Ayanna G. in the “Bride of Hurricanes” scarf.
Carolyn D. in the “FEARLESS” shawl.
Pegah S. in the “ERZULIE” shawl and scarf
When I was asking friends which females they were inspired by, one told me that the Haitian goddess, Erzulie, had stayed with her ever since she had taken a class on the people of the Caribbean. A quick Wikipedia search showed me enough to capture my attention. There are so many Erzulies! Erzulie, or “Ezili,” is most generally referred to as the goddess (or Lwa—spirit, or angel) of love. But the Haitian religion, called Vodou, seems to revel in distinctions and specificity, and develops new spirits as the culture demands, adapting to changing social conditions. Thus the proliferation of Erzulies. My main source for information about this belief system is the work of anthropologist, Karen McCarthy Brown. In the early seventies she did field work for her dissertation in Haiti. This unpublished work pioneers a structuralist approach to the visual arts, specifically examining the rich ritual meanings of the Vèvè, or ephemeral drawings made in corn flour on the floor at the beginning of a Vodou ritual.
Structuralism, a mode of anthropological explanation first developed by Claude Levi-Strauss in the 1950s, describes cultural production as a play of opposites: raw and cooked; male and female; clean and unclean etc. The Vèvè, and by extension Vodou, seem perfectly suited to this mode, since there is an explicit oppositional geometry to its fundamental powers of soft and hard spirits—or Rada and Petwo. The Rada spirits, like Erzulie Freda, are associated with the right side, the inside, with the below, with water; they are cool and intimate and familial, stable, predictable. They map almost perfectly to the deities that the stolen African peoples brought with them (across the water) to Haiti. The Petwo spirits, like Erzulie Dantor, are associated with the left side, with the upward direction, the outside, with fire and power and war and destruction, with energy, they are unpredictable and unforgiving and harsh. When devotees are possessed by Petwo spirits (the spirits ride the worshipers like horses) they wield whips and blow whistles. It may be too simplistic to reduce Petwo spirits to representations of power under the conditions of slavery, but there is definitely a connection.
That is not all. The Vodou religion is a mashup of African religions and Catholicism as practiced by the French slaveholders and Polish mercenary soldiers who enforced the slaveholders’ power. There are many aspects to the Virgin Mary and they are connected to the many aspects to Erzulie. Erzulie Dantor (a Petwo Lwa) is associated with the Black Madonna (there are hundreds of these in Europe) and specifically the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. Dantor is a single mother and her child is called Anais. She is a fiercely strong protector of women and children. Erzulie Freda (a Rada Lwa) is associated with Our Lady of Sorrows, even though Freda is NOT a mother, she weeps a lot and showers people with affection. In possession rituals, Erzulie Freda starts out showering love on people and ends up weeping with grief and loss—because she has no child and she has no husband—she is overflowing with love but there is no stable object of this love.
But I was not as interested in Freda, I wanted to find a more direct counterpart to Erzulie Dantor, the fierce mother. In my research I did find mention of a Rada Erzulie mother, Erzulie Mansur, but only on Wikipedia, and I could find no other mention of her, neither could I find a Vèvè about her. But new Lwa are always being invented, or found, and in my ERZULIE design I wanted to process the soft and hard aspects of maternal love. I use the generic name, Erzulie, and not specific names, because I want to get to the base of the matter: the dialectic of Maternal Love, a fitting topic for the Female Power Project.
The Vèvè, as described by Brown, are a microcosm of the open-ended and adaptive system we find in Vodou. They display up and down and left and right, like the Cartesian coordinates of the Vodou religion, and each Vèvè has telling signs in particular locations in the drawing referring to its particular Lwa. But they are not dogmatic, and each priest or priestess has their own version of these drawings. A Petwo spirit, Erzulie Dantor’s Vèvè (above) always shows a sword—she is fierce, you don’t MESS with her. As you can imagine, a Rada Erzulie would be more “feminine,” and make references to lace and flowers and pretty things. Since all Erzulies are about love, their Vèvè all have a heart at the center.
What do the Vèvè actually do, what are they for? They are the doorways that allow the Lwa to enter the ritual space and ride their horses (possess their worshipers). Although the Vèvè were an obvious source for imagery in my Erzulie designs, I didn’t actually want to open a door to the spiritual world where the Lwa dwell. I wanted to do everything the Vèvè do except for letting actual spirits into the world, especially outside of the proper ritual setting. You know, just in case!
