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Oral histories of African greatness enveloped my upbringing like a saving grace. I fondly recall elders’ stories of triumphant West African kingdoms and Egyptian dynasties that, in childhood, sounded like supernatural folktales. As an adult bearing the scars of an anti-Black world, I now know that my elders were gifting me with an antidote to the dehumanization I’d surely face—a blueprint for spiritual survival. On the rooftop of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, surrounded by the familiar ethos of pro-Black language and symbolism, I find a similar celebration of Blackness in Lauren Halsey’s the eastside of south central los angeles hieroglyph prototype architecture (I) (2022)—a sculptural “biomythography” (to borrow a term coined by Audre Lorde) where mythology, history, and biography coalesce in an eclectic monument to Black cultural heritage.1
Created for The Met’s annual Roof Garden Commission, Halsey’s installation is rooted in Afrocentric family lore. The South Central native remembers her father—an avid student of pharaonic history—likening family members to Egyptian royalty.2 This insistence on noble bloodlines lives on in Halsey’s work, which actively centers the Black community, both aesthetically and materially. In 2018, her ambitious Hammer Museum installation The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project (Prototype Architecture) utilized architecture as a means of community-building, reinterpreting Egyptian hieroglyphics and motifs in a sculptural tribute to Black Los Angeles. Her Summaeverythang Community Center, which launched at the height of the 2020 pandemic, has built upon the groundwork laid by the Hammer installation, responding to accelerating crises of gentrification and economic hardship by providing free organic produce to South Central households. An extension of these community-driven efforts, the eastside of south central blends Halsey’s interest in liberatory architecture, Egyptian hieroglyphics, funk music, and Afrofuturism in an effort that nurtures Black political imagination.
The installation (which Halsey intends to house permanently in South Central following its Met installation3) draws inspiration from the Temple of Dendur, a 2,000-year-old Egyptian structure erected primarily to honor Isis, the goddess of healing and magic, now housed in The Met.4 The temple’s sacred air is reawakened in Halsey’s monument, which deifies loved ones and Black aesthetics alike. Seated atop a 2,500-square-foot tile floor, the 22-foot-tall cubic structure of fiberglass-reinforced concrete tiles is a profoundly interactive work meant to facilitate deep witnessing. With large cutouts at two of its corners, the architectural piece invites visitors to walk freely in, out, and around the structure, the surfaces of which bear a total of 750 engravings that were carved at Halsey’s South Central studio. From each corner of the edifice’s four corners sprouts a freestanding column topped with carved portraits of Halsey’s loved ones. A nod to Egypt’s Dendera Temple to Hathor, Halsey’s columns feature her cousins Damien Goodmon and Diani, her friend Barrington, and her L.A.-based artistic hero, Pasacio. Encircling the remixed pharaonic temple are four enormous sphinxes bearing the faces of more loved ones: Halsey’s brother Dominic, her cousin Aujane, her mother Glenda, and her life partner Monique McWilliams, each of whom were instrumental in conceptualizing the installation.
An explosive collage of Egyptian regalia, South Central imagery, and futuristic visions, the installation’s engravings are at once mythological and biographical, carving a space where fact and lore seamlessly coexist. Engravings of storefront signage from local Black businesses advertising hairstyles like braids, locs, and finger waves invoke the cool buzz of Crenshaw Boulevard alongside stylized Egyptian hieroglyphs—the concurrence of the two drawing connections between Black styles and typographies across time. A wall covered with timely political proposals reading “REPARATIONS NOW!” and “In Memory of Our Ancestors” mirrors another bearing Egyptian ankhs, symbols of eternal life. Interspersed throughout these historical and contemporary references, spirited depictions of flying saucers, hovering pyramids, and superhuman figures invoke an Afrofuturistic lens, imagining a liberated Black future. This lively concert of atemporal symbolism collapses linear time, suggesting the interconnectedness of ancient mythologies, present struggles, and futuristic yearnings.
On the surface, the eastside of south central is striking by virtue of its aesthetic intricacy, its staggering silhouette, and its use of bold typefaces that are visible from Central Park below. But the installation’s richer messages are subtle and energetic, speaking directly to Black viewers on what Ralph Ellison called “lower frequencies.”5 Using emphatically Black vernacular and symbolism as a unifying code, Halsey works to awaken feelings of pride and connection within Black viewers, specifically. These images do not merely represent Black life; rather, they are conduits of ancestral resonance, activating deep connections to shared cultural memory.
The parallels between my upbringing and Halsey’s are far from coincidental. They reflect something unique about the fabric of the Black experience, a connection that the eastside of south central brings to the fore. Neither historically rigid nor revisionist, the exhibition inhabits the generative space between fact and folklore, excavating new ways to understand our cultural inheritances, and remaking our sense of time and memory in the process. Through her iconography of Black mythos, Halsey exalts the curative effects of biomythography, speaking directly to those of us who know the life-sustaining nature of these ancestral stories. The installation’s greatest feat, therefore, is not its magnitude nor its institutional prestige. Instead, it is its ability to create life in the face of so much death, to unearth pride impervious to denigration—a subversive symphony of cultural affirmations hidden in plain sight.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 33.