La Sombra Series

My conceptual work is informed and inspired by the ethnographic research project I have been doing with women of African and North American indigenous descent in the communities of the coastal states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, Mexico over the last ten years.“La Sombra Series” is informed by the traditional belief among women in these communities that illnesses and instances of spiritual disharmony and disequilibrium occur when an aspect of an individual called La Sombra, also known as the soul, or shadow, becomes lost or endangered. La Sombra must be “caught” or “called back” to its owner so that equilibrium may be restored, making healing possible. The traditional healer, La Curandera who specializes in the illness, Espanto performs the appropriate healing ritual. In this body of work, I have photographed objects that I imagine representLa Sombra. The images also reflect my musings about the feminine archetype.

I made the photographs in my garden using an experimental camera called a Holga.  I printed them on fiber based photographic paper in the darkroom, and then toned them with selenium, a metal solution incorporating traditional and historical photographic processes. The work in the darkroom is for me, pure alchemy. The traditional darkroom is one of my favorite spaces.


La Limpia Project
NOTE: “La Limpia” means “Energetic Cleansing”

This work is based in my search for the beliefs, philosophies, and healing practices that may have been those of my ancestors. Written records of world history, as well as the oral histories of my ancestors inform me of my West African and Native American (Iroquois) heritage. Unfortunately, the cultural and political climate in which my great-grandmothers lived did not encourage or permit the holding on to, practice, or expression of their traditional West African and North American indigenous beliefs and healing practices and all but a few nuances of these were lost to me.

My research on the people of African and indigenous descent who live on the southern coast of Mexico has included an ethnographic research project about women’straditional beliefs and ritual practices and at the same time making black and white photographs including portraiture and documentation of rituals and daily life in their communities. From the women there, I have learned about how a woman protects herself from negative spiritual influences in pregnancy and after the birth of her infant, rituals for energetic cleansing and the treatment of illness, and rites marking an individual’s passage from this world into the next. Although the women do not identify themselves or know that they are of African descent, their rituals and practices seem to refer to Akan and Yoruba (African) practices and use of symbols. As I spent time with the Mexican women, learning about their traditions, I felt as if I had found the knowledge that my foremothers were unable to pass down to me.

Thinking about what the Mexican women taught me, I made portraits of myself together with the objects and materials that are components of their traditional African-North American indigenous rituals. My body gestures refer to ways of positioning the body that confer meaning according to Kongo spiritual and cultural systems. In the Kongo culture, bodily gestures represent those personal characteristics that are valued. These gestures are often seen in Kongo sculptural art. I also made still lifes of the objects that are symbols or are important components of the rituals. Here, my body is the location of the ritual. These images are about the way I have thought about these practices in relation to my own soul, and spirit. The images are printed by silver gelatin process on fiber then they are sepia toned. Certain objects in each composition are highlighted by surface painting using gold leaf and mica pigments.

The Artist: Wendy Phillips, PhD, LMFT, REACE