Black women in extravagant tulle dresses dance through lush fields and beach sunsets in undisturbed joy. As the striking visuals, vibrant costumes, and rainbow of brown skin scroll across the screen, a woman’s soft, passionate voice speaks.
“Beauty comes from a place where we connect with God, and God connects with us,” the film’s narrator says, switching between English and the Ghanaian Twi language. “Your beauty comes from within. Do not look for it outside of yourself.
It is the film “Born of the Earth” by Ghanaian American artist Kuukua Eshun, which made its international debut at the Norwest Gallery of Art in Detroit last weekend. The movie is part of pray for usa new exhibition curated by Detroit photographer Bre’Ann White which opened on July 23.
pray for us is a Vespers written in photographs and film to our living and deceased female ancestors. It is steeped in the piety of femininity and the divine feminine as participating artists honor the women in their lives through themes of sisterhood, beauty and self-love.
With Eshun, who flew in from Ghana for the show’s opening reception and artist talk, pray for us features works by Jade Lilly, Rachel Thomas Faith Couch, Wayne Lawrence and White herself. White curated the exhibition as part of her artist residency at Womxnhouse Detroit, which is facilitated by Norwest Gallery owner Asia Hamilton. While she was previously curator of the Detroit section of The New Black Vanguard exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts last winter, pray for us is the first show she puts on entirely alone.
White selected pray for us to pay tribute to his mother Edna, who died of cancer in April. White says her mother has been a huge inspiration to her artistic practice and the show is a reflection of their close relationship. This suggests that prayer is a vessel that connects the spiritual and physical realms to bring peace to those who are grieving or seeking guidance from their ancestors.
White recreated her mother’s living room in the gallery, complete with a sofa where visitors can watch Eshun’s film. It’s almost like you’re communing with Edna and the combined energy of all the women involved in the show.
“When people came to town, we literally went to my mom’s house and that’s why I recreated her living room because it’s a place that a lot of my family and friends around the world have been lucky enough to to visit,” White said. . “I used to take people for a ride in Detroit and we always ended up at her place. It was like this community, just this feeling of love and nurturing.
Gathering around Edna’s living room, gallery visitors are engrossed in Eshun’s visually stunning film as he takes them on a journey through self-discovery, fulfillment and the power of sisterhood. “Born of the Earth” gives viewers positive affirmations, telling them that their mere existence on this earth is beautiful and that we all have a gift to share.
“Do we even understand, like, what it means to have a body? Have a mind? Have a soul? This thing is so powerful,” she said, pointing to her body. “I believe we are all vessels. God put stories inside of me for the world to hear… There’s so much that the world needs that’s inside so many of us and a lot of people are going to their graves with it. I don’t want my life to be like this. I want to be the fullness of what I had to be.
Eshun acknowledges, however, that the journey to self-love and realizing your innate power is not easy. During the artist talk, she gives a spirited sermon on admitting your flaws and embracing life’s tough times, or as she calls it “the desert,” to appreciate the beauty of life.
“You have to be thankful for the desert because without the desert how are you going to get to the other side,” she says. “A lot of us want to go to the other side instantly, but it doesn’t happen that way… I believe we are all born great, but as we grow we grow in our greatness. Most people never reach the end of their greatness because they want to escape the process. You can’t escape the process until you sit down and say, ‘I am these things, but I could also be these things.’
Other performers explore ideas of motherhood.
In a series of photos of her mother, Baltimore-based photographer Faith Couch shows the superhuman power of women to balance careers and raise children. A diptych shows Couch’s mother, who is a lawyer, working at a cluttered desk as her young daughter leaps into her arms. Couch’s mother continues to work while holding her daughter in her arms, finally looking at the camera as if to say, “Do I need to make time for you too?”
“She always works weekends or holidays, all the time, but my mom always found time for us no matter what,” Couch said during the talk with the artist. “When I looked at the photo, I noticed that she looked a lot like mother and child, it looks like [Mary holding Jesus]it looks like a lot of those familiar images we see… I wanted to capture this moment which I think is very timeless and universal.
Jade Lilly, who thinks of herself as a rainbow in human form, features a portrait of a pregnant woman in a long teal dress sitting in a dressing room. There is a sweetness to the photo with a hint of Hollywood glamor that shows us that women are still beautiful during pregnancy.
“The transition women go through to be a vessel for God and bring that blessing into this world is beyond me,” she says. “I see a lot of women going through the identity crisis of ‘I’m losing my femininity and my sexuality and all the things that made me, to now move on to this next chapter of being a mother.’ Really, you don’t have to turn off that part of yourself. You’re still that beautiful, goddess, sexy being.
The exhibit is like a sanctuary – a sanctuary dedicated to Edna White and all the mothers who gave us life. It is also a prayer for gallery lovers, so that they recognize their own power.
“Don’t you know you’re from Earth,” Eshun says in the film. “May your light be so strong that it holds the planet in its rightful place.”
pray for us is on view until August 23 at the Norwest Gallery of Art; 19556 Grand River Ave, Detroit; norwestgallery.com.