Obatala female incarnation in the future. Created by Gracie Berry, circa 2019.
Peace beautiful people! My name is Gracie Nicole Berry. I’m West Afrikan born in North Philadelphia Pennsylvania. I was raised by a fire house group of traditional “root healers” or “root doctors” depending on where you’re from. African Ancestry describes my mitochondrial descendants as a “haplogroup” that originated in Ghana then migrating to Sierra Leone before being stolen to Haiti to Norway South Carolina to Charlotte North Carolina before settling in Philadelphia. My mother’s side not only taught us the essentials of living off the land, but the lifelong lesson of honoring our descended ancestors in all the many ways we can while earthside.
As a child I was fascinated by the rituals I witnessed. I once saw my great gram Freda heal a man that rented a room in my grem Grace house from gout. Great grem Freda, grem Grace, grem Grace’s husband, and one of my great uncles used 2 large sacks of potatoes, corn liquor, grease-that smelled like cows poop and peppermint oil, and loud, intentional prayers, and humming. All of the swelling that had once deformed his lower legs and feet were gone by morning. A moment in time that further shaped my visual understanding of what it meant to work with roots. The shortest moment in time, felt like an eternity and it what they did worked. As they kept watch throughout the night. I sat crouched in a corner watching through where the door hinged. Candles kept the room dimly lit enough to see what was going on. I remember that poor old man tossing and turning, moaning in pain like he was drunk in his sleep, sweat from his body glistened and seemed to soak through puddles on the sheets. As day break I was sleepy, but could see that the potatoes that hung above the doorway, around the bed, and encased his legs and feet literally shrunk down to prune sized balls in front of my very eyes. I just knew it was a miracle that that old man didn’t have scary elephant looking legs and feet anymore. No one was permitted to touch the potato droppings accept for my uncle who swept them into a pile on a piece of cardboard, emptied the contents into two large paper bags and left at my great grem Fredas instruction to bury the bags.
My great grem Freda May in her younger years.
My great grem was known for moving throughout the community using practical and spiritual gifts passed down through many generations. She, my grem, and several aunts and uncles could also see and speak to ancestors and foresee things before they happened. They healed so many people in and round our community in miraculous ways. And somehow me and my cousins manage to hold both inherited and learned spiritual gifts like that of conjuring, veneration of the departed, using herbs as medicine, and channeling the elements out in nature.
It’s empowering to know the spiritual fortitude I come from-that flows in my DNA-one of the main reasons I choose to center my Blackness, un-apologetically before any of the margins. You may wonder what centering Blackness looks like…well for me, it reminds me of mindfulness meditation for Black folks. It’s become as natural as breathing. In a world where living while Black can literally cost us our lives. Where capitalism, patriarchy, and racial micro-aggression’s plague every facet of our worldly experience with or without our consent. Centering myself as a Black woman first and foremost helps me to choose what’s best for me always.
Prior to discovering my mother’s west Afrikan ancestry in 2018, themes of healing, identity, and sexuality have been prevalent in my personal history and artistic development. Passions cultivated during my undergraduate studies at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the first degree granting, historically black college/university. Lincoln University’s very inception inspired me to dive deeper into my cultural lineage through the arts and to encourage others to do the same. To unpack parts of history our ancestors had long stowed away. To break generational trauma. My family of origin and community continue to be a great source of growth, pride, and self-discovery. I want any of the art I create to be steeped in truth. To inspire. To evoke all types of feelings. To energize. To interrogate systems of oppression. To renegotiate narratives as they relate to Black bodies and spaces.
If you get down to the exhibit, share your experience and hashtag so I can find you: #girlrillavintage #shadowkeepersandroothealers #shadowkeepersandroothealerstheoriginalogs
-In Warmest Sol,
SHADOWKEEPERS & ROOTHEALERS “THE ORIGINAL OG’S” An homage and Afro-futurist altar to Obatala, Olokun and Orunmila, three of the eldest Orisha Gods from the Yoruba religion in West Afrika, involved in the creation of the universe, included are ancestors that have radically nourished, transformed and sustained the lives of those in the Afrikan Diaspora throughout the world.
