On Saturday, MassArt Art Museum (MAAM) opened as the newest and only free contemporary art museum in Boston. The teaching museum for the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt), MAAM is a Kunsthalle, or non-collecting museum, showing temporary exhibitions that feature the work of emerging and established artists to bring fresh, diverse perspectives to Boston.
After extensive renovations, MAAM opened in the space formerly known as the Bakalar & Paine Galleries at the heart of MassArt’s campus on the Avenue of the Arts.
Among the opening presentations, Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos unveiled Valkyrie Mumbet, an inaugural site-specific work that is her first U.S. solo museum exhibition. The latest in her Valkyrie series, Valkyrie Mumbet pays tribute to Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, an enslaved African American woman who was the first to win a freedom suit based on the newly adopted Massachusetts Constitution which declared that “all men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights…” in the state of Massachusetts in 1781.
Valkyrie Mumbet is the newest in Vasconcelos’s Valkyrie series, initiated in 2004, inspired by the powerful female characters of Norse mythology that fly over battlefields on winged horses and bring the bravest warriors back to life to serve as gods. Following the path of the Valkyries specially designed for the Palace of Versailles, Le Bon Marché of Paris, and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Vasconcelos now highlights Elizabeth Freeman alongside other notable figures in feminist history -- intellectual, philosopher and political activist Simone de Beauvoir; lawyer and politician Simone Veil; and 4th century pilgrim and first woman travel writer Egeria; among others.
For her U.S. solo debut, the Portuguese artist researched Massachusetts history and was particularly moved by Elizabeth Freeman’s story. Born into slavery around 1740, Freeman was offered to a family in Massachusetts as a child. Known as "Mum Bett," "Mum Bet," or "Mumbet," Freeman was a skilled midwife and healer. Although she could neither read nor write, it is reported that, after Mumbet overhead discussions about the new promises of liberty that ultimately shaped the Massachusetts Constitution, she decided to take her destiny into her own hands. She pursued a legal battle in court, was granted freedom in 1781, and adopted the surname "Freeman." She then went on to work for her lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick, as a caretaker in his home. Elizabeth Freeman died on December 28, 1829 around 85 years old. The Sedgwick family celebrated her life and achievements; Charles Sedgwick wrote her epitaph, Susan Anne Sedgwick painted her portrait, and Catharine Maria Sedgwick wrote a book about her life for posterity. The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. highlights Freeman’s accomplishments as part of its permanent exhibition and an independent movie titled "Mumbet" is currently in production.
Valkyrie Mumbet is a monumental textile installation that pays homage to Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman. References to Freeman are seen in the textile elements representing fabric that Freeman owned (silks, velvets, linen) as well as the beads from Freeman’s golden choker necklace. Vasconcelos is also using capulana fabric from Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, calling attention to Portugal’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. Other references to the artist’s country include components of Portuguese handicrafts, such as Pico lace, which will be familiar to the Azorean community living in New England. Vasconcelos has painstakingly planned her textile sculpture to be suspended from the 37-ft tall ceiling of MAAM’s Stephen D. Paine Gallery. Visitors may interact with and view Valkyrie Mumbet from multiple perspectives: strolling freely among the four descending arms beneath the artwork; gathering underneath the multiple arms along the perimeter of the gallery; and walking up the stairs to the 20 ft tall by 40 ft wide balcony to see the entire work from above. After six months of production in Vasconcelos’s studio, these components will be installed over two weeks by the artist’s team with the help of the MAAM preparatory team and MassArt students.
Joana Vasconcelos (b. 1971) lives and works in Lisbon. She has exhibited regularly since the mid-1990s. Her work became known internationally after her participation in the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005, with the work A Noiva [The Bride] (2001-05). She was the first woman and the youngest artist to exhibit at the Palace of Versailles, in 2012. Recent highlights of her career include a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the project Trafaria Praia, for the Pavilion of Portugal at the 55th Venice Biennale; participation in the group exhibition The World Belongs to You at the Palazzo Grassi/François Pinault Foundation, Venice (2011); and her first retrospective, held at the Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon (2010).