Here is a quote from Karen McCarthy Brown where she gets at what visual art can do both inside and outside of a religious context: “The experiential data the Vèvè refer to have not lost ambiguity or emotive content and, as a result, the right image in the right context is capable of provoking a seemingly endless stream of meaningful associations.” There is an undetermined openness to powerful images that allows the viewer to enter into the experience in an active way, to lend meaning to the work of art, in a dialogue with the visual object. Some people really are seized by a work of art, and in the proper situation their minds are possessed by a rush of spiraling associations.
This leads me to the point that art and ritual may have very similar functions: to mediate—to open up doors between—these structural opposites that our minds and societies lay down like laws. In Vodou spirit possession the spirit world and the human world interact; male humans can be ridden by female Lwa and take on their characteristics—and women can be possessed by male spirits; ritual spraying of alcoholic drink mediates fire and water. But there is one kind of opposite that has to be kept mostly separate and that is the two kinds of Lwa, Rada and Petwo. However, the separation is symbolic, not absolute. Their rituals are held at different times but they are performed in the same space. Their altars are in separate rooms, but Rada and Petwo do play out in the same system. Perhaps the pain and grief of the diaspora is so profound that the before power and the after power are like matter and antimatter: if they get close they are a creative social engine, but if they touch they will annihilate everyone in the room. In this way historic pain can be creative OR destructive, and, I think, they are most often both.
This is on a much larger scale than what I am trying to get at in my ERZULIE pieces. In this work I am saying that motherhood is something like that. There is a part of motherhood when softness and giving and encompassing are the most appropriate and good, and there is another part when hardness and cutting and fierceness are called for. There is pulling and there is pushing; there is an overflowing wealth but also separation and loss. The power comes from the dynamic discord of these opposing poles, and it is almost impossible to get it just right, but that is one of the most basic forces for humans, this gentleness (and oneness and nurturing) and fierceness (and anger and separation) wrapped up with motherhood. You must always, especially, avoid the bear with cubs. To birth the world there was, and had to be, a breaking of the vessels.
Now, on to the design. Let’s start at the center. That is also where the Vodou ritual starts, at the poteau-mitan, or the center pole in the Vodou temple. This is an instance of the sacred tree we see in many religions. It is the way that the Lwa get from their world (below) to ours. The center vertical line in a Vèvè makes direct reference to this center pole. In my ERZULIE designs the center tree graphic is the only direct reference to Vèvè. The leaf shape is used in Vèvè to refer to “leaf magic,” or medicinal herbal lore, a gift from the Lwa and a special power that comes from the same tree that brings the Lwa to our world. In my designs I am also making reference to the human spine, which is another vertical center line that partakes of the tree of life. The people who wear the shawl or scarf will align the printed leaf tree with their own spines.
Working out from this tree/spine you can read the word “ERZULIE” twice on the shawl, six times on the scarf, both forward and in reverse. When I did this I was thinking of how the Vodouisant (a practitioner of Vodou) says that the Lwa come from the other side of the mirror or from the other side of the water. The shawl can be read from both sides since it is translucent. So it reminds us of how it is to look from the other side—a reference to the experience of the worshiper possessed by her Lwa.
Working out from the words we see on the left (Petwo) side hot colors and flames, and on the right (Rada) side there is cool pink water. They transition into each other, these two forces, but are still held safely apart by the spinal leaf tree. And over these basic elements we see the hearts, at the heart of every Erzulie Vèvè. On the right is a flower called “Bleeding Heart,” or Lamprocapnos spectabilis. Here is a picture of this plant, also commonly called Dicentra spectabilis. The softer, Rada, Erzulie loves flowers. The bleeding heart is a central devotion in Catholicism and is associated with the Rada Erzulie Freda. On top of the flower is a watery heart.
On the left, over the fire, is a lace heart overlaid with a pair of scissors. Instead of looking for the right sword to photograph, I realized that scissors make much more sense (for me), AND they are heart shaped. Scissors are for cutting and for making. They are like a woman’s sword.
Both sides end in lace, a beautiful web traditionally made by women’s hands. The web is the tissue of the social world that ritual knots together. It is the “seemingly endless stream of meaningful associations” that art can lend us, if we are lucky.
Blue, if you were wondering about the blue, is Erzulie’s favorite color.
Now I will write about the development of the “Fearless” designs honoring Harriet Tubman. When I was surveying people about their heroes, Harriet Tubman came up many times. I didn’t know much about her. Like many famous people I have researched, a library search comes up with more books targeted to a juvenile audience than to an adult one. So one afternoon I was picking up my kid at the library after school and I had grabbed a few books about Tubman. My kid said, “Oh, don’t do something about her, every year someone does a report on Harriet Tubman, I am so tired of her!” So my kid knew more about Harriet than I did, but maybe not enough.
