Simultaneously celebrating African culture and inspiring multicultural pride, clay busts appearing to float on a sea of fabric create a colorful break from a bleak Elm City winter.
“Breaking the Silence: The Spiritual Journey of Imna Arroyo,” an art exhibit focusing on the artist’s encounter with black heritage and culture, opened this Sunday at the John Slade Ely House on 51 Trumbull St. From floating, handmade cast molds of African deities to woodcut-printed silks associated with African spirituality, the artwork balances modern techniques and traditional themes. Arroyo has created several mixed-media pieces which resemble traditional African art in style and subject matter by incorporating many different materials, including a television, into her work.
Although her work is rooted in African spirituality and culture, Ely House curator Gail Gelburd said its conceptual nature asks the viewer to bring his or her own past into an understanding of the work.
“[Arroyo’s artwork] is technically masterful but also very conceptually based,” Gelburd said. “This is not just about seeing the image, but experiencing the image, participating in the image.”
The exhibition immediately engages the gallery-goer by its proximity to the gallery entrance. Progressing through the five installations, the viewer encounters various facets of African culture and history in the art. The exhibition’s message is a didactic one, in which the art-appreciator not only passively views the work but also learns about African history, spirituality and customs.
In the mixed-media work “Ancestral Passage,” 27 busts of highly glossed clay sitting amid pieces of blue and green represent the many Africans who died during the Middle Passage coming from Africa to the Americas to be traded as slaves.
“[The work is] inspired by those ancestors that died in the Middle Passage and are coming up to remind us of our gifts,” Arroyo said.
Other pieces explore African spirituality. A collection of disembodied heads made of handmade paper relief prints represent African deities that protect their coming generations if worshipped; another set of installations celebrates the West African goddess of creation and fertility, Yemayá.
Jeff Brown ’09, who attended the exhibit’s opening, said he appreciated the show’s educational nature because it helps people learn about cultures and experiences different from their own.
“Being from the Caribbean myself, I like to see how people up here are being educated by my culture,” Brown said. “Some people here don’t know about the Middle Passage — a typical Yale student wouldn’t know specifics about it.”
But Gelburd said the exhibit is meant to also act as an inspiration for all types of people to recognize, celebrate and further explore their own heritages.
“In a quest to know ourselves, we must delve beneath the surface to find the source of the hushed secrets and forgotten memories that comprise that narrative,” Gelburd said. “[Arroyo] has used her work to express the profound richness of her heritage and the issues the confront her gender.”
One installation of the exhibition is an altar that the artist used to invite everyone present to write a prayer to their ancestors.
“Today is a day of acknowledgement,” Arroyo said.
The exhibition opening celebrated Afro-Caribbean heritage on many levels, offering Caribbean foods and featuring African drum music played by a local group. Many local community members, family members of the artist and some Yale students participated in the opening of the exhibition.
Arroyo was born in Guayama, Puerto Rico, and is formally trained as a printmaker. She is currently a professor of art at Eastern Connecticut Sate University, where she chairs the Visual Arts Department.
The exhibit, produced in collaboration with the New Haven Public Schools Comprehensive Arts Program, will be open until March 4.