‘Freedom Is My Favorite Position,’ at Central Contemporary Arts, is a body-based approach to art featuring mandalas made of synthetic hair, mixed media, and licorice
PROVIDENCE — Nafis M. White’s “Freedom Is My Favorite Position,” an exhibition curated by André Bloodstone Singleton at the new nonprofit gallery Central Contemporary Arts, is by turns exuberant and mournful. Embracing personal and societal wounds with tenderness, White insists on the healing comfort of pleasure.
The artist is known for her “Oculi” wall sculptures, mandalas made of synthetic hair. There’s a spectacular wall full of them here. She lists materials on the label: “Hair, Embodied Knowledge, Ancestral Recall, Audacity of Survival, Bobby Pins.” Every labor-intensive coil and twist seems a prayer, and she adds leather jackets, tassels, shells, and more. These works — some up to 8 feet in diameter — read like spiritual compasses in which a deeply felt past points the way ahead.
White, who identifies as mixed race and queer, crafts the “Oculi” using Black American, African, and Victorian hairstyling techniques. (Victorians wove the hair of dead loved ones into jewelry.) Holding her ancestors close, she is mindful of the historic traumas of Black Americans, and of the hate and oppression faced by BIPOC and LGBTQ people today. She treats that pain as a sacrament.
“Self-Portrait” features a table full of glass chalices filled with black licorice — a candy many either love or loathe. Visitors are invited to help themselves. Echoing the Roman Catholic Eucharist, the Communion ritual that includes Christ’s instruction “Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my body, which will be given up for you,” this piece evokes the terror of enslavement, but also the love of ancestors who kept the faith for their children’s future.