On April 23, Beyonce released an album that some would argue forever changed the way Black women see themselves.
Lemonade, an hour-long docu-style music video explained as “a conceptual project based on every woman’s journey of self-knowledge and healing,” presented Beyonce in concert with a brilliant array of Black and brown women. For many, it felt like a first-time reach into hundreds of years’ worth of Black girl magic and magnanimity, portraying the bodies, memories, hopes, and histories of women in relationship to the world around them — more specifically in relationship with their men and children.
While a number of women were moved by seeing reflections of their most intimate thoughts and struggles at the forefront of mainstream media, many viewers were even more moved by the homage and intertextuality insisted upon through an evocation of centuries worth of Black women’s creativity. Though it might have been the first time mainstream America witnessed the creative lens of the Black woman turned in on herself, it was not the first time Black women had reflected upon themselves as a connective, generative force. Lemonade would not have been possible without a longstanding global endeavor to “revere the Black woman,” as termed by jazz musician Abbey Lincoln in 1966.
Now, Oakland artists and curators Karen Seneferu and Melorra Green are presenting The Black Woman is God: Reprogramming that God Code at SOMArts (934 Brannan St., San Francisco), an interdisciplinary show featuring work by more than sixty artists that, too, reveres the Black woman — and it couldn’t be more timely.
When the creative kernel for the first iteration of The Black Woman is God was birthed by Seneferu and Green in 2012, the two likely didn’t anticipate the climate in and out of which this year’s installation would ultimately be created. Could they have predicted the ways in which constant tensions between Black death and Black hope, Black struggles and Black successes, a desire for Black solidarity and an insistence on the value of Black individuality would stir a craving for the reverence of the Black woman’s contributions to, and sacrifices for, humanity? Could they have predicted that as Black women moved into higher leadership positions at home, at work, and in sociopolitical struggle — the most recently recognized international Black resistance movement, #BlackLivesMatter, was launched by three queer Black women — there would still exist an acute need to hold space for the Black woman as divine architect? Perhaps. Or, perhaps the timeliness of the show is tapping into what featured Cape Verdean and Caribbean artist Yasmin Sayed might explain as “the universality of the specifics and the specificity of the universal.”
Featuring a wide range of art — from Louisiana-raised, Oakland-based visual artist Alise Eastgate’s paintings hailing the connection between the Black woman and her “divine relationship to nonhuman [bovine and equine] animals,” to clay works from Lorraine Bonner, to illustrations from Mills College faculty and sketch artist Ajuan Mance, to digital video stills from Yetunde Olagbaju, and so much more — The Black Woman is God explores the multiplicity of Black women’s offerings. According to Sayed, It embraces their ability to “dance in the … field of possibilities” — to fully accept their whole selves while nurturing their varied sources of creativity.
The show simultaneously represents Seneferu’s specific desire to create sacred space for Black women in a white and usually male-dominated art world, and a universal embrace of a profoundly political gesture: Black female creation as a necessary extension of personal joy and desire.
As such, whether speaking with Seneferu, Green, or any of the intergenerational painters, sculptors, photographers, new media artists, and change-makers involved in the show, it is apparent that the major work of The Black Woman is God is both dismantling and devising.
It is a dismantling of what Melorra Green recognizes as the idolization of “a blonde-haired blue-eyed Jesus,” then “the handsome Black Jesus we were given” with the Black is Beautiful movement born out of the Sixties; and it is a devising of what several of the show’s artists described as the Black woman’s spiritual “centrality” to the “life force” of humanity.