LOS ANGELES — At the Charlie James Gallery, in the Chinatown neighborhood here, a surprising exhibition of spiritually reflective and esoteric artwork opened recently. Surprising because the artists, Patrisse Cullors and noé olivas, are known for their activism and social engagement, and because the works in the show, “Freedom Portals,” reject the strident, declamatory tenor of much political art.
Cullors and olivas, the exhibition guide notes, are practitioners of Ifá, a Yoruba religion from West Africa. Cullors’s artworks, each made from a framed section of black-and-white patterned cloth embroidered with cowrie shells, are titled after Mejis or Odù, sacred Ifá verses used in divination, a central feature of Yoruba religious practice.
Hung high on the walls like church icons, sculptures by olivas consist of garden shears wired onto small puddles of iridescent, dichroic glass. All his pieces are titled as prayers — “Prayers of Protection” or “Prayers of Support” — but prayers to what, or to whom? I met with the artists at the gallery to learn more about what Ifá means to them, and how their political vocations are manifesting in new forms.
In recent years, there has been a conspicuous rise in contemporary art that engages with religious or spiritual ideas. But unlike most historical religious art, whose primary purpose was to deepen or focus the beholder’s belief, this contemporary work tends toward personal inquiry and private reflection.
Cullors revealed that she was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, but later went through phases of atheism and agnosticism. Reading Malidoma Somé’s book about Indigenous religions, “The Healing Wisdom of Africa,” was transformative. Soon after, on the recommendation of a friend, she sat for a divination with a babalawo, an Ifá high priest.
“It just made sense,” she said. “The divination wasn’t airy-fairy; the clouds didn’t open. As much as I’m spiritual, I’m very pragmatic too. He just gave me very clear advice, clear messages. I said, ‘I think I’ve found my tradition.’ That was in 2003. I was initiated in 2008.”
Cullors said that Ifá allows her to reconnect with a lost ancestry sundered by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. “Ifá has been a way to reclaim what was stolen from me to begin with.”
Olivas, 35, who was raised Roman Catholic, was introduced to Ifá by Cullors and has been practicing for two years. “Prayer is a moment for us to ask for something,” he said, “but it’s also a moment for us to be present. I’m trying to expand that language of prayer into object-making.”
Cullors, 39, is best known as a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, which grew from a hashtag coined in 2013 into a global movement. She served as the executive director of Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation until 2021. The organization has since restructured after it faced challenging questions over its infrastructure and the allocation of funds.
In 2020, Cullors organized a performance at Frieze Los Angeles in which she interrupted the art fair with a joyful, participatory dance event calling for freedom from white supremacy. Last month, she returned to Frieze Los Angeles, this time to mount an unsanctioned protest in memory of her cousin Keenan Anderson, a 31-year-old teacher who died in January after a police officer repeatedly fired a Taser at him during a traffic stop.
Before she was politicized, Cullors was an artist. In 2017 she enrolled in graduate school at the University of Southern California, where she met olivas, a fellow art student.
In 2018, the two collaborated on a performance, first staged at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles, part of a program responding to the artist Zoe Leonard’s trenchant typewritten diatribe “I want a president” (1992). Cullors and olivas performed ritualistic actions inside a circle of salt, dumped from a wheelbarrow onto the floor. The piece, “It’s dangerous times. We have to be connected,” was a metaphor for interpersonal and communal support.
The two artists further fostered that community support with the Crenshaw Dairy Mart, an art collective, gallery and event space in South Los Angeles that they founded in 2020 with a fellow U.S.C. alum, alexandre dorriz (who, like olivas, styles his name in lowercase).
At the same time, the artists maintained individual studio practices. In 2022, olivas exhibited a sculptural installation, “Let’s Pray,” at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Featuring terra-cotta casts of truck tires and buckets alongside tools that had belonged to his father, the installation was inspired by the toolshed — a space, according to the exhibition text, that olivas “sees as a spiritual space of creation and community building.”
Those truck tires — cast from one used on the Olivas family’s Ford Ranger truck, which the artist now owns — reappear at Charlie James Gallery, this time glazed in mottled shades of celestial purple. One sits in the center, repurposed as a planter nurturing a live cactus. That sculpture is titled “Prayers of Longevity.” Another, “Prayers of Coolness,” leans against the wall, cradling a pool of water.
Olivas said that the water is melted snow from California’s recently blanketed mountains. He sees this sculpture as a prayer to cool his Ori — the zone of Ifá consciousness where thought and emotion combine — in times of anger. The mountain symbolizes the potential for rising above frustrations and minutiae, for taking in the bigger picture.
His wall-mounted works, he said, “represent Ògún, the Ifá god of iron, metal, war and technology.” The shears are all well-tarnished; one pair belonged to his father. “A lot of my work is about the tools that are passed down to us,” he explained. The lustrous iridescent glass, made from melted-together shards, evokes the Egbe — the Ifá spiritual community. “The sharp edges are protecting the Egbe.”
Cullors’s works are similarly coded — perhaps even more so. In the Ifá tradition, every one of the 256 sacred Odù can be represented both by combinations of vertical dashes and by arrangements of cowrie shells or palm nuts on the divination tray. Cullors represents the first 12 Odù with cowries — some cast in polished gold — stitched onto 1950s “mud cloth” from Mali, bought at a flea market in Pasadena. (Mud cloth is stained using fermented mud, and is revered in Malian tradition.)
A guide offers gallery visitors condensed interpretations of the Mejis, but their deeper significance is largely occluded. “It’s kind of like, who knows will know, and who wants to know will ask questions,” Cullors said. “This is not a tradition that believes in going out and spreading the good word. It’s the opposite. We believe that if you’re meant to practice, Ifá will call you in.”
I chose to put my own spiritual convictions (or lack of them) aside. As with many ritual objects, both artists’ works emanate a mysterious energy, despite their sometimes-prosaic materials and their simple combinations. The history of sacred art — and, indeed, the history of modernist abstraction — is rich with examples of secret meaning sequestered in captivating aesthetic phenomena. (Those histories overlap in the work of such artists as Hilma af Klint, the Transcendental Painting Group and Emma Kunz.)
For Cullors, the viewers’ interpretations were not primary concern when she was developing this series. “These works come from a place of deep grief for me, of wanting so badly for the world to be different,” she said. “I kept thinking, what can I make that will help me? Ifá is the practice that I go to when I’m in my lowest moments, and I made a decision to make it public.”
In the past three years, she acknowledges, many others have faced their own struggles, which have led them toward the spiritual. “A lot of people are grasping,” she said.
“I feel like an Odù takes care of me,” Cullors went on, “but it also takes care of the collective, of the community.” In its attention to shared pain, her work remains political.
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