Migrant Madonna Exhibition
L-R: Doris Bittar, Mark Steven Greenfiled, Lahib Jaddo, MamaDotta
SoLA Contemporary Gallery


South Los ANgeles Contemporary, Los Angeles
THrough May 14, 2022

Written by Margaret Lazzari
The premise of the group exhibition, MIGRANT MADONNA, springs from the fact that today nearly 50% of all children in California have at least one immigrant parent.  The culture of Southern California is heavily influenced by the experiences of people separated from their native lands.

The exhibition curators are the art collective MamaDotta (Joyce Dallal and her daughter Naima White).  They sought out artists working with images related to the Biblical Mary as a way to frame these migrants’ stories.  Mary, her husband Joseph and the infant Jesus were political refugees from persecution in their homeland, Judah. The three found safety in Egypt until a regime change allowed them to return home. 

The exhibition’s eight artists and two art collectives use the image and meaning of Mary, in the words of the curators, “to comment on their own era, history and experience.”  Each work in the show is very different in its appearance, its materials, its relation to the Madonna and its function in culture today.  Each reflects the artists’ personal narratives.

Some works have the same brilliant patterns, rich fabric, symmetry, precious metal, and painstaking handiwork that mark thousands of icons of Mary made by artists through the centuries.  Lahib Jaddo’s three pieces, Anna, Red Qirmizi, and Mother in Law, Qayin Nana, are small figure-like sculptures made of brightly-colored wrapped fabrics accented with beads, stitching and weaving.  Jaddo is remembering the women in her family by depicting the traditional style of clothing of her own Turkmen ethnic group from Iraq, now scattered through many countries.  Interestingly, these wrapped fabrics also recall the attire of Mary, the regal robes of African rulers, and burkas worn by contemporary Muslim women.

Madonna Combine, by MamaDotta, borrows the image of the Madonna and recasts it in clay, gold, digital displays, painted icons, and electrical cords, to show the depth of connection possible between mother and daughter.  The pieced-together images and materials are metaphors for the relationship between two beings who once shared the same body.  Like many mothers and daughters today, Madonna Combine also references separations, whether by immigration, by life circumstances, or by COVID quarantine, as well as the connection of hearts urgently maintained by Zoom.

Of all the works in the show, Mark Steven Greenfield’s four Black Madonnas and Ralph E. Villalobos’ three heavenly Queens most resemble familiar icons of Mary.  Each of Greenfield’s Black Madonnas is enshrined in a circle on a gold leaf rectangle.  He draws on the history of Black Madonnas, of which more than 400 exist in Europe, many centuries old.  His Madonnas radiate serenity, love and holiness; they are the very seat of new life.  But they starkly contrast with their background scenes, as in Bad Apples, where white supremacists are being killed, an apparent triumph of good juxtaposed with violence.

Ralph E. Villalobos’ relief wood cut-out paintings are clearly taken from Our Lady of Guadalupe or Mary, Queen of Heaven, but he combines them with heroes and bandits of the American West, Aztec and Mayan imagery, and graphic-novel style illustration.  Mary becomes a queen of other religions and cultures and of life and war, as in Reina Sagrada.

Other artists focus more on traditional occupations of mothers, especially creating clothes, embroidery, and braids.  Michele Jaquis’ work centers around handed-down clothing her grandmother made.  Doris Bittar’s intricate paintings recall the linens and patterns from her family’s Beirut home in the early 1960s, which they left before the Lebanese Civil War.  Trenzas, by Carolina Aranibar-Fernandez, is documentation of a large braiding performance piece the artist staged at the U.S./Mexican border.  Braiding is an act of healing in the artist’s Bolivian culture.  Nadia Shihab’s video, Echolocation, deals with the grief, play and transformation of home life in the diaspora.

Christina Fernandez’ installation, Maria’s Great Expedition, is the most narrative piece, with the artist reenacting her grandmother’s migration from Mexico to San Diego.  The installation by Artisans Beyond Borders is the most functional and practical piece in the entire show.  The collective, initiated by Valarie Lee James, provide fabric and thread to migrant women stranded in Mexico, awaiting asylum in the U. S.  The materials enable them to embroider small mantas or decorative panels, six of which were in the exhibition and are for sale on Etsy. The proceeds are income that goes directly to these women in political limbo.

This exhibition captures the shuffling and recombining of traditional images, cultures and religions that are the results of global migration. While Mary has historically been seen as placeholder for (spiritual) power for Christian women, this show has both narrowed and broadened that scope.  Mary here is the icon for the struggles, pain, heartache, beauty and resilience of all migrating women everywhere.

Closing Reception for MIGRANT MADONNA will be held on Saturday, May 14, 12 – 5 PM.  Artist Walkthrough 3 PM.

SoLA Contemporary
3718 West Slauson Avenue
Los Angeles, CA  90043

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