Delita Martin: Calling Down the Spirits
The large-scale work of Delita Martin (b. 1972, Conroe, Texas) uses symbolism, color, and material to visualize interconnections between generations and the liminal space between the physical and spirit worlds.
Calling Down The Spirits is an exhibition of portraits that explore ideas of spiritual transition. Throughout the works I have paired portraits with patterns and symbols that show a connection between the waking world and the spirit world. I have used these patterns and symbols to create a visual language that reaches beyond their literal meaning.
My process of layering various printmaking, drawing, sewing, collaging, and painting techniques allow me to create a “holding” space, I call the “Veilscape” where my symbolic language and portraits converge making the invisible visible.
Martin’s layering of technique and material, as well as her use of pattern and color, signifies the liminal space in which Martin’s subjects exist. The artist refers to this as the “veilscape,” the space between the waking life and the spirit life. Martin’s myriad materials and techniques reflect the unique blend of traditions that have shaped African American culture and history.
When I first began to create portraits I did not work from models. The portraits I created were a compilation of many women. They are my mother, my grandmother, my aunts, and many other women who have played a role in my life. They served as archetypes, the great mother archetype. I call these women “Spirit Women.” An example of this can be seen in the portrait, Dreamer.
In this early work, Martin uses the iconography that has continued to evolve throughout her imagery, including circles (representing the feminine) and the color blue (spirituality). The explicit connection to quilting, which she learned from her grandmother, in this piece infuses the image with personal memory and makes visible the connections between generations.
Although you see stitched figures and silhouettes in my early works, Quilted Angel is the first work in which you see a direct connection to quilting. This is the influence of my grandmother, whom I quilted with as a child. She often referred to her quilting as “piecing together.” During these quilting sessions she would tell me stories of her childhood and stories about our family. I felt that she was piecing together my story and my history into these beautiful worlds. I wanted to be able to tell the stories of the women in my work in the same way, so it was a natural way to bring sewing into my creative practice.
The saturated blue in this work, which Martin associates with spirituality, complements the gold in the figure’s earring and collar. Martin’s use of gold leaf in this work is reminiscent of Christian religious icons, an association strengthened by the presence of the halo-like sphere behind the woman’s head.
Color is very reactionary for me. Although I do not subscribe to any particular theory on color, I very much believe that color causes a reaction and can connect with the human spirit.
I tend to favor blues in my work the most. I find the various shades of blue very calming and actually connect more closely to the spirit world in my work than any other color.
Believing in Kings
Martin creates an iconography for her African American subjects, infused with her own vocabulary of signs and symbols as well as elements from West African art.
In my work the stool represents leadership and authority, the transition into adulthood or womanhood. In African culture the stools and chairs were elaborately carved, showing strong ties to the ancestors. I kept this in mind while also thinking about African American traditions of being a child having to grow into the seat at a table with the adults, also making sure the elderly women and men of our family were seated first. These seats were strategically placed at family functions so that the elders were able to greet and see everyone who arrived.
The Moon and the Little Bird
The woman on the right wears a mask inspired by the traditions of the Yoruba and Mende people in West Africa. In most African cultures, men wear masks, but in the Mende culture of Sierra Leone, Sowei masks of the Sande society are reserved for women. These masks are used during initiation ceremonies that mark girls’ transition from childhood to womanhood. Here, the pairing of the older woman (left) and the younger woman (right) recalls these female-only rites of passage.
Symbolism allows me to create a visual vocabulary that tells the stories of the women and men in my work. Two symbols that are found throughout my work are the bird and the mask. The birds represent the human spirit; sometimes seen in flight, while other times perched in a prominent place. This placement comments on the condition of the human spirit.
The masks are inspired by the Sowei headpieces worn by the women of the Sande Society of West Africa. These masks are conduits for transition. They allow the women in my work to transition into the spirit world. This transition into the spirit form is the achievement of a higher self.
Another Kind of Blues
Martin creates her works using a variety of processes, including printing, drawing, and collage. Meticulously applied paper and fabric elements give her work a three-dimensional quality.
The circle can be seen in every work I have created. It represents the moon, which is a symbol of the female. It can be seen in patterns throughout my work; sometimes in the backgrounds as well as the clothing draping the figures. These patterns represent the female presence. It is important to bring this motif into the male portraits because it draws a connection between the female and the male.
Martin pairs an older and younger woman in this work, as she does in The Moon and the Little Bird (2018). The older woman on the left holds up a mask to the younger woman, symbolizing communication between generations. Vivid patterns throughout the work signal the transition between the earthly and spirit worlds.
As the conversation in my work evolves so does the imagery. New Beginnings is the first work in which I began to explore the interaction between the waking world and the spirit world. In this work I (the figure on the left) am face to face with a “Spirit Woman.” This work marks the beginning of working with live models.
This exhibition was created as a companion to Delita Martin: Calling Down the Spirits, on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts from January 17–April 19, 2020.
Exhibition works courtesy of the artist, Galerie Myrtis, Lisa Gregory, Chris and Leonard Howard, Sheila C. Johnson, and Private Collection. Photographs by Joshua Asante. Audio courtesy of Delita Martin.
Delita Martin: Calling Down the Spirits, presented in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, is organized by the museum and generously supported by the members of NMWA. Additional support is provided by the Belinda de Gaudemar Curatorial Fund.