Harmonia Rosales, Spelman

Afro-Cuban Artist Places Black People In Classic Renaissance Art In Spelman College Exhibit

Harmonia Rosales‘ new exhibition at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art focuses on blending West African religion and faces with classic Renaissance art.

According to CNN, the exhibit is comprised of 20 pieces centered on returning to one’s identity. For seven years, the artist has created paintings and sculptures in this theme as a means of shifting the focus in Western art away from a white-centric model. Instead, Rosales places Black people as the central characters.

The exhibit, “Harmonia Rosales: Master Narrative,” includes the deities and stories from the West African religious traditions of the Yoruba.

According to Brittanica, the faith stems from Nigeria and part of other nations in the surrounding region. Its supreme, or most important state of existence, is found with Olódùmaré, which created humankind. Subsequent deities, called Orishas, have designated rulings while being heavily intertwined with the natural environment.

In her work, Rosales has featured certain Orishas that tie into the artistic work’s theme. For example, her take on the Virgin Mary in Lady of Regla instead showcases Orisha Yemaya, the mother of the world. Orisha worship also spread to Cuba and Brazil through the transatlantic slave trade and is now practiced throughout the diaspora.

Rosales’ decision to build upon this tradition is a reaction to the religious restrictions placed upon enslaved Africans, who were forced to abide by white slaveowners’ beliefs, thereby relegating their own culture and spiritual guidelines to the margins.

As for her motive behind incorporating this faith in her work, Rosales wants to bring it wider attention, and believes blending it in the artwork within Greco-Roman and Christian history is the way to do it.

” … It’s what’s been mainstreamed. I’m trying to educate the masses on a religion that has been hidden for quite some time,” said Rosales. “I want to make it very linear, understandable, and digestible, so then we can dive deeper. I’m taking the express route of teaching people who they are. The only way to do that is by reimagining certain famous images.”

Rosales has retained critical painting techniques from this artistic foundation, especially in her depictions of the Black figures that are the stars in her works. She continues to utilize the classical methods, using thin coats of paint, for example, so that her subjects’ skin appears so natural that a viewer would almost dare to reach out and touch them.

Her Creation of God invokes a new interpretation of Michelangelo’s famous mural on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by showing Orishas instead of biblical characters, to further expand her vision. Rosales’ work is unintentionally but inescapably political, especially amid the national fight to ensure Black history is told,  and tells a story of empowerment that the artist hopes all her people may look to for upliftment.

“Harmonia Rosales: Master Narrative” is on view at the Atlanta-based gallery until Dec. 2, 2023.

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