Harmonia Rosales Reimagines Classic Imagery for a Multicultural America in New Art Exhibit | Culture & Leisure
Posted on January 22, 2022
| 2:39 p.m.
There is something both familiar and surprising in the art of Harmonia Rosales. Sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly, his paintings allude to Renaissance masterpieces – tableaux of gods and mortals, often taken from Greek mythology.
Harmonia Rosales painting ‘Oba and His Ear’, 2021. (Photographed by Jeff McLane; Courtesy of Harmonia Rosales and UTA Artist Space.)
But the figures that populate her canvases – deities and human beings – are black, and the ancient stories she depicts are drawn from the Yoruba religion of West Africa. The findings prompt viewers to reassess some of the assumptions of classical art, even as they underscore the deep connections between the religious traditions of different cultures.
“Western art history has, for so long, prioritized a predominantly white European narrative,” said Gabriel Ritter, director of the UC Santa Barbara AD&A Museum, where a new exhibit of Rosales’ work, ” Entwined”, runs from January 19 to January 19. May 1.
“Harmonia’s work challenges us to rethink the Western canon and reflect on its biases. She often talks about going to museums as a child and not seeing depictions of black or Latino individuals in those spaces. She wanted to make the stories of these cultures visible to others,” he said.
“It’s a complicated, thought-provoking art,” said curator Helen Morales, Argyropoulos Professor of Hellenic Studies at UCSB. “Part of his relationship with Greek myths is to criticize them and replace them with less well-told stories and less often seen characters.
“The results are absolutely stunning,” Morales said. “His art works both intellectually and emotionally.”
Rosales, originally from Chicago and based in Los Angeles, draws her roots from several diverse cultures: she is Afro-Cuban on her father’s side, Jewish on her mother’s side. She first came to national attention when one of her works – a variation of Michelangelo’s iconic “Creation of Adam” in which she depicts both God and the figure representing humanity as than black women – went viral in 2017.
The UCSB exhibit opens with another painting from this era, “The Birth of Oshun,” a reworking of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” The other works on display are more recent: all but two were created specifically for this exhibition, and only one has already been seen by the public.
“During this period, she sold a painting to the Smithsonian,” Morales noted. “His star continues to rise.”
Of Rosales’ more recent paintings, “none of them is a direct appropriation of an earlier image,” Ritter said. “There is a mixture of influences. Some refer to the early Renaissance or to the works of the Sistine Chapel. Many contain allusions to works from the Western canon, but they tell their own stories.
Ritter argues that his juxtaposition of familiar shapes and unfamiliar stories forces us to question some of our core myths – who tells them and who they serve. “These are deep and powerful questions that we need to ask ourselves,” he said. “It’s both timely and long overdue.”
Morales, who had never curated an art exhibition before, conceived the exhibit during “a moment of unease” at the start of the pandemic. An expert in Greek mythology, she came across Rosales’ work online and found it to be “one of the few things that lifted me out of those miserable circumstances. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to see his art in person?’ »
She contacted the artist and museum officials, all enthusiastic about the idea. So she got to work.
“I did a lot of research and spoke to curators about how they approach their work,” she said. “I took a year off and researched Yoruba mythology, with the help of Elizabeth Pérez from the religious studies department and Sophia McCabe, who is the museum’s academic coordinator.
“His specialty is Renaissance painting, so I tapped into a lot of expertise across UCSB. I wanted to understand Yoruba myths as well as possible.”
Morales shares some of this knowledge in the labels accompanying each of the paintings, four of which also include small images of the Renaissance masterpieces that inspired them. “If you know Greek mythology, you’ll instantly understand the connections,” she said. “If you don’t, the labels and the brochure bring out the parallels.
“Some of his work is really political; it represents the middle passage, which is how Yoruba stories came to Cuba. The brutality of white supremacy is part of his job. But she is also interested in what makes us stronger and humanizes us, and in the connections between different histories and different cultures.
“It’s always been art history – that kind of borrowing and dialogue,” Ritter said. “To see it done in a new way can be shocking, but it’s been done for so long in one direction (with white artists borrowing from black and indigenous cultures). It is about disrupting historically rooted power dynamics.
Due to COVID concerns, the museum has not scheduled a public opening ceremony. But a series of related lectures and programs have been scheduled, including a Zoom lecture by Rosales herself at 4 p.m. on January 27, which is co-sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Center for the Humanities and the Department of Classics.
Morales admitted that curating the exhibit was a more difficult process than she initially envisioned. But she found it to be a positive way to stay engaged during these difficult times.
“Beauty, creativity and an invitation to reflect on a changing world are the things that have kept me going during the pandemic,” she said. “This exhibition contains all of that.”
For more information, visit https://www.museum.ucsb.edu/news/feature/929 or call 805-893-2951. The museum is open from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Free entry.