On the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, four sphinxes cast their gaze on the New York City skyline in artist Lauren Halsey’s installation titled “the eastside of south central los angeles hieroglyph prototype architecture (I)” (2022). To get there, visitors snake through the halls of The Met, past Renaissance sculptures and Medieval triptychs, before stepping into the elevator that takes them to the uppermost level. The Ancient Egyptian-inspired roof installation mirrors the historical fixations visitors passed on their way up, but a closer look reveals the project to be hyper-specific to South Central Los Angeles, the predominantly Black neighborhood where Halsey grew up and currently lives.
The monumental artwork is made of 750 fiberglass and concrete tiles and comprises a 22-foot-tall roofless temple, four sphinxes (with faces of people Halsey knows in South Central LA, including her mother and brother), four columns, and four “tombs.” (Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum exhibited a smaller version of the work in 2018.)
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Halsey’s sculptures are etched with references to her neighborhood. Sometimes the artist carves images drawn from Ancient Egyptian iconography, but most drawings comprise things heard and seen around South Central LA: Images of street signs, local idioms, stores and popular brand names, and even the backs of people’s heads. Words with universal resonance, such as “reflections,” “built autonomy,” and “solidarity,” also appear.
From one corner of the roof, visitors can see the 220-ton Ancient Egyptian monolith known as “Cleopatra’s Needle” (c. 1425 BCE) on the edge of Central Park. The rest of the green space stretches in another direction, and the roof decks of wealthy Upper East Siders face Halsey’s installation from another.
Each of the artist’s sculptures is an austere off-white and stands on a stage-like platform of the same color. The imposing installation looks like it should be guarded by red velvet museum ropes, but instead, people can walk through it and examine the works up close.
Downstairs at The Met’s famous “Temple of Dendur” (10 BCE), a man named Leonardo carved his name into the sandstone wall over 200 years ago. Now, that random act and name are immortalized. On the roof, some of Halsey’s carvings are crafted in stylized letters to look like quickly executed tags; others appear meticulously planned. The work seems to consider the permanence of neighborhoods and cultures. Back in Los Angeles, South Central is rapidly gentrifying.
The installation is more futuristic and fantastical than strictly commemorative of Ancient Egypt. Its design draws from Afrofuturism and the utopian aesthetics of the 1960s. In Halsey’s project, South Central LA has been immortalized, just like the cultures that created the 2,000-year-old artworks four flights below. It asks a larger question of both The Met’s collection and the New York City neighborhoods it looks at: What will last? Who decides what to keep?
After the work leaves The Met in October, it will move to a community art space in South Central LA.