GETTING WOKE with MARTHALICIA
There’s a saying: “if you can hurt an animal, you can hurt a man.” That statement refers to the condition of the predator, not the prey, but I’m going to flip it for a moment. That predator sees no value in life. But what is the condition of the prey?
For me, it’s not so much that animals are like us, as that we are so much like them… in many ways. In the ways that animals can be far better than humanity, we tend to ignore the lesson and debase the teacher.
I join a growing cohort that cannot say it enough: a lot of white western culture has taken up debasement as, if not its primary goal, its primary method for accomplishing its goal: gaining power and control. Trees, rivers, women, Africans, First Nations, Puerto Rico, Guam, you name it… if you can lynch a black man, or send small pox blankets to the plains peoples in the dead of winter, you probably also raze mountains, poison rivers and stack defecating chickens in coops so small they cannot stand up straight.
Getting woke is getting Conscious, right? It’s about seeing how the system that keeps black folks from getting home loans and cuts the fallopian tubes of Native women after hospital births works to maintain a certain white supremacy – systematically.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ dreamers, though, are not just lawmakers, J Edgar Hoovers and McCarthyites. And waking up is a long process. Marthalicia Matarrita is just a bit closer to high noon than many.
Marthalicia was born in Harlem to a Dominican mother and Costa Rican father. She has two brothers, also both artists. After studying at SUNY New Paltz, she joined the Army National Guard to serve our nation and pay for art school. She is now the mother of two beautiful boys and many beautiful powerful works. Come with us on a studio visit to her cold midnight basement.
|We’ve lost our sense that we’re close to God and close to nature.|
I introduced myself to Marthalicia by telling her about this blog: what I write about and why I do it. Starting with my own brush with death in 2012 when I was diagnosed with a 15-year-old cancer, I woke up – not to what others go through (I’d been studying that since I was about twelve years old) but to what I had put myself through. We promptly got into a hot conversation about the real real.
MORTALITY of the SPIRIT
MS: I’m raising my son; you have to think about how to talk about all of these things that you never thought about having to teach them before: to a little kid, right!?
So one of the things that I’ve been very open about with him since he was very little, was death. Because I didn’t want him to see death as this really terrifying, unnatural thing. But then when I had cancer, it was, “okaaay, oh, shit!”
MS: So I try to be more casual about it than I used to be because I feel like the fact that people don’t talk about it, and can’t talk about it well with one another is part and parcel of our inability to just talk about ourselves as mortal, spiritual, real, earthen things!
MM: Yes, that’s why the Mexicans do the Día de los Muertos! And they don’t have fear – they don’t put that idea, día de los muertos, as zombies coming back to life. But rather, that’s like your grandma! She’s the one that fed you and changed your diaper when your mom wasn’t around!
The Peruvians, they carry their grandparents’ bones and skeletons in your backpack. And they have to talk about it because we as humans have so much power and we can change different things.
So, when you’re gone, that’s it – but what you leave behind is the footprints of positive activities that you help along the way so other generations can succeed.
But western philosophy with death is more either related to zombies or what have you, but coming back to diseases and such like that, it’s a wonderful thing to talk to a child early on about it.
I tell my son, I talk about schizophrenia. My mom has schizophrenia. That dialog had to be done, but later as the years progressed, I found out that schizophrenia and bipolar is linked to spirituality. There’s so much layers of that conversation that I was stunned. Because when you’re a vessel and you’re bipolar- or if you’re mentally weak, self-doubt – that affects your body. What happens is your spirit wants to leave, and when you feel sick or out-of-it, you start feeling like a drone, and the spiritual world, there are forces: negative forces and positive forces.
|People ask me, “why do you draw children?” Because we don’t|
heal ourselves when we’re in trauma, we don’t
have a big mom to take care of us. We have to take care of ourselves.
There are demonic entities and angels, which is your ancestors that are there to protect you, you know, guardian angels. Whenever you’re weak it’s easier for, like the same way your soul leaves, something comes in. I believe that if you’re opening a door they can come in.
So, when it comes to life and death, and schizophrenia, in conversation with my son, I like to base it on facts. Because there’s always a lot of traditional stories that you bring from the community and your heritage or whatnot, but it’s another thing when you see it. What I’ve learned about schizophrenia, like you said about cancer, you don’t talk about it. And it doesn’t just hit one person or group. It hits global.
I’ve learned about schizophrenia, I thought it was alcoholism – my mom used to be spiritual. She used to see shadow people, she used to see, foretell things.
How is your son working with you, with the reality of that? I mean, now that- you’re ok, right?
MS: Well, he was only 18 months old when it happened. Every so often it comes up, like the scar on my neck, or the medicine I take every day. And I tell him the truth. I don’t tell it to him in a way that hurts him, or makes him afraid.
