The Divinity of Water: An Interview with artist Oletha DeVane By Leah Clare Michaels
The following is an excerpt from the full interview and conversation between Oletha DeVane and Leah Clare Michaels. This transcript has been edited for readership.
L.C.M.: Here's a question that I feel like a lot of us struggle with sometimes, and I would love to hear your perspective on it. There is a moment in the short documentary film that just came out about Betty Saar, where she says she didn't really consider herself an artist until she was awarded a National Endowment Grant. Betty says, “Up until that point, there was a part of me that sort of felt like, I don't know if I'm really an artist, I'm kind of just making stuff.” I feel like we struggle a lot with that or maybe it's just my generation of artists and artist friends. We talk about these questions a lot: when are we artists? Do we count? When do we count as artists? What counts as being an artist and all of those other identities? So I was wondering, was there ever a moment in your life where you felt, Oh, I'm an artist now or have you felt like you’ve always been an artist? There is no defining moment.
O.D.: There is no defining moment. I must admit, I grew up in a family that was incredibly visually oriented. So if anything, it was a skill that was encouraged. It was something that seemed magical to people. I've been drawing since I was maybe five or six years old. And a lot of that literally came from the encouragement that my parents gave me because I always thought if there was a desire for anything it was art, I did it all through high school. When it came time for me to pick a college, that was difficult because I was told that I would not be able to go to college, and this was coming from my counselor. And my parents were really big on education. They didn't have a lot of money to send me but they knew I was going to college. It was my high school teacher that ended up telling me to go to MICA because he had gone. So from that point, ‘68 that's where I've been in my life. It’s been very, very interesting.
L.C.M: Could you talk a little about your relationship to mysticism and water, feminism and water, and the divine and water?
O.D.: I think that it is common in global mythologies for there to be a connection between water and the birth/origin story of humanity. But the other part for me is traversing continents and traveling across water, and for the Africans that was a very difficult journey. So I always think about water as the metaphor of life, and that we are somehow at a stage where in every culture, there's a mythological reference to what lives in water, what it does, and why we need it. We're 70% water in terms of our own bodies. So I think the things that have been really important to me when I think about that, specifically about water, is how important it is to life. “Mami Wata” is the African expression of the mermaid and she is also an important goddess. I remember being in Oaxaca, Mexico, and there we climbed a mountain to meet this woman. I wish I could remember her name. She made clay mermaids, and I ended up acquiring one. She told me a story in Spanish which felt like a universal tale. It was about this young woman whose lover lived in a nearby village across the water, and it was not easy for them to meet. He would swim across so they could meet, but then her mother, who was a powerful matriarch, cursed her so that she could never walk again. But she could always swim, and the only voice she had was her song. In many myths we see the mermaid with the guitar or another musical instrument. The Haitian mythology is a different version of that particular myth. I think they're all in some way related to one another in that kind of historical context when we look at those creatures. I love those stories and I try to think about them from that point of view. If I'm focusing on Mami Wata, I think about 'why is she important to me?' Though, I think the most recent piece I did had all the earth elements in it but I've always been interested in mermaids too.
L.C.M.: Me too. I've been obsessed with mermaids since I was a child; I think it was because they’re such magical creatures. But also in global folklore, mermaids embody this representation of duality and this movement between worlds while still existing as the same being. They are shapeshifters. I see artists as shapeshifters too, especially when we work across mediums to create. What are you seeking to express when you create spirit sculptures and in your explorations of divine feminine mythologies? O.D.: I think women are, in many ways, not only powerful, but I also think people are afraid of that power. So it's been sublimated in a way that we have to kind of redefine it. That's what it means to me, to be able to take something that I am connected to in a psychological kind of way, and redefine it….
You're transitioning between both what I call a physical tactile place, that you can be and then you're in some other element. What I’ve missed this summer during the COVID pandemic, is water. If I had any place to go, it was a swimming pool. The joy of the water is that feeling of ‘buoyancy’; we are Earthbound creatures for the most part, so to be in that element is quite different.
L.C.M.: Your spirit sculpture pieces are this combination of found objects and gifted objects. Are there any objects or materials in particular that you feel connected to right now or does that shift over time?
O.D.: I started out as a painter, that was my medium. I did a lot of abstract expressionist type stuff. I loved Rothko and Anselm Kieffer. And yet I wanted to move into a more dimensional kind of material. My painting ended up being too flat for me. So, assemblage became another method for me, and I've done a lot of stuff with assemblage and also installations.
The Spirit Sculptures came about because someone gave me a bottle from Haiti. That bottle was the impetus for a lot of the work that I ended up doing, over the last I'd say eight years, in that particular medium, and it's just been more satisfying. If I had to think about what I like working with, it's applying materials in a way that they become meaningful and they have their own language. Each one of the Spirit Sculptures is different for that reason; I'll use clay, I'll use beads, I'll use glass, I'll use bones if I have to. It's a very mixed bag of materials. I may start with a painting but then the rest of it is fairly intuitive. It's about how it goes together, visually to me.
