Harmonia Rosales reworks the Renaissance with West African tales | Arts and entertainment

In a stunning exhibition centered on the black experience, the UC Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Design and Architecture (AD&A) in 2022 presented a new exhibition of largely new work by artist Harmonia Rosales, who uses the pictorial tropes of the Renaissance painting to reimagine tales from the West African Yoruba religion.

The show inspired a touring exhibition by the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art (MBMA) that will soon visit Spelman College, a historically black college, and recently a catalog
(MBMA/Paul Hoberton Publishing, 2023).

“Rozales creates a new renaissance visuality that foregrounds black and Latino experiences,” said Helen Morales, the Argyropoulos Professor of Greek Studies at UCSB, who contributed to the new publication. “Her work is based on the transatlantic slave trade, which is why many of the Yoruba myths have hardly survived.”

Morales was lead curator of the AD&A show Harmonia Rosales: Entwined, which MBMA later expanded in scope under the title “Harmonia Rosales: Master Narrative.”

This show, now on view at the MBMA through June 25, was curated by Patricia Daigle ’15, an alumna of UCSB’s doctoral program in the history of art.

A classicist and cultural critic, Morales’ research examines myths as foundational beliefs and spaces of cultural resistance, such as in her book Antigone Rising: The Subversive Power of the Ancient Myths (Bold Type Books, 2020).

Rosales’ paintings first caught her attention because of the way they dealt with and displaced Greek mythology.

Rosales’ painting style reflects the canonical Renaissance works that Morales knew well, such as the Sistine Chapel, but they depict scenes from West African myths.

By reworking the European Renaissance style to depict the West African slave trade and tales of Yoruba spirits (known as orishas), Rosales contributed to the rewriting of the master narrative of art history.

Morales deepened his understanding of West African religions by seeking advice from Elizabeth Perez, an ethnographer and historian of Afro-diasporic and Latin American religions at UCSB.

“Rosalez focuses on what unites us,” said Morales, who wrote an essay for the catalog. “It’s social justice, but with an optimistic trajectory. Rosales is more interested in what unites us than what divides us.

Rosales uses Greek and Roman mythology to draw viewers in, then takes them into potentially less familiar territory.

Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, for example, tells the story of the goddess Oshun.

“(It is) the story of how she challenged Olodumare, turned into a peacock and stormed the heavens, only to be scorched by the sun, giving her golden vitiligo,” Morales wrote.

“Greek and Roman mythology is a means of smuggling Yoruba religion, in a way that is by no means the same as, but still reminiscent of, the original identifications by the Lukumi of their deities with those of their enslavers,” Morales said.

The first scholarly collection of Rosales’ work, the new catalog includes over 20 paintings and a sculptural installation. The illustrated catalog also includes a biography of the artist and several scholarly essays exploring topics ranging from storytelling to depictions of beauty, race, and diaspora.

AD&A Academic Coordinator Sophia Quach McCabe, who collaborated on the Entwined exhibition, also contributed an essay.

Both museums acquired works from the Intertwined exhibition for their permanent collections. Rosales presented AD&A “Oshosi Gets His Crown,” a 2019 oil on Belgian linen painting; and MDMA acquired The Migration of the Gods, a 2021 oil and gold leaf painting on canvas.

“It was really serendipitous that Entwined was organized by my alma mater, where I did my MA and PhD (along with Entwined consulting curator Sophia Quach McCabe),” said Daigle, now associate curator of modern and contemporary art at MBMA, who started working at MBMA after the acquisition process began.

“At the time, Harmonia had never had a solo museum exhibition outside of California or New York, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to showcase her work and our new acquisition down south.”

Daigle noted that the Memphis show includes the addition of “Master Narrative,” a monumental sculptural installation that reimagines the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as the hull lining of an upturned slave ship.

“It has been a pleasure to partner with the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art team and see our Harmonia Rosales ‘Entwined’ exhibit blossom under their care,” said Gabrielle Ritter, Director of AD&A.

“Thanks to their dedicated work, their expanded exhibition, along with the accompanying catalog, brings greater depth to the understanding of Harmonia’s painting practice, not to mention exposure to a new audience,” Ritter said. “It’s great to see the scholarship of UCSB faculty and the curatorial work of the AD&A Museum staff ignite a spark for major arts institutions like The Brooks, and for them to pick up that baton and run with it.”

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