08/12/2022 Photos courtesy of the author and Tom Little for the Mattress Factory
Installation view of Spontaneous Horizon (2022), image courtesy of here gallery
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of Bunker Projects or its members.
n. a place regarded as holy because of its associations with a divinity or a sacred person or relic, marked by a building or other construction.*
The Mattress Factory Museum’s Monterey Annex building does not appear as the huge, glass structures I’ve come to associate with traditional museums and gallery spaces. Instead, the charming building blends in with the rest of the cul-de-sac, a perfect spot to house an exhibition that pays homage to the pillars of the home: mothers, specifically Black mothers. Shrine is a six-month exhibition featuring six site-specific installations by artists Renée Cox, Mary Martin, LaKeisha Wolf, Alisha B. Wormsley, and sarah huny young along with others from the Sibyls Shrine artist collective. Shrine is a holy space that honors Black m/others and artists, elevating and venerating them as they come. These artists transform the building into a cocoon — a cool, dark space that honors the Black womxn that make up the exhibition.
Naomi Chambers’ aptly named Mommies vs. Aunties (all works 2022) begins our journey through this unconventional home with a soccer match where “Everyone won.” This room has been transformed into a field with white walls, a green turf, and a sparkly white but torn goal. The field is littered with small white cones, two white ceramic swans with bouquets of red roses, and a pink power ranger on a pink bike: the ultimate scene of play. Joyous sounds filter throughout the space from the television in the corner. On the screen is a recording of the Mommies and Aunties playing with their wards. Across the room, a large poster catches my eyes: a small, diapered Black baby takes their first step under the supervision of a stern-lipped superhero guardian. I was immediately reminded of Garnet from the television show Steven Universe, an over six-foot tall alien that takes care of young Steven with the help of two other maternal aliens.
Naomi Chambers, Mommies vs. Aunties (2022), detail. Photo by Tom Little.
Mommies vs. Aunties tells a similar tale of the community care that goes into raising children, and spotlights Aunties as the necessary co-conspirators of Mommies. Chambers reminds us of the village that assembles, much like a soccer team, in the care of Black children and support of Black Mothers. This installation projects an air of fun and play, asserting that they are important components for Black Motherhood. In her statement, Chambers highlights the importance of children seeing Mommies and Aunties having fun, and encourages the audience to play as they maneuver through the installation. This space becomes an altar that celebrates the Aunties and Mommies that structure our care pods as the viewer is playfully moved through the hole and into the goal post to the next room, Score!
We are birthed into the next room to sarah huny young’s installation: 7. In contrast to the previous room of white walls, this room has been completely transformed into a garden, a paradise overflowing with riches. The lush green and white vines snake along the walls and overhead arches. The plush green floor is dotted with a dashiki print island. The island is an altar — adorned with an African-print pillow, dried herbs, a mortar and pestle, wine, and a charcuterie board of bread, cheeses, grapes, and crackers. Surrounding this island are six mounted larger-than-life sized prints of the goddesses Mami Wata, Oshun, Venus, Aranyani, Pomba Gira, and Lilith, each within their own enclave.
sarah huny young, 7 (2022), details. Photo by Tom Little.
The goddesses are modeled by voluptuous Black women, imposing figures that exude protective and loving energies reminiscent of the superhero guardian in Chamber’s piece. Within their enclaves, each deity has an elevated platform with offerings including flowers, food, wine, incense, jars of spices, and candles. I took the time to stop at each altar and scan the accompanying QR-codes with descriptions of the goddesses; each a matriarchal figure, indispensable to the protection and prosperity of their wards. The selection of goddesses encompassed the cultures of Western, Central, and Southern Africa, Ancient Greece, and Afro-Brazil, along with the religions of Hindu and Christianity, speaking to the transnational reach of Black womanhood, and the intergenerational connectedness of Black womxn and femmes.
It didn’t occur to me to question why an installation with six goddesses is named 7 until I paused to read the description on the wall. young writes: “…there aren’t six goddesses, there are seven, and the 7th is you.” A cheeky smile bursts across my face as I take my place right between these celestial beings. I couldn’t help but wonder if the island was for me, an altar to the various Black women and femmes that drift through the space, perhaps unaware of their powers and likeness to the goddesses on the walls. This space becomes another active reminder of the pillars of our care pods, Black m/others who readily fold us into their loving embrace. I take a deep breath and continue on my quest through this womb — this cocoon of care, support, and love — following the haunting sounds drifting down the stairs to the second floor.
I am met with the bright blue room that houses Mary Martin’s A Constant Struggle for Reciprocity. The first wall features ceramic hands with unique gold designs on their palms. These designs read to me as spiritual symbols, flowing with the rest of the exhibition’s goddess energy. On the next wall are seven plates, continuing the theme of 7 as a divine number from young’s installation below. I am specifically drawn to a blue plate with carvings that look like a fetus, and a plate sporting black hands with a red heart as they explicitly depict the nurturing and motherly atmosphere of the exhibition.
Mary Martin, A Constant Struggle for Reciprocity (2022), details. Photos by the author.
