I was inspired to create The Kindred Spirits Series for The Black Woman is God juried group show exhibited at SOMArts in San Francisco curated by Karen Seneferu and Melorra Green. Four mother daughter pairings—Truth, Justice, Protection and Love— were included in the 2016 exhibit. My engagement with The Black Woman Is God exhibit has stemmed from an invested interest in the troubling history of visual representations of the black subject in general and specifically the denial of black female agency in representations of power, enlightenment, and beauty.
Ancestors are central to African and African Diaspora religions in their concepts of the divine. In thinking about my place in that lineage, my daughters place in that lineage, and the fact that through slavery we have been irrevocably severed from kin and culture, I imagined the masks as a form of creative medicine. Inscribed on the mask pairings are various imagery derived from iconography from Africa, Haiti and Cuba, images of slaves and the names of contemporary victims of police violence. Inscribing these names and images, like scars, into a life like representation of my face and the face of my child give visible form to the vulnerability I experience resulting from contemporary and historical racial violence. At the same time, there is a hope that the inscribed patterns can function as medicinal talismans. Using the iconography to conjure protection from a culture and ancestry that my lineage has been severed from may seem naïve and ineffectual. However, the imaginative possibilities the gesture evoke are powerful and filled with hope.
Each piece is a mother and daughter pairing. They are made of porcelain slip poured and cast into molds made from plasters of my face and my daughter face. I made the plasters years ago using alginate to capture the details of our faces when I was 31 and my daughter was 10. While getting my undergraduate degrees at UC Berkley, I had the good fortune to study with Richard Shaw. Richard Shaw is an amazing artist and has a gift for working with unbelievably thin and detailed ceramic forms. He taught me how to make molds in general and the plasters of our faces specifically. In addition he taught me how to make and work with porcelain slip. At UC Berkley I also learned a great deal from the artist Ehren Tool. The photographic images fired into the pieces are techniques that he taught me how to do. The pieces resemble death masks used by the ancient Egyptians and the Mycenaean Greeks. However, because these are made from living people, they are life masks.
The mother mask in the pairing titled Justice, features a graphic painted in under glaze from the diaspora religion from Haiti. It is the Vodou veve “Danballa Wedo” who in serpent form, is credited with creating the world and the gods. In Vodou, the vévé are signatures for specific spirits and set up the spatial circumstances necessary to invoke the presence of a particular spirit within the context of a ceremony. The devotees call the ancestors through these signature sacred ground drawings so that they can intervene in the affairs of humans. In ceremonies the veve Danballa Wedo is used to call upon the ancestors.
The daughter mask in the pairing Justice, features a rendition painted with under glaze of Shango. Shango is an orisha from the Santeria religion of Cuba- associated with the Yoruba and Fon people of Nigeria and Benin and is known as Chango in Vodou. I use him here for his ability to confer protection. The daughter mask in this pairing also has a partial list of names of contemporary victims of racism through police brutality and mass killings.
The mother mask in the pairing Protection is inspired from African protection masks and specifically the Chokwe. It is inscribed with a graphic image of an African cosmogram. Scholars of Kongo civilization and religion, have summarized the form and meaning of the Kongo cosmogram as follows:
The Bakongo believe that existence is divided into two parts. - two worlds or two spheres or realms—this world the realm of the living and the land of the spirits or the dead. The frontier or boundary between worlds is conceptualized as water. This liquid boundary is porous and enables encounters between the living and the dead. This interaction between the spheres of life and spirit are understood to be a form and source of medicine. Ritual performances in which priests utilize graphic writing systems to enable contact between theses realms of the living and the dead are necessary in order to sustain harmony in both worlds—for the living and for the ancestors.
This simplest ritual space is marked as a Greek cross on the ground, the intersection being the sacred point or spot for oath taking.
The horizontal line divides the living world from its mirrored counterpart in the kingdom of the dead. God is imagined at the top, the dead at the bottom and water in between. The four disks at the points of the cross stand for the four moments of the sun and the circumference of the cross indicating the continuation of life. The idea is that a person will never be destroyed but will come back in the name or body (children) or in the form of an everlasting pool, waterfall, stone or mountain. The summit of the pattern symbolizes noon and maleness, north and the peak of a person’s strength on earth. The bottom equals midnight, femaleness, south, and the highest point of a person’s otherworldly strength. The sun journeys around the two-mirrored worlds.
The daughter mask, in the pairing Protection, features an under glaze painting of the Vodou veve Erzule. This graphic represents a family of Loa (ancestral spiritual energies) that have a number of specific and varying meanings. I am using this iconography broadly in its capacity to evoke and inspire the ideas of love, health, compassion and the protection of children.