I started reading Native literature when I was like 12 or 13, and I just kept reading it. It resonated for me, it fed me. So I actually have this backlog of literature about how to talk about death and how to talk about power: being connected to the Earth and you go back to it. So I actually had a way to talk to him about it.
MM: So that’s great; you have the tools.
MS: Exactly! I have the tools! But you were talking about mother images, too, in your work.
MM: The Mother image: I’m gonna bring it back to a point about prediction. In 2003 I was fascinated with drawing robotic mothers holding a human baby. Because I was listening to my [college] peers talking about “my mom got me a nanny, you know, she’s my nana.” This conversation about substitute parents- it fascinated me because even if my mom was physically there she wasn’t really there towards the end. So it hurt a bit to know that other colleagues had a separation of their own roots, their parents.
I started researching imagery of different types of women from tribal to people that you see nowadays. I used to do robotic women holding human babies and would have their ligaments all torn up with levers and such.
So there’s one I did, simple, all sky blue, and then the baby was a little lighter. The robotic mom was kissing but she looked so human, but the bottom torso was all mechanical and whatnot, and I remember painting that one that had this complexion and I was fascinated by drawing this baby’s face. And it looks just like my son a year later, and I was like, “wait a second!”
MS: Yeah, that’s weird!
|The image of the mother and child was powerful|
for me because I understand now what she
was trying to do. And then I sympathized.
MM: That was the beginning of a conversation I had – I did some drawings about motherhood and children, but it didn’t click yet because I was a brand-new mom, I was a little bit not ready to be a mom, because I didn’t wanna be like my mother.
The transition from high school into college, that’s when she left. I was in a homeless shelter with my parents and my two brothers. And I never really was connected to my mom then, but it was a fear that gathered within my soul, and when she came back two years later… she appeared out of nowhere and she told me she was in a mental hospital and that’s when it hit me when I had my son that, “wow, my mom did a lot for me.” Then I realized why she was a nag: cause she wanted me to survive.
The more I started to analyze the things she did in the past, I started to humble myself so much. There was a point where she was drinking so much. We were living in one room with five people, but she came in, she dropped two large bags and fell onto the couch. And I covered her, and she had a black eye and kinda like a broken nose. And some real red stains here, not bleeding, but blood. And her hands, when she did this, this whole hand flipped this way.
And I’m like, “what happened to you!?”
And she saw me, “no, this drunk driver, you know” (with her good hand) “he backed up!” She was sobering up; she told me the whole thing. As she was telling me, I got a chair and she told me in pieces. And I secured her wrist, and I used some socks and some laces to secure it, and I called the hospital to pick her up.
But the thing that moved me the most, and why I’m so humble now, was, even though we were dirt poor, she would try her best to get cans, and get change and in those two bags that she dropped on the floor were rice, milk, bread, beans. And that’s gonna sustain three children for one week.
And she said, “I don’t care, I just can’t have you guys eating beans for like…” and I was like, “she did all of this, she got hurt just to make sure that we can live another day.”
I was speechless. That was the epitome, so that’s the pivotal point of where I changed.
This new definition of what motherhood is supposed to be kinda summed it up. Years later, with the recurrence of the image of the mother and child, I noticed the children were so innocent and living in NYC. Either way, the recurrent imagery in my art was based on innocence in children.
MM: The animal series started in 2010 when the first earthquake started.
At that point, our lives had kinda altered with the music being more negative and, I can’t say more violent, there’s just more ignorance out there. When the earthquake hit Haiti, I never witnessed a catastrophic event on Earth- something that we couldn’t blame. What? The enemy is Earth? No, that’s just natural and it happened.
I started to view some videos of what happened. That lead to seeing things that I was not really looking for and what I noticed in all these videos, and also that tsunami that happened in Japan: there was an eerie silence, it didn’t last that long – but it was enough that gave people the hair-raising feeling that something was wrong.
It must have lasted maybe five minutes or so and within this eerie silence, this short time line, you could start seeing the lack of sound from the environment- like in the environment you could hear birds, you could probably hear all the animals along the way. But there was a silence, as if the volume went down and I was noticing that in all the videos it was the same, and so I went back to the same videos. I can see the goats and the cow leave maybe a patch or even the birds would fly away from where the trauma’s gonna happen. I was so surprised, and it got me questioning: if we call ourselves the supreme beings of this planet why are we so disconnected?
We dominate and sustain, but the animals of this planet were here before we were and they have a relationship. I started realizing there’s something physiological that we’re lacking, which is pretty much that our magnetism that aligns us to north, and also gravity, we probably have enough to sustain our life here but, if we were to meditate more, or eat healthier, and be less stressful perhaps we will regain that relationship that we lost along these years as beings.