I can’t begin acknowledgments of my experience as a station case artist at Lancaster’s Amtrak Station without first recognizing Ogun, the Orisha of iron and metalworkers. Ogun, aligns with all of the ancestors that were involved in building American and international railway systems that afford us the luxury of railway travel today. To the Pullman Porters, Black men and women who were often overworked, underpaid and racially defiled while fighting for their human right to exist. To those passengers of Afrikan descent that experienced segregated railway cars and unspeakable violence, those that lost their lives in struggle, and to those ancestors whose eternal flame will never burn out from the trail they’ve set ablaze in their fight toward freedom.
As a creative, community educator, and womanist my senses are often inundated with a ton of information. This particular project stretched me in ways I never understood before. The Public Art application phase, alone was daunting (well maybe not as daunting as single-handedly gluing hundreds of small shells onto large sculptures), but the written process was damn good practice in how to chronicle my creative accomplishments.
Researching the ancestors and Orisha triggered thoughts about how magnificent and powerful the Yoruba community is all over the world. Ancestors, books, dialogues, and research all influenced my visual works you see here today. Yoruba devotees, know that I’m still finding my way and have so much more to learn, but I’m happy to be welcomed in to do the work.
All of the Orisha sculptures you see are my personal, artistic depictions of a futuristic nature. I sited all references that helped me and maybe helpful to you at the end of this blog. Being an creative as well as an old soul, I wanted to create fresh images that highlight the power and influences of the eldest Orisha pantheon that may not be as popular as some of the other deities, but paved the way due to the jobs they were assigned to do on earth. You’ll notice the use of cowrie shells on several pieces in all sorts of shapes, symbols, and patterns. My idea was to convey “portals” or “wormhole” like projections all over their bodies with the cowrie shells serving as a conduit to connect us to deeper spiritual meaning and conciousness.
During meditation and dream states, I tapped into energy that surpassed 5th dimensional time and space. Ultimately, the Yoruba religion feels the most like home to me. And I trust that this exhibition will feel like home to you. That it will honor and uplift your spirits, ancestor, lineage, no matter how you feel about it.
Aside, I want to add that the presence of cowrie shells in my work is synonymous to many things, but mainly a sense of abundance, power and vastness of the ocean and water in general. How limitless it would be to re-imagine, not only our skin, but the totality of our ascension beyond the flesh. Nigerian philosopher, writer, activist, professor of psychology Bayo Akomolafe reminds us that, “We like water are homeless.” Because water as he describes it, in its entanglement, its fluidity, its porousness, serves as an invitation to deconstruct oneself over and over again, to shape shift. Think about the oneness that takes place between the mortal and immortal in the pouring of ancestral libation. And how it’s not simply to remember our ancestors, but is a way to reconfigure ourselves and our members over and over.
Shadowkeepers & Roothealers “The Original OG’s” serves as an invitation to those from all walks of life to go beyond what is simply in front of them. To go beyond the physical form and experience. To go beyond the call and response narrative. Beyond solutions. Beyond duality. To listen without ears. To see without eyes. To conceive that we are more alike than we are different despite how colonization tries to separate us at every junction. We exist. We are the space between the stars. We come from ancestors that never left us. We come from someplace.
AFRO-FUTURISM AND SPIRITUALITY WHILE RE-IMAGINING TECHNOLOGY
I find myself seeking truth in all areas of my life. I give myself permission to redefine things meant to harm or hinder me. One of my dearest friends and mentors lovingly calls me, “Crossaline” because she knows that if there is ever a line that teeters on the edge of injustice I will cross the line of struggle for understanding, for liberation.
The term Afrofuturism dates back to the 1990’s, but is not really new in terms of civilization. In fact the concept is quite ancient or “Afrodiasporic”. Evidence of an “Afrikan future” can be linked to northeast Afrika, the ancient Egyptian Pyramids of Giza. One of the most incredible achievements on the face of the earth from the hands of ancient humankind to this day. It’s fascinating to know that ancient Afrikans built something so long ago that no modern human or technology, scholar has ever been able to reproduce. Remember, we come from someplace.