Close to the center of the room is a table topped with a two-lipped teakettle with a braided handle. On both sides of the kettle are other items for a tea setting: teabags, cups, and small plates. Behind this small island sit three ceramic kettles on iron stands with the same face etched into them but different handles. The room is tranquil, cultivating a sense of rest and nourished silence. The final wall bears a cupboard with an assortment of mugs, each distinctive in its own way. This cupboard reminds me of my cupboard at home, literally bursting at the seams with various cups and mugs collected by my collective. Cups and mugs that some would “rather die than lose,” to quote my housemate directly. The room feels extremely personal, each item bearing a stamp of intimacy. I am once again reminded of home, where mugs are necessary accessories that carry our personalities and special memories.
Finally drawn in by the haunting sounds behind the black curtains, I gingerly step into Alisha B. Wormsley’s installation Remnants, Portals, and Power: The Afterlife. On the screen is a film by Wormsley and the children of the NAN archive titled Journey to Pythia. Wormsley writes that the videos “aim to help us remember how to be thriving, radical and Black.” This entire set feels futuristic, and I am once again reminded of Steven Universe’s Garnet and her superhero alien squad. We are now in the endless blackness of space and can feel the deep groaning of the universe all around us. The room is completely immersed in a soundscape that blurs the line between pain and pleasure as wailing, crying and moaning overwhelm the senses. This dizzying dreamscape projects an image of Blackness born through visuality and aurality. Through these images, Wormsley aims to showcase how Black womxn combine ancient and new technologies as a process of self-making.
Alisha B. Wormsley, Remnants, Portals, and Power: The Afterlife (2022), installation view. Photo by Tom Little.
In this haunted black room sit three chairs with triangular hoods in front of the projected screen. I immediately thought of the salon chairs with dryer hoods that populate my existence. As someone who has never been able to stand the heat for too long, often drawing berations from my mother and stylists, I was transported to a different place. This feeling of slight discomfort and excitement were exacerbated when I sat in one of the chairs and pulled down the helmet, focusing on the tiny screen mounted inside the hood. Images of a Black woman moving around with the text “Black” superimposed immediately flashed before my eyes, and it felt like I was in a sci-fi movie being brainwashed and transformed into a new entity. For Wormsley, the chairs “act as a point of departure to a safe Black realm.” Thus, these futurist hoods become portals to new existences and infinite possibilities for Black womxn and girls. This constructed a parallel for me to the magical transformations that occur when we enter the hood at the salon and emerge from the heat as glamorous new things. The video is a bold double affirmation and reminder of the power within these special Black realms for Black womxn. Like preceding installations, Wormsley actively welcomes the Black folxs that find themselves in the piece and taps into the sacred relationship between care and self-making for Black womxn.
Next up is LaKeisha Wolf’s How Deep is Your Love, another altar space with extravagant offerings laid out on the floor. The first thing that catches my eyes is the large herb circle in the middle of the room with a crystal ball at the center. In the circle, I recognize some spices including bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, lavender, black beans, and more — spices that symbolize different elements such as wisdom, calmness, and prosperity. Surrounding the space are patches of soil with decorative stones placed in spiral patterns that branch into different areas of the room. In one corner stand two bronze sculptures, one figure appears to be pouring water into the greenery sprouting from the load of the other figure, and in the other corner of the room calabashes and crystals are laid out.
LaKeisha Wolf, How Deep is Your Love (2022), installation view. Photo by Tom Little.
Above the mantle, a photograph is hung, depicting what we might interpret as the goddess that presides over this space of extraordinary excesses. Like the goddesses downstairs, this larger-than-life Black woman is shown in what looks like a blurry bathroom selfie. In front of the image sit more offerings: bundles of herbs, candles, and various crystals. Opposite this wall is a sweet poem addressed to the author’s spirit. This installation feels extremely personal and healing, and this room has been specially cultivated to feed the soul. Wolf writes: “It’s necessary to be reminded of how deep our connection is with this Earth and environment, as it truly represents a mother who provides all you need to grow, learn, and maximize your life-force purposefully.”
Renee Cox, Soul Culture (2022), installation view. Photo by Tom Little.
Continuing on the journey through Shrine, I finally arrive at Renee Cox’s installations. The first room features Cox’s collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University students, SoulRounded. The animated kaleidoscope of human bodies invites the viewer to interact as the forms grow and multiply on the screens. To me, the images look like cells growing and transforming in specific formations. The room has the same alien, futuristic feel as Wormsley’s installation, and we are once again transported to another dimension. The final room of the show features the second part of Cox’s installation, titled Soul Culture. There is a bench in the middle of the room and images projected all around. The same animated kaleidoscopes of human bodies fly across the walls, growing and forming new shapes and patterns. The many hands of the images that compose the different patterns remind me of the goddesses that have been present throughout the show. The dizzying display left me in awe as they faded in and out.
Overall, Shrine invites us to partake in a sacred space built to honor the Black m/others that make the exhibition possible, and each installation features another dimension of Black embodiment. Through various offerings, the goddess energy of Black m/others is forefronted and revered. The space is sacred and safe, and actively elevates the various Black m/others and womxn that find themselves amongst the art, making them part of the ritual and adoration that exhibition spotlights.
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Vina Nweke is a Nigerian artist and writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. They are a member of the hotbed collective and can be found @_anivarts_ on Instagram.
Shrine is on view at the Mattress Factory Museum of Contemporary Art from June 17, 2022 through December 30, 2022.