I started drawing different imagery about chimpanzees who are wearing a human helmet. The conversation was: the chimpanzees were called primitive, but along the lines, they learn and know more about survival than we do.
I had an appreciation then for the animals because they don’t pollute the land, they don’t put toxins in the water. Yeah, there are extremes of animals that eat other creatures in a most gruesome way but there’s a harmony with that – it’s a little bit profound but it is [harmony].
MM: The more I talk to myself, I feel like I’m talking to God.
It’s very interesting because I answer. This is what someone told me: if you answer yourself, it may appear that you’re- something wrong – but that’s God. That is God talking to you through your own voice.
And that’s why – bring it back to the bi-polar and schizophrenia, that’s where nobody can separate the difference: it’s spiritual, it’s just like air. And that’s when other cultures see schizophrenia or bipolar it’s pretty much when spirits are talking to you, using your own voice.
And I’m not advocating, let’s let all loose it! [But] Are you sane enough to say, “yeah, it’s true”?
MS: I actually do understand what you’re talking about – I understand the nuance and the fear factor, of being willing to incorporate or accept some level of truth to those mythological explanations, but there is truth to them.
MM: Because I try to speak to all the people about it, and as open as I am, I have nothing to really hide. Nothing, because God will take me whenever he can.
MS: No, your openness about you and your mom is the same as me and the cancer.
MM: Women, chemically we tend to be more attentive.
Ok, the elephant – the elephant is a powerful creature, not just in the strength. They are matriarchs: wise women who have been on this earth much longer and they pass on to their tribe, where is the next watering hole. “I’m gonna show you kids where I’m going, but you have to pick it up because, you know, I’m gonna die!”
So women are held so high because their memories are so profound, they can remember who’s who, what’s what, they can dialog among themselves. They have to because if they don’t – nobody else will carry the torch, and that’s another reason why I admire the women!
If we only accepted that – ‘cause I was rejecting it when I was young because I didn’t know – what my mom was doing was a helpful thing
We have to pay more attention ‘cause we gave birth. And here’s what I tell my son about my youngest son, what my grandmother said about love and the sharing of love: “it’s a loaf of bread this big, and this end has the same ingredients as the other end, in the middle- same: bread. If I were to cut this bread and you take it, that’s what!? This person has the bread, too; you guys have the same ingredients! Now think about this: my spirit is that bread, I took a piece and I gave it to you, and the other piece, I gave it to the other child. So not only do you share it with me and share it with your brother, you both share it together. And guess what, that spirit didn’t come from me, it came from God.”
So motherhood, matriarch, I had to figure out a way to, knowing certain things that I understand and see, express what I feel without hitting people over the head saying, “pay attention – the world’s dying!”
You know, I can’t do that. People will not respond in a healthy way to that, and I figure that thehealthier way is to marry or unify the things that are going on now with music, or death with elements that they like. For example I did a gorilla with headsets and the idea with the music: a DJ was like a beast, to some degree, really animal, really primal!
SPIRIT and SPACE
MM: We lose imagination; we lose our sense of self.
This is how I see it now where – in your brain, as well as your optic vision, it’s like a projector. Whatever you try to formulate from memory - what a hand might look like, a yellow rose, or a red rose, you already have an idea from memory and when you try to project it, especially when you’re in a bigger place, you feel you have a sense of control and freedom, versus something so cluttered so confined it affects anybody and everybody.
If you are outside or in the forest, you feel that your spirit can go as well! When you’re confined, you don’t feel that you have the same power.
What I found out about illness now, with my mom. She said that, “don’t you know that if you stay home a lot, if you start to feel sick or whatnot, you vibrate that energy. But guess what, it goes back to you, two times again. And when you’re in nature, the earth and the trees suck those things, are filtering those things out of you.” And that’s why when you come home you feel more relaxed. So, being close to nature is the healthiest way to be.
But being close to a concrete location you gradually become unhealthy, especially when you’re working a 9 – 5 in a cubicle or whatnot. You gotta find a place to- something to release, and that’s why you have all this extra other stuff. As humans, we gotta do other things, from sex as a reliever, drugs as a reliever, something.
MM: So, your son must have saved your life.
MS: He really did. In a lot of ways my life was not going the right direction at that time. I had married the wrong person – I wasn’t happy, I shouldn’t have been there. And once I had my son and I could see the way that I loved him, I turned around and looked back at myself, and the first question was: does anybody love me the way that I love him? Because that’s the way that you should be loved!
MS: And then the next question was: do I love myself the way that I love him? And when that came together it was like, “oh, no!” It was not good!
MM: That was God talking to you!
