By Lillian Lema
Award-winning artist Adama Delphine Fawundu spent the month of June as artist-in-residence at Indigo Arts Alliance, in Portland. Brooklyn-born and of Mende and Bubi descent, Fawundu uses her multi-disciplinary photography and visual art talents to promote African culture and heritage.
Fawundu’s critically acclaimed book MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora has earned both national and international recognition, and her work is in permanent collections at many institutions, including the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Princeton University Museum, Bryn Mawr College, and The Petrucci Family Foundation of African American Art. Currently, Fawundu is Assistant Professor of Visual Arts at Columbia University.
Her artistic impulses originate from an interest in the idea of body memory and ancestral memory, and the power behind them. Her recent series “For Mama Adama” is influenced by her grandmother, whom she didn’t know very well, and who has passed away.
“My grandmother was a textile artist based in Sierra Leone, West Africa,” Fawundu explained. “The main thing she did was dye fabrics using dye ticking, tie dying, and had this really unique way of making this process work. In this town she was from, she was known for this work.”
Fawundu had the pleasure of meeting her grandmother only twice, once when she was very young, and the second time when she was in her 20s. But she has always felt a strong connection with her grandmother’s fabrics.
“As I go back into my own ancestry and think about using those materials, I think about my grandmother, a Mende woman. I think about the way they communicate with the Earth and the universe and recognize our bodies as part of a whole existence…meaning a universal existence.”
— Dephine Fawundu
“For Mama Adama” uses her grandmother’s materials and patterns as a representation of that body memory and ancestral memory. In the studio, Fawundu scans the fabrics and makes original pieces by creating cyanotypes, block printing, screen printing, and silver gelatin prints.
“When we think about Africa and the diaspora, which is very present in my work, I like to think about what body memory is activated in the diaspora that gives us power to continue,” she said.
“Think about the horrors of slavery and the horrors of colonialism, but even in those circumstances something allows us to continue and hold memory, create language, create movement, build on intelligences. That’s the thing that inspires my work. That is how I create work. I create work intuitively.”
Fawundu feels in communication with her grandmother’s process of creating fabrics as she makes cyanotypes – though their techniques are different, both women’s creative processes intersect in their use of the sun. Her grandmother worked out in the sun with a group of women, in a collaborative effort. Even though, at a glance, Fawundu’s creations are abstract, they communicate the foundation and connection between the pieces.
This is symbolic of our identity. We are very complex beings who live in a place that likes to homogenize us and put us in these boxes. But we are way more complex than that, and that’s what I’m celebrating as well.
— Delphine Fawundu
“This is symbolic of our identity. We are very complex beings who live in a place that likes to homogenize us and put us in these boxes,” she said. “But we are way more complex than that, and that’s what I’m celebrating as well.”
She learned about Indigo Arts Alliance through Daniel Dawson, a photographer from the Kamoinge Workshop Collective and mentor to Fawundu. He saw her series “For Mama Adama” and decided to introduce her to the Indigo Arts Alliance community. She felt it was a perfect match because her goals aligned with the organization’s mission.
Wherever she is, Fawundu prioritizes travel to places that hold historical significance, and creates work in those spaces to honor them. In Maine, she visited Malaga Island, an experience she describes as magical. “A lot of my work is also about uncovering histories of the past. The more we are informed about our past, and the way we look at our past, informs us how we live in the present and future.”
Malaga Island was home to a fishing community of African and European descent in the 1800s. However, in 1912, the state forcibly and violently removed the individuals from the island.
“It was really important for me to be in that space, communicating with that ancestral energy and earth,” Fawundu said. “Hiding history is not a good thing to do. It is something we can talk about and think critically… to think about how we can live better in this society.”
She blames racism and colonialism for many of this country’s current problems. “We need to think about how we can live together. We don’t need to agree on everything, but civilized people know how to disagree, live together, and have a common goal of existence and being attuned with the earth,” she said.
Fawundu hopes to continue to learn from Daniel Minter and Marcia Minter, the Indigo Arts Alliance co-founders. And she wants to continue to meet other Maine artists and work on projects and events with the community.
“Anytime I visit a place, I want to be able to come back to that place. I want to establish something where I can come back, visit, and build,” she explained. “I want to continue to build, even if I’m not here physically in Maine. Just to create and expand on community, which is something I’m really interested in …I’m excited to leave with a broader perspective and with more family members to add to my community,” she said.
Acknowledging that she isn’t an expert on Maine’s past regarding the African diaspora, she is aware that it is turbulent, and knows there is a great deal of African American history just coming to light. “When we think we know one story, there are 10 other stories we don’t know about.”.
The history of the African diaspora in Maine should be honored and respected, Fawundu said, and greater attention should be paid to acknowledging the contributions made to the state and the world by individuals of African descent.