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March 31, 2015
Carlota Leading the People, Oil on Canvas, 72”x60″ © 2011 by Lili Bernard

Carlota Leading the People, Oil on Canvas, 72”x60″ © 2011 by Lili Bernard

“Oshun Altar-Hair Salon” by Lili Bernard pops out from against a wall inside L.A. Artcore, where it is on view until April 5 for “Pulse of L.A.,” a juried show featuring 23 female artists. The bright yellow table is decked out with crosses and beads, shells and baubles. There’s a prayer candle under the table. A mirror, comb and hairdryer hang from the side. Above it is a poster made to look like an ad for the latest hair product, boasting slogans like “Get your sweat on!” and “Racial Self-Hatred get thee gone!” In the center of the poster, Bernard poses with her daughter in a photo taken by artist Toni Scott. Both mother and daughter wear their hair in a natural style.

The altar is part of a bigger series called “Donning and Dismissal of the Conqueror’s Coiffure.” When presented in full, there are multiple altars that bring together Afro-Cuban religious traditions with elements of the hair salon. The series also includes a performance piece, where women wet their hair — “like a Baptism,” Bernard explains — to reveal their natural curls.

“There’s a lot of trauma for black women with regard to their hair,” says Bernard inside her home studio. She talks about the physical pain that can be caused by straightening hair, using chemicals that burn or wearing weaves that are tightly sewn in with natural hair. She also talks about the emotional trauma that comes with hair, the taunts that children have faced because of the smell of hair relaxing products or because a swim in a pool revealed one’s hair texture. She speaks personally about family pressure regarding her own hair, mentioning the criticism she received from her parents when she visited them with a natural hairstyle. “There’s so much tremendous pressure from the family, the black family, to try and make you look white,” she says.

"Oshun Altar-Hair Salon"

“Oshun Altar-Hair Salon”

Trauma is central to Bernard’s work. The Los Angeles-based artist, who was born in Cuba and was raised primarily in New Jersey, delves into trauma experienced by African people brought to the New World as slaves and the scars that exist many generations later. She explores traumas experienced by women, whether it’s the struggle to attain a beauty ideal to the pain of sexual assault. Bernard’s work is boldly feminist and as universal in its themes as it is personal.

In her “Antebellum Appropriations” series, Bernard references the great paintings of Europe’s art history as she builds a narrative of slavery and abuse. The project started with her participation in the “Tel-Art-Phone” show that Coagula Curatorial’s Mat Gleason curated at Beacon Arts in 2011. The event was modeled after the game Telephone, where each artist riffs on one who immediately preceded him or her. Bernard followed Coop and was inspired by his pin-up-style piece to reference Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” She created “The Sale of Venus,” with a pregnant woman on an auction block, clearly suffering from trauma. Bernard decided to keep going with the theme after the show. She followed “The Sale of Venus” with “Carlota Leading the People,” based on Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People. The piece depicts the story of a woman who led a slave revolt in Cuba and was ultimately executed. Bernard notes the horses in a corner of the painting — “they dragged and quartered her to death,” she explains.

In remaining famed works, Bernard comments on what’s missing in art history. “They’re very beautiful, very serene, but what’s omitted from that narrative is the institution that sustained that life, which is slavery,” she says. “Even if they were in Europe, the Kings and Queens were still being sustained by the slavery that was going on in the New World.” She continues,” I thought that by appropriating these European paintings into slave stories, I was kind of owning the story and positioning myself, or positioning the story of my ancestors into the halls of art history.”

Yet, there is more to the story. In “Caroline,” based on Manet’s “Olympia,” Bernard depicts rape, with Caroline representing her great-grandmother and the perpetrator representing her great-grandfather. Then there is “Carlota Slaying the Slaver,” which pays homage to Artimesia Gentilesch painting “Judith Slaying Holofernes.” In it, women are depicted mutilating their rapist.

As Gentilesch’s painting is said to be inspired by the artist’s own experience, so is Bernard’s work. Only recently has she been able to talk about the autobiographical aspects of the “Antebellum Appropriations” paintings. She points to some of the details, metaphors that reflect her own experience, like the silencing of women in the paintings.

The Sale of Venus, Oil on Canvas, 96”x72” © 2011by Lili Bernard

The Sale of Venus, Oil on Canvas, 96”x72” © 2011by Lili Bernard

While Bernard plans to continue with “Antebellum Appropriations”– she has ideas for more than 20 more additions to the series — she has already begun work on a new series of more autobiographical pieces. “I’m working on this body of work that’s coming out of me, not with effort, but compulsively,” she says. “It’s born out of this trauma, of which I spoke, that I endured in my early 20s.”

After Bernard was attacked, she sought help. A couple years later, she believed that she was getting better. Bernard carried on with her life and moved to Los Angeles. She had six children and went back to school, earning an MFA at Otis College of Art and Design. Still, she suffered from night terrors and panic attacks. Eventually, she was overcome by the memories. Bernard likens it to Hurricane Katrina. “Hurricane Katrina came and broke the levy and all the water came flooding over New Orleans, which was once very functional,” she says. Bernard sought help.

“I’m healing,” she says. “I’ve been recovering, but what’s coming out is the art. I’ve been prolifically, compulsively creating a whole bunch of art as therapy.”

Bernard describes the urgency and therapeutic nature of her art, comparing her art-making tools to “tools on an operating table in the ER.” While art helps Bernard’s recovery, the graphic nature of the paintings captures the physical and emotional violence so often perpetrated against women. Bernard points to the woman at the center of “Carlota Slaying the Slaver,” which she started last summer and is ver close to competition. The woman appears to be ready to castrate the attacker, but her expression shows that she is unsure about what she should do. “There’s a war going on there,” says Bernard.

That challenge to bring an end to rape culture is imbued in much of Bernard’s work. “I used to spend so much time with my art addressing white privilege, but, now I’m really focusing on male privilege,” she says. “I’m fighting male privilege.”

Top Image: “Carlota Leading the People” by Lili Bernard

About the Author

Liz Ohanesian writes about art, pop culture, music and, sometimes, a combination of the three.