7″x5″ oil on masonite panel. $125. free shipping no tax! Here’s to the light!
7″x5″ oil on masonite panel. $125. free shipping no tax! Here’s to the light!
$125. free shipping, no tax. 7″ x 5″ oil on panel. First dibs. Charlotte Hutson Wrenn, Artist, my public business page on Facebook is the easiest way to bid. Cheers! Here’s to the light!
The following piece, published by BBC Culture, in 2018, feels beautifully relevant today in America, as we reel from the weight of a pandemic and of our history of racial injustice, now too public to ignore. Edisto Island, and the sea island culture around Charleston, South Carolina, has always recognized the power of black women. It is what drew me here. It in the air. It is in the sea. It is in the history.
“The US artist Theaster Gates explores the concept of the ‘Black Madonna’ in his latest exhibition, which celebrates images of powerful black women. Alastair Sooke finds out more.
Most people coming face to face for the first time with Dutch artist Maerten van Heemskerck’s 16th-Century oil painting of the Virgin and Child, at the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland, would see a perfectly conventional picture: before an imaginary landscape meant to evoke Mediterranean antiquity, a seated blonde Mary, her plaited hair draped in orange cloth, glances at the viewer, while the Christ child fidgets on her lap, ignoring his mother’s exposed breast. So far, so traditional.
For the celebrated 44-year-old US artist Theaster Gates, however, Van Heemskerck’s painting is charged with surprising significance. “Christ has turned away from his mom’s milk, and is looking dubious and devious,” he tells BBC Culture. “Meanwhile, Mary is the image of a harlot, with come-hither eyes. I call her ‘The Ghetto Madonna’.”
Theaster Gates refers to Maerten van Heemskerck’s Virgin with Child in front of a Landscape as “The Ghetto Madonna” (Credit: Kunstmuseum Basel)
Gates’s ‘reading’ may be unorthodox, even provocative – in particular, his assertion that Van Heemskerck’s Virgin “is an octoroon, ie one-eighth black” is bound to make art historians start harrumphing. But it is typical of the way his deft mind works, making startling, unforeseen connections between disparate things.
We are standing before Van Heemskerck’s panel because Gates – who hails from Chicago and has won international acclaim for his renovations of dilapidated buildings in the city’s South Side neighbourhood – has hung it at the start of Black Madonna, his new solo exhibition at the Kunstmuseum, which will run until October. According to Gates, a thoughtful, charismatic presence who began his artistic career as a potter, the exhibition “weaves back and forth from religious adoration to political manifesto to self-empowerment to historical reflection”. It makes for a complex but intoxicating mix.
Consider, for instance, how Gates presents ‘The Ghetto Madonna’, which he calls the “anchor” of the show. It appears alongside a disturbing video, by Gates, looping clips from a 1935 film, The Littlest Rebel – in which Shirley Temple, playing the daughter of a plantation-owning family during the American Civil War, appears in blackface.
Gates began his artistic career as a potter and won international acclaim for his renovations of dilapidated buildings in Chicago’s South Side area (Credit: Kuntsmuseum Basel)
Next to this, we see a large photograph of a beautiful young black woman, her face framed by pretty, white lace, reproducing a vintage shot from a 20th-Century lifestyle magazine pitched at African-Americans. “So, here are three ‘Black Madonnas’,” Gates tells me, with a smile.
Like a virgin
The inclusion of Van Heemskerck’s painting alludes to the so-called ‘Black Madonna’ in Western art history. Conventionally, of course, Mary appears in painting and sculpture as a young mother with white skin. Sometimes, however, she appears with a dark or black face and hands – and this Black Madonna fascinates Gates, whose work interrogates the legacy of the civil-rights movement and the experience of black people in the US today.
In the past, for instance, he has made a series of artworks out of decommissioned fire hoses called In the Event of a Race Riot. Meanwhile, his show in Basel – staged across two of the museum’s venues – contains one of his dramatic black tar paintings, inspired by his father’s hard-graft work as a roofer (his mother was a schoolteacher): every aspect of the artwork, from the glossy bitumen applied with a large mop, to the copper nails used to secure the picture to its support, conforms to traditional roofing techniques. “It doesn’t leak,” says Gates, with another smile.
