Harmonia Rosales is on a journey.
It began in 2017 with “The Creation of God,” a reimagining of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” which replaces the white men and angels originally found on the Sistine Chapel ceiling with women of color.
Cue the uproar.
The painting went viral as praise and loathing fell upon her head, garnering thousands of likes and comments on social media — attracting the celebrity attention of Samuel L. Jackson, Erykah Badu and Willow Smith — while simultaneously provoking aggressively negative criticism.
And while many saw the image as a triumph, it didn’t seem that way to the Afro-Cuban artist at the time.
“Now that I think back, I shouldn’t have felt a lot of the things I felt, because it was just going to happen — and it happens when people don’t want to acknowledge any kind of change, or be open,” Rosales said during a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “Those people, you can’t help. I did feel sad, because I thought I was doing something — and I was doing something — out of pure love. But nobody can say anything to me to change my mind, or alter what I want to paint.”
Over the past two years, Rosales has not shied away her African and Cuban roots, only ramping up her exploration of her religion, culture and traditions by painting them back into art history, she said — next with “New World Consciousness,” which broke down the stereotypes of The Virgin Mary and Eve, and most recently with her depictions of ancient Lucumí lore that will be on view during “Rich in Black History,” opening Saturday, at RJD Gallery in Bridgehampton.
“Since a lot of the African traditions and the religions have been oral, nothing has been written or really painted, or set in history or stone. I would like to rectify that,” Rosales said. “I’m slowly telling a story within my series. I want to show we are more alike than we are not. First it’s like, ‘Let’s erase your mind clear from everything we were taught,’ and that’s with ‘The Creation.’ Then I went into life with ‘New World Consciousness,’ how life is in cycles, anything you go through. It was an appreciation and a love for life — the good, the bad, everything that sculpts you. That was a prelude to the Lucumí concepts and way of life.”
While Rosales sources subject material from her Afro-Cuban ethnicity, Jamaican artist Phillip Thomas finds himself taking a hard look at global history and its repetitive nature.
“History is something that is particularly important to me, in the ways in which the world is being re-divided again, if you will,” the artist said during a telephone interview from Kingston. “Through things like Brexit, issues of the European Union, American politics. The old lines are being redrawn again and again, and some of the things my generation now has to deal with are going to be consequential in years to come.”
His portraits of military figures and famous generals commemorate the Caribbean’s contribution to World Wars I and II — a role often overlooked on an international scale, he said — and they speak to the diversity that exists within black history itself.
“Some of that narrative needs to be excavated more, and it would make sense to excavate it through historical terms, not just through entertainment, like sports and music — even though our music is very political,” he said. “They create a political underbelly that acts as a base to propel all of those other things.”
Thomas’s own relationship with art is tied to politics, he explained, as he was awarded a scholarship from the American ambassador to Jamaica, Sue Cobb, to study at the New York Academy of Art, where he studied under North Haven-based artist Eric Fischl.
There, he honed his identity as an artist before returning to the Caribbean to paint and ask the hard questions about making art — its cultural, social and political responsibilities, and where to search for inspiration.
“It’s always important to look as broadly as you can to find something specific. It’s almost a contradiction,” he said. “Visual artists tend to look closely at other visual artists for inspiration, but you’re missing a whole lot in film, a whole lot in literature, a whole lot in politics, a whole lot in everyday life. And a lot of really important work comes not just from other kinds of visual art, but other kinds of human expression altogether.”
Rosales found herself drawn to Michelangelo’s masterpiece while contemplating the concept, and identity, of a higher power, she said.
“To me, God can be anybody,” she said. “God is not a particular person. It’s within all of us. My mother was God when she, literally, birthed me in her image. My sister was God when she had pulled me up from a depression. It’s in everyone.
“So how was I going to present that God is everyone, without drawing something literally, with many faces?” she continued. “How could I draw God as the complete opposite of what He has been depicted as, this white male? Make it female, make it the complete opposite, to show you that he, she, it, the spirit of, can be anyone at any time.”
None of her work is pre-planned, explained Rosales, who pushes through the “white noise” in her mind and onto the canvas. Her thoughts are loud and opinionated, she said, often keeping her up at night until she reworks her subject, or finds “that little sparkle in her eye — or maybe it’s a smile, her mouth open or closed.”
“When I get it, it’s like this overwhelming peace. It’s like I’m settled and I can move on to the next,” she said. “It’s like a hill. All of a sudden, now, something else is calling to me and it’s like, ‘Okay, now I need to do this.’ I feel like I will never run out of creativity. I feel like as long as I stay true to my path, do what I love, then it will always come to me. And I truly believe that.”
“Rich in Black History,” a group show featuring Jules Arthur, Stefanie Jackson, Harmonia Rosales, Phillip Thomas and Jorge Santos, will open with a reception on Saturday, February 23, from 6 to 8 p.m. at RJD Gallery, located at 2385 Main Street in Bridgehampton. Cristina Cuomo will moderate a discussion with CNN’s Don Lemon on black history, and cocktails and hors d’oeuvres will be served.
The show will remain on view through March 16. For more information, call (631) 725-1161 or visit rjdgallery.com.