Saturday, February 8, 2014

La Virgen de Regla: A Dreamtime Vision

La Virgen de Regla, by Marissa Arterberry, 2014 mixed media on wood, 12" x 24" 
     This piece was borne out of a very violent dream I had a couple months ago. I was running through a town square, and there were bombs being detonated, people shooting, bodies covered in ash and frozen in terror. I was seeking safety and shelter from what was unfolding. I stumbled upon two large stone churches right next to each other. The first was a church devoted to La Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity) the Catholic saint syncretized with Ochun in Cuban Santeria. Outside the church was A small golden plaque proclaiming devotion to Ochun and talking about Ochun's connection to the beauty of sexuality. After reading these words, and pausing to breathe for a minute, I knew someone was coming to blow up this beautiful church because of that writing on the wall. The secret was out, and someone wanted that knowledge, the connection between La Caridad and Ochun, kept hidden. I had to keep moving.
    I ran to the church next door. In front of this church, I found a small pond with light shining from the bottom of it. The pond was surrounded by palm leaves and watermelons that were cut in half so that they resembled drums. It was then I knew that this church was devoted to La Virgen de Regla, the Catholic saint syncretized with Yemaya in Santeria. The water calmed me, and for a brief moment I felt safe. Then, I was filled with terror as I realized this church was next to be destroyed. I ran from the church, and just before I woke up from my dream, the image that I painted-- La Virgen surrounded by leaves of palm and watermelon-- flashed briefly before my eyes.
     At first I was surprised by the nature of this dream. La Virgen de Regla coming to me in a dream? I have always had a deep-in-my-bones discomfort with Catholic symbols. I never really knew why, but as I thought about the dream, it began to make sense. Within that dream, I experienced the terror my ancestors experienced, and what they had to overcome in order to preserve their African spiritual traditions after they were brought to the Americas and enslaved. The persecution of practitioners of Santeria, Candomble, Vodoun, etc. has been well documented. It is why our ancestors hid their devotion to African deities behind Catholic saints in the first place. It was an act of resistance, an act of preservation.
  "There is an amusing story about a priest in Cuba whose Church enjoyed sudden popularity when a statue of La Regla was installed. It is said that the priest initially attributed the sudden influx of practitioners to his preaching. Imagine his shock when he discovered that Yoruba religious practitioners had placed Afrikan textiles associated with Yemaya under the the Madonna's Catholic robes. The congregation had come to venerate Yemaya!" -Baba Raul Canizares, from Yemaya: Santeria and the Queen of the Seven Seas

   The morning after having this dream, I was ready to paint La Virgen. I began researching images of Her on the internet, and was happy to discover She had visited Mexican artist Jorge Elias surrounded by watermelons as well!
Virgen de Regla by Jorge Elias
  Many of the paintings and statues I came across depicted La Virgen as a dark skinned Black woman holding a White or light skinned child. I decided to go for the reverse, and show La Virgen as light skinned, holding a dark skinned child. This is my way of saying, even though in the past we were subjected to slavery, rape, and the effects of colonization, going forward we embrace our African heritage and the beauty of blackness for generations to come.
Closeup view of a statue of La Virgen de Regla

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Latest Work: The Journey

The Journey by Marissa Arterberry, 2011. Gouache, ink, watercolor on paper, 30" x 22"

The Journey was inspired by a woman I saw at an airport. She was walking with her friends and laughing. She wore sparkling orange harem pants and her hair was in two puffy pigtails. I wondered where she was headed to, or where she had just returned from. My curiosity about her journey caused me to reflect on my own travels east and west, between Brooklyn, New York and Oakland, California. Two places I have called home for most of my adult life.
 I decided to paint this woman and have her journey reflect my own. In the painting, she goes back and forth, using many different modes of transport, including skateboard, boat, and rainbow. 

I painted this journeying woman with suitcases full of flowers to represent her "baggage" (past experiences that produce negative thoughts and weigh you down). Her bags are filled with flowers because she has done a lot of inner work on her journey to let the past and negativity go. What she carries is light as a feather, it doesn't weigh her down.

                                 I mainly painted this woman moving and searching, but I also painted her resting as well.  Rest and reflection is an important part of movement and finding answers. Sometimes my best ideas come in dreams. The paper I used was some I found on sale at a Paper Source store in San Francisco. I fell in love with that lovely shade of pale pink, and the paper has pink flower petals pressed into it. One of the wonderful things about painting with watercolor (I'm still fairly new to it, I have always been an acrylic and oil on canvas kind of girl) is discovering all these different types of paper and surfaces I can work with, and seeing how they interact with the paint. Watercolor is a very delicate and meditative medium, one where the artist has to let go a bit more. Sometimes those colors just go where they want to, or bleed into each other, and it's okay.

