Consider Michelangelo’s famous “Creation of Adam,” Sandro Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” or Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” When you think of Western art’s grand visual narratives of humanity’s inception — and all its triumphs, beauty, tragedies and meaning — they likely look very White.
This is because, for centuries, the artistic traditions of the European Renaissance have been the authority of such themes. It was from the 15th to 16th century that “art came to be seen as a branch of knowledge,” according to Britannica, “valuable in its own right and capable of providing man with images of God and his creations as well as with insights into man’s position in the universe.”
But Afro-Cuban American artist Harmonia Rosales is among those seeking to radically change this centering of Western ideologies as standard. A selection of her work in this vein is currently on display in the exhibition “Harmonia Rosales: Master Narrative” at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta. (A version of the exhibition was first shown last year at the AD&A Museum at the University of California, Santa-Barbara.)
Across 20 oil paintings and a large-scale sculptural installation, Rosales’ work challenges viewers to consider the universality of creation through a Black diasporic lens. The exhibition features seven years’ worth of work, as Rosales entwines the artistic techniques and hegemonies of European Old Masters, focused on Christianity and Greco-Roman mythology, with the characters, themes and stories of the Yorùbá religion.
Yorùbá faith tradition involves a supreme creator named Olodumare and a hierarchy of several hundred deities — orishas — who collectively rule over the world and humankind. Originating in Western Africa at least a few thousand years ago, enslaved people were prohibited from practicing the faith as many White slave masters perceived it as evil, and a threat to the obedience they desired.
Renaissance art largely excluded Black people, even as it emerged during the early phases of the transatlantic slave trade which ultimately brought 10.7 million African men, women and children to the Americas — some 1.67 million of whom were Yorùbá followers.
So why center Black people in an artform that ostracized them, rather than creating an entirely new space to convey this “master narrative?” For Rosales, the best way to diversify the medium is to operate from within its parameters.
“Because it’s what’s been mainstreamed. I’m trying to educate the masses on a religion that has been hidden for quite some time,” Rosales said. “I want to make it very linear, understandable and digestible, so then we can dive deeper.”
“I’m taking the express route of teaching people who they are,” she added. “The only way to do that is by reimagining certain famous images.”
“What she’s doing is different than a lot of people working in Black figuration right now,” said Liz Andrews, executive director of the Spelman College Museum of Art, of Rosales’ work. “This is recuperating a history that has been actively stabbed out.”
Finding her artistic flair
With her mixed ancestry, which also includes Jamaican roots, Rosales said she “never felt like I was enough of anything” while growing up. She didn’t fit into one racial or ethnic box, and struggled with wanting to change certain physical features society historically hasn’t considered attractive — such as naturally curly and kinky hair, which, for years, she straightened with chemical hair relaxers gifted from her grandmother, or elbows and knees becoming darker than the rest of her body.
Growing up in Chicago, Rosales tried her hand at art school but didn’t like the constraints she felt it placed on her creative instincts. So she found her inspiration instead in art books, research and museums, where she could closely observe paintings to study techniques — in particular those of Renaissance artists. “There was time (and) love put into Renaissance art, and it shows within the work,” Rosales said, describing it as “the framework of American beauty, perception of beauty, everything.”
As a self-taught artist, Rosales first became well known after sharing her painting “The Creation of God” (pictured below) on social media in 2017.
In the years since, Rosales has seen her work displayed at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art in Brooklyn and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, among other venues.
When Rosales had her first child, she recalled being excited to have a “little me,” just as in awe of art museums — and particularly Renaissance art. But when Rosales first took her daughter, then age 4 or 5 years old, to a gallery showcasing works from the period, it fell flat.
“I was like, ‘Why don’t you like this?’” Rosales said, referring to a particular portrait. “She goes, ‘She doesn’t look like me.’”
“I re-saw (the art) with innocent eyes, without all the different manipulations society puts on you about what you should look like,” she added. “I don’t want my daughter to be brainwashed like I was … I want her to love her hair, her skin, her lips, her nose, everything.”
In addition to creating grand narratives her children can see themselves in, the desire to empower and represent the beauty and strength of Black women is also reflected throughout Rosales’ oeuvre.
“I wanted to visually depict women of color, specifically — because I’m a woman — as something of pure power,” Rosales said.
Many of the people in Rosales’ artworks have dark skin, often with blue-black tones and sometimes silvery elements that impart their majestic, mythological nature.
