Blackness in Art, the Nigredo and BLM

I wanted to write about something else that was on my to-do list for my next post, but it wouldn’t come. The poignancy, horror and upheaval in the United States during the nationwide protests against police brutality are too much on my mind. So when I considered writing about the portrayal of Black people in my work, I felt motivated to write. 

Love Nest, 2019

When I started working with alchemy, I studied the various stages of the alchemical process, and a crucial one is called nigredo in Latin. Not a problematic word in itself, it means “the blackening” and refers to the blackening of the alchemical matter prior to it turning to gold. It is a pivotal stage where all is returned to the earth and transmuted, in a sort of death and rebirth. In alchemical engravings of the Renaissance period, artists often used figures to represent mental concepts, and so when I was reinterpreting them for a contemporary audience, I did the same. I painted women in bridal gowns for the albedo, a fireman for the rubedo and I used a Black person for the nigredo. I made the mistake of using images from the internet, as I had recently moved to Quebec and didn’t have any models at the time. In this piece, I was also trying to portray the sacred hermaphrodite, so I painted a Black transwoman. In various studio visits I was told this is problematic, as not only did I not know this person, I didn’t ask permission to paint her. I repainted the image with the permission of a dear friend of mine, Stephanie who I painted several times in recent years. Stephanie was born in Haiti and immigrated to Montreal when she was young. I had her wearing a strap-on to convey the harmony of male and female aspects within the nigredo.

Thy Fearful Symmetry, 2017

Is it problematic for a white artist to paint a Black person, especially a nude, in an erotic painting? When is it objectifying? When is it regressing to the type of portraying the Other that artists such as Gauguin were famous for? In the studio visits in Montreal, I was also advised to do so by portraying Stephanie in all her humanity and individuality, and I tried my best to do so. It really does look like her, if an alarmed and bizarre version of her. In the painting, she is supposed to be looking so alert because she just woke up, in the mystical sense. The angel in the background (is he Lucifer?) is watching over the process. I wish I had more Black artists as friends, and that at that time I could have asked them for their feedback. I remember when I was taking the photos for the painting of Stephanie she was getting very frustrated because I was anxious about certain poses seeming too submissive or disempowered. She said it is racist that people just can’t see a beautiful woman, they have to see her race first. But I know Black people are not a monolith, they wouldn’t all have the same opinion about a white woman painting them nude. 

Watching, Waiting, Waking, 2017

More recently, on sex work Twitter, I had a conversation with a fellow Black performer who was asking herself if she thought she wanted white artists to portray Black people so that they would be represented, or if she thought that they should avoid doing so. The discussion wasn’t conclusive, but the majority believed it needed to be on a case by case basis to see if it was done in an exploitative or respectful way.

My first alchemical painting where the nigredo makes an appearance was a crossover painting between two series. The Bloody Brides and The Alchemical Furnace. Unfortunately, my foolish white privilege didn’t allow me to see what I was doing when I put on blackface for the painting, so it will probably never be shown publicly or sold. I was just thinking of a mask and representing a character who represented that stage of alchemy, at the time I wasn’t thinking of a Black person at all. The blackface aspect of myself is rescuing the bloody bride (also myself), or carrying her body away from a murder scene. I welcome discussions on this topic especially from POC and Black people in particular.

Albedo, Rubedo, Nigredo, 2011

The Alchemical Furnace

These paintings were inspired by the powerful and wonderfully weird alchemical engravings of the 17th century, as well as my interest in Carl Jung’s work on the subject. The act of figurative painting itself is alchemy—mixing pigments with oils and making an image designed to trick the eye and seduce the viewer.  Although the bulk of these works use Northern Renaissance engravings as a starting point, their process is contemporary; the application of paint is immediate and expressive, and the colours are hallucinatory and strong. They are painted from a blending of my imagination and found images collaged together with my own photoshoots, largely with intimates and close friends. These works are a dreamscape fraught with the tension of self-transformation, and the sense that the characters themselves are about to wake. The themes of gender, sexuality as well as personal stories also help bring the subject into the 21st century.

To the mystics, alchemy was not about turning base metal into literal gold. It was about transcending the lower nature or using it as a catalyst for the transfiguration of the self. It was about self-realization, or psychological wholeness, as expounded by Jung. The nigredo, or blackening, is a stage of the alchemical process which is about death and decay, the shadow and the dark period which necessarily must come before the light can break, while the rubedo stage, the reddening, is when the impurities begin to be burned away through the heat of fire. In alchemy, Mercury, or the red man, is often present for this part of the process. The albedo, whitening, is when purification occurs—often shown in my work as a bride—and the final stage is citrinitas, the yellowing, when the gold emerges. With this stage comes the alchemist’s gold and goal, but this body of work celebrates the process of life in all stages, the individual’s part in self-creation, and the role of the artist as maker and thaumaturge, or alchemist. 

In this body of work, the characters are largely transpersonal and archetypal, often mythical. Feelings of sexual tension and danger are often present in my work, for they represent the powers and forces which drive us to create, the generative power which brings transformation and renewal. These dream-like narratives reveal the various incarnations of the many-faceted self. 

My project is a collection of works bringing the ideas behind alchemy into a contemporary light, full of hallucinatory colour and psychological implications. While the women in my paintings are nude, they are not sex objects, far from it, they are powerful, self-actualized women in process of transformation. They are open, free, growing and in tune with their sexuality, or whatever they wish to express. For me, in painting the purpose is the process, the joy of creation and discovery, traces of energy and life. It can be as simple as that. I want to create paintings that are as mysterious and puzzling as life is. My wish is for the viewer to be intrigued by the images, to enjoy their mystery and to potentially revel in seeing new aspects to them as long as they care to look.