I listened to Joni Mitchell's album Hejira almost constantly while painting this piece. The song that resonates most with me is 'Black Crow', it's about searching for one's home. This song was kind of like my painting rocket fuel.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Making Things vs. Making "It"

Watercolor triptych, I like to sit on the floor and work
  As I approach age 30 (next month) I've been giving a lot of thought to what I want out of life. I've been working on identifying my true self/voice and that which is me following the crowd and going after what I am "supposed" to want. I have started to think about what my goals are as an artist. Recently someone asked me what I'm going to do to get some of the major New York galleries to notice me. "Because that's what you're trying to accomplish as an artist, right? You're supposed to get your work into those galleries."
  My response was that it would be nice, but it's not at the top of my list. Quite honestly, I just want to make things. I want to make things, share them with others, and hope what I've made brightens their day a little. Is that terribly unambitious of me?
Oxumbas, watercolor cutouts assembled on my altar

  So far my "biggest" moment as an artist came when I was part of a show in Bed Stuy Brooklyn that was curated by my friend Nakeisha. We had just finished installing a bunch of my drawings. A young woman on her way from night classes in the building stopped to take a look. She turned to me beaming, and said, "can I give you a hug?" That's the best and most meaningful review I've ever gotten. I want people to look at my work and see themselves, and be reminded of the light that comes from within.
  So I am just making things. I have no shows lined up (I get asked that a lot) and I'm not currently responding to any artist submission calls (an appalling number of them now charge fees for submitting work, whereas a couple years ago it was very few)

Shell Goddess to symbolize rebirth. She has a 4 ft train of yarn with found goose feathers attached
  For now I am content with making things in my bedroom and sharing them with folks online. That will change when it's supposed to. I've shown my work quite a bit in all types of places over the past few years, and now I feel it is time to incubate, and play with some new ideas rather than pushing the direction of my work towards the next show or venue. It's easy to get sucked into painting for shows and what people want to see, and right now I'm trying to hear the sound of my own voice more clearly.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Untitled work in progress by Marissa Arterberry
 As hurricane Irene blows through the east coast, I've been using the time inside to paint. I've been working on the above as-yet-untitled piece since December. I actually started it on Christmas Eve. I've been painting women with horses since about last year. For me, the horses represent freedom, power, and healing. They accompany the women on their journeys and see them through tough times.
This was the first horse I painted. They are facing west because I was on the West Coast then

      The horses are also my way of honoring my Native American ancestors. Over the past few years of researching my family, I've learned that our roots are in California, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Texas. I have also traced our family back to the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw tribes. It has been a fascinating journey, and a deeply personal one, but also a very difficult one, for a lot of reasons.
    I went through the process of learning all I could about slavery and its atrocities, and processing that ancestral grief. But there was other ancestral grief I had not dealt with, namely the Trail of Tears. It is hard for me to mention it or read anything about it without crying. The untitled painting is my way of honoring my ancestors and healing some of that grief. I put a lot of myself into this painting, and have literally wept while painting it. There were days when the grief was heavy, and I just needed to cry and paint, so I did. I painted the woman looking east, and the horse running east to create a reversal of the Trail of Tears. It symbolizes the Cherokee people returning to their ancestral home in the southeast. I added crops that the Cherokee people cultivated on their land, such as sunflowers and corn.   I also painted a flowing river to represent tears, and also because water represents cleansing and healing. The abalone and cowrie shells on the water represent the convergence of African and Native American cultures, and the shells that were sacred to them for prayers and rituals.
   The blanket the woman wears is primarily red and white, the colors of Shango, the Yoruba orisha known for his courage and warrior spirit.
My great grandmother on her farm in Oklahoma. She was half Cherokee.

Painting this piece has been a healing and comforting experience. So why is it so hard for me to share? Because of the controversy and pressure surrounding the connection between Native Americans and African Americans. There's the recent court decision to expel Black Freedmen from the Cherokee Nation, and the general political identity bickering that I try to stay away from. There's also the sentiment that Black folks who show interest in the Native American ancestry are somehow trying to "escape" their African American heritage (which could not be farther from the truth). Sometimes it's hard to rise above all that noise and just...paint.
Miss Navajo Nation '97 Radmilla Cody and her grandmother. Her selection was controversial due to her Native/African American heritage. 

 It's somehow comforting to read about seasoned scholars facing this same dilemma in presenting their research and perspectives on Black Indians. I've been reading a book called indiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas. I realized I am not alone in my struggles to share my vision: "The topic can be excruciatingly controversial in both Native and African American communities...I was not so sure I was ready to face that racialized storm. Previous meetings on the topic at other institutions had degenerated into divisive and emotional shouting matches about who was a "real Indian" and who did "not want to be black, and who won the vote for most oppressed. Later academic sessions, such as those at Haskell Indian Nations University in 2006 and at the first meeting of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association in 2007, had pushed beyond those initial explosive engagements, demonstrating perhaps how those dealing with these issues were processing historic grief." -Historian Gabrielle Tayac (Piscataway)
This piece was all about celebrating my ancestors and my Bay Area home

  I think the most important thing I take away from that passage is, don't let the pain get in the way of the work. In fact, work through the pain. There are stories that need to be told.  Black Indians and horses are some themes I'm going to continue working with. I haven't shown any of the pieces yet, and I admit that part makes me a bit nervous. But the more all of us tell our stories, the more we begin to realize we're not alone.