There are some things about Harriet that I can imagine show up in every “Black History Month” oral report: 1.) Born a slave in Maryland in 1822. 2.) At 12 years old was hit in the head, nearly died, and suffered the effects for the rest of her life (heard voices and had sleeping spells). 3.) She was an entrepreneur. Her owner allowed her to hire herself out and keep some of the proceeds. She invested in some horses to help with her jobs. 4.) She was extremely physically strong, as strong or stronger than most men. 5.) She was soaked in the Christian faith and believed she spoke directly with God. 6.) In 1849, after one failed attempt with her brothers (who were too afraid and gave up), she succeeds in emancipating herself by escaping to Pennsylvania. 7.) Between 1850 and 1860, she comes back to Maryland about 10 times to help her family and friends escape slavery. She helps free about 70 people this way and became a famous conductor on the Underground Railway, never losing a passenger. Many escapes are quite dramatic, showing her intelligence, dedication, and fearlessness. 8.) 1862–1865: during the American Civil War Tubman works for the Union forces, including as a scout and a spy. She also develops programs to help emancipated slaves figure out how to make a living. In 1863 she becomes the first woman to lead an armed raid for the U.S. Among other things, she helps free over 700 slaves from Confederate territory. She is never paid for this service, neither does she receive a pension for this work. 9.) After the war she works as a public speaker and a women’s suffrage supporter. 10.) She works to establish a home for elderly and poor African Americans in Auburn, New York. She dies there in 1913.
So, those are the basics. That’s the oral report. Now where’s the art? I was in the middle of “Bride of Hurricanes” when I dropped everything to go to “Tubman Days” on the Eastern Shore. How lucky for me that Harriet was from Dorchester County Maryland, only a couple hours from my studio! How lucky for me that the Maryland Park Service and the National Park Service both have Harriet Tubman Parks, together with the Underground Railroad National Byway, and that on March 10 (Tubman Day!) there was to be a symposium with leading scholars and historians about Harriet and the meaning of freedom, along with presentations, seminars, and tours over several days. I did the Tubman driving tour whilst listening to the Tubman app! I met her most recent biographer, whose (non-juvenile!) book I subsequently read. But the art, I found that in the marshy landscape of the Blackwater Preserve, which has changed little since Harriet was six and hired out to a farmer who set her to work checking muskrat traps, in winter, while she was sick with the measles. (I felt like a Harriet groupie, going from one “point of interest” to another.) There was art, also, in Harriet’s words.
Here I would like to pursue a tangent about muskrat. After I had heard the story about the muskrat traps and six-year-old sick Araminta (she changed her name to Harriet later), after I left the Blackwater Preserve, I was thinking, “I wonder what the muskrat were for—to eat? Do they still use muskrat?” Driving into Cambridge I saw a sign in front of a store, “Local Fresh Muskrat.” I did not go in. Should I have gone in? I had oysters for lunch instead. And then later that day I visited the museum in Dover, Delaware, where, in a vitrine, I saw a stuffed muskrat and the answer to my question. “Muskrats, or marsh rabbits, have been trapped for many decades. ‘Ratting’ is the farmer-waterman’s job. At one time, their pelts were sold for fur clothing and meat was served in most homes and restaurants.”
Her knowledge of the landscape of the Eastern Shore was essential to Harriet’s success as a conductor. She had to navigate the waterways and woods at night. She had to travel in the winter months when the nights were longest. This land was in her flesh; her flesh was of this land. Knowledge of the underground railroad traveled along the waterways which were populated by strong communities of freed black watermen. Harriet would have had access to these people while she hired herself out. I photographed the marsh grasses from below, as if I were hiding in them. I photographed the water, something I have been doing in many places for years. On the other side of the water: a marshy shore.
Another image I used was a printer’s dingbat from the time showing a woman slave escaping, a satchel in her hand. These were used again and again for runaway slave notices in the newspaper. I also used the printed notice of “Minty’s” (Araminta’s) first unsuccessful escape with her brothers in 1849.
Note that in the advert, Minty is described as “fine looking.” Harriet was a good looking young woman. And small.
