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How Three Artists Are Exploring Mythology and Race


Whether or not you believe in a literal Garden of Eden, the biblical story in which it appears has fed opinions about the nature of gender relationships, human sin and the consequences of disobedience. “The Odyssey” has lessons about life’s journey, weathering storms, heeding warnings and returning home. Odin, the one-eyed Norse god of war and death, is a symbol of self-sacrifice for wisdom.

Many of the world’s most recognizable and influential stories come from Western culture — classical mythology, Norse mythology, Judeo-Christian narratives — and the majority of them illuminate the heroic efforts of men or the cultural experiences of white Western figures. Of course, women and people of color appear in folklore, myths and legends across cultures, but they are less often depicted as heroic protagonists in the prominent, globally renown tales. (Black women, especially, are rarely portrayed as offering anything redemptive, or as spiritually or intellectually conscious enough to positively influence others.) When they are present, their ethnicity is questioned or diminished, as with Andromeda in Greek mythology. It’s argued she was a Black character before being whitewashed over the years.

The intersections of myth, cultural narratives and identity have long inspired artists. Kara Walker and Wangechi Mutu, for example, challenge “traditional” narratives by asking why a certain type of person is the central figure and why the world is said to work in a particular way. There are also newer artists exploring these intersections. By investigating classical myths, Calida Rawles, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum and Harmonia Rosales are seeking more nuanced ways of depicting the interior lives of Black women. “Artists are storytellers, and as Black women, we’re at the bottom of the pile in society,” Ms. Rawles said in a recent interview. “But that gives us this unique vantage point to look up and see things in our society and culture from multiple angles. We have so much insight, such varied experiences and many stories to tell beyond these stereotyped identities.”

I spoke with these three artists about how their work reflects on the power of myths in shaping and reimagining identities for Black women — in essence offering new universal stories.

Literature has always inspired the Los Angeles-based painter Calida Rawles, 44, who created the cover art for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s debut novel, “The Water Dancer.” In her art, water is a way to examine power, race and identity politics, and Black people are depicted submerged or partly submerged in a variety of positions and degrees of light.

The idea for the imagery of her recent work came to her after reading the ancient Hebrew story of Lilith. As the story goes, Adam’s first wife, Lilith, was demonized for refusing to lay beneath him. She had assumed they would be equals. When given an ultimatum, Lilith chooses her freedom instead of a life of inequality, and endures God’s punishment of being cast in the waters for her self-assertion.

Ms. Rawles’s resulting art speaks to the triple consciousness of being Black, female and American, and how this identity is affected by microaggressions, violence, generational trauma and colorism, the judgment of Black people based on their skin tones. The artworks were included in her first solo exhibition, “A Dream for My Lilith,” at the Various Small Fires gallery in Los Angeles. The show, which ran just before the coronavirus pandemic shut down most of the country, included the six studies Rawles created for “The Water Dancer” cover and six of her hyper-realistic paintings from the Lilith series.

In “Radiating My Sovereignty,” a young Black girl floats face up, trance-like, in shimmering, almost iridescent blue water. A light frames her figure like a halo. Her eyes are closed. She’s lost in an ethereal world of her own. Her long white sundress evokes innocence. The portrayal of Black girls and women at home in water, and reveling in their own self-awareness and consciousness, is a reversal of the Lilith story.

The painting also references the poet Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen,” especially her line about how our bodies have memory. “I was thinking about the adultification of young Black girls and all the racially motivated violence that’s committed against them,” Ms. Rawles said. “I wanted to speak to that, but I also wanted a layered narrative that spoke of their radiance and beauty despite the things that might happen to them.”

On close inspection, the girl’s body reveals topographical notations of the geographical places where Black girls suffered racially motivated attacks. But for Ms. Rawles, who has three young daughters, Black girls and women are more than their traumas. “I want my daughters to be prepared for the painful realities of this world,” she said, “but I also want to remind them that the negative experiences we have as Black women is not the full identity of Blackness and Black womanhood.”

She added: “Lilith made me think of my daughters growing up in a world where their independent minds and desire to be treated fairly would face resistance — especially as Black women. I know how we’re labeled and how the world wants to put Black women in their place, especially when we are adamant about equality.”

“Often, we do what Lilith did,” she continued. “We choose our freedom even at the cost of being stereotyped, misunderstood and vilified. We’ve been leaders at the forefront of injustice in so many fights, and unapologetic about our determination.”

Yet the gracefulness, softness and fluidity of her paintings project an almost tangible sense of strength, power and resilience. Water has spiritual connotations for Ms. Rawles, as a place of death, transformation and rebirth. “But historically it’s also a place of trauma and racial exclusion for Black bodies,” she said, referring to violent racial conflicts like the one that erupted in Chicago in 1919 after a Black teenager was killed when he crossed the color line at a segregated beach. “I wanted to reclaim water as much as reclaim aspects of Black female identity.”

To create her artworks, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, 40, uses pencil and oil paint on wood panels to show figures, landscapes and aspects of scientific formulas. The result: pieces exploring identity as an evolving construct among the self, community and environment.

“Overall my work is telling a story of love and longing, how we all want to belong somewhere, within narratives that honor our full humanity,” Ms. Sunstrum said. In her art, images often overlap, and you might see part of a human form through a landscape, or multiple images of a specific body part. She gives her subjects a spectrum of skin colors, from golds to pinks, maroons and blues, in an attempt to let the figures stand on their own — without having viewers project their pre-existing biases onto them.

