Make Way for the Black Madonna

Make Way for the Black Madonna

Throughout my lifetime, I have taken up space where no one would think to envision a young Black girl. It first happened in a ballet class at a premier dance school in downtown Philadelphia at age five, then again at sixteen in a small southwestern town in Costa Rica where I’d live for two semesters and be the only Black resident in a three hour traveling radius. Most prevalently, it happened this past May when I would strut across the stage to accept my undergraduate degree in Art History from a high-brow liberal arts college no one in my family had previously heard of. To claim this moment in the fearless fashion it called for, I wore my robe open so everyone could bear witness to the Tia Adeola "Black Jesus Dress" I wore underneath. The ribbed, white t-shirt dress pictures the image of its namesake sculpture by Michaelangelo—one of the first images you encounter in an Art History course. Praised for its compassionate depiction of sorrow, it features grieving Virgin Mary holding her newly (yet temporarily) deceased child in her arms. In real life it’s marble, but on my dress, these icons were Black.

AW ‘20 Tia Adeola “Black Jesus Dress"
 
Michelangelo Madonna della Pietá, 1498-99

Tia’s brand began to gain traction after she sent sheer, ruffled garments reminiscent of the Renaissance down the runway for her New York Fashion Week debut in 2020. The marriage of royal European aesthetics and the sauce of the 21st-century daughter of the diaspora captivated the streetwear community, and she was quickly heralded as a designer to watch. When asked about the ethos behind her brand, the answer is plain: rewriting history through fashion so that the modern young woman of color feels as though there is space for her too. So there we were three unlikely Black figures, daring to exhibit an excellence that didn’t look like theirs. Serendipitously enough, the Black women I grew up regarding as icons in entertainment would also venerate the energy of the Virgin to cement themselves into unimaginable artistic spaces.

At the top of the year, actress, singer, and cross-platform personality Keke Palmer debuted her maternity photo shot by infamous American fashion photographer, David LaChapelle. Upon posting it on Instagram, Keke enthusiastically stated in her caption, "it's giving MICHAEL ANGELO. it's giving SISTINE CHAPEL. it's giving MASTERPIECE," and indeed it does. The photo is mystifying. Keke is pictured in a green room full of blooming foliage. Warm, ethereal light pours in from multiple angles, illuminating the scene. Her partner, Darius, is seen in the low-lit left corner holding a flower in one hand and reaching for Keke in the other, entranced by her presence in the room. She stands barefoot on a blue moon, her meticulously draped yellow dress blowing behind her, allowing her growing belly to draw the eye. A small crystal crown sits on her head, golden ripples form a medieval-esque halo behind her. In this moment, Keke is unmistakably the Madonna. There’s even a possibility of even nodding to fertility orisha, Oshun, who always dons yellow and has been making her way to modern Black media attention more than usual. Beyoncé has repeatedly emulated the goddess as a devotee herself. Honoring a pre-colonial deity within Virgin Mary imagery—most clearly indicated by the moon a la Catholic imagery—would be in line with photographer LaChapelle’s artistic motivations. LaChapelle notably places his celebrity subjects in magically suspended realities for their portraits, but he also carries an extensive history of referencing Western art history in his non-commercial photography. He has modeled photos identically to renowned European paintings such as da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Michaelangelo’s The Last Judgment, and Boticelli’s Venus and Mars, all including his own social commentary of choice. Now Keke’s image as a soon-to-be mother is included alongside a long list of “high art” iconography.

This is cause for jubilation. Black women, no matter their age or status, are in a constant battle for their autonomy. Racism within medical institutions has made it so that Black women in the U.S. are three to four times more likely to experience complications during pregnancy and childbirth due to lack of quality, non-biased care, and the biases projected onto Black women on any given day are tenfold. Keke has also been very vocal about her struggles living with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, which she had to do her own preliminary research and self-diagnosis for upon medical professionals reducing her symptoms to poor diet and even measles. Witnessing her healthy pregnancy in the form of art that is widely considered “elevated” when the world has proven to be uninterested in the health of Black women is a reclamation of space unlike any other.

In the same vein, mention must be made of the trailblazer for maternity fashion of the 2020s thus far, Rihanna. Mother of one, and expecting another as she revealed whilst suspended in the air during her recent Super Bowl performance (like what!), she has not let her changing body stop her fashionista tendencies. Known for shutting down the red carpet each year at Vogue’s Met Gala, Rihanna, then almost at full term with her first baby, was not in attendance at last year’s Gala. Then, at nearly the end of the evening, she unveiled via Instagram an AI marble statue rendition of her British Vogue cover that had hit stands just a month beforehand. She stands confidently, chin and chest at attention as she supports her back with both arms. The pose creates the perfect curve in her back that mirrors the shape of her outstanding belly. A white leaf motif wraps around the dark gray statue dually emulating the red, lace bodysuit from the cover and nailing that year’s Gala theme: Gilded Glamour. The statue is recognizably located in the Met’s Greco-Roman gallery—headless statues decorate the background of the photo—and assume the front and center position saved for the museum’s copy of Kephisodotos’ Eirene (the Personification of Peace). The Greco-Roman gallery is the first room all guests of the museum pass through. It is adorned with plentiful natural light and information to amplify the importance the artifacts hold to the museum, whereas a map is needed to be directed to any of the low lit corner rooms that hold the (primarily stolen) indigenous objects. In a space where historians even jump at the idea that ancient Roman sculpture used to be painted with color, positioning Rihanna’s Afro-featured likeness front and center of the Met’s crown jewel gallery perfectly turns classicist rhetoric on its head.

Marble render of Rihanna for the 2022 “Gilded Glamour” Met Gala

 

The statue unfortunately does not physically exist in the Met, but what a pleasure it is to see a Black woman usher in a new era of embodying “elevated” art through newly available technology. All done whilst pregnant no less, ready to birth not only healthy babies but also new opportunities. It is my wish that we continue to witness Black women embrace the energy of icons such as the Virgin, or perhaps even pre-colonial deities, as they make currently privileged spaces more accessible for the generations of Black girls to follow.


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