The exhibition has a section about the image archive of the Johnson Publishing Company (JPC), which Gates describes as an “encyclopaedia of everyday black life” (Credit: JPC)
Examples of the Black Madonna may be found all over the world. According to some estimates, there are around 500 Black Madonnas in Europe alone, mostly Byzantine icons and statues in Catholic and Orthodox countries. A monastery in the city of Czestochowa in southern Poland, for instance, contains a dark-skinned Byzantine icon of the Holy Virgin. Meanwhile, a shrine in Einsiedeln Abbey, a Benedictine monastery around 25 miles (40km) southeast of Zurich in Switzerland, boasts a miraculous Black Madonna statue, its skin possibly darkened from centuries of exposure to candle smoke. Gates has also encountered a Black Madonna in a Greek Orthodox monastery on the island of Heybeliada, near Istanbul.
“There are lots of stories,” says Gates, who is a professor of visual arts at the University of Chicago. He isn’t the only contemporary artist drawn to the subject: in 1996, British artist Chris Ofili painted his controversial Holy Virgin Mary, depicting a sensual black Mary in a blue robe, against an orange background, with a lump of elephant dung in place of her bare breast. “Once,” continues Gates, “there was a fire in France, and the Madonna there smote the fire, and ingested the trauma. It wasn’t that she was charred, but there was something about the trauma that made her black. I’m curious about this idea: could a ‘Black Madonna’ simply be a white Madonna with trauma? In other words, do Madonnas ‘mature’ towards blackness because of something bad happening?”
A black Madonna is shown behind Beverly Williamson, caretaker of the Central United Church of Christ in Detroit (Credit: Getty Images)
It’s an intriguing, unsettling notion – but, says Gates, who has two degrees in urban planning, he isn’t interested in the ‘history’ of the Black Madonna so much as the “lived experience of those who worship her”. “I got super-curious about [Our Lady of] Guadalupe,” he says, referring to a famous full-length representation of a mixed-race Mary in a shrine in Mexico City. He also set out to discover more about Yemoja, a Yoruba deity sometimes viewed as an equivalent of the Virgin Mary, and “the role of the black woman in Haitian voodoo”.
‘Beautiful, powerful women’
Gates says that his interest in the Black Madonna stems from his experiences growing up. He was raised in a Christian household, the youngest of nine children, and the only boy. “I was born in a house of love,” he tells me, “surrounded by earthly Madonnas.”
Aged 13, Gates became director of the youth choir at his church. Is he still a believer? He pauses before replying: “I definitely have a stronger belief capacity than most, as a result of having been brought up religious.” He no longer attends church every Sunday, he says, but he does have a gospel-inspired band called the Black Monks of Mississippi (who performed in Basel to mark the opening of his new show). “Having the capacity to believe in things is what artists do,” Gates tells me. “Like, I believe that the ugly can be beautiful. I have an amazing belief muscle.”
When he was 19 years old, Gates visited relatives in Detroit, where he came across the Shrine of the Black Madonna – a church once described by The New York Times as “an important centre for black theology and political power”. It was founded in 1967, in the wake of the decade’s urban race riots, by the religious leader Albert Cleage. “The proposition,” explains Gates, “was that the mother of God was black, therefore Christ was black, and so we were connected to this long lineage of powerful people.” As a teenager, Gates found this idea exciting. “It was very radical,” he says.
This image of the musician Corinne Bailey Rae represents Gates’s aim to celebrate ‘beautiful powerful women’ in the exhibition (Credit: David Sampson / Courtesy of Theaster Gates)
Another important, related strand of Gates’s Black Madonna exhibition concerns the photographic archive of the Johnson Publishing Company (JPC), which, since 1945, has published the monthly magazine Ebony, conceived as an equivalent of Life magazine for an African-American market. Gates says that copies of Ebony and its sister magazine Jet, modelled on Reader’s Digest, could be found “all over my house” when he was growing up: “They were a kind of encyclopaedia of everyday black life.”
At the Kunstmuseum Basel, Gates has constructed an elegant, saltire-shaped wooden cabinet containing more than 2,600 images of black women from the archives of JPC, which the artist describes as “the most important black publishing company to have ever existed”. Many of the images present beautiful models dressed in glamorous clothes – but there are also photographs of ‘ordinary’ women engaged in domestic activities such as cooking or looking after children.
