When Watching God at Gallery 102, Asha Elana Casey: A Review by Angela N. Carroll
“We believe in the existence of a world of spirit beings that co-exist with the physical world. And that the earth is layered or there are infinite realms and portals within the earth that house the many other creations of Odomonkuma Oboadee that we don’t always see.” — From Akom the Layered World by Nana Oparebea Bekoe
“A shrine is where one goes to enter into communication with the Other World. It is the place of beauty and mystery, and also the place of memory because shrines have the power to remind us that in human life we are at the threshold of another world” — from The Healing Wisdom of Africa by Malidoma Patrice Some
“There are other worlds they have not told you of. They wish to speak to you.”
— from There Are Other Worlds (They Have Not Told You Of) by Sun Ra and the Arkestra
When Watching God, the sophomore solo exhibition from emerging artist Asha Elana Casey, curated by Gallery 102 Director Andy Johnson at The Corcoran School of the Arts & Design at GW, juxtaposes texturally dense black and white abstraction with figurative portraiture to visualize West African rituals and transcendental states of consciousness.
The metaphysical, meditative landscapes Casey invokes are derived from the ritual iconography of pre-Abrahamic spiritual systems that proliferated throughout the African Diaspora as a result of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, IFA, Akom and Haitian Voudoun. I sat with the artist at Gallery 102 to discuss her influences and intentions.
Casey’s first series Spirit Rises, exhibited earlier this year at the Congress Heights Arts and Culture Center, depicted black women as fully realized gods, divine floating beings heavily adorned and haloed in gold leaf embellishments and mandalas. The works exhibited in When Watching God precede what Casey considers an enlightened stage.
“This series is the beginning,” Casey explains, “[its] all of the spiritual work we have to do before becoming gold and God-like.”
The When Watching God series portrays spiritual worlds as dense mappings of the human subconscious; thick layers of black and white paint create raised symbols across the canvas, visceral and evocative icons likened to scarred flesh. Other strokes cut through the matted acrylic to reveal marks imbued with ancient god names and divination inscriptions; Gye Nyame, Veve, and Odu.
Malidoma Patrice Some, author and scholar on West African religion notes in The Healing Wisdom of Africa notes, “Symbols refer us to the Other World; they make us aware of that world, the world from which we draw our deepest connection and identity. Symbols are, as it were, messages pointing to a different and higher dimension, or consciousness.”
When Watching God employs ritual languages and symbols to transform flat planes into resonant shrines. The imprints live beyond the 2D medium and elevate the work to an interdimensional other-worldly aesthetic. Casey reveres the worlds she creates and venerates them as sacred displays of her personal journey towards self-care.
“I never experienced a religion where I show up as my full self and just dance and feel free. I felt the spirit in a different way. I’ve never been religious so to connect with [IFA and Akom] and learn about myself through them was really empowering.”
What I find most engaging about the collection is its immersive narrative. Viewers observe Petra, the model depicted in each of the representational figurative portraits, in varied phases of ritual, prayer, or transcendental ecstatic contemplation. In Petra with libation a large acrylic portrait, a woman with a shaved head, wears a simple white lapa (wrap dress), kneels and holds a bowl filled with water. Her eyes are closed, but her face bares a slight smile. She sits in a luminescent white world encircled by dozens of semitransparent gray and white mandalas. Copious globs of white paint halo her.
In Petra in Contemplation, two smaller acrylic wash paintings, a closeup portrait of Petra is situated next to an enlarged geometric abstraction that mimics the mandalas that recur throughout the collection. The allegory between the two works reinforce a recurring intersection between the spiritual world (illustrated as abstract geometries) and the rituals Petra performs. In all iterations, the titles of the works inform the trajectory of the protagonist’s progress and spiritual processes.
As you walk through the exhibition, the work transforms from figurative portraiture inclusive of abstract geometry into pure abstraction. In Petra with Libation #2 and Petra with Libation #3, two inverted portraits mirror each other; one features an opaque black figure within a white landscape, the other, a white opaque figure within a black landscape. Both paintings continue to reference mandalas, scarification, and other West African spiritual iconography.
