Brittney Cooper wrote a brilliant, skeptical essay in Cosmopolitan last week about the rising antipathy in certain lefty circles toward California’s junior senator, Kamala Harris. Holding the first African-American woman to win a U.S. Senate seat in almost 20 years to impossible standards of purity reveals more about her critics than about her, Cooper argued — especially in the context of the current political climate.
“Black women are not Jesus,” she wrote. “It’s not right to expect us to fix what white Americans are so committed to breaking. This debate, then, isn’t about Harris, but about the emotional and political labor that Black women are expected to do to save America’s soul.”
Black women may not be Jesus, but at SOMArts, they are a deity of a higher order. In “The Black Woman Is God: Divine Revolution,” co-curators Karen Seneferu and Melorra Green have assembled a 60-artist show that speaks not to the 241-year-old nation that white nihilism is busy destroying, but to a sort of buzzing conduit between the lived experience of Black women in 21st-century America and the pantheistic and sublime. It is political — it couldn’t not be — but depending on how you ground your interpretation of the show’s title, its component pieces could be read as rebukes to patriarchal and Eurocentric oppression or as monuments of private mourning.
Grief and quiet contemplation are major motifs throughout. There are at least half a dozen altars and shrines — or more, if you apply a lenient, figurative definition. Some combine a cosmic vibe with a West African approach, as in Twogether We Go, by artists Taiwo & Kehinde with sculptures by William Rhodes. (“Taiwo” and “Kehinde” are Yoruba names that mean “first-born and second-born twin.) Others embody a more participatory approach. Mizan Alkebulan-Abakah’s mixed-media work, Honor the Sacred, depicts a Black woman in the style of Durga, the eight-armed Indian goddess who clutches a weapon in each hand. Onlookers are encouraged to write down on slips of paper the ways in which they obey the titular command, and the floor around the piece is slowly becoming annexed to it; sacredness of a sort has begun taking over the gallery itself.
Flowers are everywhere. Choose Your Punctuation consists of fake blossoms that spell out “Fuck Yo Issues,” a small memorial of a framed photograph bookended by candles, and “100% Organic irritation” — siurely a testament to its creator’s mood. In the artist statement, Worldly Sistah (aka Tracy Brown) writes that, “The featured phrase is one that we as African women often have to utter to others and sometimes to ourselves in one manner or another. Oftentimes, the most fervent utterance of the phrase comes through the act of us just being ourselves and living empowered in our divinity. No matter how you punctuate it, the phrase involves overcoming fear, the awakening of understanding, the power of shock, enlightening revelation, and so much more.”
The dynamic of seriousness tempered by play, or of keeping people in good spirits by gently ribbing them, is a complicated one. Elsewhere, some pieces radiate defiant joy. Ajuan Mance has three graphic works arranged in close proximity that depict Black women who could never have met (and whose titles reveal all). There’s Sojourner Truth and Shirley Chisholm Join the Protests at Standing Rock, Hattie McDaniel and Nell Carter Sunbathe by the Pool at the Four Seasons Resort at Wailea and Whitney Houston and Billie Holiday Sing About Freedom and Sparrows and the Eye of God. Houston and Holiday have halos, as if they were saints.
Overall, “The Black Woman Is God” comports with SOMArts’ curatorial practices. The main gallery is a loft-like space with a second, windowless chamber on the far end. The placement of three-dimensional or otherwise large-scale works on the floor is usually deliberate and highly selective, and the paintings and smaller pieces are hung on the walls with the minimum viable amount of breathing room.
It’s not cluttered, exactly. But there is enough to keep the eye engaged that a piece that exerts a tractor beam from across the room can seem even more powerful. The one I have in mind is Tania L. Balan-Gaubert’s Sibyl #3 / Zili Deennen (Zili Unleashed). The Haitian-American Balan-Gaubert’s Sibyls series “aims to refuse Western demonization of African religion and ritual,” and while the hooded figure with an electrifying gaze in this work cannot be divorced from that context, it could also be read as a mysterious saint from Eastern Orthodox Christianity, with red and gold sequins and a multicolored mosaic halo. This Sibyl clutches her belly, which may be pregnant, and holds her left arm up, its palm forward. A human heart sits at her throat, and a bandanna with an American flag print conceals her mouth. It’s archetypal, nearly Tarot-esque. You cannot look away.
And this being SOMArts, there are events tied to the show. Having staged a one-night “Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon” in July to help correct the online encyclopedia’s slant away from Black women artists, the closing weekend for “The Black Woman Is God” (Aug. 25-26) will be given over to Night Light, SOMArts’ annual ritual of illuminated installations, digital and cinematic projections, and performance pieces. This year, it’s two nights instead of one, and it’s all about the construction of a new mythos from out of a palpably dying old order. “We always ask Black women to to do the labor of saving our democracy,” Cooper wrote in Cosmo. At SOMArts, we have a remarkable example of what they achieve when they ask themselves what’s needed.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistook the title of Twogether We Go. It was actually created by artists Taiwo & Kehinde, with sculptures by William Rhodes. It is not a sculpture called Taiwo & Kehinde.
The Black Woman Is God, through Aug. 26 at SOMArts, 934 Brannan St.
Night Light: Multimedia and Performance Festival, Friday and Saturday, Aug. 25-26, 8 p.m. – midnight; $12-$20.