WASHINGTON — In “The Moon and the Little Bird,” (2018) a mixed-media work on paper, two figures sit on white chairs that face each other in a non-distinct blue space. The first, a woman, sits cross-legged in the foreground. Her gaze is confident, an assertive stare that directly confronts the viewer. A small, black-and-white bird rests on her hand. Its body is haloed by white and blue spherical forms. The second figure is masked. Their face is framed by pronounced earrings and thick braids that hang down their torso. Their eerie gaze is directed elsewhere, focused neither on the woman nor the space they occupy. Bright orange orbs fill the gap between them. Broad blue strokes cut across them and through the blue space like gusts of wind or apparitions.
Sun Ra once said that there are other worlds and those worlds wish to speak to us. Interdisciplinary artist Delita Martin asks us to consider that the veil that separates our world from other dimensions is permeable. Her latest exhibition, Calling Down the Spirits, currently on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, seeks to visualize those liminal spaces, what Martin calls “veilscapes,” incorporeal and genetic strands that tether generations of Black women to each other and to the spiritual world.
Martin likens her process of making to quilting. She employs myriad techniques including gelatin prints, collagraph and relief printing, as well as acrylic and oil painting. By layering those disparate methods with symbols and hand-stitched textiles across the figures and the ethereal environments they inhabit, the artist constructs environments that illustrate how Martin perceives the overlap between perceptible and imperceptible worlds. The portraits Martin renders are dense, texture laden, and vividly colored compositions that include both familiar and otherworldly elements: icons from Ghanaian adinkra, West African masquerade, and sacred geometry.
Each figure is comprised of real and imagined attributes of women who have inspired Martin. One woman may feature eyes like the artist’s aunt; another may have her mother’s lips or her grandmother’s hands. In all iterations, the women who recur in Martin’s portraits exemplify what she calls “the great mother icon,” a heroic representation of Black women and the spiritual presences that walk beside them, simultaneously ordinary and transcendent.
There is something sacred about these images that show beautiful, confident portraits of everyday Black women. The work is not preoccupied with photorealistic renderings; rather, like Kirlian photography, her portraits document resonance, the fields of energy that encompass her subjects. These renderings are radical. It is rare to see images of Black women as avatars with spiritual agency. Rarer still, these images humanize rather than exploit. The portraits Martin composes are courageous explorations about the power and vulnerability of our relationships with seen and unseen worlds.
Delita Martin: Calling Down the Spirits continues in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (1250 New York Ave NW, Washington, D.C.) through April 19, 2020. The exhibition was curated by associate curator Virginia Treanor.