L.C.M.: Speaking of the Spirit Sculptures and your Baha'i' Faith, do you see any connection to Catholic icons or iconography at all within the spirits sculptures?
O.D.: Absolutely. In fact, a lot of the references can be related to Mary. Well in Haiti, she's called Erzulie and Erzulie happens to be the mother of everything, of love, she's a fertility goddess. And so from that point of view, what Haitians did when they were forced to become Catholics in order to practice their own religion, they transported their Loas, which are their Gods and Goddesses into Haitian figures. So that to me, when I think about how, as you say, these different manifestations come about… Voudun is an incredible religion, as a nature religion, it has such a reverence for nature. We only have certain things in our lexicon of being humans to look towards, we look around in our environments, and we try to figure out what's more powerful than we are. When I look at how Catholicism has been translated into the various cultures of people of African descent and the religion became a way of translating one's own practice. It's also about, how do you stay connected to what would be your inner self. As I said before, in the African Diaspora we say, when we came here, we came to these shores as temples and our religions were ripped from us. So you have to figure out how to develop these relationships that are with your God. There's the strong belief in ancestor, ancestral relationships. You pray for your ancestors. You call their names. When you're praying, there is a connection. I believe that connection is there. So whatever we want to call them, if we want to call them saints, that's fine. Right? Call them ancestors. That's fine. I know when I talk to my parents at night, they're both dead. They're not physically here. However, I know there is a connection between me and that spirit. I don't believe that the soul is inhabited in the body. It is connected, but it's not inhabited within the body. The one reason we pray is to really begin to feed that soul. And if we don't feed the soul, we are babies, we've never grown.
L.C.M.: There's this discussion of course around prayer and then praying for the people who were killed when you were working on the piece Witness for the Reginald F. Louis Museum, and asking for forgiveness for using their stories, but also to honor them to make this work to still talk about violence against the black community now. What are your thoughts around even the idea of forgiveness in general, especially within the art world, and within our institutions that have taken objects, sacred ritual objects from all over the world? O.D.: I think that when we talk about forgiveness, I think conceptually, that it’s a very difficult one for all of us. Right? It means that somebody has done something wrong to you or your family. How do you come to terms with that? And so I've been thinking about the people in South Carolina, they lost so many people, dear to them. The whole thing that's going on right now with the police killings. Yeah, I'm angry. I am not sure that I'm in a position to forgive, I believe that forgiveness is the role of a higher power. I think that my position is to act. I think justice is what we have to deal with. And I have admiration for all those young people who went out there and protested, my hands go up to them. My dad would take us on marches. He was instrumental in taking me to marches when I was young. So my hands go up because I know that there are young people out there who care. That gives me hope. But in terms of forgiveness, I think that we have to be accountable. So when somebody starts talking to me about, well, you know, don't you think they should be forgiving? No. That's not my role. L.C.M.: I feel the same way because the other thing that happens in these conversations in terms of forgiveness or pardon is the fact that we're not even at the accountability part yet, and people want to jump straight to forgiveness and it seems as a society we are struggling with that distinction and path. O.D.: I do believe that, when I look at institutions, I want to see them hire more people of color who have the wherewithal to carry them forward, who know what's happening in the field, because artists and women have been working for years and years. Black artists have been working for years and years and years. And not to have them as part of the fabric of the museum, is paramount to just being ignorant. I think that one thing I can say about the Baltimore Museum of Art, which I think everybody knows that they were the first to bring in artists, specifically black artists, in 1949, to exhibit there. It speaks to a certain level of consciousness of the curators, and in some Doreen Bolger, putting on Joyce's (Joyce Scott Kicking It with the Old Masters) was a pretty major exhibition at that time and steeped in originality and storytelling. When I worked at the Arts Council, I had to constantly bring up artists of color, just so people would look at them. That was really very difficult in those times because the work by many artists was dismissed. Joyce was the first African American artist to receive an Individual Artist Grant when I ran the program. She is the most influential artist in our community and in our times. O.D.: In terms of influences, Dr. Johnnetta Cole was one of the most influential professors who taught a black feminism class when I was at University of Massachusetts for my MFA. She was a powerful woman, I was in class and she scared the shit out of me in the best way. She taught us how to think critically: You dictate who you are. This is your world. She and Esther Terry were very powerful teachers. I purposely took the course because there was no way I was going to go out into the world as a fresh young thing. Having teachers that challenge you to be your best self and own every part of your identity historically and spiritually. It’s a gift to have throughout your whole life. Zora Neale Hurston, Audrey Lorde, Ntosake Shange, all the writers and poets, that was instrumental in my own learning as a graduate student. L.C.M.: Definitely! I think teachers who challenge us to grow are the most instrumental. Would you share a bit about your show Traces of the Spirit at the Baltimore Museum of Art, located in the spring house and talk about the energy of water there and how that all came to be? O.D.: The pieces were individual parts of the installation. The central element which was entitled Saint for My City.
