Ahead of her latest show, New World Conciousness, the painter reflects on why we must reject the stale, pale, male traditions of art
If “The Creation of Adam” (1508) is meant to depict the earth-shaking moment that created humanity as we know it, then why is every one of Michaelangelo’s characters white, when more than 70% of the human race is of non-white descent? And on top of this, if this is the birth of humanity, why is the birthing an act of men only? It would be easy to label Michelangelo as a xenophobe and a misogynist, but the fact that this white-washed, stale, and male context still thrives in art today shows that he’s far from alone. Dominant gender and race power structures have dictated the whole of art history.
Vowing to use her art to change this reality is Afro-Cuban, Chicago-based painter, Harmonia Rosales, who recreates key historical artworks by painting women of colour back into art history. “Were we not there?”, asks Rosales. “Did we not all help to build this land we live on?” Her desire comes from a lack of seeing her identity as a woman of colour represented in art, as well as a pledge to her DNA as an artist.
Place Michelangelo's “Adam” next to Rosales’ 2017 remake, “The Creation of God”, and the image is instantly liberated. The original work is injected with colour and soul, as God becomes a black woman through Rosales’ incredibly realist ability to replicate traditional images in an almost identical state. This sense of freedom is echoed throughout Rosales’ entire career, such as when she turned Botticelli’s “Venus” into an empowered black deity, “Oshun”, who, with vitiligo with gold patches, traces back to Nigerian traditional storytelling. Now, for her upcoming show New World Consciousness at New York’s RJD Gallery, Rosales paints to correct the tropes of religion, which has been a subtextual theme across her entire career.
“Since global history was documented, religion and power go hand in hand. Sometimes that power can be abused for greed” – Harmonia Rosales
New World Consciousness breaks down the stereotypes of The Virgin Mary and Eve by exploring the duality between the two figures, as Rosales paints them as one female figure. As a singular entity, the figure in Rosales’ new show is aimed at breaking down ideological behaviours which condemn the liberated actions of women in regards to their appearance and sexuality, such as the ways in which men in the Bible condemn the actions of Eve.
Inspired by history, herstory and a pursuit for the truth, the way Rosales uses entrenched patriarchal histories to reframe them through a black and female lens is powerful because it makes people see alternative possibilities that question humankind’s embedded ideologies. Ahead of New World Consciousness, we speak to Rosales about the art of asserting identity and rewriting history.
Can you describe the work that will be on show in New World Consciousness?
Harmonia Rosales: This exhibition explores the duality between The Virgin Mary and Eve as a point of departure in the deconstruction of a dominant ideological narrative rooted in Eurocentric conceptions of beauty and superiority. This particular journey of men commending or condemning a woman for her behaviour is played out through our seasons of life; Spring, summer, fall and winter. Whether we think of this as a physical or metaphorical transition it's a transition in which there is no beginning or end but how well you plan for the next harvest.
How do you explore this duality in the show?
Harmonia Rosales: By making The Virgin Mary and Eve one woman, and by exploring how this one woman represents all of us because we all are perfectly imperfect. By presenting Eve in the same light as we give The Virgin Mary, we begin to accept Eve and her non-conformity as we relate to her through our own journeys of life. She is a strong woman who questions and is eager to acquire more wisdom...hence she is her own judge on her sexuality and how she chooses to live her life. I explore this through paintings of a strong woman in all seasons of life. These women challenge the social perception on what is beautiful. The reality is we all are beautiful.
“By creating positive works of art using black women, the complete opposite from which we were used to seeing, we can begin to deconstruct our power structure” – Harmonia Rosales
Religion is a consistent theme throughout your work. How do you believe it plays a role in the enforcement of dominant power structures?
Harmonia Rosales: Since global history was documented, religion and power go hand in hand. Sometimes that power can be abused for greed, such as how American colonist used the religion of Christianity to manipulate and control. By creating positive works of art using black women, the complete opposite from which we were used to seeing, we can begin to deconstruct our power structure.
How does the work in New World Consciousness differ from previous exhibitions?
Harmonia Rosales: It does not differ but is an extension of a greater message. Every one of my exhibits is a different branch from a central rooted question. Why have we allowed a continuously manipulated society dictate who is superior in beauty and power?
Art history is one of the world’s most dominant histories. How do you think the fact that the history is dominated by white men impacts people’s perception of art?
Harmonia Rosales: Essentially, art history hosts a white aesthetic that is passed along consciously and subliminally through our major social and cultural institutions, media, family, education and religion. Not only have we grown up with these images but place value on them. The Eurocentric conception of a white male dominated heaven is seen as valuable and worth millions. My exhibits intend to begin to clear that blockage by deconstructing the dominant social narrative through the same medium that helped create it.
How do you believe this impacts people’s perception of women and people of colour?
Harmonia Rosales: When all we see in art history is a male-dominated white heaven, we become the inferior to this gender and cultural imperialism. Not only are social conceptions of black character distorted in this process, but so, too, are conceptions of women and their value as co-equals in an egalitarian society.
“When all we see in art history is a male-dominated white heaven, we become the inferior to this gender and cultural imperialism” – Harmonia Rosales
In your work, you rewrite women and people of colour back into art history. What is the importance of doing this?
Harmonia Rosales: Were we not there? Did we not all help to build this land we live on? We could not have accomplished what we have without the other. So why are we continuing to use this power hierarchy against gender and ethnicity? Through the continued racist comments, it’s clear that these images are important.
Your painting “The Creation of God” (2017) caused quite a controversial reaction. How do you deal with negative responses to your work?
Harmonia Rosales: It’s inspiring because whether the comments are negative or positive it creates dialogue and provokes thought. I learn from the comments. We are all still learning who we are and how we define ourselves. I gain wisdom from everything.
What is your advice for emerging painters, especially those from marginalised backgrounds who don’t see themselves in art history?
Harmonia Rosales: Ask yourself, what is my DNA as an artist? How and what you create from that will flow. And most importantly, follow your creative spirit because a true artist is not manipulated by judgments nor driven by money.
New World Consciousness is on at New York’s RJD Gallery from September 8 – October 5. You can find out more here