Practicing Ascension: African and Afro-Caribbean Reverence in Art and Performance

Monica Uszerowicz (ARTnews) reviews Afro-Caribbean ceremony, ritual, and performance in the work of María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Loni Johnson, Kurt Nahar, Chire “VantaBlack” Regans, and Nyugen E. Smith. Here are excerpts. See full article at ARTnews.

To an outside observer, ceremonial rituals may seem inherently theatrical. Connecting with realms and beings beyond our solid three dimensions requires specific visual, verbal, and spatial cues—a set of colors, an incantation, a site, a time of day. By activating these elements, we attempt to touch the untouchable.

When artists fold spiritual practices into their artwork, many withhold explanation—those familiar with the context will understand the symbols, while others will still be privileged to enter what has become a blessed space, even if they’re not aware of its implications. In the four works that follow, artists with strong cultural links to the Caribbean incorporate imagery and ideologies related to various African or Afro-Caribbean spiritual traditions, particularly the ancestor reverence of Yoruba, into their practices. In different ways, the artists render the usual divide between art and ritual traversable, though always sacred.

María Magdalena Campos-Pons, When We Gather (2020–22)

[. . .] In a video documenting the performance, Campos-Pons declares, “This country needs a cleansing. Politics needs a cleansing!” Alongside musicians and singers, the women in the piece sought to purge the dark forces at work in Washington, a city so fraught with a history of patriarchy, slavery, and war. The processional performers were also spiritual practitioners, reciting the names of their own ancestors to request their assistance in this act.

The number of performers, seven, is significant: one of the rituals that Campos-Pons performed while growing up in Cuba involves tying seven knots in a piece of fabric to help return missing objects—seven unifies, makes things right. Other associations come to mind too: in the Yoruban religion, the orisha (spirit) Yemayá (or Yemanjá) is the ruler of the seven seas; in the Cherokee tradition, there are seven directions; and seven is also a powerful number in both Christianity and Judaism, appearing throughout the Bible and the Torah. The sanctity of the number may not be universal, but its implications are broad. [. . .]

Kurt NaharWake up and listen (2022)

Inspired by Dadaist techniques like photomontage and assemblage, artist and poet Kurt Nahar takes as his primary subject the social and spiritual history of Suriname. His 2022 installation Wake up and listen draws attention with a painting featuring text in all-caps that spells out the work’s titlein Arawak: ajupakako epa namako. Below that, a number of offerings in an altar-like arrangement rest on a red cloth on the floor: a bag of rice, a glass of water, and bottles of rum positioned near calabash bowls containing purple hibiscus petals. [. . .]

Chire “VantaBlack” Regans and Loni Johnson3:33 | A Procession (Reprise), 2021

3:33 | A Procession (Reprise) was an activation of Say Their Names: A Public Art Memorial Project, a large-scale mural in Miami for which artist Chire “VantaBlack” Regans stenciled the names of more than 250 people lost primarily to gun violence. [. . .]

Ancestor altars are an important component of Johnson’s practice. They often contain objects and ephemera from her family, as well as elements that have symbolism in West African Yoruba cosmology, such as beads and cowrie shells. Johnson’s use of altars and conducting of ceremonies is never performative, even when presented at an art space. As spectators become privy to the typically private details and photographs of her altars, Johnson reminds viewers of their ancestors and works with her own to imbue the rituals with gratitude and care. Under the ancestors’ gaze, she transforms the setting for her work into a site of prayer.

Nyugen E. SmithSpirit Carriers (2016–)

Constructed from found materials and involving communion with the spirit world, Nyugen E. Smith’s sculptural “Spirit Carriers” emblematize the artist’s multidisciplinary practice. [. . .]

Smith, who grew up in Trinidad and New Jersey (where he is now based), is often traveling or conducting research. In 2016, when he began making “Spirit Carriers,” he was studying Yoruba spiritual practices, which influenced the sculptures’ forms and installation. The cone-shaped top of each “Spirit Carrier” points upward in reference to the beaded crowns and veils of Yoruba chiefs, which “obscure the identity of the chief from the public, as well as protect the public from the power of the chief and protect the chief from any negative energy,” as Smith explained in an audio guide for his 2020 exhibition of these works at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. Because the works are suspended, they resemble blimps or tiny floating boats transporting passengers through the sky rather than the sea. [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/african-afro-caribbean-reverence-art-performance-1234650031

[Shown above: Nyugen E. Smith: “Spirit Carrier No. 7,” 2016, wood, rubber, leather, net, plastic, beads, gesso, acrylic, wire, fabric, synthetic hair, oil pastel, bells, and fur, 19 by 9 by 9 inches.]

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