Delita Martin: Conjure
Union for Contemporary Art, Omaha
September 30 through November 20, 2021
By JONATHAN OROZCO, November 2021
The artwork of Delita Martin is monumental and commanding, but not in a manner meant to intimidate a viewer. In fact, they’re welcoming and friendly. For Martin’s solo-exhibition titled “Conjure” at the Union for Contemporary Art in Omaha, Nebraska, the aesthetic impulse is aimed toward color, patterning, and decoration, using techniques like drawing, painting, printmaking, and sewing. Underlying all this is the exploration of neglected histories and the spiritual self.
Jonathan Orozco: Could you tell me about yourself and your practice?
Delita Martin: When I wanted to be an artist, I didn’t really know what that meant, but I was around creative people all my life. My mom, my dad. My father was an oil painter. He also made furniture. Lots of quiltmakers in my family. Lots of story tellers, writers, poets, so creating was something that I witnessed on a daily basis. When I was like, “I’m going to be an artist, and I’m going to go to art school”, no one batted an eye because it was totally acceptable in my family, so everyone was very encouraging.
I went to Texas Southern University where I got my undergraduate degree, went to Perdue and got my graduate degree in printmaking, and I taught at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock for, I want to say six years, and decided to stop around 2013-2014, that time frame. I decided to go into the studio full time and I’ve been in Black Box Press ever since then. My studio became my full-time job, which is amazing. It was probably one of the best decisions I made to go into the studio full time. It was quite a transition, but it was worth it.
JO: For this exhibition, why did you title your series “Conjure”? It invokes magic, spirituality, cosmology, similar to the artist Renée Stout whose practice is ethereal.
DM: My artwork is about spirituality. I’m very interested in how we as black women become the spiritual other. When we think about spirituality as humans, I feel we need something to grasp onto. It’s sometimes difficult to process certain concepts, like when you talk about religion.
I was raised Baptist and you talk about Christ and God, and you need a visual. I felt it was my responsibility to figure out what we look like when we transition into our spiritual other, like how when we go into prayer, when we go into meditation; how do we transition into that spiritual side of who we are, how do I make that visual?
In the backgrounds of my works, you see floral patterns and textures. When I think about a spiritual space, when I think about what I call a “veilscape”, that’s what they are for me. That’s what the patterns and the colors and the textures are. When you look at the women, and how they go in and out of this pattern, it's referencing how we marry and connect into those spaces. When I think about areas, there’s this conflict between colors or patterns, and then in other areas, they’re married together beautifully: there’s this smooth transition, but for me, that talks about the struggle we have with spirituality a lot of times.
The reason the show is titled “Conjure”, I was thinking about each of the pieces being a conjure, of being a moment when you cast a spell, or you transition into a spiritual space. For example, the mason jars you see in the work; my grandmother used to keep jars all the time. She kept all these things with her. When you look into history of voodoo and indigenous African cultures, they use what they call conjure jars, and in these jars, they would place personal items in order to cast spells, some good some bad.
My grandmother kept buttons, little perfume jars, and all sorts of little knickknacks. Well, she had a story for each of those items in these jars, and she would pour all the contents out and she would tell me stories about these objects. I realized now that she was conjuring memory.
What I began to associate early on is the relationship that people have with objects, so the objects that you see in my work are vocabulary in a sense, because they help tell the story of women who are in my work. I hang onto them as long as they’re relevant to the conversation, and once they become irrelevant, I strike the plate and move onto other things.
JO: What about the subjects that you depict? They’re portrayed as serene, yet monumental and exalted.
DM: That’s intentional. The works are very large scale, and scale is intentional in my work. For one, it changes the conversation, so when you walk into a room and there’s this six-foot image of a woman, it changes the space. Are you the viewer, or are you being viewed? It switches that conversation.
You’re talking about women that have been marginalized throughout history. When I walk into a museum, historically, you didn’t see people like me, people with my skin color; black women depicted as being beautiful in their natural state, their natural hair, their locks, their hair being plaited up. This was something that was never seen as beautiful, so I want to show that in my work.
The women in this work are friends of mine. I put out a call and we had zoom meetings and I showed people how to pose. I don’t need the exact pose, but I need them to be comfortable and I needed that to come across in the imagery, but it was really about how magical and spiritual women are.
JO: What about the silhouette figures in your work?
DM: For a very long time, the women that you saw in my work were really a compilation of many women, so no one person actually posed for the work. As of recently these are actual women that have posed for this work because I became interested in what does it really look like for myself and for women that I know to interreact with the spirit world. The shadow figures you see in the work are the spirit world, those are our ancestors, those are the sprits that are around us. I wanted to see what that would look like and that’s how the shadow figures became part of the work.
JO: Is there anything else viewers should know when they look at your work?
DM: I like to think the work is very universal.
Even though these are portraits of black women, people across gender and racial lines can all relate to this work. We’ve all seen these objects and have some sort of relationship with them. I’ve been witnessed to millions of those conversations where people can come up to the work, and they see a pattern or a color that evokes something; that’s the important part of the work. At that point, I know as an artist I’ve done what I’m supposed to do. I’ve been able to pull you into the work so we can have a greater conversation about what’s happening. WM
Jonathan Orozco is an independent writer based in Omaha, Nebraska. He received his art history BA from the University of Nebraska Omaha in 2020. Orozco runs an art blog called Art Discourses, which primarily covers Midwest artists and exhibitions.view all articles from this author