Community Art: '‘Gris-Gris for Very Young Girls’'

Inspired by the life experiences of family members and the documentary “Very Young Girls” portraying teen prostitution in Harlem, “Gris-Gris For Very Young Girls”, is the artist’s way of raising awareness and invoking spiritual protection and healing energy by shining the community’s light on the recreational rape/sexual manipulation of girls/women. In this interactive altarpiece, the artist honors girls/women who have survived sexual abuse, and weaves together aspects of over 6 African spiritual traditions to confront the variety of issues that surface with the increasing trend of abuse within the African-American community. Seated at a tiny desk at the foot of the altarpiece, the viewers write responses, confessions, hopes and prayers for those who have suffered abuse, roll their scrolls, and ritually tuck them into a pocket on the gris-gris jacket of the central figure. In this way, the artist uses the artwork as a means of breaking the silence around sexual abuse, and engaging viewers in a community ritual in support of girls and women everywhere.

The issues examined through imagery, ritual objects, and text, include- protection for girls/women, education for boys/men, questions of faith and resiliency during trauma, secrecy and silencing perpetuating abuse, history of oppression/trauma of the African-American community, embrace of the divine-feminine, piecing together and reclaiming of an African identity/spirituality, and community responsibility and support.

The artist pieces together fragments of various African traditional religions and tools, in the same way one might piece together an understanding of why recreational rape persists, piece together fragments of a Black identity complicated by colonialism and modern media, and piece together tools for protection, healing and social change. The spiritual iconography includes the Batakari jacket from West Africa, Kemetic imagery of Ma’at’s wings keeping the heart light as a feather, Congo Nkisi statue and Nkisi nails, Dogon fox divination, Vodun veve for Papa Legba (guardian of the crossroads), Santeria’s Orisha prayers, Ifa prayers, and Palo Mayombe’s sticks in the forest. The artist has also framed each section of the altarpiece with burned prayers, quotes and proverbs from varying African spiritual traditions.

A woman clings to her Batakari cloak and the waist beads of the divine feminine figure embracing her. Her cloak is filled with gris-gris (protective charms), and the written truths/wisdoms of community members and viewers, therefore, protection for women and girls comes in the form of spiritual connectedness, breaking the silence around sexual abuse and sharing the truth. The divine feminine figure holds a vulture feather (symbol of the highest flight, the golden purifier, and wings of Ma’at- goddess of truth/justice), and precariously holds an Nkisi nail (representing either an oath or awakening of spiritual energy), which she is either piercing into or removing from the woman’s back. Either way, this embrace serves as a visual response to questions of faith that a woman may have in the midst of trauma. They stand at a city crossroads, near the Vodun veve for Papa Legba (Elegba/Exu), against the flow of the faceless masses. Below them, they stand somewhere in the sand drawing of a Dogon fox diviner, who interprets her destiny in fox track patterns. Above them is a Kemetic visual reminder to strive for keeping one’s heart as light as a feather despite pain and trauma. The left panel depicts a woman sewing a gris-gris cloak for victimized women along a trail of nails and beads. The right panel depicts a shaman and child watching a man catch cowries and rites of passage rings falling from the heavens, after travelling a path of knowledge, with books pertaining to the Black experience trailing behind him in the street. The name for the religion Palo Monte or Palo Mayombe literally translates to a “stick in the forest”, and emphasizes the use of natural objects, especially sticks, to be imbued with spiritual power, which is reflective of the artist’s assertion that a stick in the form of a pencil/pen gives a woman the power to break the silence, to tell her story, to share wisdom, and to effect social change. This concept is further emphasized by the inscribed proverbs: “a single stick may smoke but it will not burn”, and “cross the river in a crowd and the crocodile won’t eat you.” The artist views the community members’ participation in writing and filling the figure’s gris-gris pouches with their truths, prayers, and wisdoms, as in itself a powerful ritual of community healing, whose energy has the power to touch and help heal girls/women survivors, and create positive social change. The cornerstones of the altarpiece are the four elements of earth, water, air, and fire, representing the artist’s affirmation that on earth, we have everything we need to survive, heal, and thrive.