If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Two artists share an interest in navigating history and geography.
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
Round 49: penumbras: sacred geometries, currently on view at Project Row Houses in Houston, highlights artists whose practices incorporate the ideology of sacred geometries to form structures that allude to the body, intent, and consciousness. The six participating artists include Yanira Collado, Leticia Contreras, Charo Oquet, Aramis O’Reilly, Onajide Shabaka, and Juana Valdes, each of whom have created site-specific installations inside the art houses located on Holman Street. The artists are responding to the history of sacred geometries presented in previous installations; to the work of Dr. John Biggers; and to the architecture and essence of spirit that exists in the walls of the art houses, the community at Project Row Houses, and within Houston’s historic Third Ward.
The following interview is a conversation between artists who have worked alongside one another and understand the commonalities of space, place, materials, and the sacredness of penumbra.
This Round is co-curated by Ryan N. Dennis, Curator and Programs Director at Project Row Houses, and cultural practitioner william cordova.
—Ryan N. Dennis
Onajide Shabaka Yanira, I find that I deeply resonate with your use of carbon paper and constructed wood-form objects. Could you elucidate their making and how they fit into your exhibition at Project Row Houses?
Yanira Collado In this installation, Zafa: Meditations on Diaspora (2019), I am incorporating many components: carbon paper, textiles, and found elements charged with personal and public history specific to the Third Ward community in Houston. Many of these objects were discarded artifacts from local homes. These are fragmented pieces that can, at times, indicate displacement, but also imply alchemic transcendence. Pinewood was used to create three customized support structures where carbon paper, debris, and so on, could be archived and presented in a form that elevates those materials along with the histories they retain. These wooden structures are also an intervention of sorts within the interior of the row house. They reshape the space into what may seem archaeological, but its purpose is rooted in devotional strategies, in the rescued, repurposed, and protected. As David Hammons says in Rousing the Rubble, “You’ve got tons of people’s spirits when you handle that stuff.”
I am interested in carbon paper because it records whatever is being written or impressed upon it. All the marks made are embossed into the paper itself. The process and scale of carbon duplication also intrigues me.
OS One of the confluences we share at Project Row Houses is that we both use stars. The stars on your carbon pieces seem related to quilting, and I have alluded a bit to quilting as well. Please tell me about them!
YC My interest in stars has many intersections. First, I am referencing the various design origins and meanings of stars sewn into quilts. Historically, star-designed-quilting blocks sewn into larger quilts were used by plantation slaves to guide other runaway slaves during the 1700s–1800s as noted in the book Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad (2000) by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard. Both Tobin and Dobard describe the North Star (evening star) as an encoded symbol that indicated to those fleeing slavery that they should follow it to freedom. There are also the Lakota Sioux Morning Star quilts. The Sioux were acute planetary observers of the Morning Star (Venus). This design also happened to be one of the most popular symbols in Sioux quilts. The 1800s folk song Follow the Drinking Gourd can also be included as a coded instructional composition, guiding fugitive slaves north, toward Canada … toward freedom. The song is part history and part folklore; its origins are constantly questioned, and some academics resist the claim that it was actually written and used to help runaway slaves. But like dark matter, just because it can’t be seen, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
OS How does the Caribbean feature in your art practice and specifically in Zafa: Meditations on Diaspora?
YC As a Dominican seeing the world through a Caribbean lens, I make cultural references in my titles or materials. Zafa is a colloquial word meaning “counterspell” in the Dominican Republic. A zafa is usually used when a fuku, which is a Dominican word for hex, is put on you or your family. I integrated small cubes of Cuaba soap within my installation’s wooden structures. This soap, commonly used to wash clothes, is sourced from the sap of the cuaba pine tree and is found in both the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Another purpose for Cuaba would be reserved for a spiritual cleansing or to ward off a hex, which is how it’s being applied in this installation.
