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ASTRO BLACK Peter L’Official on Lauren Halsey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Lauren Halsey, “the eastside of south central los angeles hieroglyph prototype architecture (I),” 2023

Lauren Halsey, “the eastside of south central los angeles hieroglyph prototype architecture (I),” 2023

Afrofuturism has materialized at the Met, both on the museum’s ground floor and at its summertime hotspot. Throughout this year’s Roof Garden season, Lauren Halsey’s architectural homage to the Black tradition of critical speculative creation that is Afrofuturism overlooks New York’s Central Park before moving to its future permanent home in South Central Los Angeles. In his review, Peter L’Official follows the different modes of movement inscribed in the concrete panels as well as the overall conception of this monumental installation. Cast under the pressure of existential threat, prophesies of flight signpost escape routes from catastrophes of the future, the writer suggests. And they might just help art criticism along the way.

There are not one but two “Afrofuturist Period Rooms” currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But only one carries that title. And it is the exhibition that is not named as such that is most faithful to the speculative, searching spirit of Afrofuturism. “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room” works as a corrective to the staid, predominantly white and Eurocentric domestic interiors typically represented in museum period rooms. The exhibition does this by engaging with the matter of Black lives – those that the Met acknowledges in the exhibition catalogue are “domestic lives previously omitted from the scope of the Museum’s period displays.” [1] The Met’s gesture of inclusion takes the form of an imagined and propositional period room that envisions what life may have looked like had the historical settlement of Seneca Village – a predominantly Black community that flourished in the mid-19th century a few hundred yards west of the Met’s current location – not been demolished and its residents forcibly removed by the city in 1857 for the construction of Central Park. To imagine this new interior, the curators, Hannah Beachler and Michelle D. Commander, turned to the speculative creative mode known as Afrofuturism, a term coined in 1994 by the critic Mark Dery which describes a more deeply historical range of artistic, literary, and philosophical practices that construct alternate and often science-fictional presents, pasts, and futures for Black American and Black diasporic peoples, while using those same fantastical modes to critique our real presents, pasts, and possible futures as well. [2] “Before Yesterday We Could Fly,” in all its carefully curated and imaginative glory, is broadly Afrofuturist in name. But it is, rather, Lauren Halsey’s installation, commissioned for the Met Roof Garden, that makes tangible the Afrofuturist spirit – and promise of flight – tantalized by the other exhibit’s title.

Halsey’s work, titled the eastside of south central los angeles hieroglyph prototype architecture (I) (2023), embraces both the predilection for Egyptian symbolism and hallucinogenic musicianship favored by Afrofuturist ancestors like Sun Ra and George Clinton, as well as more direct architectural and aesthetic links to the Met’s Egyptian collections that reside just a few floors below Halsey’s work – in particular, the museum’s renowned Temple of Dendur. Halsey’s rooftop structure, a 22-foot-high cube with an oculus that is open to the sky, features two cantilevered portals at opposite corners that help to frame spectacular views of Manhattan’s residential and commercial towers, which are themselves echoed by Halsey’s four freestanding columns and attendant sphinxes surrounding her central temple. But Halsey’s installation does not rely solely on form or visual rhyme to impress. Rather, what animates the work are the anarchically collaged styles of hieroglyphic writing, sampled and remixed from the literal signs and signifiers from her South Central Los Angeles neighborhood – storefront signage, grassroots community organization names, street advertising placards, images of low-riders and Egyptian ankhs and djed pillars, rousing messages of uplift, and other vernacular ephemera – that are engraved in various typefaces and calligraphic styles into more than 750 panels that comprise a monument to that California neighborhood and its communities, commingling the contemporary with the ancient and inscribing the present – and Black presence – on, and into, our pasts and futures.

Despite the epochal, weighty aura to the built forms that Halsey has chosen, her “hieroglyph prototype architecture” is also a monument to movement – and the characteristically Afrofuturist notion of escape – in all senses. To a visitor standing inside Halsey’s pavilion, the aforementioned oculus offers a moment to contemplate ascension, perhaps even the fantasy of transcendence – of time, of place, of oppressive atmospheres – so common to the speculative fictions of writers like Samuel Delany, N. K. Jemisin, or Octavia E. Butler. Halsey herself has described it as a “spiritual portal to the mothership, to the stars.” [3] Even if Halsey walked through the Met’s Egyptian wing while blasting her favorite Parliament Funkadelic albums to “funkatize” her response to them (as she notes in a promotional video), the nimble, improvisational blend of impulses and inspirations – whether to recover lost cultural origins in the form of neighborhood iconography, sociality, and folklore, or to personally reclaim Egypt as a Black civilization reincarnated in the besphinxed, sculpted faces of Halsey’s friends, family, and loved ones – are deeply indebted to the Pharaonic countermythologies of Sun Ra. Halsey’s structure also contains within it homages to utopian and modular architecture of the 1960s, and its glass fiber reinforced concrete cladding can – and, importantly, will – be deconstructed and transported back to her native Los Angeles – a form of domestic repatriation, if you will – where it can be reactivated by those South Central communities that inspired its creation.