L.C.M.: I love that piece. O. D.: Saint for My City was in response to the gun violence that was going on in Baltimore at the time. I wanted to create a piece that I considered a prayer. All the individual pieces reference the sacred. For instance, one happens to be a spirit house. When I was in Thailand, I would come across house structures that were altars. (Pilgrimage) The one, which is very flowery, is entitled (Spring). It's a healing piece created in February and I wanted it to represent the season of life. The piece, Woman who married a snake, is a fertility piece. And it's based on a Haitian story about a woman who marries a snake, and the piece Mother and Daughter represents bringing children together through the embrace of the mother figure. So all of these pieces represent various parts of a prayer cycle, more or less. They were all embedded in reflective mica chips. My father used to take us as children on rock hunts in Western Maryland and the rocks had to be shiny. The mica chip pieces were to honor him. Strike Ware (Chris Kojzar, Mollye Bendell, and Jeffrey Gangwisch) created the water sound and voices to reference the slave ship and that transatlantic movement of those enslaved across the ocean. The Spring House, which was from Oakland plantation owned by Sen.Robert Goodloe Harper, was moved to the museum. It was a building used to refrigerate perishable foods like milk, eggs and butter. I considered it a place where those who were enslaved worked and I wanted it to represent a “spirit house” or space in which to create an “altar-like” setting. There's a whole history of ownership to explore.
L.C.M: It is so interesting to me, because, being from Baltimore and having visited the BMA many times and then seeing your amazing work in The Spring House that I'd never seen used before “activated” before in any way, it really blew me away. It was stunning to see that work and to think about that building and the history of that building. I'd never seen the BMA discuss it in such a public way before. O.D.: I'm in the gift shop, and this lady comes up to me and wanted to correct me that it was on “an estate”. I said, well, you know, it was a plantation. It was okay, because I realized some of us really don't know the history of that little building and/or the history of this particular senator. He was one of the architects of the Liberian movement. L.C.M.: I also appreciate how you talk about that particular installation in space as this prayer circle, or cycle, moving from one to another, understanding and working through everything. Also, how you acknowledge not everyone's always going to know all of those things, but it's partially down to the openness of the viewer to start to figure out how to put all of those things together, or how to look at, the intention of the artist and what things could possibly mean in relationship to each other. I think that's one of the beautiful things about art. There are times even where I would debate with people, when they would tell me that I need to say or give away the specific meaning of certain pieces on the plaque description and I say no. I'm not giving a specific presentation. It's supposed to be an experience. There's something for people to work through and to think about, I'm not going to lead them through every single choice and every single detail. O.D.: You know, it's almost impossible to do and takes something away from the viewer. Some of the work is fairly dense with symbolism and my own story. I love the way children come to it. They were fascinating to watch because they were very respectful. I asked Virginia Anderson, the curator, Do you think we can give them a little bit of the mica chips? Mica is shiny, and children are drawn to shiny. But if you start with one piece, and there won't be any mica left. So we decided not.
L.C.M.: But children are so open. I think that's one of the beautiful things about them.
O.D.: Yeah, I didn't feel like I explained anything. They just liked it because it was shiny. L.C.M.: And so beautiful and so visual and so colorful and in many different ways, you know, your work is so engaging. I think my final question, unfortunately, is also very cliche, which is what would your advice be for the young artists in the world kind of growing up and working towards making their work and putting it out into this place, this world? O.D.: I think about that a lot because my son is an artist and the answer is….do the work. That's all I can say, do the work. Because whether you're coming at it conceptually or hands on, it means you have to feed your head with the knowledge of what the concept is going to be. If you are hands on, then you need to know the process and craftsmanship. It’s also important to maintain friendships because that’s what is going to feed your soul: find common connections, even if you're doing different work. Support each other in that friendship because it's just about intellectual growth and spiritual growth. Obviously you never stop learning.
Conclusion: I’m honored that Oletha DeVane shared her thoughts with me on her work, mysticism, history, her background, and her views on the art world as it exists today. I hope anyone who reads this piece takes a look at her work. May we also take some time to think more about how we can use our own power as artists and individuals to work towards the type of world we want to live in and may we continue to support each other while we do so. As Oletha says, do the work.
To read more from Leah's interview with Oletha, head to Issue 02 of The Debutante in print, now available to order here: https://www.thedebutante.online/the-journal
Leah Clare Michaels is a Baltimore native, writer, artist, activist, historian, and surfer.
She received a B.A. in History with a focus in Classics from the University of Washington in Seattle in 2012 and a M.F.A. in Intermedia and Digital Arts from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) in 2019.
Leah was raised as a social Catholic feminist. Her work is informed by a historical research practice and rooted in the space where social justice, art, and travel intersect. Leah's work is multidisciplinary; encompassing the mediums of Video/Film, Photography, Printmaking, Performance, Installation, Writing, and Fabrication.