“I wanted to celebrate black female images in the collection,” explains Gates, who considers the “beautiful, powerful women” who appear in the cabinet as ‘Black Madonnas’, ie “everyday women who do miraculous things”. “At the heart of it,” he continues, “I was super-interested in how powerful women in and around my life seem to be a solution that the world is never looking for.”
This, says Gates, is the nub of his new exhibition. “So many of the challenges in this world are brought on by men,” he tells me. “Sometimes I wonder: if women had the position they deserved [in society], would things be the same? Would we be as greedy, as corrupt, as non-caring, as warring? Those are the questions on my mind.”
Charleston Through an Artist's eye
“The song and the land are one.” – Bruce Chatwin
Frank Gadsden died this winter. The full mattress and box springs, the swinging hammock, the one that hung from the limbs of a grand live oak tree on the side of the road for at least a generation, is gone.
The loss of Mattress Point, as some old islanders refer to the place, is no small thing. It was part of the myth of this island paradise. Lying in a hammock is a traditional summertime habit for those who come to the beach for vacation. For visitors to the island, it reminds us of the importance of taking a nap, of putting our feet up, of swinging the day away, “Edislow” style.
The idea to string up, in the huge tree in his own front yard, not just a rope Pawley’s-Island-style hammock, but a whole bed, was funny, funky, and…
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Jonathan Hadas Edwards & Julia Hartsell wrote the essay below: What if the Virus is the Medicine?
The emerging pandemic is already a watershed of the early 21st century:
things won’t ever be the same. Yet for all that the havoc that the virus is wreaking, directly and indirectly, it may also be part of the bitter medicine the global body needs.
How could adding another crisis to an already crisis-ridden planet
possibly be medicinal?
Before we explore that question, we want to be clear: our intent is not to downplay the severity or minimize the importance of lives lost to this disease. Behind the mortality figures lie very real pain and grief, and these numbers, often discussed so casually, are personal, representing the potential loss of our parents, elders, teachers, dance companions, grandmothers or immune-compromised friends.
Already, our hearts are breaking for the physical distance with our aging parents until we know if we’re infected. There’s not only a risk of losing beloveds in this time, but having to do so from afar. Our hearts are breaking for those who may die or suffer alone, without the touch of their loved ones. We honor death as a sacred passage, but we do not minimize
death, suffering or sickness in the slightest.
We pray that each one who transitions from this virus (as from the many other deadly diseases, accidents, overdoses, murders, suicides, mass shootings, and on and on) be met with on the other side by unexpected blessing, connection, peace.
Neither are the economic implications to be taken lightly. Many in this country have already seen massive impact, and the recession has only begun. As always, those closest to the edge will be hit hardest. For some, a month sequestered in beauty could be a vacation.
Others have a few months before financial panic sets in. And for others
living paycheck to paycheck or gig to gig, there is a great immediacy of struggle. The economic ‘side effects’ of this coronavirus could be catastrophic.
For many in our world, the pre-coronavirus status quo was already
catastrophic. Many are facing an imminent end to their world–indeed,
for many species and many peoples, the world has already ended. We are in the midst of a crisis of unprecedented magnitude: the choice for humanity is change or die. No one said change would be easy. (Neither is dying.)
And incremental change is not enough. It will take radical change to shift our current, calamitous trajectory away from massive environmental devastation, famine, energy crises, war & refugee crises, increasingly authoritarian regimes and escalating inequalities.
The world we know is dying. What is unsustainable cannot persist, by definition, and we are starting to see this play out.
What hope is there, then? There is the hope that breakdown will become,
or coexist with, breakthrough. There is the hope that what is dying is the
caterpillar of immature humanity in order that the metamorphosis yields
a stunning emergence. That whatever survives this collective initiation
process will be truer, more heart-connected, resilient and generative.
We are entering the chrysalis. There’s no instruction manual for what happens next. But we can learn some things from observing nature (thank you Megan Toben for some of this biological info). For one thing, the chrysalis stage is preceded by a feeding frenzy in which the caterpillar massively overconsumes (sound familiar? We’ve been there for decades). Then its tissues melt into a virtually undifferentiated goo. What remain separate are so-called imaginal cells, which link together and become the
template from which the goo reorganizes itself into a butterfly.