Viewed in person, the figures in her paintings appear so real it’s almost as if you could reach out and touch them. This effect was intentional, embracing a technique employed by European Old Masters for painting White skin in a way that made it glow and stand out from the canvas; it involves layering thin coats of paint so that lighting highlights different features and creates depth, Rosales said. What’s divergent about Rosales’ take is the mixture of colors involved — an array of browns, blacks, reds, greens and blues — to capture the diversity of more melanated skin tones.
The physical diversity of the African diaspora is represented, as well. There are curvaceous and slender women; lighter skinned people with blonde hair, albinism or freckles; and brown-skinned characters with red tresses and vitiligo, a condition that causes patches of skin to lose pigment or color when melanin-producing cells are destroyed.
‘Putting our perspective into the grand narrative’
“Because we were either killed or punished, to worship Yorùbá gods we had to hide them in these White masks for so long that, generation after generation, we forgot who was actually behind that mask,” Rosales said of Yorùbá followers’ practice of conflating their gods with important Catholic figures with similar meanings, so they could covertly worship.
The exhibition examines this dynamic in portraits like Rosales “Lady of Regla.” A plaque for this piece in the Spelman’s exhibition explains, “The Catholic Virgin of Regla, the only Black Mary figure in Cuba, is often conflated with the orisha Yemaya, mother of all and goddess of the ocean in the Americas.”
The piece is a luxurious rendering of Yemaya in lavish blue drapery (the same garb often worn by the Virgin Mary), holding her daughter, the infant Eve, in place of Christ, and surrounded by lush blooming flowers.
“Over time, the orishas and saints became fused through a process known as religious syncretism. In her paintings, Rosales alludes to this syncretism when she depicts the auras (spiritual consciousness and destinies) of the orishas as gold halos, a reminder of the saints to whom they became assimilated,” wrote Helen Morales, a UCSB professor who led the curation of “Master Narrative” in its first iteration, in an exhibition catalog of the same name.
“There is a different kind of syncretism at work in many of Rosales’ paintings,” Morales continued. “The syncretism here is also generative, challenging our beauty standards and encouraging us to trace similarities as well as differences between the Greek, Roman, and Yorùbá mythologies. It is part of Rosales’ generosity of spirit and loving vision that she is ultimately as interested in what unites us as in what divides us.”
Wanting to emotionally carry her children displaced to different lands during the slave trade, Yorùbá legend says Yemaya became one with the ocean and is credited with saving the Yorùbá people who survived their journey on slave ships.
Yemaya is also reflected in other works in “Master Narrative,” such as the painting “Ascension into the Waters.” In another, “Yemaya Meets Erinle,” Yemaya’s capacity for desire is depicted as she falls in love with the divine fisherman.
The titular piece in the exhibit is Rosales’ sculptural re-interpretation of Michelangelo’s famed painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The artwork’s dramatic scenes of essential Biblical stories of creation have long stood as a visual history of humankind’s spiritual development. For Rosales, the exhibition would not have been complete without a recreation of it.
“I didn’t know how I was going to display it,” Rosales said of the creative process that eventually became her first foray into sculpture. “It was like, ‘OK, recreate a chapel ceiling,’ but that is going to go against everything I’m saying. The chapel ceiling is what kind of imprisoned us at first — the aspect of forcing a religion for everybody to follow.”
Stretched instead across the concave hull of an overturned slave ship, “Master Narrative” is a bold act of reclamation, drawing on Rosales’ rich oeuvre to capture the creation of the orishas and Earth, its people and the stories of their lives.
A similar theme is found in “Still We Rise,” a large composition named after the Maya Angelou poem and modeled after Michelangelo’s fresco “The Last Judgment,” which covers the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. The flayed skin of Saint Bartholomew, in Michelangelo’s painting, is swapped for a burning Confederate flag that suggests those enslaved in the Americas will “emerge triumphant.”
Her exhibition also occurs amid both a broader cultural moment of Black people reclaiming their place in history and owning their heritage, and of pushback against the retelling of this history. Rosales said she doesn’t intend for her work to be utilized as a tool for or against either of these movements, but is happy if it adds to such empowerment.
“Why is seeing us as godly political?” Rosales argued. “Why is adding our narratives — or even trying to alter the story, this foundation that was built and didn’t include us — political?”
“I just see it as, I’m telling something that is part of my culture that I would like to see more of,” she added. “These are my children, and when I let them out into the world, they decide who they want to become.”
Though Rosales initially painted the figures for her daughter, ultimately “I found myself,” she said, “I became empowered about who I am. Every one of these (artworks) tells my stories.”
“Harmonia Rosales: Master Narrative” is on display at the Spelman College Museum of Art in Atlanta through December 2.