Harmonia Rosales’ Ode to her Ancestors in Mesmerising Depictions of the Black Feminine
This Afro-Cuban artist infuses her work with a sense of history through sensual yet powerful depictions of the oft-violated bodies of her ancestors
Intention and result rarely reconcile perfectly. But, on seeing Rosales’ work and hearing that her “main artistic concern has been focused on black female empowerment in western culture”, you feel you are experiencing that rare of creative occurrences, when result and intention coincide.
In Rosales’ work, we dive into a world of African orishas, Italian frescos and the Black female form as not quite seen before. She engages in visual theatres of allegory and realism that give Black women their power, sexuality and spirituality without compromise. On viewing one of her pieces, you are enticed by the striking figures to investigate further. You know you are looking at something not just intended to be beautiful but intended to say something about who we are and who we have been. In this way, Rosales succeeds in her endeavour; her work is indeed a powerful elevation of the Black female form within the European aesthetic, successfully placing Black women within the religio-mythical world of Europe’s renaissance.
From childhood Rosales was fascinated with renaissance art but was unable to relate to its rigid commitment to the depiction of “white male hierarchy and the idealised subordinated woman immersed in Eurocentric conceptions of beauty”. As a result, her work is deeply historical. She says that the women in her paintings represent her ancestors, those excluded not just from visual culture but from all aspects of Europe’s cultural life.
She draws a lot of inspiration from these women and from the religion they brought with them across the Atlantic, the Yoruba Ifa religion, which is still practised in Rosales’ native Cuba, where it is known as Lucumi. Ifa’s and Lacumi’s less debilitating conceptions of femininity have inspired Rosales’ work to counter the demonisation of the Black feminine. The realism of her figures, a contrast to the idealised aesthetic of renaissance Europe, also humanises the divine, further challenging traditional ideals of beauty and society’s psychological reliance on perfection.
Thus, through her art Rosales places black women at the centre of visual discourses on life, religion, and power, in much the same way as Black women have played a role in the artist’s own life as sources of life, religion, and power. It is for her mothers, sisters and friends, past and present, that Rosales paints their images into her art and, in this way, seeks to heal past wounds and promote self-love.
It would be easy to reduce her work to the multiple challenges it poses; the challenges it poses to white consciousness, male consciousness, and even Black colonised consciousness. But that would be to reduce her work to a mere response when it is in itself a generator of ideas and motifs. Rosales’ work calls to be appreciated as much for what it creates, as for what it seeks to destroy, being the notion that the European male is the only custodian of power.
Artist Glory Sam-Jolly stresses the importance of not forgetting to appreciate Rosales’ technical skill in any consideration of the psychological impact of her work. On Rosales’ most recognisable piece, The Creation of God, Sam-Jolly notes Rosales’ “precision in maintaining the artistic style Michelangelo used in order to re-create his masterpiece”. Refined, with close attention to detail, Sam-Jolly holds that Rosales has emulated Michelangelo to perfection, using his own aesthetic against the ideas his art bolstered. On the role that Rosales plays in inspiring her own practice, Sam-Jolly says:
“I was attracted by the dauntless audacity of Harmonia Rosales and her artwork. Like me, she is criticising the issue of white-male dominance within the art history curriculum. By subverting white male figures into Black female figures, she enforces a strong point which has upset many viewers. Her work is deliberately controversial in order to make her audience imagine what it would be like if the scales were turned, if we only learned about Black figures, and Black figures were glorified above all other races in art history”.Glory Sam-Jolly
All of this is to say that Rosales’ work stands on its own, inspiring women and artists alike to reimagine everything they’ve been taught about what is worthy of depiction and veneration.
Cite this article:
Umolu, Apeike. “Harmonia Rosales’ Ode to her Ancestors in Mesmerising Depictions of the Black Feminine”. The Africxn Review, Journal of the African History Project. https://africanhistoryproject.org/ahp/harmonia-rosales/. 2022.
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