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A Jamaican Painter Traces Her History with Coffee and Emeralds

The Bronx-and-Tampa-based painter Ya Levy La'ford creates cyclical patterns to recall historical narratives.
April 26, 2017, 2:41pm
Pygmies, 116x28”, (acrylic, ink, pigment, glue, alcohol, egg, bleach), heat, resin, natural weathering

Green, vaguely humanoid creatures dance and reach for each other in Ya Levy La'ford's painting, Les Trois Danseuses – Homage to Berber. Though there are six figures in total, their implied movement makes them appear in multiples. They're barely visible, peeking through transparent swaths of white paint raked with ley lines that, too, seem to move. The dancers are present but vague, fading into the piece and emerging again, like memories. This unusual reference to Picasso's work of the same name is part of Sublimations: Ancestral Patterns, La'ford's fifth and largest solo exhibition to date, which opened at Yeelen Gallery in Little Haiti, Miami, this past weekend.

Les Trois Danseuses - Homage to Berber, 72x54", (acrylic, ink, pigment, glue, alcohol, egg, bleach), heat, resin, natural weathering

It's appropriate that Sublimations coincides with John Dunkley's exhibition, Neither Day nor Night, at the Pérez Art Museum Miami—Dunkley is La'ford's grandfather, and La'ford has long paid homage to her ancestral narrative and childhood memories. Born in the Bronx and raised between New York and Jamaica, La'ford recalls utilizing the landscape to make her work, her very history becoming a medium in its own right. "As a child in Jamaica, I started to explore mixing sand, stones, and making colors with minerals, leaves, flowers, and other unusual materials," she explains. In Sublimations, La'ford's mesmerizing, geometric shapes are bright gradients, fading from deep earth tones into beige and white, forming patterns like mazes and maps. The patches of color are thick with materials like "wax, rabbit glue, egg, bleach, curry, coffee, chocolate, ginger, tea, ackee, hibiscus, west Indian Jasmine, Jamaican black castor oil, blue mountain soap, gold dust, and Colombian emeralds," refined into pigments and stained into the canvas. "My materials are a direct response to the past, present, and future," she says.

Yoruba, 72x54", (acrylic, ink, pigment, glue, alcohol, egg, bleach), heat, resin, natural weathering

Samburu, 72x54", (acrylic, ink, pigment, glue, alcohol, egg, bleach), heat, resin, natural weathering

Beyond the earthen materiality of the work, there's a transcendent magic. Stare long enough, allowing your eyes to follow each labyrinthine shape—they lead, cyclically, right back into themselves—and you'll become hypnotized. They depict the intangibility not only of childhood memory, but of La'ford's process of spiritual exploration, of finding her ancestors' voices woven into the patterns of her life. Familial histories repeat themselves, and powerfully so, within our own bodies. "When we evaluate our spaces, our histories are metabolized; they mutate and are more alive in us," she explains. "Likewise, my patterns and mazes seek to engage social and cultural histories that are in a constant cycle of being told and retold. Over a period of time, I arrived to this point, by way of the experiences of my ancestors who lived, survived, and thrived, despite interactions with captivity and persecution."

Igbo, 72x54", (acrylic, ink, pigment, glue, alcohol, egg, bleach), heat, resin, natural weathering

When an artist, particularly a woman and especially a woman of color, retraces her own history, there's something universally palliative and transformative happening, a kind of reclamation. La'ford's vision is gentle but hypnotic. It is hard to look at it without feeling entranced.

Sublimation: Ancestral Patterns continues through May 27th, 2017 at Yeelen Gallery. For more information, click here.

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