KN: When you first sent me this piece, I was immediately transfixed. You and I have spoken at length about the archetype of the mother/lover being left out of our female narratives, not regarded as a fully integrative aspect of femininity. Motherhood is relegated to women birthing babies in stories and art, put upon a chaste pedestal to be coddled and adored, but never looked at for its universal connotations, as in, EVERY woman carries the Mother within her at all times. Yaounde Olu’s pen and ink drawing from 1975 encapsulates a larger universal concept of Mother for me. It’s funny that critics call Olu an “Afrofuturist” because she certainly was one, far earlier than that term was coined.
JAS: Transfixed is a good word. I couldn’t stop looking at it the first time I ran across it. I kept seeing something new. The looping circles first and then the spikes! A small dot in the distance coming around and ending up with a baby in a womb-sun with jagged fire on its circumference! That jewel celebrating her third eye! But I think what really caught me was Olu’s drawing captures an invisible experience I’ve felt. She pictures a woman’s thoughts streaming female energetic neuro-imagery, continually birthing life on earth and creating an integral, felt connection to the world. Olu’s “Mother of Worlds” feels both individual and universal. It’s personal but also collective. She elevates a woman’s fecundity to larger meaning, going far beyond a woman giving physical birth. By likening birthing babies to birthing planets, she inserts women into the core of creation in the universe. This is a visionary piece, an inclusive view seeing the feminine psyche birthed into the world and elevating the feminine to full complement with the masculine. A woman is not solely a furrow; she’s a sower of seeds.
KN: I think it’s what Courbet meant with his great grand vagina portrait painting, Origin of the World. All creation stems from the feminine. It is the most fertile place of our communal imagination. In Olu’s depiction, her World Mother reminds me of Kali, that great goddess of creation and destruction. Whether she is in creating mode or destruction mode, she is constantly engaged in this life cycle process of birth, death, and renewal. And it’s all natural. Olu’s balls of fetuses represent this constant cycle of imagination that births all things.
JAS: You may be going alittle overboard with your ‘all’ and ‘most’ but I get your point. Olu’s drawing doesn’t actually show the dark side of Kali unless we take into account the negative outer space surrounding the birthing mother figure. She certainly appears suspended in the unknown space of the Universe where we know stars are exploding into nothingness as often as they’re being born. But, to your point, I agree, the trait of birthing isn’t a trait that “comes” to us women. It’s inherent to the feminine whether in a female or male body. What’s sad is the feminine has historically been shut down and put away in the dark by patriarchal societies. The feminine has been regarded as oppositional and dangerous to male authority. Traditionally the feminine has been defined by softness and relegated subservient to the masculine when it’s actually one of the most powerful forces of nature. There have always been women artists who have put forth images like Olu, but now, as women are taking their place in societies, the feminine is coming into a new kind of recognition and empowerment.
KN: Yes, it’s interesting how the feminine has been kept separate from, rather than an essential companion to, the masculine in our society. Even in the popular Handmaid’s Tale, motherhood was treated as something sacred yet separate from normal society. But the Mother archetype lives in women and men—and like Olu depicts, is a constant birth machine. Every thought is a seed.
JAS: I think this goes back to your opening statement about the way adoration can hide oppression. The servitude hidden in marriage and motherhood has never been lost on women. Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale brought female oppression to light in the 1970s and now it’s pop culture! As I look at Olu’s piece, also from the ’70s, I see a celebration of woman as Mother. Instead of focusing on reactions to oppression, Olu captures the great female energy, the chi of life circling up and around a woman’s head. She visually gives
KN: Isn’t it interesting, when Olu made this piece back in the seventies, her work was often coined science fiction? I find it ironic that the idea of the Mother of Worlds was relegated to
JAS: Well, imagination to reality is a pretty sophisticated idea in spite of all its popularization. There are books telling you “if you think it, it will come true” and movies like Field of Dreams encouraging everyone to “build it and they will come.” But dreaming is one thing and, as you and I both know, giving birth is another. Olu’s piece is a bit dreamy – a woman’s head in the heavens – but any woman who has given birth knows that conception is more than a moment of happenstance in space. Last time I looked, E.T. was still calling home. Awareness of thought may be a beginning of something quite fabulous but the transformation from seed to tree is a long process. But I know, what you’re emphasizing is the respect for a woman’s ideas as truth long overdue.
KN: Exactly. And I like the idea that we are bringing some of those truths to light now, through both old and new stories. It’s time for the collective voice to be shown fully.
JAS: I also like that Olu’s piece brings to mind a time of fertile female activity in the seventies when feminism was first getting its act together and taking it on the road. Women were seeing their ideas taking flight. Female energy was taking form. Women were flying all around doing all kind of things they’d never done in public before, often opening a can of worms. Funny metaphor, the feminist movement as a paradoxical Pandora’s box. So much opportunity but also scary for women so on their own, just out of the box, and also very scary for those being upset by the changes. Olu seems like she was feeling these changes and bringing forth her experience in art. I think of all the women who have broken with convention and faced that big unknown. Their courage is still relevant to where we are now.
KN: I guess the term “Afrofuturist” rings very true about this piece then, very true indeed. There were more women of color running for office in the mid-term elections than ever before. Olu’s vision rolled forward fifty years.