These are the words I have chosen to print on these pieces: “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person.” This is how Harriet describes what she did when she emancipated herself. She had to look at herself to see that she was the same person, only that now that she was in a free state, there had been a qualitative change. Her body belonged to herself. Those were HER hands now, not her owner’s. One’s hands are the easiest part of one’s own body to see, but they also represent any work that you do, your action upon the world. That action was now hers to govern. The fruits of her actions were to be her wealth now. Here is the whole quote as written in Sarah Bradford’s 1869 biography: “When I found I had crossed that line I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything, the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.” This moment of looking at light through the trees (it must have been dawn) I have tried to capture in the depiction of hands on these pieces.
The largest word on the scarf and shawl is “FEARLESS.” I have been thinking about Harriet’s fearlessness. It was described by her “passengers” as a single-minded (almost uncanny) and fierce dedication to achieving escape. She threatened to shoot those who gave up along the way, because they would be a threat to the success of the other passengers. I have a hypothesis that this fearlessness, which should not be confused with recklessness—she was very cautious and understood danger—this fearlessness might have come about as a result of her head injury. She just was not afraid. Danger would not stop her. She would be free, and she would free her family too, because, “There was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land. But I was free, and they [her family] should be free.” God spoke to her, told her what to do, and she was not afraid. This may be the central attribute of Sister Harriet. It is no less admirable if it came about by a physical accident. Through her fearlessness she took possession of her own body, her own self. Wear that.
When Minty was lying on the bed of the loom, her blood crusted on her crazy unkempt hair, and she was still not dying, her owner brought by one potential buyer after another. One man looked at her and said, “She ain’t worth sixpence!” And now, as everyone knows, Harriet Tubman’s visage will soon appear on the American twenty dollar bill. The following depiction is a perfectly appropriate interpretation of Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Ross.
Now I want to write about another design in this series. This one is for Maya Angelou. This woman was amazing, she did so many things in her life and made art out of nearly everything she did. Of course she is best known for being a writer of memoir and poetry. Her first book, I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is a masterpiece and I recommend it to everyone. I could very nearly grasp, probably as close as possible for me, what it was like to be a black girl growing up in Arkansas and subject to astonishing and appalling racism. But she was also a dancer, an actress (she’s in the original Roots), a singer, a wise woman. And here is a picture of her I found which pretty much sums up, I think, who she is. Even the worst things that can happen to you can be made into art and life and you can still laugh with all your heart. It is a kind of fecundity.
I have called these Maya Angelou pieces, “Bride of Hurricanes, Shy as Magnolias.” My design is based on the imagery in three of her texts. The first is one of her poems called, “Woman Me.” It occurs to me just now that “Woman” could be a verb, a transitive verb, in the way “Mother” can be. Here is the poem.
The second text is from Letter to My Daughter, “We carry [the] accumulation of years in our bodies and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.” These two texts show a tension, a dichotomy, that comes up often in the depictions of Female Power. A kind of supernatural strength paired with a melting softness. The hurricane and the magnolia also share something else: the spiral form. The pinwheel quilt piece shape is another spiral reference. And quilts are often associated with Angelou’s life and work. (I could probably write a whole essay on how quilts relate to the life and work of Angelou. But here I would just like to say that if you haven’t looked closely at the quilts from Gee’s Bend, then stop right now and go look.)
The third text is about color. Here is an excerpt from “Ain’t That Bad?” in the same poetry collection as “Woman Me.”
Dressing in purples and pinks and greens
Exotic as rum and Cokes
Living our lives with flash and style
Ain’t we colorful folks?
This is obviously where I got the color scheme.
I imagined my design process on this as mirroring the riot of activity in Angelou’s life. I was always adding more and then trying to pull everything together. I kept exploding the grid. Things would get muddled and then I would have to untangle the layers and forge clarity on the field of energy, trying to summon an energy that is at the origin of a flower and of a hurricane. Perhaps Angelou felt something like this when she was pushing her life into one memoir after another? When I then decided to make a scarf design on the same subject, I tried to simplify things by keeping to three analogous colors and only one kind of magnolia.
Up to now I have been thinking of my scarf and shawl designs as commercial work, not as fine art. In fact, I have several kinds of work I do, including graphic design, and I try to keep these things separated from the fine art in my promotions, because, you know, art is so much more SERIOUS. However, with this new shawl project I really think the two are coming together, and the shawls ARE fine art. They involve the same kind of deep research and exploration of ideas that I have invested in my Pseudomorphs and Celestial Bodies.