Lauren Halsey, “the eastside of south central los angeles hieroglyph prototype architecture (I),” 2023

Lauren Halsey, “the eastside of south central los angeles hieroglyph prototype architecture (I),” 2023

Halsey’s temple will eventually make good on its Black speculative thematic of flight and spiritual return once its exhibition window closes, escaping its institutional associations for a lifetime of simply existing within a Los Angeles community. But what to make of her rooftop commission today, as it sits sentry atop the Met? Every promotional and professional photograph of Halsey’s installation presents the work in its most attractive context: bathed in bright sunshine and beneath blue skies, with the columnar masses of the city stretching toward the sky in the distance. Raking shadows create dramatic angles on the off-white concrete panels, and the faces of Halsey’s friends and family communicate a sense of approachable nobility. It looks like a magnificent place to spend a spring or summer afternoon – because it is. In preparation for this review, I visited it on a warm summer morning, and despite having already seen many images of the project beforehand, Halsey’s work did not disappoint. It confirmed my expectations, even managed to exceed them in many cases, and based on what I had previously seen, it “looked like itself” – both in person and in all of the personal photographs I took for my own reference for writing this review. This is a testament to its success in both concept and execution.

But I remain haunted by one image of Halsey’s piece that I did not make myself: a photograph taken on the rooftop during the days of early June, when New York City had among the worst air quality in the world due to the smoke from the Canadian wildfires. Perhaps you have seen similar images on social media of ochre-colored air saturating everything in sight on the city’s streets with a sickly glow. You may have seen the mordant memes comparing the visual landscape of New York with that rendered by cinematographer Roger Deakins for the dystopian 2017 sequel Blade Runner 2049. These scenes are echoed in the image of Halsey’s temple which haunts me: in the background, only the most proximate apartment buildings across Central Park are visible, the rest lost to an acrid, milky haze that only thickens the higher one looks up into the sky. The temple, columns, and sphinxes take on the noxious tones of the sky, and everything that seemed triumphant and insouciant about the installation looks, in this photograph, suddenly imperiled and anxious. It’s striking how a simple photograph can achieve this stark change of feeling, but I suppose there is little that is simple about a cataclysmic climate aftereffect that continues to affect North America even today. What does it mean to contemplate a work of public art in a moment of climate crisis? What miniscule effect can a piece of writing such as this have in that moment? And even more urgently, how can we even behold such art at all, when not just its very site but also the very air in the surrounding city and entire region proves dangerous to all, and perhaps approaches intolerable for others? How does one – a writer, an artist, an Afrofuturist – escape from this?

There are no easy answers except to say that any critical discourse about art or aesthetics is of course a discourse about politics – but not merely those of the artist or work at hand. There are endless contexts – historical, methodological, stylistic, among others – to consider when reflecting upon a work in writing, but some of the most urgent are too easy to ignore until one begins to choke on a “context” that happens to be essential to life.

Perhaps it is too convenient to note that such existential, extinction-level threats are in part what inspired Black folk to think speculatively in the first place. It may be well-trodden ground to observe that environmental peril has more often than not affected Black and Brown folk in communities small and large, urban and rural, across the globe first, due to their proximity to hazardous wastes, conditions, or weather as an outgrowth of the structural racism and segregations that forced such communities onto lesser lands and undesired parts of their cities. Maybe like the best Afrofuturists, Lauren Halsey – like Wangechi Mutu, or John Akomfrah, or Cauleen Smith, or RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ – knows this implicitly, and thinks the work should speak for itself without me or anyone else adding our voices. These artists have made works familiar with such challenges because, as representatives of communities of color, they have had to think about such challenges. Violence and existential threat have, in many ways, been the air they’ve breathed, for generations. But to recite such generalized historical facts in a review is also part – an essential part – of the critical mechanism at work, especially when the piece of art in question, as Halsey’s does, illustrates answers to questions that even its critics may not have anticipated asking, or which in some way itself anticipates a solution to the problem being posed.

A review is, in essence, a record of a confrontation, though not solely with the work of art itself. It is an accounting for taste, but borne out of an encounter with the critic’s own history, and their understanding of history, culture, style, economics, technology, and many other things – and maybe too infrequently, the environment. It is a document of an experience, but the essay itself – whether in the process of writing, editing, revising, or in the reading when in the public’s hands – ideally should open up new experiences, new confrontations, new insights. Like the future deconstructed, transported, and recontextualized form of Halsey’s temple, returned to its ancestral South Central home after its own confrontation with the precarities of life on a New York roof, we ought to find ourselves, too, returned to community and changed – moved – somehow, for better or worse, by our writing or reading. Like Halsey, criticism invents a space where we can, perhaps as an Afrofuturist might, contemplate and confront our past, present, and future so that we might dream our way to their alternatives.

“Lauren Halsey: The Roof Garden Commission,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, April 18–October 22, 2023.

Peter L’Official (he/him) is an associate professor of literature and director of the American and Indigenous Studies Program at Bard College. He is the author of Urban Legends: The South Bronx in Representation and Ruin (Harvard University Press, 2020), and his writing has appeared in Artforum, Architectural Record, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and other publications. He is an editor at the European Review of Books, and he is at work on his next book on the intersections between literature, architecture, and Blackness in America.

Image credit: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art


[1]Ian Alteveer, Hannah Beachler, and Sarah Lawrence, “Introduction,” in “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room,” themed issue, Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 79, no. 3 (Winter 2022): 7.
[2]Mark Dery, “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose,” in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 180.
[3]“Artist Interview – Lauren Halsey: The Roof Garden Commission; Met Exhibitions,” The Met, @metmuseum, May 10, 2023, YouTube video, 6:19.