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Delita Martin: To conjure
Union for Contemporary Art, Omaha
From September 30 to November 20, 2021
By JONATHAN OROZCO, November 2021
Delita Martin’s artwork is monumental and imposing, but not in a way that intimidates the viewer. In fact, they are welcoming and friendly. For Martin’s solo exhibition entitled “Conjure” at the Union for Contemporary Art in Omaha, Nebraska, the aesthetic impulse is directed towards color, patterns and decoration, using techniques such as drawing, painting, printmaking and sewing. At the root of it all is the exploration of neglected stories and the spiritual self.
Jonathan Orozco: Can you tell me about yourself and your practice?
Delita Martin: When I wanted to be an artist, I didn’t really know what it meant, but I’ve been around creatives all my life. My mother my father. My father was an oil painter. He also made furniture. Lots of quiltmakers in my family. Lots of storytellers, writers, poets, so creating was something I witnessed on a daily basis. When I was like, “I’m going to be an artist and I’m going to go to art school,” nobody blinked because it was totally acceptable in my family, so everyone was very encouraging.
I went to Texas Southern University where I got my undergraduate degree, went to Perdue and got my graduate degree in printmaking, and taught at the University of the Arkansas in Little Rock for, I mean six years, and I decided to quit around 2013-14, that amount of time. I decided to go to the studio full time and have been working for Black Box Press ever since. My studio has become my full time job, which is amazing. It was probably one of the best decisions I made to go to the studio full time. It was a hell of a transition, but it was worth it.
JO: For this exhibition, why did you call your series “Conjure”? It invokes magic, spirituality, cosmology, like the artist Renée Stout whose practice is ethereal.
DM: My work is on spirituality. I am very interested in how we as black women become spiritual each other. When we think of spirituality as humans, I think we need something to hold onto. It is sometimes difficult to grasp certain concepts, such as when we talk about religion.
I was raised a Baptist and you talk about Christ and God, and you need a visual. I felt it was my responsibility to understand what we look like when we shift to our spiritual other, like how when we enter into prayer, when we enter into meditation; how do we make the transition to this spiritual side of who we are, how can i make that visual?
In the backgrounds of my works, you see floral patterns and textures. When I think of a spiritual space, when I think of what I call a “veil landscape”, that’s what they are to me. That’s what patterns, colors and textures are. When you look at women and how they come in and out of this pattern, it refers to how we get married and connect to these spaces. When I think of the areas, there is this conflict between the colors or the patterns, and then in other areas, they blend together beautifully: there is this smooth transition, but for me it speaks of the struggle that we often have with spirituality.
The reason the show is called “Conjure”, I thought each of the plays was a conjuration, a moment when you cast a spell or you go into a spiritual space. For example, the mason jars you see in the work; my grandmother used to keep jars all the time. She kept all of these things with her. When you examine the history of voodoo and indigenous African cultures, they use what they call conjuring pots, and in those pots they place personal items in order to cast spells, some good or bad.
My grandmother kept macaroons, little jars of perfume and all kinds of little trinkets. Well, she had a story for each of those items in these jars, and she would pour out all of it and tell me stories about those items. I realized now that she was evoking memory.
What I started to associate very early on is the relationship people have with objects, so the objects you see in my work are vocabulary in a sense because they help tell the story of women. that are in my job. I hang on to them as long as they’re relevant to the conversation, and once they’re no longer relevant, I hit the plate and move on.
JO: What about the subjects you portray? They are portrayed as serene, yet monumental and exalted.
DM: It is intentional. The works are on a very large scale, and the scale is intentional in my work. On the one hand, it changes the conversation, so when you walk into a room and there’s this image of a six foot woman, it changes the space. Are you the spectator or are you seen? It changes that conversation.
You talk about women who have been marginalized throughout history. When I walk into a museum, historically, you didn’t see people like me, people with my skin color; black women represented as being beautiful in their natural state, their natural hair, their locks, their braided hair. It’s something that has never been considered beautiful, so I want to show it in my work.
The women in this job are my friends. I made a call and we had zoom meetings and I showed people how to pose. I didn’t need the exact pose, but I needed them to be comfortable and I needed it to stand out in the imagery, but it was really about the magic and the spirituality of women.
JO: What about the silhouettes in your work?
DM: For a very long time, the women you saw in my work were really a compilation of many women, so no one actually posed for the job. Recently, real women posed for this job because I got interested in what it really looks like for myself and for the women I know interacting with the spirit world. The shadow figures you see in the work are the spirit world, these are our ancestors, these are the spirits around us. I wanted to see what it would look like and that’s how shadow figures became part of the job.
JO: Is there anything else viewers should know when watching your work?
DM: I like to think that work is very universal.
Even though these are portraits of black women, people of all genders and races can all relate to this work. We have all seen these objects and have some kind of relationship with them. I’ve witnessed millions of these conversations where people can get close to work, and they see a pattern or a color that conjures up something; this is the important part of the job. At this point, I know that as an artist, I’ve done what I’m supposed to do. I was able to drag you into the job so we can have a more in-depth conversation about what’s going on. MW