Afro-futurist works and theories in essence are steeped in connecting past, present, and future unlike many mainstream techno-culture and science-fiction works and theories that more often deny the past and blur lines of present and future. I see color and infinite possibility. I see us as spiritual beings having a human experience. I see a collective consciousness, coming to the edge of our own truths, honoring each other and our ancestors. I see us organizing in a myriad of ways. After all the very nature of Afro-futurism involves a deep honoring of ancestors and ancient societies. Moreover, how it celebrates movements that fight to acknowledge, empower, and humanize people of Afrikan descent.
WEST AFRIKAN MYTHOLOGY
My exhibit focuses on Afrikan Mythology because of all the spiritual paths it offers the most sophisticated understanding of creation and humanity. It permeates Cameroon, Benin, Gambia, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone just to name a few, and it has journeyed throughout the Afrikan holocaust Maafa to Brasil, Cuba, Guyana, Haiti, Trinidad, South American and other Caribbean countries. Yoruba traditions are rich in artistic fables and creation truths, and offers a pantheon of Orishas (gods and goddesses). It serves in similar ways that angels do in Christianity, Islamic and Jewish religions. For example, Olodumare ranks as the highest Orisha because he is the God of all creation by giving living beings their very breath. He crafted the universe inside a calabash and is as highly regarded as Brahma is to Hinduism’s or Elohim to the Christian ethos. Lastly, Dr. Jacob Olupona, a Nigerian professor, reminds us that, “Afrikan spirituality simply acknowledges that beliefs and practices touch on and inform every facet of human life, and therefore cannot be separated from the everyday or mundane.”
SHADOWKEEPERS THE ELDEST ORISHA
As I mentioned early on, I wanted to highlight the eldest Orisha. Given my theme of Afrofuturerism my focus was to focus on gender ambiguity of 2/3 of the Orisha as well as all of the prominent historical components that make them who they are. I sought Orisha that represented a world I could envision myself living in. Some sources both scholarly and spiritual pointed to Obatala being female, male or neither while others defined him as one or the other. Also, despite historical origins, women as well as men can be initiated to Obatala. One of the books I read examines deities to include that of Obatala. It further discusses some of the transformations experienced both in their Yoruba homeland and in the Americas.
To be transparent, I don’t fully understand why spirit charged me with creating a female incarnate of Obatala, but I’m very proud. I interpreted the information both as a creative, scholar and spiritual being, after extensive research. I think Obatala bringing forth femininity is sort of profound timing, given the harsh, male dominated political climate we live in today. Also, the fact that there is so much more work to be done to bridge commonalities over the differences in much of the oral traditions in the Yoruba spiritual community. It makes my journey toward a healthy Yoruba practice even more meaningful.
According to oral traditions in ancient Ile Ifa, an ancient Yoruba city in south-western Nigeria Obatala’ is said to have an equal number of male paths as female paths. There for Obatala does not have a permanent gender incarnation and can be male, female or neither. Oba meaning king, Obatala is the king of the white cloth and the creator of all humankind. Obatala is known by their crown. Obatala is married to Yemonja, the goddess of life at the top of the ocean and the godmother of Orishas. This makes Obatala the god of all human beings without regard to gender. Obatala is revered for justice, truth, peace, and purity. Much like the image of Jesus, Obatala is the child of God Olodumare also known as Olorun. Olorun, permitted Obatala to descend from the heavens, create land over the waters, and mold human bodies from popo (mud and clay). In most spiritual traditions, God shows compassion because the human being errs; in Yoruba tradition, Obatala shows compassion because they themselves have erred.
Obatala as female pathway. Created by Gracie Berry circa 2019. Photo by Shelby Wormley.
OLOKUN the people of southwestern Benin describe them as one of the most commanding Orisha and is respected as an authority over all other water deities. Olokun worship is especially noted in the cities of the Eco People in southwest Nigeria. In West African areas directly adjacent to the coast, Olokun takes a male form among his worshipers while in the hinterland, Olokun is a female deity. Olokun’s name is derived from the word “Olo” meaning “owner”, and “Okun” meaning “ocean”. Olokun is the owner of all deep, dark water at the bottom of the ocean. They hold the key to all the mysteries in the ocean and for what happened to our ancestors on those fateful journeys during Maafa across the Atlantic Ocean. They possess unmatched wisdom, governs over dreams, wealth, prosperity, meditation and healing past, present and future.
