Thursday, Aug. 17 was opening night for the latest exhibition at the Spelman Museum of Fine Art, “Master Narrative” by artist Harmonia Rosales. The collection presents a reimagination of traditional icon paintings, infusing them with the rich imagery of Yoruba/Ifa culture and religion. I am lucky to know that I can trace my ancestry back to Yorubaland and am a Ifa practitioner. Ifa is a faith system with roots in Yorubaland.
Having been introduced to the Yoruba Orisha religion and culture, through my grandfather John Eaton and my grandmother Reka Eaton, there is a comfort in praying through the same faith system as my ancestors.
The origins of this creative endeavor lie in Rosales’ desire to share her cultural heritage with her daughter. Recounting how she began painting the collection to introduce her five-year-old daughter to gods that resemble her, much like the familiar figures of Greek mythology. From this motive, her journey expanded, surprising even herself.
“I’ve surprisingly found myself. So as I taught her, I taught myself,” Rosales said.
Her upbringing in Lukumi, a colonized iteration of the Yoruba religion that originated in Cuba, forms a significant part of her narrative.
“I grew up with Lukumi. It’s more of the colonized version of the Yoruba religion. Even though I grew up with it, I took it for granted. I didn’t really dive deep into the stories I heard. There were no images to really reference,” Rosales explained.
Upon landing in Cuba, the original depictions of the Orisa (the Yoruba term for “Gods”) aligned more with the culture mix that the country was.
“There’s a lot of colorism in Cuba, and a lot of the gods are depicted as light skinned and mixed, and Oshun, the most beautiful God, is mixed with long, flowy hair. So I wanted to really depict Orisha (Gods) from where they originally originated from, which is Nigeria and that location that they were from in Yoruba land,” Rosales said.
Rosales’s journey was not without challenges. She encountered discouragement from within the art world, where conformity to trends often overshadowed personal significance.
“They said, ‘Oh, this wouldn’t sell,’ you know, you got to ride the wave,” Rosales said.
Her art carries a deeply personal touch, with each piece reflecting a unique aspect of her life’s journey. When asked about her favorite piece, Rosales finds it difficult to choose, as each one represents a different chapter of her story.
“All encompasses different experiences, retellings that speak to my life and how I found myself,” Rosales explains.
Rosales’ artistic journey aligns with the larger narrative of African spiritual practices reclaiming their space. The opening of her exhibit at The Spelman Museum of Fine Art carries profound symbolism to me. It signifies not just artistic achievement but can signify a shift in the way African spiritual practices are perceived and how they are received.
I found comfort praying through the same faith system as my ancestors, before they were forced onto ships bound for what would later be called America.
That is what Rosales’ work makes a compelling case for a broader narrative—one that encompasses diverse perspectives and stories. Why do we shy away from the traditions that our ancestors held? Is it because we were told to? Is it because we were ingrained with its demonization? We constantly are seeing the evil aspects of our traditions in the Hollywood landscape. But what if we were to take back our identity and make beautiful art around it, much like Rosales did?
“I’m a storyteller so all I focus on is telling stories and demonstrating it,” Rosales said. “I feel like I’m an observer more than looking at it through a certain perspective, because I try to find where it can be mainstreamed. Why should this religion that was orally preserved for so long, should be mainstream, because it’s time to be in the conversation. I think that it can empower and it can question- what came first?”