Words and Illustration by Tanatsei Gambura @tanagambura
Edited by Veronica Vivi
The Black imagination is a dangerous, radical phenomenon. More still is the Black, female imagination. It is an envoy into the speculative realm of pure freedom. In an existence that is marked by the suppression of the Black female form in all its shapes, the Black imagination functions as a powerful and liberating force. That being said, a pleasurable Afrocentric paradigm of the world is too abstract and incomprehensible to many. However, for Afro-Cuban artist Harmonia Rosales, not only is it conceivable, but, more importantly, it is a divine universe that can be translated into compelling visual representations for others to bear witness to.
I remember feeling profoundly acknowledged the moment I first encountered Rosales’ work. As an artist myself, I often find that experiencing belonging in the dominant institution of fine arts is a privilege reserved for representatives of the ‘elite’ class. For instance, conduct a quick internet search of the top/greatest/most famous/best artworks of all time – select your choice of words. The works that immediately appear (and are endorsed by ‘factually reliable’ and well-known institutions) belong to a canon that does not include a single Black artist. They are a rotation of da Vinci, van Gogh, Rembrandt and their crew. This canon is not important or relevant to me. Although it is what people like me are constantly force-fed, I spit it out. To me, it is antiquated and justified by its mysticism and excuse of tradition. Needless to say, it is historically and presently very white, very male and very restrictive to anyone not belonging to the wealthy echelon of society. That is why the works of artists like Rosales are urgent and necessary. Rosales has courageously entered this territory, claiming space and restructuring the agenda. It is no wonder, then, that her paintings, with their striking and unapologetic depictions of Black skin, continue to be refreshing and affirming – not only to my being but to my own practice too. They offer an alternative world view to the hegemony, one that asserts Black femininity. I marvel at them.
Rosales’ solo exhibitions B.I.T.C.H (2017) and New World Consciousness (2018) are particularly memorable. They challenge dominant ideologies about the representations of Black women, power and superiority, conceptions of beauty, and theological narratives. The paintings The Virtuous Woman and The Virgin are examples of this. From the artist’s meticulous attention to detail to her symbolic use of gold leaf, her paintings are artistically remarkable in more ways than one. Perhaps what is most valuable, however, is the brilliantly subversive and empowering quality of her work. Subversive because the artist employs renaissance (notoriously Eurocentric) styles and, sometimes, whole artworks, and she recreates a counter-narrative from them. Empowering because Rosales positions Black female subjects at the centre of this universe, as an axis upon which all things evolve and must revolve.
It is indisputable that, as Natasha Gordon-Chipembere conveys, the “legacy of pernicious, demeaning Western representations of Black women’s bodies continues well into the twenty-first century” (11). As far as the intersections of race, gender and class are concerned, Black women have long been the primary sufferers of erasure, violence and silencing. The othering of Black women has given way to their objectification and domination by agents of said othering. In religious doctrine, polarised and binary portrayals of femininity appear too, compounding this reality. In Christianity, for example, women are either sinful (as Eve or Jezebel), or pure (as the Virgin Mary or Ruth). Rosales depicts the figures of Mary and of Eve as Black women and creates a new outlook of their characters: one imbued with glory, sexual agency and the context of black womanhood. She offers a critique to the conceptualisation of women in Christian Doctrine. The paintings Annunciation of a Woman and The Birth of Eve are key references here. Writing in “Christian Ethics and Theology in Womanist Perspective”, M. Shawn Copeland notes that “Black women are among the last admitted to full participation in the theological academy” (114). Rosales’ most absolute rejection of this reality is evident in her most controversial painting, The Creation of God. A recreation of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, Rosales’ painting emulates the figure of God in Michelangelo’s original painting as a Black woman. Here, Rosales communicates a powerful counter-narrative to the white, masculine depiction of God, perhaps confronting the very foundations of the Christian macrocosm.