Representations of Petra become less corporeally pronounced and more spectral-ethereal; the detail of her body is reduced to a black or white shadow, a pronounced apparition that rests within rather than outside the Other World. The metamorphosis of Petra’s body from a solid recognizable form into a void mass recalls experiences of spiritual ascension and transcendental displacement encountered during meditation or possession.
I was intrigued by the ways the work transformed from passive portrayals of ritual acts into activated sites that are, in and of themselves, altars. Ruminations, The God Process #1 and The God Process #2, are installed on the walls opposite from Petra with Libation #2 and Petra with Libation #3. In all three works, Petra is simultaneously consumed by, and at one with, the black or white atmosphere of the Other Worlds.
Ruminations, and a smaller shrine installed next to the work, My Soul Grows Deep, are wonderful exemplifications of the interplay between the real and stylized spiritual sites Casey envisions. In Ruminations, a Petra-like figure is encased in astral-black paint; the black form of the figure is painted within a black background. Thus, the body of the figure is only visible by variant applications of paint on the canvas; the denser the paint is, the more visible the form becomes, which allows the body to subtly emerge as a relief from the dark matter. The black form is surrounded by etchings of the Gye Nyame, a Ghanian Adinkra symbol for God.
My Soul Grows Deep, is installed in a small white box next to Ruminations. Rendered as a remembrance for Casey’s deceased grandmother, the altar-box includes a talisman-medicine bag, white beads and a segment of floral wall paper sourced from her grandmothers home. In the tradition of IFA, ancestral altars often include samples of personal items from those who have transitioned. Casey’s incorporation and contextualization of her Grandmother as an ancestor, (a representative from the Other World), as well as her conscious juxtaposition of the altar in relation to Ruminations, renders the dual presentations sacred, and further elicits her specific practices of ancestral veneration within the collection.
Casey suggests that the black and white palette that dominates the exhibition represents “an imagined space of meditation.” The notion of meditative vision as black and white abstraction is most overtly displayed in The God Process #1 and The God Process #2. In The God Process #1, reliefs of mandalas and symbols emerge from a stark black atmosphere. Cowry shells pattern the canvas around a small talisman-medicine bag. A small altar-box installed beside the work is covered in strips of black painted fabric that reveal a tiny white opening. The God Process #2, is a white compliment to The God Process #1, and is installed with its own small altar-box that is filled with cowry shells, a symbol of wealth and another tool used for divination.
I asked Casey if she intended for the work to transfigure or transmute the gallery into a sacred space. “This is a really spiritual space,” she answered. “The idea was that people could come into the space and meditate and contemplate and breathe, and feel connected to a spiritual system and a spiritual place. They represent the meditative space that I was in when I created them, and I know that ancestral veneration is all over it.”
When Watching God’s portraits and abstractions are not merely reflections of the processes of ritual, rather, they are representations of the act of one becoming ritualized. This imagined possibility creates an afro-futurist visual dialog which conjures African spiritual systems as portals, transformative catalysts for healing and expansive revisioning.
The worlds Casey imagines and visualizes include African spiritual systems within a long canon of enlightened pathways, and counters culturally repressive narratives that categorize African religions and ritual practices as inherently demonic and ungodly. As such, the works Casey creates and displays are powerful decolonializing commentaries that invigorate ancient knowledge within refreshed contemplative contexts. The When Watching God series provides an astoundingly refreshing and clarifying perspective about the healing possibilities of ancient traditions.
When Watching God is on display at Gallery 102 within The Corcoran School of the Arts & Design at GW until September 1, 2017.
Come to the Artist Talk on Wednesday August 9th to hear my discussion with the artists Asha Elana Casey about the collection and future projects.
Visit www.art.columbian.gwu.edu/upcoming-exhibitions for more details.
Author Angela N. Carroll uses illustration, citizen journalism, documentary film, words, and experimental animation as primary mediums to contribute to and critique the archive. Music and meditation are her medicine. She is an artist-archivist; a purveyor and investigator of culture. Follow her on IG @angela_n_carroll or at angelancarroll.com.