Peer Through the Fabrics of Time at ‘Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room'

By Destiny Randle | December 14, 2021

Last month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art unveiled the long-term installation Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room. Unlike traditional period rooms, this contemporary room pushes boundaries by focusing on “what if?” instead of “what was.”

The museum’s curatorial team drew inspiration from the Seneca Village community, the first free Black settlement in Manhattan. Although established in the 1820s, Seneca Village’s prosperity was short-lived as New York state destroyed it and other communities in the 1850s to build Central Park.

But what if the Seneca Village community had the opportunity to grow and thrive?

This exhibition transforms into a speculative future home of Seneca Village residents and descendants of that community’s members. The archeological dig in 2011 supported the team with the reimagination of its structure, featured items, and history.

Lead curator and designer Hannah Beachler (known for her work on Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther) and Senior Exhibition Designer Fabiana Weinberg designed its wood-framed 19th-century home that includes a kitchen and a living room furnished with a range of works from The Met collection— from Bamileke beadwork and 19th-century American ceramics to contemporary art and design from the museum’s Michael C. Rockefeller Wing.

The team also partnered with 15 contemporary artists including Ini Archibong, Cyrus Kabiru, Roberto Lugo, Zizipho Poswa, Tourmaline, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and Fabiola Jean-Louis to curate works that tell Seneca Village’s untold story. A few pieces include a radio created by Kabiru and a lighting fixture designed by Archibong to convey time travel and its technological advances.

Beachler shared in a press release for The Met, “This project is important to me because it is a necessary conversation with time, loss, community, and hope.”

For consulting curator Dr. Michelle Commander, this project “celebrates the ingenuity, artistry, and determination of people of African descent and reconfigures how we think about space, place, and time.”

Before Yesterday We Could Fly rewrites history and shapes the past, present, and future visions of Black life while also raising rousing and complex questions.

The exhibition explores “how we can reimagine history and historical facts, how we can repurpose them, and how we can highlight certain histories that have long been erased—sometimes intentionally—and bring them forward in these absolutely stunning ways,” Commander told Vogue.

Co-curator Sarah E. Lawrence mentioned the launch of the Afrofuturist room would kick off a string of exhibitions focused on race and social justice. For example, in March 2022, the museum will explore the abolition of slavery in France with Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast and later showcase an installation about the Harlem Renaissance.

Before Yesterday We Could Fly is an ongoing exhibition in Gallery 508 on the first floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Tickets are available here.

Photography by: Anna-Marie Kellen/Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art