“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” is a quote widely attributed to the elusive street artist and activist, Banksy. It speaks to the power of art’s ability to undermine the status quo, create new and alternative narratives, and challenge deep-rooted notions as well as perceived truths.
Today, these words of wisdom are embraced by artists, collectors and enthusiasts alike. However, the concept of art being disruptive, provocative and a respite for the marginalized and downtrodden is an avant-garde one, which in the grand scheme of art history, is a recent phenomenon still in its infancy.
For centuries, art prevailed as a medium of expression that comforted the powerful and the privileged, while ostracizing the subjugated and voiceless masses. When one delves deeper into the trenches of the underclasses and hierarchical structures of the marginalized, it is immediately apparent that the greatest burden was carried on the shoulders of women.
Indeed, even when women have been the subject of commissioned paintings, or muses that inspired spectacular portraits, they have largely been passive and inanimate, a testament to the role reserved for them by a society that encouraged women to be seen, but not heard.
The turn of the 20th century was marked by the uprising of women demanding equal rights and opportunities, and redefining gender roles and societal expectations of them. Artists like Frida Kahlo blazed a trail for women in the arts to break free of the shackles of the male gaze, by being both the painter and subject of her work, and unapologetically embracing her heritage and identity with absolute grace and candor.
In 2018, Harmonia Rosales, an Afro-Cuban American artist based in Chicago, follows the trail blazed by Kahlo before her, to depict the subject she knows best, and wants the world to know better: black women.
Despite art being a subjective discipline, I would wager that you would be hard-pressed to find a single soul who does not objectively view Harmonia’s work as nothing short of sensational.
Inspired by her childhood fascination of renaissance art exhibited at prestigious museums and galleries, Harmonia paints with the savoir-faire of Michelangelo; though conversely, she is on a mission to unravel the prevalent Euro-centric narrative that he helped to establish.
Indeed, it was her interpretation of the high renaissance artist’s, “Creation of Adam” masterpiece that cast a shining light on her incredible talent and mission, when she depicted God and Adam as black women.
Intrigued by Harmonia’s artistic raison d’être, I was keen to ask what her motivations and views were, to which she was extremely forthright and candid in her response:
“Since global history was documented, paintings of a male-dominated, white heaven were presented. These same images not only influence our society today, but are deemed valuable and possessing… coming with elite social status.
“My re-imagined works intends to not only begin to clear that narrow perception by deconstructing the dominant social narrative through the same medium that helped create it… but empower and show the value in who I feel to be the least represented.”
The profound power in the symbolism of Harmonia’s work is better understood and appreciated when one considers that within the canon of art history, not only have women as a group been largely relegated as passive subjects to be fawned over, but on a more granular level, black women especially have been rendered wholly nonexistent.
In light of this, Harmonia’s depiction of black women as subjects to be revered, worshiped and celebrated, not only elevates their status as active and omnipresent subjects within art, but breaks a tradition dating back almost a millennium of the prevalent white, male gaze.
Furthermore, it would be remiss not to mention that for all the artist’s intention of empowering the subject she knows best through her work, like many great artists before her time, her intimate subject matters and themes are essentially part of a wider struggle to right historical injustices and strive for a truly egalitarian society; in which black women are represented and celebrated.
In what can only be described as an act of artistic genius and self-confidence, what is most unique about Harmonia’s work, is her ability to reference a style of painting that stems from 14th century Italy to highlight contemporary issues of lack of representation that continue to plague the United States in the 21st century.
It’s this perfect harmony of the old and the new in her work that lends such monumentality to her pieces, and leaves the viewer, men and women alike, in a state of deep contemplation and utter captivation.
With her work now selling before the paint is even dry, it is hardly surprising that an eclectic list of new and established high-profile collectors are lining up to own one of her masterpieces.
Despite the rapidly growing interest and sold-out exhibitions, Harmonia is still very much an emerging artist who is yet to reach the dizzying heights inevitable for someone of her caliber. I can’t help but think that while to date she has created irrefutably remarkable work, we still haven’t seen anything yet, and her best is definitely yet to come.
What I do know for certain however, is that Harmonia, like Michelangelo, will stand the test of time, and play a role in shaping the canon of art history.