God is an ever-present image in Western culture — usually as an old, bearded white man resplendent in flowing robes, floating above the clouds in beacon of light. And while everyone has their own individual conceptions of what, and if, God is, it is nearly impossible to escape this Western idealization of divinity.
“The Black Woman is God: Divine Revolution” shatters it completely. For the second year in a row, this SOMArts exhibit showcases artwork from more than 60 Black women in a traditionally male-dominated arena. Though the pieces explore a variety of themes — including spirituality, resilience and the rejection of Western ideals of beauty and divinity — the showing focuses specifically on recognizing the contributions of Black women in history and on healing the generations of trauma inflicted on them.
The opening night of the exhibition began with “Opening the Way,” a procession of 100 Black women — elders, young girls, mothers holding their babies — from the outside parking into the art gallery. The women were all dressed in white, chanting together in an effort to commemorate the sacrifices and contributions of the inspiring Black women that came before them.
The procession, once inside, lead into a ceremonial offering to their ancestors — a humbling and emotionally charged moment of healing for the shame imposed on Black women by violence and systemic racism. The sanctity of this offering was palpable — the crowd surrounding the performers in the center of the gallery seemed to huddle a little bit closer together in a moment of community and solidarity.
Even after the reverent ceremony transformed into the lively, upbeat performance by the group Heavenly Ensemble — with singing and dancing enjoyed by performers and spectators alike — the sanctity of the previous moments lingered, a testament to their powerful display of the divinity that Black women hold.
Upon walking into the exhibit space itself, a ten foot tall wooden replica of the continent Africa, titled “Call Your Mama,” greets you. The mixed media assemblage — created by exhibit co-curator UC Berkeley alumna Karen Seneferu — combines various pieces of wood and and fabrics in its construction, and is attached to the end of a telephone line that emerges from a old-fashioned phone.
Her piece not only carries the nostalgic sentiment for a cultural heritage often forgotten, but also reminds viewers of the root of the human species and the true motherland that the continent represents. Seneferu’s work also provides insight into the purpose of both the event and the exhibit: to celebrate the African women of the past, and pay tribute to all of their amazing — but often devalued — accomplishments.
Delving deeper in the gallery, Marissa Arterberry’s colorful mixed media altar, “Protecting the Land,” draws on African diaspora and the relationship between Black women and nature. It highlights this spiritual connection with the Mother Earth, while also including quotes from famous Black environmentalists that address issues of gentrification and environmental racism. The piece does not simply advocate for the protection the earth environmentally, but spiritually — the earth is depicted as a matronly soul that calls viewers to protect its sacredness in order to preserve a spiritual connection with the land.
At the other side of the room is another eye catching alter: Toshia Christal’s “As Divine As It Gets,” a mixed media installation that is something between a shrine and a vanity covered with crowded array of small bottles of herbs and salves and decorated with locks of human hair, a rejection of the stigmas associated with Black women’s hair and beauty as a whole. This work is aimed at healing the pain of these stigmas through chakra activation — Christal explained during the event that she wanted her alter to function as a tool where women could understand their own capacity to heal themselves. In this way, Christal said, “We are all gods.”
And that’s the wonderful thing about the exhibit: it manages to explore socially charged issues in ways that are beautiful, relatable and thought-provoking. These works are expressions of fully authentic creativity that not only reveal the resilience of Black women and Black artists, but their incredible power as well. And the sheer act of creation gives these artists themselves the divine nature that the exhibit seeks to reveal.
“The Black Woman is God” does not simply showcase Black female artists, it celebrates their divinity in the way that patriarchal religions honor the divinity of men. This subversion of Eurocentric, Anglocentric, Androcentric conceptions of spirituality promotes acceptance and inclusion of all subdominant religions and cultures. But most importantly, it allows for Black women to expose their own struggles, victories, and beliefs in order to truly embrace their magic.