Shirley Woodson brings spiritual cleansing to the DIA with 'Shield of the Nile Reflections'

Dec 30, 2021 at 12:25 pm
click to enlarge "Flight with Mirror," 2014, Shirley Woodson, American; acrylic on canvas. - Courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts
Courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts
"Flight with Mirror," 2014, Shirley Woodson, American; acrylic on canvas.

Water represents cleansing, renewal, and sustenance. It is an ever-present resource that has spiritual and transformative properties. This is what Shirley Woodson’s exhibit, Shield of the Nile Reflections at the Detroit Institute of Arts represents.

Woodson shows Black bathers in bodies of water across 11 paintings, referencing the mythical significance of the Nile River to the African diaspora. The exhibit is on display at the DIA until June 12.

“Ultimately, water was a passageway. Sometimes the water in my paintings becomes other colors like red which represents blood,” she tells the Metro Times. “We shed a lot of blood in water across several oceans as transplants to come to this new place.”

Woodson’s art may look untrained upon first glance. Splashes of bright colors cover the canvases with outlines of flowers, horses, and human forms that lack any true detail. This simplicity, however, is by design.

Incorporating vague facial features in the subjects she paints allows the viewer to use their imagination and insert themselves into the work. It also causes museum-goers to spend more time looking at Woodson’s paintings as they try to figure them out.

“Studies have shown that people spend about seven seconds in front of a work before they move on to the next one,” she says. “This is my way of getting people to stay longer and sit with it in their imagination. Their reality then starts to associate with it.”

The 85-year old painter is highly decorated in Detroit’s art scene. She’s the 2021 recipient of the Kresge Eminent Artist Award, which honors a lifetime of contributions to the city’s art and culture community. Only 13 metro Detroit artists have received this distinction.

All visitors to the DIA must make a reservation in advance at or over the phone at 313-833-4005. Admission is free for residents of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties.

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