Olokun as female pathway. Created by Gracie Berry circa 2019. Photo by Shelby Wormley.
ORUNMILA the people of southwestern Nigeria describe him as a prophet and oldest son of Olorun-ruler of the sky, creator of the sun. Orunmila is a master spiritualist who sees all and knows all. He holds the gift of wisdom and divination. He was present both at the beginning of creation and then again amongst the people as a prophet. Orunmila taught an advanced form of spiritual knowledge and ethics called Odu Ifa, during visits to earth in physical form or through his disciples. He is a prophet and maker of miracles and speaks to us through his disciples.
Orunmila created by Gracie Berry circa 2019. Photo by Shelby Wormley.
ROOTHEALERS OUR BELOVED ANCESTORS
MAMA UBUNTU “HUMANESS” is the first of four dream inspired pieces from my first installment series AfrikanFace: Autochthonous Blood & Bone. Mama Ubuntu symbolizes the resilience of Winnie Mandela and many others during the wake of apartheid in South Afrika. She is a home (literally with each hanging from her waist) to those people of Afrikan descent who aren’t as well known in history, but without them the world wouldn’t be the same. They not only died in struggle, but kept the fight for freedom and justice alive.
- Afeni Shakur
- Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin
- Amiri Baraka
- Audrey Lorde
- Catherine obianuju Acholono
- Edgar Daniel Nixon
- George Schuyler
- Georgia Gilmore
- Imam Abdullah Haron
- James Baldwin
- Kwame Ture
- Marielle Franco
- Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson
- Ntozake Shange
- Otavia Butler
- Patrice Lumumba
- Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu
- Steve Biko
- Sun Ra
- Theodor Wonja Michael
- Thomas Sankara
- Tony Morrison
- Toussaint Louverture
- Zora Neale Hurston
AUSA UHSA “ITS RAINING” the second of four dream inspired pieces from my first installment series AfrikanFace: Autochthonous Blood & Bone. She was created to honor the people of Malakula Vanautu, a group of east Afrikans that migrated to northeast Australia, better known as the Mbotgate people where it is hot, rainy, and humid for most of the year.
BIYAHA “WATER” the third of four dream inspired pieces from my first installment series Afrikan Face: Autochthonous Blood & Bone. Biyaha honors deities of the ocean Olokun and Yemonja. How they lead those ancestors that perished at sea find their way during ascension at the middle passage.
ZINA “SECRET SPIRIT” the last of four dream inspired pieces in my first installment series Afrikan Face: Autochthonous Blood & Bone. Zina is an ode to my younger self. The spirit and physical manifestation I imagined myself to be.
EGUNGUN “MASQUERADE OF ANCESTOR REVERENCE” my Egungun was constructed for the purpose of honoring those you see here today. Given the deeply secretive and spiritual nature of the Egungun spirits, I felt called to ask my ancestors for permission. They gave me the go ahead after only one night and one prayer. Conjuring an Egungun was the most difficult part of my journey because I had to dig deep to find authentic resources. My friends, family and two cats engage the Egungunin ways that let me know that his ancestral power is activated.
Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi And Fantasy Culture by Ytasha L. Womack
Obatala: The Greatest and Oldest Divinity by Olayinka Adewuyi
Olokun of the Galaxy by Esther Iverem
On the Orishas’ Roads and Pathways: Obatalá, Odúa, Oduduwá by Miguel W. Ramos
Powers of the Orishas: Santeria & The Worship of Saints by Migene Gonzalez Wippler
The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts by Baba If a Karade
The Way of the Orisa : Empowering Your Life Through the Ancient African Religion of Ifa by Philip Neimark and Philip J. Neimark
Yoruba-Speaking People’s of the Slave Coast of West Africa: Their Religion, Manners, Customs, Lawd, Etc. (Forgotten Books) by A.B. Ellis
Joseph Baba Ifa-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I2-mheArnwk
Ogunda Meji 9-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOg14RZe50g&t=21s
Orunmila: Witness to All Choice of Destiny-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2cgfWZnAa8
Who is Obatala-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EcNe0i1Vcs
Who is Olokun-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGokjxjFgVY
Afrofuturism: Everything and Nothing