Essay – Incarcerated Artists

Nubian Madonna, 2020

“Nubian Madonna” by Lamavis Comundoiwilla

     Lamavis Comundoiwilla’s painting ‘Nubian Madonna’ shows the upper torso of a haloed Black woman massively adorned with dense patterns of beads, jewels, golden pendent discs, and textiles. She is positioned in front of a wall of richly textured and variegated tiles, which intensifies the sense of her situated within many intricately patterned webs. She looks to her right, and her tears have formed a single large pool just under her left eye, and from which a single tear travels straight down the edge of her cheek, while her right eye is dry and clear. What sort of being, paradoxically split so, simultaneously weeps and stays vigilant? Then there’s a second paradox: the head must have been immobile for an extended period for the pool of tears to form, yet the pendant ear decorations swing to the right, as if she has just jerked her head away from the viewer in order to look to her left. What is Comundoiwilla aiming at in offering this impossible scene?

     ‘Nubian Madonna’ is situated at the intersection of two great artistic thematic traditions on authority. The first and most evident is the tradition of the Mater Dolorosa, the sorrowing Mother Mary who weeps for her crucified son Jesus. Most typically Mary is shown haloed against a golden background signifying Heaven. The golds of the halo and the background indicate that the divinized woman and the sacred realm are consubstantial. Comundoiwilla marks the same kind of identity of substance in highlighting a single golden tile on the right, rendered in the same manner as the halo.

     But what of the peculiar combination of stasis and movement in the weeping head? One must reflect. Mary is among other things the Queen of Heaven. What sort of efficacy does she possess? The peculiar impotence of royalty is a motif perhaps most vividly elaborated in a number of West African polities (for a vivid example, see Ousmane Sembene’s film Ceddo). The king is highly adorned, so much so that his movement is restricted. Under certain ritual circumstances, he may not be allowed to walk and must be carried, and may not be allowed to speak except to a single interlocutor. In those cases, and under that conception, adornment is confinement. The king is a paradoxical being, in one sense the most powerful of humans, in others the most restricted. Although West Africa is far from Nubian, perhaps Comundoiwilla nonetheless invokes here something of this sense of impotent power. The Madonna weeps, but can do nothing but turn her head to gaze upon another pitiable scene. Who is liberated, who incarcerated?

— John Rapko