Does the caterpillar overconsume strategically, or out of blind instinct?
Does it know what’s coming and trust in the process, or does it feel like it’s dying? We don’t know. It’s natural to resist radical, painful change. But ultimately there’s little choice but to surrender to it. We can practice welcoming the circumstances that force us away from dysfunctional old patterns, be they economic or personal. We have that opportunity now.
Let’s return to a crucial word, initiation. On an individual level, initiations are those processes or rituals by which one reaches a new state of being and corresponding social status: from girl to woman, from layperson to clergy, and so on. Initiations can be deliberate or
spontaneous, as in the case of the archetypal shamanic initiation, which
comes by way of a healing crisis.
To paraphrase Michael Meade, initiations are events that pull us deeper into life than we would otherwise go. They vary widely from culture to culture and individual to individual, but two characteristics they share are intensity and transformation. They bring us face to face with life and with death; they always involve an element of dying or shedding so that the new can be born.
Most all of us have undergone initiations of one sort of another, from the death of a parent to the birth of a child. Many have experienced initiation in the form of a crisis or trial by fire. Those of us who have gone through more deliberate, ritualized forms of initiation can state unequivocally: the process is not fun, comfortable or predictable.
You may well feel like you’re going nuts. You may not know who you are anymore. You don’t get to choose which parts of you die, or even to know ahead of time.
One of the overriding feelings is of uncertainty: you don’t know where
you’re going, only that there’s no going back. And there’s no way of knowing how long the transformation will take. It can help to remember that the initiatory chrysalis phase is a sacred time, set apart from normal life.That it has its own demands and its own logic. That it cannot be rushed, only surrendered to. That it may be painful, but also, ultimately, healing.
Imagine what happens when an entire society finds itself in the midst of a
critical initiation. Except you don’t have to imagine: it’s already happening, or starting to. It looks like chaos, a meltdown. We’re in a moment of collective, global-level crisis and uncertainty that has little precedent in living memory.
The economic machine–the source of our financial needs and also a system that profits from disease, divorce, crime and tragedy–is faced with a dramatic slow-down. We are all facing the cessation of non- essential activities. There is opportunity here, if we claim it.
This is a sacred time.
However, unlike a traditional rite of passage ceremony, there’s no priest
or elder with wisdom born of experience holding the ritual container, tracking everything seen and unseen. Instead, all at once there are millions of personal quests inside one enormous initiatory chrysalis.
And yet, look closely: amid the goo, you may start to notice imaginal cells
appearing. Pockets of people who are aligned with something they may not
fully understand, in receipt of a vision or pieces of one, beaming out their signal to say: let’s try something different.
This is an opportunity to loosen our grip on old and familiar ways. Those ways worked for as long as they did, and they got us here, for better and for worse. They seem unlikely to carry us much further.
What if we’re instead being asked to feel our way forward, from the heart, without benefit of certainty–which, when concentrated, quickly becomes toxic? No one has all the answers in this or any other time. Right now the questions may be more valuable.
What if we honor this time with sacred respect?
What if we take the time to listen for the boundaries and limits of our Earth mother?
What is truly important?
How can we receive the bitter medicine of the moment deep into our cells
and let it align us with latent possibility?
How can we, with the support of the unseen, serve as midwives to all that
is dying here and all that is being born?
With these questions resounding, let us s l o w d o w n and listen. For echo
back from the unseen, for whisperings from the depths of our souls and from the heart of the mystery that–no less so in times of crisis–embraces us all.
Excellent writing today, click here: wapo.st/3bj6C6z
“No, the Civil War didn’t end slavery, and the first Africans didn’t arrive in America in 1619.
Only 8 percent of high school seniors can identify slavery as a central cause of the Civil War, according to a recent Southern Poverty Law Center survey. The average American has grown up believing a slew of myths about the institution. As scholars of slavery and its aftermath, we’ve identified a few of the many misconceptions we have encountered in the classroom and in public spaces over the years….”
“Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge,” she said. “It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind.”
– Toni Morrison, from her 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech
This is a lovely video update on the restoration of the historic African American house on Edisto Island, South Carolina built by the Hutchinson Family. youtu.be/lWLAktLZm-4