'Pray for Us' exhibit at Norwest Gallery of Art is a celebration of women and the divine feminine

Ghanian artist Kuukua Eshun’s film ‘Born of the Earth’ gets international debut in show curated by Detroit’s Bre’Ann White

click to enlarge A still from "Born of the Earth." - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
A still from "Born of the Earth."

Black women adorned in extravagant tulle dresses dance across lush fields and beach sunsets in undisturbed joy. As the striking visuals, vibrant costumes, and rainbow of brown skin flash across the screen, a woman’s soft and impassioned voice speaks.

“Beauty comes from a place where we connect with God, and God connects with us,” the film’s narrator says, switching between English and the Ghanian language Twi. “Your beauty comes from within. Don’t look for it outside yourself.”

This is Ghanian American artist Kuukua Eshun’s film "Born of the Earth," which made its international debut at Detroit’s Norwest Gallery of Art last weekend. The film is part of Pray for Us, a new exhibit curated by Detroit photographer Bre’Ann White which opened on July 23.

Pray for Us is a vesper written in photographs and film to our female ancestors both living and deceased. It basks in the godliness of womanhood and the divine feminine as the participating artists honor the women in their lives through themes of sisterhood, beauty, and self-love.

Along with Eshun, who traveled from Ghana for the show’s opening reception and artist talk, Pray for Us features work by Jade Lilly, Rachel Thomas Faith Couch, Wayne Lawrence, and White herself. White curated the exhibition as part of her artist residency at Womxnhouse Detroit, which is facilitated by Norwest Gallery owner Asia Hamilton. While she previously curated the Detroit section of The New Black Vanguard exhibit at the Detroit Institue of Arts last winter, Pray for Us is the first show she put together entirely on her own.

White curated Pray for Us to honor her mother Edna who passed away of cancer in April. White says her mother was a huge inspiration to her art practice and the show is a reflection of their close relationship. It hints at prayer being a vessel that connects the spiritual and physical realm to bring peace to those who are grieving or seeking guidance from their ancestors.

click to enlarge From left, Danielle Eliska Lyle, Bre'Ann White, Kuukua Eshun, Faith Couch, Jade Lilly, and Rachel Thomas. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
From left, Danielle Eliska Lyle, Bre'Ann White, Kuukua Eshun, Faith Couch, Jade Lilly, and Rachel Thomas.

White recreated her mother’s living room in the gallery, complete with a couch where visitors can watch Eshun’s film. It’s almost as if you’re communing with Edna and the combined energy of all the women involved in the show.

“When people came in town, we literally would go to my mom’s house and that’s the reason why I recreated her living room because it’s a place that a lot of my family and friends from around the world got a chance to visit,” White says. “I would take people on a tour around Detroit and we would always end at her house. It was like this community, just this loving and nurturing feeling.”

Crowding around Edna’s living room, gallery-goers are engrossed in Eshun’s visually stunning film as it takes them on a journey through self-discovery, fulfillment, and the power of sisterhood. "Born of the Earth" gives viewers positive affirmations, telling them their mere existence on this earth is beautiful and we all have a gift to share.

“Do we even understand, like, what it means to have a body? To have a mind? To have a soul? This thing is so powerful,” she says gesturing to her body. “I believe that we’re all vessels. God put stories in me that the world has to hear…There’s so much that the world needs that is in so many of us and a lot of people go their graves with that. I don’t want my life to be like that. I want to be the fullness of what I was meant to be.”

Eshun acknowledges, however, that the journey towards self-love and realizing your innate power is not an easy one. During the artist talk, she gives a spirited sermon about owning up to your flaws and embracing difficult moments in life, or as she calls it “the wilderness,” to appreciate life’s beauty.

“You have to be thankful for the wilderness because without the wilderness, how are you going to get to the other side,” she says. “A lot of us want to get to the other side instantly, but it doesn’t happen that way… I believe we were all born great, but as we grow we are growing into our greatness. Most people never get to the end of their greatness because they want to escape the process. You cannot escape the process until you sit yourself down and say, ‘I am these things, but also I could be those things.’”

Other artists in the show explore ideas of motherhood.

click to enlarge Jade Lilly's "Untitled -2." - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Jade Lilly's "Untitled -2."

In a series of photos of her mother, Baltimore-based photographer Faith Couch displays the superhuman power of women to balance their careers and raising children. A diptych shows Couch’s mom, who is a lawyer, working at a cluttered desk as her young daughter jumps into her arms. Couch’s mom continues working while holding her daughter, eventually looking in the camera as if to say, “do I need to make time for you, too?”

“She’s always working through the weekend or holidays, all the time, but my mother has always made time for us no matter what,” Couch says during the artist talk. “When I looked back at the picture, I noticed it looks a lot like mother and child, it looks like [Mary holding Jesus], it looks like a lot of that familiar imagery that we see… I wanted to capture this moment that I think is very timeless and universal.”

Jade Lilly, who considers herself a rainbow in human form, presents a portrait of a pregnant woman dressed in a flowing teal robe sitting in a dressing room. There’s a softness to the photo with a hint of Hollywood glamour that shows us women are still beautiful during pregnancy.

“The transition that women go through to be a vessel for God and bring this blessing into this world is just beyond me,” she says. “I see a lot of women go through the identity crisis of ‘I’m losing my womanhood and my sexuality and all the things that made me, to now transition to this next chapter of being a mother.’ Really, you don’t need to turn off this portion of yourself. You still are that beautiful, goddess, sexy being.”

The exhibit feels something like a shrine — a shrine to Edna White and all the mothers who gave us life. It’s also a prayer for female gallery goers, that they may recognize their own power.

“Don’t you know you are from the Earth,” Eshun says in the film. “Let your light be so loud that it holds the planet in its rightful place.”

Pray for Us is on view through Aug. 23 at Norwest Gallery of Art; 19556 Grand River Ave., Detroit; norwestgallery.com.

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About The Author

Randiah Camille Green

After living in Japan and traveling across Asia, Randiah Camille Green realized Detroit will always be home. And when she says Detroit, she's talking about the hood, not the suburbs. She has bylines in Planet Detroit News , Bridge Detroit , BLAC magazine, and Model D . Her favorite pastimes are meditating...
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