Harmonia Rosales: Master Narrative
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art | March 10, 2023 – June 25, 2023
by Brittany Ashley
In her first major touring exhibition, Harmonia Rosales has taken on the master narrative itself, a term coined by Toni Morrison as “whatever ideological script that is imposed by the people in authority on everybody else. The master fiction. History.” (Morrison, 1990). To confront this narrative, Rosales has re-imagined some of the most revered pieces of art in the Western canon, from Vermeer to Botticelli. In her hands, what once was a white, male, and Christian dominated tradition expands to include a plurality of stories and bodies. The exhibition’s mission is two-fold: to provide visual representation for Black and Lucumí viewers and to expand the master narrative to include their stories.
At the heart of the exhibition is Rosales’ Lucumí heritage, passed down by her paternal grandmother. Both the curators and Rosales expect that most visitors will not be familiar with the Lucumí as a culture or religion, but part of Rosales’ goal in this series is to bring new awareness to their story – a people descended from Yorubaland in West Africa, enslaved and brought to Cuba where their spirituality shifted into something new. Their story is told through the style of Renaissance art – a powerful repossession of a movement regarded as Classic and essential to art history, but that left out large swaths of the population – namely, people of color. Rosales draws upon the connective themes in these stories to encourage new viewers to familiarize themselves with a new narrative than the one they’ve become accustomed to.
Upon entering the exhibition, visitors first encounter The Birth of Oshun, a work intentionally modeled after Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. In Rosales’ reimagination, however, the figures are Black, not white, and represent Lucumí orishas, not Roman gods. Already, the narrative is expanding. Visitors familiar with Botticelli’s work will be drawn to the floating figures, the seashell, the flowing drapery. And through this drawing in, they will become complicit in Rosales’ reworking of the master narrative. They will know more about Lucumí, as Oshun is similar to the Roman Venus – an orisha of fertility, love, and vainness. And their idea of who can be represented in paintings such as this will be forever changed.
Each painting in the exhibition is like this – full of references and educational opportunity. Most are modeled from specific works of art, but they all contain Renaissance symbolism and thematic resonances, welcoming you to return again and again to unpack them. In the next section, Rosales introduces you to a cast of orishas, using familiar compositions to give you an idea of what each god is like. For instance, King Shango is modeled after Caravaggio’s The Entombment, aligning him with Christ as they are both figures who rise from the dead to become godly. You’ll also meet Yemaya, the mother goddess of Lucumí and ruler of the sea, Oshosi, the orisha of the hunt, and Ogun, orisha of war, metalsmithing, and rum. Each figure is depicted in rich color and a variety of patterns, following with the Renaissance style. Dozens of smaller details weave these narratives even closer together, such as Yemaya being clothed in a deep blue robe, paralleling the Virgin Mary, or the gold-leaf halo in Ogun’s portrait.
In following sections, Rosales builds upon your now elementary knowledge of the orishas. Here, she begins to tell you their story through the character of Eve – influenced by the Christian figure and her contemporary rebirth as a feminist figure, Rosales has created Eve as a kind of personal stand-in for herself. In the narrative of the exhibition, Eve is taken from Yorubaland on a literal white lion – a stand-in for the infamous slave ship – in a painting modeled off Jean-Francois de Troy’s Abduction of Europa. The orishas accompany her on this journey, protecting and guiding her.
Two of the most powerful pieces in the exhibition are Migration of the Gods and the titular piece, Master Narrative. The former is the piece that started it all – the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art acquired the work back in 2022 and developed the exhibition around it. Inspired by Michelangelo’s Deluge, the piece portrays the orishas’ journey from Yorubaland to America. Like holy figures in Renaissance art, the gods have golden halos. Several are recognizable to you now – Oshun with her golden vitiligo being carried ashore, the motherly Yemaya in deep blue. In a single work of art, Rosales has encompassed the exhibition’s story, as well as displaying her artistic prowess. One of my favorite elements of this painting is the land – created with a blend of iron oxide and oil paint, then smudged with a sponge to create a realistic moss and dirt texture.
Master Narrative, the artwork, is Rosales’ first foray into sculpture, and it is hauntingly magnificent to witness. Designed as the overturned hull of a slave ship, the inside is the artist’s take on the Sistine Chapel itself. Here, she makes her statement most boldly, as up until this point, singular works by a variety of Renaissance artists have been reimagined, but now she has taken on an entire series of paintings, and one of the most revered works of art in Western art history. Master Narrative is hung from the ceiling and lit in a halo-like glow, encouraging viewers to walk beneath from end to end. Many pieces from the show and her larger body of work are repainted there, along with a portrait of Harmonia herself.
Lest it feel that I have given away all the show’s secrets, have no worries. Rosales has packed her works with layer upon layer of meaning – each individual painting has essays worth of references inside. Journey to the Brooks Museum now until June 25th, or catch the show when it travels to the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta. Overall, keep an eye on Harmonia Rosales and her narrative-bending work.
Learn more about the show here.
Brittany Ashley (she/they) is an art historian and writer. Her thoughts are on display on Instagram @stilllifewithart.