MS: Yeah, absolutely!
MM: That’s miraculous, right there!
MS: Yeah, it is! I’m writing a book about it.
MM: Amazing! That’s some questions that a lot of people would not start to entertain.
Like I said earlier, opening when you feel weak, things can come in and entertain themselves. We have a spirit here, and it does whatever it wants to do, but we have a purpose here in this life. I’m very impressed by you and the way you’re managing and control of what you wanna do.
This is my way of doing it via whatever the spirit wants to talk about. I talk about the innocence – the oldest of souls is really a reptile and the youngest of souls of the primitive creatures is us, so that’s a conversation.
Where I’m at now is this oxygen and air and my new journey as to “who is (my new baby)?” And plus what’s happening to this planet in general, the lack of species, the lack of food – this climate!
It’s a great thing to find some type of light in a dark place. I don’t wanna regurgitate negative, because what happens, people absorb those things and find that to be their reality.
What I’m seeing, what I was telling you about the open door – all these negative things: I find it to be demonic. Demonic in nature where the sense of light and love is absent in this vehicle that we have. The negative likes to manifest and grow further instead of finding solutions…
You know, there’s ways to heal but it’s easier to find ways to fail, because it’s fast, it’s efficient; to invest time and love is hard work. That’s what I’m trying to talk about in my art.
And this is my challenge the most: how I can interpret ways to healing. Animals – how can animals find ways to heal us? Because they’ve been here longer than us, you know.
I said, “well, there are bunny rabbits with teeth.” You can either be a prey or a predator.
MS: That’s what makes the artist the artist: being willing to conceive of something or feel something out that the rest of us don’t wanna look at.
MM: I noticed that too, yeah.
MS: You do have to sorta shake people a little to wake them up.
MM: I just wanna see the whole scope of things.
I really wanna get into a higher place, just so I can project the message. The message of healing, how can we cope in this changing world? I wanna be successful enough to continue the cycle of regenerating imagery.
And to find a purpose in what God gave me. I feel useless if I don’t do it. And when I do it, I feel a sense of release. I find it to be healing.
Marthalicia left me with this story:
Jesus saw three men, separately, at the seashore and he gave each man something of value, a seashell. And he said, “in a couple months I’ll come back and if you understand why I gave you that, you come to heaven with me.”
The first guy said, “God gave it to me to be happy, so I’m gonna splurge.” So he just wasted it. Second guy was like, “He’s gonna come back for this. I’m not gonna show it to nobody; I’m gonna keep it to myself!” And he’s starving, getting weak and such. The last guy, he’s smart, he took some time to think about it. He didn’t do nothing for a few days. With the net worth, he said, “I have a family, I could feed my family with this. So instead I’m gonna buy several cows and some chickens. This way I can get some eggs for my family and sell it to my community. Same with the cow- sell to community as well as feed my family.” The community there blossomed very nicely.
Because the family was getting fed and he was taking care of others, the harmony between those two things worked well. Jesus Christ said to the first two guys, “neither of you understood the value.”
And over all the whole story of it was: if God give you a gift, could be the gift of reading, writing, drawing, painting, dancing – whatever it is, you have to accept that it is what it is, and do something worthwhile, that will help you and help your community.
Marthalicia told me that the day she heard that story, she discovered her gift: drawing. And she committed to giving it and taking care of it.
I think a lot of us hear that story, and we notice the people: the man’s family is fed, and his human community thrives. But that’s not what Marthalicia said when she told the story. She called it a story of harmony. Perhaps the harmony we miss so easily is the harmony, not just of person to person in the community, but between the human beings and the two-leggeds and four-leggeds and the living Earth.
If we are truly woke, it won’t be only to human brothers and sisters. It won’t be only to walking and swimming and breathing brothers and sisters. It will also be to sand and sun and air and trees and rocks. And it will be to the harmony or disharmony between ourselves and the organism of which we are a part: this Earth.
Just as Marthalicia’s grandmother described how we share in spirit, and how her mother described
I lost my gift when I lost my voice. When I stopped taking my gift seriously, I started down the road to ignoring my soul’s voice, my intuition. I ceased to know who I was or what I was worth. My life was wrong because I stopped hearing the conversation I was having with myself. I fell out of harmony with myself and therefore my world. When I stopped giving my gift and hearing my voice, I lost that which would allow me to bring harmony to my life and the world, my purpose.
Marthalicia is here to remind us where we find our own voices. She is here to remind us from whence we come and to what we shall return. She is here to show us the way back to harmony with ourselves and our world.
You can see Marthalicia’s work now at Camaradas El Barrio on 115th Street and 1st Avenue in East Harlem. If not to be reminded who you are, see her work to be reminded of the beauty in the world all around us.