Delita Martin is a magician in two ways: visually and spiritually. In fact, magic is the basis of her exhibit currently at the Union for Contemporary Art, Conjure in which she depicts women as monumental, yet serene and approachable, and existing between the human and otherworldly plane. This show is part of The Union’s 10-year anniversary celebration, as well as commemorating the legacy of their gallery namesake, Wanda D. Ewing, who subverted the conventional view of the female body and made space for bodies of color.
The artist carries the spirit of Ewing in material, technique, and concept. Though Martin’s focus is on rectifying the problematic approach art history has taken for centuries, she spares no expense to beautify and embellish her compositions with robust patterning and color. Her portraits are, by virtue of their decoration, stunning to look at, but, nevertheless, ask viewers to meditate about wider society.
There have been multiple changes in Martin’s career. She initially trained in drawing in her undergraduate program, but later studied printmaking as a graduate student. After finishing her education, Martin taught fine arts at the university level, but eventually decided to pursue the status of a full-time artist and established her own studio called Black Box Press.
The mastery of this exhibition is seen in the conglomeration of multiple skillsets, like drawing and printmaking, but also sewing and gilding, and the employment of decorative papers throughout the surfaces of Martin’s compositions. Up close, a viewer can observe the surface quality of these works and only experience abstraction – but each work is grounded by a figure in repose.
Part of the allure of these works is that they are interesting through the lens of art history. Take one of the first work you see entering the gallery, “Redbird,” a work made through printmaking, drawing, gilding, and hand-stitching. In this picture, a woman dominates the visual space, turning her body toward us all while calmly viewing us back. She is covered in patterns, from repeating circles, to decorative leaves and floral motifs on her clothing and hair. The atmosphere is almost airless and timeless, existing beyond our temporal human world.
“Redbird,” along with every other work, directly connects to the late 20th century Pattern and Decoration movement. Similarly, the approach also touches on the Feminist Art Movement since only women are being depicted, and through her employment of sewing as an artmaking technique. While this may seem relatively unassuming and pretty obvious, for Martin, the action is quite political.
“When I walk into a museum, historically, you didn’t see people like me, people with my skin color; black women depicted as being beautiful in their natural state, their natural hair, their locks, their hair being plaited up. This was something that was never seen as beautiful, so I want to show that in my work,” Martin says.
Her approach is universal, but also personal, since the models in the work are her close friends and family, with the goal of portraying “how magical and spiritual women are.”
With magic and spiritualism being the through line of the exhibitions, Martin does not hesitate to depict the ethereal realm beyond human understanding. In multiple works, like “Spirit and Self” and “Among Shadows,” the artist not only depicts living women, but also silhouette figures. They can be interpreted as souls, ghosts, or even ancestors.
The implication being that our ancestors are always around us as living being who exist on a different plane. One could even interpret it as a reminder that we are our ancestors since we inherit everything about them, like their visage. For the less spiritual, by the very least, we inherit their culture.
Martin’s rendering of these figures is highly tender, as if there’s no barrier between what we perceive as real and that which is beyond our understanding. In” Among Shadows,” a woman lays on her side against a crimson background, her head resting on her arm, all while being surrounded by two shadow figures. To her front are three vessels.
One shadow figure within this composition, patterned in a yellow-green tint, gently places her hand over the woman’s head as if to stroke her forehead and comfort her. The other red figure, while not directly interacting with the woman, reclines and gazes at her from a distance.
Martin refers to the visual clash between colors, patterns, and textures in this and other works as the “veilscape.”
“When you look at the women and how they go in and out of this pattern, it’s referencing how we marry and connect into those spaces,” she said. “When I think about areas, there’s this conflict between colors or patterns, and then in other areas, they’re married together beautifully: there’s this smooth transition, but for me, that talks about the struggle we have with spirituality a lot of times.”
The jars also speak to a very intimate and symbolic purpose, and in fact, lends itself to the title of the exhibition. Martin fondly remembers her grandmother sorting objects like buttons, tiny perfume jars, and little knick-knacks in jars. On occasion, her grandmother would pour out all the contents and tell Martin stories about the objects, which functions as a method of conjuring memory.
Conjure jars go back to the history of Vodou and Indigenous African cultures. Practitioner would fill vessels with personal items in order to cast spells, good or bad. Through this process, Martin learned about the relationship people have with objects and other people. Items in the work of Martin, like mirrors, vessels, stools, are a vocabulary to tell the story of the women she portrays.
Among Shadows displays this type of symbolism, with three conjure jars, almost as a visual parallel of the three women depicted in the work. These jars are empty, but they seem to evoke the memory and spirit of caring ghosts for the reclining figure.
Although Martin draws from her lived experiences, the scope of her craft is meant to be relatable to anyone. The work is not meant to gatekeep, in fact, it is meant to invite all to interact and consider the people and symbols in her work.
“Even though these are portraits of black women, people across gender and racial lines can all relate to this work,” she said. “I’ve been witnessed to millions of those conversations where people can come up to the work, and they see a pattern or a color that evokes something; that’s the important part of the work. At that point, I know as an artist I’ve done what I’m supposed to do.”
Conjure continues until November 20 at the Union For Contemporary Art’s Wanda D. Ewing Gallery, located at 2423 North 24th Street, with hours from Wednesday-Thursday from 1-8pm, and Friday-Saturday from 10am-5pm. Masks are required at all times for all visitors entering the building with no exceptions. For further information, visit The Union’s website: https://www.u-ca.org/.