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Leap of Faith: Delita Martin’s Calling Down The Spirits at NMWA

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In Delita Martin’s work, patterns abound—black skin striped alongside bold florals and hues. Her subjects appear deep in thought, staring out past the edge of the paper, floating in the sea of ink and rhythmic color. I take in these portraits, wondering, are they family? Spirits from another time?

It turns out that they are a little bit of both. Martin is a printmaker based in Texas, and uses reference photos from sitters and models as well as artistic composites called “spirit women” as subjects in her work. They can be anyone and no one. Martin, in an interview, mentioned how actual identity matters very little in comparison to emotional identity—the attitudes and actions of each subject could be her mother, her grandmother, or someone at the supermarket—“They are us, they are all of us.”

Walking through her solo exhibition, Calling Down The Spirits, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts felt like I was flipping through my grandmother’s photo albums, seeing intimate details of people that I could never know: a turn of the neck, an upward cast of an eye. And of course, the techniques she uses in the work—heavyweight papers, layered onto each other with gelatin prints or acrylic paints, fabrics, and hand stitching—honor the traditions of quilting and scrapbooking, common mediums for preserving precious memories. 

Installation view of Delita Martin's Calling Down The Spirits at NMWA
Delita Martin, "Soul Keeper," gelatin printing, acrylic, conté, hand stitching, and decorative papers on paper (2016)

In her artist statement, Martin mentions the idea of “veilstate—the state between waking life and the spirit life.” In the piece “Soul Keeper” (2018) a lacy gold leaf collar rings the subject’s neck, while a whitewashed halo encircles her head; in contrast, the color blue infuses the figure and background with spiritual meaning and protection. When thinking of the meanings behind “the veil”—indicating the transition between life and death, here vs. the hereafter—I become rapt in the environment of the piece, the airspace that Martin creates around her young female subject. In its simplicity of design and focus on the mysterious figure, “Soul Keeper” takes on the air of a thousand-year-old religious icon just unearthed, its anonymous sitter ready for her second act. 

The colors gold, white, and blue in “Soul Keeper” offer another sort of political and social commentary. In A History of Art in Three Colours, art scholar Dr. James Fox explores the spirituality behind blue, the rapacity behind gold, and the bigotry that follows white—but in “Soul Keeper,” the young woman, front and center, stares off to the side, secure in her own existence as a votive object that peaceably brings all of these colors together. 

“Another Kind of Blues” (2018) is a portrait that stands apart stylistically from the other artwork on view. It uses deeper blues, and a lighter opacity of paint to fill in and behind its all-over circular pattern; extremely steady hand-stitching adds much-needed counterbalance to the busy rhythm of the piece. The calm face of a young man, his conciliatory lean forward: maybe I’m looking at someone that I used to know. 

Martin’s work, on a personal level, reminds me of my own love of pattern-making, of my huge respect for printmakers’ needs and technical skill. How many studies and ideas did she have to go through for each piece? For each one that I examined, I imagined a mountain of fabric and paper before it, all that went into the development and making of the final piece in the show. It’s a testament to discipline, while also being a leap of an almost dizzying amount of faith. 

Delita Martin, "Another Kind of Blues," acrylic, charcoal, decorative papers, hand-stitching, and liquid gold leaf on paper (2018)

And while I look at her subjects, shrouded in color fields of azure, bright green, or carmine, I think of how faith in oneself and the unseen have held the literal fabric of Black life in America. In Martin’s statement, she alludes to the importance of spirituality in Black America, while also hinting at the troubled history that phrase contains. This otherworldly awareness of nameless ancestors that have fueled the ongoing story and existence of African Americans makes the title of her show, Calling Down The Spirits, particularly apt. While the nameless before us are not assigned a particular identity, they are a totemic part of the daily life of African Americans.

Some may argue that religion was a useful tool of control that justified the existence of slavery—a valid critique that may have lead Martin to espouse “veilstate” in terms of spirituality being a blanket of grace and favor, instead of blessings bestowed onto the sitter by whatever entity or higher power that may alienate her potential audience. Religiosity, however, is still strong in the Black community. According to Pew Forum, 87 percent of African Americans identified with one spiritual practice in 2009, compared to just 56 percent for the general population. A possible reason for this could be due to what we have endured in this country. It reveals the strength of the ancestors that have gone beyond the veil—how they made life bearable, and overcame so much, through relying on each other and the community-building efforts of religious and spiritual leaders that preached the love and grace of an invisible God. In the antebellum period, most of the slave rebellions with any measure of success were led by literate ministers, and such religious leaders were seen by white society as threats to established social order; both ministers and their congregations regularly faced harassment and reprisals from the authorities.

However, such spiritual and social connections continued through the nonviolent action of the Civil Rights movement and still endure today. For many African Americans who may no longer follow any particular faith, spirituality becomes less about dogma and more of a way to link community, activism, and a dedicated social outlet together.  

In Martin’s works, God is abstract, remade into a positive force that makes its presence felt in the spirituality of Martin’s subject matter and possibly behind that of her “veilstate”—where passing from reality to art, friends and family become composite subjects that are perfect in their lines, shapes, anatomical expression, and the work’s overall aesthetic. Belief becomes faith that yields great works of art, presenting peaceful faces as clean slates, and icons of mercy that incite the viewer to a contemplative state of gratitude, a revelation into a new sort of beauty. With each piece in the show, I feel and see the strength of spiritual ancestors pushing the conversation about beauty and race forward and up into daily consciousness, and I stand grateful. 

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Calling Down The Spirits is on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts through April 19. There will be two artist talks on February 21, at noon and at 2:30 p.m.

Installation view of Delita Martin's Calling Down The Spirits at NMWA

Photos of individual works by Joshua Asante; all images courtesy of the artist and NMWA

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