Listening to the Saints: Oletha DeVane at the Baltimore Museum of Art

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Oletha DeVane’s Solo Exhibit at the BMA’s Spring House

Oletha DeVane’s “Saint for My City” can turn any room into a sacred space. The mixed-media sculpture features what looks like the Virgin Mary atop a tall pedestal, an eruption of ideas and colors. DeVane made the 2009 piece as a response to Baltimore’s gun violence, and it sadly remains as pertinent now as then.

An eye-grabbing collage of beads, mirror fragments, fabric, and bullet casings figure into the work’s realization. The Mary figure stands in the expected our-lady-of-the-sorrows pose, head bowed, arms down and palms out. Her skin is black. Sprouting from her head is a constellation of tiny orbs attached to pins, as if the usual seven swords have multiplied into a halo of black dots noting where a body fell on a city map. She’s less the iconic church Mary but a figure far more potent, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa or the Haitian vodou spirit Erzulie, and if you grew up with a Santería-adjacent variety of Mexican Catholicism, you’ll be tempted to genuflect before her.

Oletha DeVane, “Saint for my City,” 2009

DeVane and Christopher Kojzar, her multimedia artist son, sit next to each in the studio of her Howard County home surrounded by an assortment of DeVane’s spirit sculptures, as she calls “Saint” and other works like her. “I see my work as a body of spirits that focus on where Africans landed,” DeVane says, looking over at a few of the tall, slender pieces sitting on a nearby table. “Africans landed all over the Americas.”

This summer, DeVane takes over the Spring House on the grounds of the Baltimore Museum of Art with a solo installation; Kojzar is helping her realize it. At six months out, she’s still figuring out which pieces to include, how they’ll be displayed, and what themes it will explore. “The African population came to the United States across water,” Kojzar says. “So we’re looking to incorporate the concept of water in the installation and we’re still discussing how that’s going to take shape.”

The spirit sculptures will feature heavily in whatever they decide. These pieces are powerful evocations of African and African-American spirituality, history, and politics distilled into the agitated serenity of religious icons. A work such as “Fall From Grace,” which features a beaded skull atop a repurposed bottle and glowing orb, combines religious vocabulary with contemporary concerns. Serpents wind around the glass bottle, and a splayed ribcage of bone-like fans sprout from just beneath the skull. A few words are hand-written on the bone-like appendages—”lust,” “deviant,” “wanton”—that allude to the sins of the flesh that have scandalized churches and the religious right. Even powerful people entrusted with the divine light aren’t free of human sin.

DeVane’s vocabulary will be familiar to anybody steeped in syncretic belief systems, where ideas from different cultures are remixed into bold, new forms. Such aesthetic cultural expressions are better recognized understood in other art forms—African spirituality, history, politics, and aesthetics are tightly entwined in certain strands of jazz’s very DNA—but it can feel less common in visual art, at least of that encountered in museums.

A number of artists exploring black spirituality immediately spring to mind—Martha Jackson Jarvis, Jesse Lott, Renée Stout, Jack Whitten—but, as DeVane notes, such work has only recently started receiving the broader recognition it deserves. “This kind of work has been done in communities of color for years and nobody has known it,” DeVane says. “That’s what museums can do—start the process of embracing different ways of looking at the world.”

“A lot of histories in this country are forgotten, not just people of color,” Kojzar adds. “And museums have the opportunity to showcase history in a different way. I think that’s what this show can be about.”

Oletha DeVane, “Spring,” 2018

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published in Issue 06: Home of the BmoreArt Journal of Art + Ideas

More information: Oletha DeVane: Traces of the Spirit is up at the BMA from June 19–October 20, 2019.

To access supplemental augmented-reality application developed by the strikeWare collective, click here – there are hidden images in this exhibit viewable only by smart phone!

Projected lights, sounds, and reflective surfaces convey a sense of flowing water in Oletha DeVane’s installation, Traces of the Spirit, presented inside the BMA’s Spring House. The exhibition references the building’s past as a dairy and place where enslaved people were forced to labor and creates an altar-like location for a selection of the artist’s spirit sculptures. For these totem-like objects, DeVane (American, b. 1950) adorns hollow glass vessels with pieces from her collection of found objects such as beads, wood, mirrors, plastic figurines, sequins, fabric, and even bullet casings.

The exhibition catalog, published by the BMA, features more than 15 images of the artist’s spirit sculptures and essays by scholars Dr. Lowery Sims and Dr. Leslie King-Hammond as well as an interview with the artist.

Curated by Virginia Anderson, Curator of American Art.

Photos by Mitro Hood, courtesy of the BMA.

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