Santa Barbara, CA — In January, a new exhibition focused on the work of Afro-Cuban American artist Harmonia Rosales opened at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Harmonia Rosales: Entwined intermingles ancient Greek and West African mythologies with a focus on Black femininity. Though I did not attend the show in person, through a virtual tour and an interview with the curator I came to understand that the artist and the exhibition create new possibilities for how myth can represent and empower.
In comments to Hyperallergic, curator Helen Morales, the Argyropoulos Professor of Hellenic Studies at UC Santa Barbara, discussed the origin story behind the exhibition. She notes that during the pandemic, viewing Rosales’s work online shook her from a pandemic malaise and pushed her to get into contact with the artist.
The exhibition is the first that I have curated, and I was fortunate to be able to work with the artist and with Sophia Quach McCabe at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum, who is an expert in Renaissance art. I was assisted by a graduate student, Polyxeni Trikoulis, who interviewed Rosales for the video that is part of the exhibition. Polyxeni is both Greek and African American and found that Rosales’ art spoke to her about identity and cross-cultural interactions.
The exhibition of Rosales’s work has brought together multiple departments and resources on campus in order to accentuate the global power of mythology — how it has been used in both positive and negative ways — and to center Black women.
The exhibition is also a forum for presenting new work from Rosales. Only “The Birth of Oshun” (2017) has been shown prior. In earlier comments about this painting, which alludes to Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” (1485–1486) Rosales noted the significance of focus on Black female beauty in her art: “When I create my work, I create it for [my daughter] so she sees the beautiful Venus as a black woman with natural hair.” In “The Birth of Oshun” and other works such as “Creation of God,” (2017) Rosales draws on Renaissance styles and techniques which have long been the purview of predominantly White European men depicting White women in order to question traditional narratives belonging to the canons of Greek myth or Christianity. Morales notes, “Renaissance art puts White bodies front and center, but Rosales celebrates Black bodies. She creates a new Renaissance visuality, and forges a new classicism.” This “Black Classicism” is part of a broader literary, academic, and visual movement.
Other recent artists, such as Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley, and Sanford Biggers have also fused Greek myth with Black culture and history. As Morales points out, the poet and graphic artist Inua Ellams’s book, The Half-God of Rainfall, imagined what would happen if the goddesses of Greek and Yoruba myth banded together against the other gods. And yet Rosales’s work has a unique ability to critique the present moment, while underscoring relationships between it and the mythologies of the past. Morales and Rosales created a narrative with the exhibition, following the patakís (stories) of the orishas (West African Yoruba deities), part of the Yoruba-derived religion, Lucumí. “These stories are ‘entwined’ with those from ancient Greek mythology, creating connections across time and space, and across thousands of years of myth-making.”
Rosales’s work recognizes and rectifies the need for the public representation of Black people, particularly Black women, in art. She also uses her painting to address the violence exacted upon these people with American history.
Make no mistake, some of the paintings in exhibition are angry and should make you angry; they reveal the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade (the tales of the orishas survived the trafficking of millions of Yoruba people in the Atlantic slave trade, and their coercion into the Catholic Church when they arrived in Cuba), and are a corrective to the Eurocentrism and white supremacism of Western art historical traditions. But they also invite us to reflect upon similarities between Greek and Yoruba tales, and what unites as well as what divides us.
A big theme of the exhibition is the continued potency of ancient myth today. Morales points to the fact that myth deals with big events and emotions — birth and death, love, betrayal, sexual violation, migration, resilience, and hope — that are still a part of our lives today.
The pandemic has perhaps shown us the reality of our own mortality, and also forced us to confront grief and loss head on. But as Morales notes, Rosales underscores an active and vibrant religion that continues, “Unlike ancient Greek myths, Yoruba tales are both stories and the narratives of a religion that continues to be practiced.” For the exhibition, Morales worked with Elizabeth Pérez, a religious studies professor at UCSB, who is both a practitioner of Lucumí and an expert in its history.
An idea present in Yoruba religion is that everything and everyone contains ashé, a dynamic energy, but that ashé is especially powerful in art and myth making. Its energy has the power to transform us. In Rosales’s work this happens on an intellectual level, by pressing us to reflect on, for example, how the gods abuse and have been abused, and on an emotional level, by the strong feelings that her paintings evoke — it’s a very powerful, and transformative, combination.
Pérez is giving one of the public lectures in a series titled “Myth, Religion, and Race” that accompanies the exhibition, along with Princeton classicist Dan-el Padilla Peralta, and Northwestern sociologist Vilna Bashi.
From Super Bowl ads starring Zeus and Hera to new animation projects and movies centered on ancient Greece, myth remains powerful because, as Morales puts it, “It is part of our cultural grammar.” And yet, this grammar has no set rules. It is constantly being remade and remixed, adapted for the next generation. “Myths have the power to affirm different identities and experiences,” Morales reminds us. “Both Greek mythology and the Yoruba tales often involve the gods taking the form of different genders, or being non-binary.” Far from being a relic of the past, Rosales’s art manifests how myth can compel us to reflect on the harms of slavery, colonialism, racism, imperialism, and exclusion, all while embedding a new, more global mythological grammar for others to begin to write with.
Harmonia Rosales: Entwined is on exhibition at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara (552 University Road, Santa Barbara, California) through May 1. It was curated by Helen Morales.