Lately the shawl, or head scarf, has become a loaded object. It represents oppression, on the one hand, and a positive assertion of identity on the other. The shawl embodies modesty and utility. But most of all it is a woman’s garment and, as such, can represent a woman’s right to dress as she pleases. When we put on a garment we are re-presenting our bodies. (How appropriate it is that the shawl’s definition includes the wrapping of a baby, just as a birth mother’s body itself once wrapped her baby.) A garment always means something, but I believe our bodies themselves shouldn’t always mean something—our bodies ARE—and we have a right to BE here, wholly owned by ourselves. I have created these women’s garments inspired by the power of women, both human and mythological (or divine, depending on how you approach religion). In each I have tried not to represent the person, but to represent the attributes and message—the power—of the person (or spirit) in words and/or in images. I hope that putting on the shawls will be like putting on the power represented. Superman has his cape, and now, you can have a Female Power Shawl! Furthermore, a portion of the purchase price will go toward a resonant charity, so buying one of these shawls will not just give you super-powers, it will affect the world. (Just kidding about the super-powers!)
I made the first Female Power Shawl before I had the idea for the Female Power Shawl project. Pope Francis was coming to town and saying mass near my studio and I wanted to make some things for the audience of catholics in this part of town called the “Little Vatican,” near The Catholic University of America. I made a shawl and a scarf depicting the visual attributes of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe: the starry mantle, the flames, the clouds, the roses. It was when I put the shawl around my own shoulders that I felt how one could be wrapped, physically, in an idea. You can see the Shawl, “La Guadalupana,” here.
Since then I have made two more designs and have many more in the works. I’ve asked friends and strangers about their female heroes and deities. The first design I finished, called “A Girl with a Book,” is in honor of Malala Yousafzai, the young woman who campaigned for girls’ education in Pakistan, was shot by a Taliban man, kept working for her cause, won the Nobel Peace Prize for her accomplishments (at 16!), and continues to work for every child’s right to an education. To design this shawl I did research on the visual culture of the Swat Valley, the region of Pakistan where Malala was born. I discovered that one of the recurring motifs in the wood carving of the area is based on a woman’s neck ring. The neck ring shape, a nearly-round crescent with outer-facing ends, is pre-islamic, and is thought by anthropologists to be a symbol of female power because of its similarity to the shape of a crescent moon. It persisted even after the coming of islam because a crescent is islamic as well. There are several versions, one is a double twist. Although the text I read suggested that the ends look like bird heads, I think they might just as well be serpent heads. The snake is also often a symbol of female power. (The Arts and Crafts of the Swat Valley: Living Traditions in the Hindu Kush, by Johannes Kalter, 1989.)
I built a neck ring shape from various materials because I was interested in experiencing the motif as a physical thing, not just as a drawing. I made a couple versions and they both seem a little magical when I hold them. One version was wrapped and the other was twisted. The twisted version looks much more like two snakes. This is the one I scanned and used in the shawl design.
The shape also made me think of two hands held out, cupped, as if holding water—or holding a book. So I drew a motif of hands in the neck ring shape holding a book. The little yellow leaf shapes could be leaves or flames, also two-lobed and opening out from a center. The text on the shawl reads: “Extremists have shown what frightens them most: a girl with a book.” This is a Malala quote used by Amnesty International. I like this sentence because, on the one hand, it is calling the Taliban cowards because they are afraid of a little girl and everyone knows that girls are weak and harmless [sic!]. On the other hand, it suggests that it really is a very powerful thing for a girl to reach into the world and seize knowledge for herself. They should be afraid! How can we possibly respect any ideology that relies on women being ignorant!
I also read Malala’s memoir, I Am Malala, which I recommend to everyone. She writes lovingly of her homeland. She holds fast to her moslem faith and describes how the Koran encourages women on their path to knowledge. She describes how the Taliban moved into her land and slowly won over people through rhetoric and intimidation. Then they started destroying schools and assassinating people. She held to her conviction that it is not a crime to seek an education. In this she was supported by her educator/activist father and her illiterate mother. The day that Malala was shot, in a school bus delivering her home from school, her mother was attending her own first reading lesson. How our daughters teach us! A portion of the proceeds from the sale of “A Girl with a Book” will go to support the Malala Fund, of course.
These beech leaves hang on all winter adding lightness and movement to the sleeping woods around here.
Work in progress: Bone Clock (working title). Beeswax: I’m thinking about how this material is of all three categories I’ve been massaging/messaging—animal, plant, and made by humans. (See Pseudomorphs and Celestial Bodies.) The bees make the wax from glands in their bodies; the yellow coloring comes from pollen; and it is cultivated, gathered, and purified by humans. It smells amazing.