Similarly, the domain of mainstream visual culture is not exempt from the unfavourable representation of Black women. Rather, it fuels it. Black women continue to be victims of misrepresentation and stereotyping in both everyday life and in the media. Rosales defies this by adopting a self-definitive disposition in her paintings. She portrays the Black woman as a deity, a sovereign nurturer (the painting Harvest is an apt example of this), thereby transfiguring the negative trope of the controlling, angry, Black mammy into one of dignity and power. There is a strong message of self-reliance in this narrative of Black womanhood, as well as of community in that shared understanding. The painting Ascension/Assumption of a Woman with its swooping ensemble of women in lyrical pose hovering in mid-air further exemplifies this. It is a depiction of grace, freedom and harmony. There is oneness among the women, the natural world and the metaphysical expanse. Thus, Rosales creates an exclusive, transcendent, and self-determined terrain of whole existence, love and solidarity for Black women.
Another sphere in which Black women have been marginalised is in dominant conceptions, and therefore standards, of beauty. Patricia Hill Collins sums this best:
Within the binary thinking that underpins intersecting oppressions, blue-eyed, blond, thin White women could not be considered beautiful without the Other —Black women with African features of dark skin, broad noses, full lips, and kinky hair. (89)
Quintessential to traditional Eurocentric representation of female beauty is the mythological entity of Venus – goddess of love, sex, fertility and beauty. By replacing the figure of Venus in Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus with the Yoruba deity Oshun, Rosales castigates Eurocentric beauty standards and exalts Afrocentric beauty, femininity, and spiritualism. In another painting, The Lioness, the artist depicts a Black, female archer with albinism embracing a sleeping lion, further commenting on the diversity existing in beauty and power.
Reasonably, one could question the extent to which the artist discontinues the legacy of the voyeurism of Black female bodies in her paintings. I insist that this is a question of audience and gaze and, therefore, a question of perspective. In opposition to the culture of objectification that voyeurism is founded upon, Rosales attempts to position the subjects she depicts as whole entities with their own narratives, histories and personhood. Essentially, she centres her artworks on the being rather than on the body. Furthermore, the authorship of her works is key to shaping an opinion here. There is a relationship between the portrayer (Rosales) and the portrayed (the Black female form) that cannot be dismissed. It is important to remember, when looking at her artwork, that Rosales is a Black woman and, as such, she is perfectly within her parameters as far as ownership of the narratives is concerned. Ultimately, through her work, Harmonia Rosales demonstrates an ethereal consciousness of Black womanhood. Her imaginative and artistic capabilities denounce the white normative gaze and the systemic deconstruction of a Black conception of identity. She situates herself within the contemporary womanist discourse in a creative and original way. Rosales is one of many Black artists including Kehinde Wiley and Kadir Nelson who are redefining the institution of fine arts. They are carving Black bodies into history, forging a new narrative and uplifting marginalised identities. I will be damned if I am not here to witness it.
The paintings referenced to in this article can be found on the artist’s website and social media pages.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, And the Politics of Empowerment. Unwin Hyman, 1990.
Copeland, M. Shawn, et al. “Roundtable Discussion: Christian Ethics and Theology in Womanist Perspective”. The Womanist Reader, edited by Layli Phillips. Routledge, 2006, pp. 126-158.
Gordon-Chipembere, Natasha, editor. Representation and Black Womanhood: The Legacy of Sarah Baartman. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Jordan-Zachery, Julia S. Black Women, Cultural Images, and Social Policy. Routledge, 2009. Print.
Powell, Richard J. Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture. University of Chicago Press, 2008.
hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Routledge, 2014.
Tanatsei Gambura is an award-winning poet, intermedia artist and cultural practitioner from Harare, Zimbabwe. Based in Scotland, United Kingdom, she is an Intermedia Art student at the University of Edinburgh. She is also an alumnus of the African Leadership Academy (ALA) in South Africa where she was awarded the Patrice Lumumba Award for Pan-Africanism in 2018. A passionate feminist and Africanist, her work explores the implications of culture, identity, history and womanhood. She is a geographer and culture theorist at heart, taking a research-based approach to her practice. Tanatsei ofte centres archival material as the basis of her work but draws from personal experience too. She explores black womanhood in the context of post-colonial immigration, global geopolitics and cultural identity.