OS That’s interesting. Do you invoke the supernatural in your work? I keep seeing you include partially hidden elements in your work, things that are placed outside viewability. Without revealing what is hidden (because you desire the viewers to directly experience the work), could you help me “see” what, or how to “see,” what is there?
YC Yes, I do mean to summon a mystical alchemy at times. Incantations and counterspells are imbedded in my work to serve as a protective offering. The partially revealed elements in my work are an effort in preservation. I am veiling symbols and materials in an attempt to shield them from being distorted. These symbols are usually linked to a group of people who may have experienced a loss or uprooting.
Sharing this with you, I am reminded of your visits to the Loxahatchee River, and the Indian River Lagoon near Fort Pierce, Florida, and how you frequently preserve histories through documentation and collaged works. Can you discuss this?
OS The shared and similar histories are part of my practice, overt or directly visualized or not. Central east coast Florida is where my great-grandfather and some family moved in 1920, and the geology and archeology are part of its local history. I have a screenplay that I hope to produce that connects South Carolina, the Bahamas, and Seminole fishing communities around Lake Okeechobee and is set in this 1930–40s.
One of the things that continues to strike me with a sense of wonder is your use of time and weathering as a patina with which to create a narrative. Is that a kind of narrative that you are creating or that is important to your artistic practice?
YC Piles of cement and lint from discarded textiles permeated my childhood because both my parents worked in garment factories. In addition, my father worked in construction, building homes with his brothers. These two methods of assembly formed my interests in reclaiming and restoring lost bits of narrative—fragmentations caused by time, the elements, and abandonment. The physical process of labor I observed during my childhood specifically influences my work. The presence of weathering in the work is essential because it is a reflection of a tactile environment that shaped my worldview.
I notice we share an interest in routing and navigation, and specifically in the Underground Railroad. I, through hidden and coded messages found in quilts; and you, through flora. How was vegetation relevant to the paths taken by the people using the Underground Railroad?
OS There are two things I was thinking about here: one is plants for consumption and survival while running from slavery, and the other refers more to the contemporary moment in which most people don’t look underfoot where they could possibly find something, botanical or otherwise.
In the Third Ward, my walking practice, which I have been engaged with for over forty years, has taken me by many unkempt edges and along undeveloped or disused lots, habitats often overlooked or considered weed-infested. They have their own ecologies. They are alive with songbirds and insects.
YC Like mine, your installation has some quilts with your interventions on them. Can you tell me about your ties to quilting and the patterns found in these textiles?
OS I don’t recall a specific thing that made textiles something important to me, but I do know that my one grandfather and his sisters make lots of quilts. I eventually decided to learn fashion design, making both women’s and men’s wear based on African and Asian traditions and using imported handwoven and hand-dyed fabrics.
Within the context of the exhibition at Project Row Houses, I designed something that could be configured in different ways, with each section consisting of four triangles that make a square space in which to work. It is more of a design than a sign to indicate some type of specific movement or direction, but that is also the subtle nature of providing information for a slave’s quest for freedom. Follow a subtle sign in a specific location to know it is a safe passage.
YC Your work seems consistently perfumed by a devotional, almost supernatural, tie to science and myth. Can you elaborate on your weaving of these two elements?
OS Well, I prefer to think less of myths than of evolving narratives made by poignant moments in historical time as I attempt to decipher those narratives from reclaimed familial objects. But my interest in science is real. Geology and biology are both of deep interest. These areas of study and ongoing research feed my practice in profound ways and on a daily basis.
Even though my project here at Project Row Houses obliquely references foraged wild plants and “slave food,” my Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator-sponsored research from Suriname in 2016 on the African rice smuggled in the hair of slave women during the Atlantic slave-trafficking era has prompted further explorations into the “Columbian exchange” and African rice, for which I was awarded two grants last year (Locust Projects, Wavemaker Grant; Oolite Arts, The Ellies Grant).
Yanira Collado’s and Onajide Shabaka’s work can be seen in the group exhibition Round 49: penumbras: sacred geometries at Project Row Houses in Houston until June 9.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.