“Whoever was creating these master narratives left out so many other voices,” she said. “It was personal for me.”

Born in Botswana to a Botswanan mother and a Canadian father, Ms. Sunstrum was raised around the world and is now based in Ottawa. Inspiration comes from across disciplines, including quantum physics, ethnography and mythology. She prefers telling stories through multiple mediums and is most interested in developing her own narratives, showing Black female identity to be fluid and ever-changing, a multiplicity of stories across time.

In her latest solo show, “Battlecry,” a collection of seven large-scale paintings on wood panel at Goodman Gallery in London through Sept. 26, Ms. Sunstrum explores a cast of characters she calls the Seven. These women, who represent mythological archetypes in the form of seven alter egos, negotiate what it means to be both the hero and the villain of the same story.

In a 2017 work, “The Mathematician,” Ms. Sunstrum references a 1960 portrait of Madame Ogiugo, a Nigerian woman who sat for Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge, a photographer to the royal court of Benin. She’s a colossal figure in Ms. Sunstrum’s painting, towering over a chalkboard at which men are working on an equation that floats into the folds of her luminous dress and head wrap. The chalkboard dwarfs the men, symbolizing the power and magnificence of a scientific moment presumably in a European or Western context.

“I wanted to suggest that vernacular knowledge, which is known in a nonquantifiable way in our bodies and our traditions, should not be regulated lower on the hierarchy of knowledge,” Ms. Sunstrum said. “So I made the mythical mathematician loom even larger than quantifiable knowledge, hinting that these traditional and cultural ways of knowing [often manifested through the practices and teachings of women] is in fact a massive and valuable body of knowledge.”

Ms. Sunstrum also references the post-independence work of the Ghanaian photographer James Barnor as well as the stories of the South African mythologist Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa, whose paintings and teachings emphasize the significance of African belief systems and cultures.

“Our history is important, too. Identity is as much ancestral as it is futuristic, in this constant state of becoming,” she said. “That was the identity I was trying to give shape to in my work.”

The painter Harmonia Rosales, 36, based in Los Angeles, creates rich visual stories honoring her Afro-Cuban religious heritage and the larger African diaspora. She portrays deities and royalty figures in various scenarios working to raise Black communal consciousness and empower Black women. “It’s an attempt,” she said, “to expand the limited cultural imagination around the agency of Black people and the nature of Black female identity.”

Her narratives are set in classical Greece and the Greco-Roman world of the early first century C.E., and during the age of European colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Her visual reference, Classicism, helps her to reimagine how Black bodies take up space in hegemonic narratives and myths.

That influence is evident in works like “Our Lady of Regla,” which was briefly on view as part of her solo exhibition, “Miss Education: Reclaiming Our Identity,” at MoCADA in Brooklyn. The show opened on March 11, right as the city was preparing to shut down because of the Covid-19 outbreak.

“Our Lady of Regla” depicts a serene Black Madonna clad in a brilliant cerulean blue shawl thickly trimmed with gold and patterned with gold fleur-de-lis (itself a complex symbol of religion, politics and colonial slavery). A wide gold headband rimmed in pearls holds her translucent oat-colored veil in place. Her downcast eyes are hidden from the viewer, but her ebony face bears evidence of the scarification rite practiced across Africa. She exudes a mix of contentment, pride and resolution. The holy infant — Eve, in this rendering — is wrapped in a vibrant, patterned crimson blanket reminiscent of Ankara fabric used widely in West Africa. White chrysanthemums and red roses — symbols of life, love and death — rim the canvas.

It’s a reconfiguration of the myth that women are the root of humanity’s sins, suggesting instead that a Black female body, mind and spirit can be a universal place for powerful beginnings or salvific transformations.

Growing up, Ms. Rosales would get lost in the world of Greek gods and goddesses. But combining her love of art with mythology didn’t happen until decades later, after her daughter came home from kindergarten requesting to have her hair straightened, calling her mother “practically white” and wondering why her own skin was darker than her brother’s.

The incident led Ms. Rosales to recall her own childhood, and how she had felt as a light-skinned girl growing up in Chicago. “I was always trying to fit in somewhere. Even though I’m Black, it took me a while before I felt like I was enough in my own Black identity. My dad is Black-Latino, but to the Latinx community, I wasn’t Latina enough; to the Black community, I wasn’t Black enough; and to everyone else, I was definitely not white,” Ms. Rosales said.

Her daughter “didn’t want anything to do with stories where no one looked like her,” Ms. Rosales said. “And that just changed everything for me.”

In 2015, she decided to fully pursue art, telling stories that centered Black identity, reimagining stories of classical mythology and Catholicism, and infusing her work with the origin myths of Santeria. Prominent in many of Ms. Rosales’ paintings is the blue-clothed Our Lady of Regla, a figure honoring both Yemaya, an Orisha goddess of oceans and seas considered to be the mother of all living things, and the Virgin Mary figure of Catholic tradition.

Her use of an Eve character also nods to the scientific findings of the Mitochondrial Eve, which is the name given to the single common female African ancestor believed, based on mitochondrial DNA sequences, to be the genetic beginnings of all present-day humans. “The identity of the Black woman,” Ms. Rosales said, “tells a bigger story of creation and human evolution.”

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