A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

By Nana Nkweti

PostMillennial Black Madonna is a new exhibit that celebrates the depiction of dark female divinity throughout the ages. She is as icon that has found incarnations in every world religion and culture- from Isis in ancient Egypt, Kali in Hindu India, to the Yoruba's Yemoja.

Twenty-three artists united to venerate this symbol of the sacred feminine-contributing works in multiple media: sculpture, photography, painting, drawing, video, and a performance piece. The exhibition will be staged in two parts- Paradise and Inferno- at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts(MoCADA) and the Skylight gallery respectively. Paradise premiered in a lively opening reception, peopled by Brooklyn's Black art vanguard, on Feb 22.

Majestically adorned in the rich purple and green brocade finery of the Madonna, Wanda Ortiz welcomed pilgrims to the exhibit with a beatific smile. Offering forth a plate of cooked rice to bless them with sustenance and abundance, she spooned portions by hand from a dish that never seemed to empty. Her robes and halo headdress were made from found materials such as the scraps of drape fabric in her home for the purpose of deliberately "referencing Catholic colors and imagery," she said. That act of finding divinity in the commonplace, hints at the inner godforce that can be tapped into by everyday people.

Barron Claiborne's Papillon (pictured) is a sepia toned Black Madonna who is both tranquil and fierce. Her dark-eyed gaze is placid and all-knowing yet her chain mail is reminiscent of holy warrior heroines like Joan of Arc.

In Black Madonna Sanford Biggers subverts iconic Catholic statuary- painting a demure ceramic bust of the Virgin Mary in black face replete with red cupied lips and the permanently surprised eye whites of the plantation mammy. What at first may seem sacrilegious becomes a revelation of the mammy as the holy mother. This ample bosomed eternal mater suckled a generation of Americans and persists in her collective psyche- referenced in syrup brand ads and a love of Oprah.

While several works invoke Catholic archetypes, others draw from the rich history of dark goddesses on dark continents.

Kali is evoked in artist Dwayne R. Rodgers' It's alright she said. It's alright. Take anything you want from me. Anything.. and I'll still have more. The photo depicts a South East Asian woman in a state of ecstatic meditation. A fiery red cape is tented above a face and chest that are bare but for the markings that swirl upon her skin like Sanscrit on some ancient scroll.

The swollen wood belly of artist Masala's Joan (Gestation of a Saint) is rooted in the fertility goddess dolls found though out the continent. Motherhood adorned- crystal studded pink flowers weave around the jutting breasts and belly. Concentric rings surround the navel as the nexus of life.

Several African artists are represented in the show. Beyond African religious imagery some drew inspiration from social issues here and back home. Rwandan artist Duhirwe Rushemiza's multi-media work N'umwana (and child) is based on the wooden Lukasa memory boards of the Congo's Luba people. Ebon hands cradle the face of a forlorn child surrounded by a constellation of beads and tiny African masks. In the center is the inverse map of Africa in etched red paint that the artist says she subconsciously created.

She recognized that the genocide defined the life of that nation down to its smallest citizens. For instance, a Rwandan might say "this child was born three years after the genocide." She saw the suffering of her people echoed in the devastation wrought on colored folks in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. "Partly children of Rwanda... mostly children [in general] have need for the Black Madonna in the world," she said.

Charlotte Ka's Queen Mother Earth also remembers Katrina. It is the life size sculpture of a brazen conjurer woman swathed in gold tulle- beneath her shiny gown a shotgun house nestles in a lawn of Mardi Gras beads representative, according to the artist, of New Orleans' rebirth.

The exhibit signals the rebirth of the Black Madonna into our consciousness. She is traditionally the bringer of life in days of destruction. In a world fraught with orange terror alert levels and other every day perils of heartache and pain, we could use the hope her dark smile promises.

Postmillennial Black Madonna is curated by Danny Simmons and Brian Tate. Presented by Renee Cox and Wangechi Mutu @ the MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY AFRICAN DIASPORAN ARTS -80 Hanson Place,Brooklyn, New York 11217