“Garden for Boston” is the first living outdoor exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Since late May, I’ve watched this project—comprised of two installations, Raven Reshapes Boston: A Native Corn Garden at the MFA by Elizabeth James-Perry (Aquinnah Wampanoag) and Radiant Community by Ekua Holmes (African American), as well as a collaborative billboard—take shape on the Museum’s Huntington Avenue lawn. As one of the curators responsible for bringing this project to life, I quickly learned how different it was from most other exhibitions, particularly how much it depended on unpredictable factors like heat and rain. I was surprised by the sunflowers, which flourished to great heights, the beauty of the sedges, and the Calais corn, whose vibrant red color has delighted visitors.
Now that fall is underway, peak growing season has ended for both installations. Their main plants, corn and sunflowers, have been partially harvested and their remnants serve as food for birds and other small fauna. Decomposition is integral to the exhibition since it reflects how excessively wet and warm weather disrupts the natural life cycles of plants. These growing installations are also related to the human life cycle, particularly motherhood and childhood.
The title Raven Reshapes Boston points to the originary being Raven, who is important to many Indigenous North American communities. James-Perry references the Algonquian belief that Raven gave corn to women. Raven’s gift of corn, planted at the MFA in a large mound with beans and sedges, surrounds Cyrus Dallin’s sculpture Appeal to the Great Spirit (1909), reshaping the ground around a symbol of Native people created by a non-Native artist with a garden that is much more symbolic and specific to James-Perry and her community. The mound technique is a traditional way of planting, building up earth around crops instead of digging into the dirt to plant them. According to James-Perry, each mound is meant to resemble a pregnant woman’s belly, also rounded and giving life. This bodily reference is so striking as it points to the central roles of women in giving birth and providing life-sustaining nutrition through gardening.
Contemplating new life, I am reminded of a lovely sentiment from Ekua Holmes about children as viewers of Radiant Community. Holmes has imagined children coming upon her field of sunflowers and thinking it was grown just for them. I have seen children delight in her installation. I imagine that they feel the pride and wonder Holmes’s sunflowers are meant to inspire. Honoring many women including local and national civil rights leaders, and intended for an audience of children, Radiant Community is part of Holmes’s larger “Roxbury Sunflower Project,” which has spread beauty and hope throughout the historically Black Boston neighborhood for six years now. Holmes calls it a “love letter” to her community.
The billboard accompanying the exhibition, now in its second and final version, serves as a love letter to both artists’ respective communities. Over two iterations, it has featured images of ten historic and contemporary women who may not be household names but are worthy of commemoration and remembrance.
James-Perry’s and Holmes’s installations have so successfully shifted what visitors see as they approach the Museum. “Garden for Boston” demonstrates that monuments can be ephemeral and geared toward children, and honor and represent women. It has been such an honor to work with these brilliant artists and on this exhibition, which is outside, always open to the public, and truly for Boston.
“Garden for Boston” is on view through October 12, 2021.