In 2014, for International Women’s Day, Jamaican entrepreneur and artist Kristie Stephenson launched her first guerrilla, street art exhibit, sprinkling the streets of Kingston, Jamaica with her Black Madonna statues.
A storyteller by nature, Kristie’s goal was to evoke thought about the role of women in society. But, she also wanted to pay homage to the many murdered and displaced women who were victims of domestic violence, while using the Black Madonna as a symbol of power and protection against perpetrators.
Strategically placed at a few locations amidst the hustle and bustle of the city’s streets, the Black Madonnas induced mixed reactions that included reverence, fear and love for the artistry itself. Some saw the pieces’ dark skin and vibrant red cloak as representative of witchcraft and Obeah, a spiritual practice with African roots, thought of as Jamaica’s version of Voodoo. On the flip side, others were mesmerized by the sudden placement of powerful, stunning art.
Either way, Kristie’s first attempt at street art had begun to unravel much needed discussion on topics ranging from spirituality, to race, violence and women’s role in society. As a symbol of warrior-like strength and protection, Kristie surely doesn’t mind the fear induced by her Black Madonnas, which is meant to symbolically safeguard women against potential attackers. She also relishes those who are taken aback by the beauty of the Black Madonnas, as a representation of the too often uncelebrated magnificence of Jamaican women, in the predominantly black nation.
To top it off, last month in Kingston at a One Billion Rising event, Eve Ensler, a modern-day matriarch in the fight for women’s rights, the founder of the global One Billion Rising movement, and presenter at that Kingston event, was introduced to the Black Madonnas. She immediately fell in love and has ordered pieces. For the artist, this, of course, is an exceptional nod of being on the right track.
Here’s what Kristie had to say about the Black Madonna project…
DM: What is the story behind the Black Madonnas?
KS: I was inspired by Black Madonnas found throughout European churches, yet I could find any in Jamaica. I did more research and found out that the original inspiration for the Madonna and Child was taken from Egyptians. The early church modeled Mary holding Jesus from the Egyptian Goddess Isis holding her son Horus. The image we have of Mary today was a rendition by a European painter who had either a family member or friend pose. When I moved back to Jamaica in 2011, media articles on Mother’s Day would feature an expat, billboards advertising beauty products and print media would feature European ideals of beauty, or feature a small demographic of the island. I wanted to do something that represented pride in black women’s beauty, and set it within a Christian context, since Jamaica is a devout Christian country.
DM: How does this project speak to what’s currently happening in Jamaica in relation to violence against women?
KS: This project is to remind the diaspora of The Mother, Mother Earth, The First Mother and the Mother’s Water we all lived in at one point. It is also harking back to the origin, the displaced and oppressed had to hide their religious practices behind the oppressor’s religion. The term is known as syncretism. She is a symbol of hope, compassion and love. Her story is still alive. She was always with her people; she travelled with our ancestors showing up in the folklore and in rhythm. She ultimately is the Mary found in the Catholic churches. She is sending a message that she is here, she sees what is happening and she wants people to wake up. Hurt people, hurt people. The violence that is happening is not just in Jamaica, but is a worldwide epidemic. One in three women will experience violence in their lifetime. My goal is for a more aware Jamaica. A shift is happening, as there are quite a few local violence against women and children campaigns happening in the Caribbean. In Trinidad there’s #LeaveSheAlone. In Jamaica there’s #RespectandProtect and #WearBlack.
DM: What is the message you hope to convey through this work?
KS: Love, Compassion, Hope and Value. I want people to value themselves and others, and realize their self worth, especially the demographic majority of the islands.
DM: What kind of feedback have you received from people who are impacted by the Black Madonnas?
KS: Initially people in Jamaica see Obeah, the black arts and evil. But growing up in a colonial setting any thing ‘other’ was evil, of the devil, and this determination is reached without looking into what the ‘other’ actually is. However, interestingly, where the Black Madonna is currently located in Jamaica, a concrete triangular slab with a street sign and two vendors – a newspaper vendor and a cigarette stand – When she was first placed, it was just a concrete slab, but now there is a garden around her… Someone broke through the concrete slab and added soil and plants. I went to replace her last year as she was damaged and one of the vendors said he loved Mary and promised to take care of her. For Mothers Day one year, bougainvilleas were tied around her, and she looked like she was holding a bouquet of flowers. Persons outside of Jamaica recognize her as The Mother. For the most part it is positive. In a country where the majority of the demographic is black, they are looking back at an image they don’t see in the island church.
For more information on Kristie Stephenson’s Black Madonna project
email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.