists for Change” program, an ocean advocacy group using murals to increase interest and engagement in marine stewardship within the community.