Ever since she began her art career, Rosales’s main artistic concern has been focused on black female empowerment in western culture. Her paintings depict and honor the African diaspora. The artist is entirely open to the ebb and flow of contemporary society which she seeks to reimagine in new forms of aesthetic beauty, snuggled somewhere between pure love and ideological counter-hegemony. As a young girl, the Renaissance masters’ impeccable skill and composition fascinated her but she could never relate because they depicted primarily a white male hierarchy and the idealized subordinated woman immersed in Eurocentric conception of beauty. Her message is not to create an ideal or to simply copy, but rather to create a sense of harmony, a yin to the yang…The art is and will always be to encourage sympathy, empathy, and empowerment. —Excerpted from Harmonia Rosales’s artist statement
Harmonia Rosales is a painter who draws from mythology, Renaissance paintings, and her own imagination to create vibrant, breathtaking artworks that have layer after layer of meaning. In this compelling interview, Rosales shares her story of becoming an artist, along with touching on topics including religion and mythology, segregation within museums, how classical paintings are like children’s books, and so much more.
AK: What was your experience with art like as a child, and how did you discover your own creativity?
HR: I was always in my imagination. So my head was always in the clouds—my mom actually thought I was kind of too quiet. She was an artist herself. She really nurtured my interest in art, so she would allow me to use all her expensive materials.
AK: So you grew up in kind of a creative household then?
HR: Very much so.
AK: Did your parents encourage you to pursue art as a serious career path?
HR: Yes and no. I loved art, and my mother nurtured it because she’s an artist herself. However, my father—who is a very traditional Cuban—didn’t find that I could probably support myself with just art. So he was like, go to school, be a professor, teach art, something that has income, but that’s what you need to focus on instead of just drawing because that’s not going to support you. And so then I was always arguing about that because art was all I wanted, literally, I didn’t want to teach anybody, that’s all I wanted to do. So I would say for a good portion of my twenties I was lost, in the sense of not even creating art. I would try to find a job or something that I would be interested in other than art, and it just didn’t work out. So I was kind of floating through life within that. And then it wasn’t until my—and I always say this, but it’s true—it wasn’t until my divorce when I was very young, where I found myself living back home, and my dad was like, hey, get a job. And then I’m thinking, I need to be happy first. Let me be happy so I can be a good parent to my kids, and the only thing that made me happy was art, and I was like, okay, let me just create art. Because I couldn’t even find a job, like I had an English degree and I couldn’t even find a receptionist job. I couldn’t find a job anywhere. So I was like, okay, well, let me just do art, and I did, and I posted it [on social media], and the next thing I knew people were contacting me to do commissions, and I found myself being like, wow I’m getting this amount when I would be working a whole week over there, so let me continue to do this and I would post and it grew from there.
AK: So it’s like art became the practical job that your dad always wanted for you.
HR: Oh yeah, he’s very happy right now.
AK: So you were doing commissioned work, and then you started doing your own work, or were you doing them, like, side-by-side?
HR: So I was doing commissioned work, and it’s very hard to get represented by galleries and just being noticed, so I was fine with just doing commissions. And it wasn’t until my daughter was growing up and I was trying to show her how beautiful art is. I was like, look at all of these beautiful paintings like the Botticelli, like look at Venus, and she was like, okay. She didn’t have the same enthusiasm, and I asked her why, and she was like, cause they’re so white maybe? And I told her stories, like think of it as like a children’s book. Because that’s kind of like what art is, it tells stories, at least from the Renaissance age. And they’re telling these stories that have nobody of color in them, so I was like, well, you know Venus? That’s like Oshun, you know? She’s an African goddess. And that piqued her interest, so I painted for her. And when I painted I really felt—especially coming from pure imagination—that it’s not like a commission, where somebody is telling you to, like, paint somebody’s portrait, it’s out of my head. I was just like, okay this is what I want to do. I don’t want to just be a worker for somebody, to do somebody’s portrait. I want to do this because I don’t see this. And so I knew from there that I have to get gallery representation, and I have to because I want to make money out of this, and the only way is to have a show and sell these, but it has to be out there. And social media helped a lot—Instagram helped considerably. However, I did have to do the actual work by going to LA art shows and try to solicit myself in a way. I still remember this one point—and this is a story I have to tell you because it made me so upset at the time, it hurt my feelings actually—I was talking to this representative at this gallery, and I handed him my card— my card had like my art on it—and we talked about it, and he said oh, okay, great, and then he handed my card back to me and says, well, you know, we have real artists here, and I was like oh my god. And so right next door there was this other gallery, Simard Bilodeau Contemporary, if you’re in LA, and I showed [the representative]—[who was] a woman, it wasn’t like with all these men—and she looked at my art right away, and instead of asking, who are you, where have you shown, it was all about my art. She asked me what does it mean, and I told her my story, about the divorce and everything, and this is about female empowerment, and she was all for it and gave me my first show, and it sold out in a week, so that was great. Then when I went back, I showed up to the LA art show with that gallery, Simard Bilodeu, and the other gallery was right next to it. And there was a massive reception, and [the representative from the other gallery] came over and was like, wow, this is really good, and I was so happy. And he was trying to be all in my face, and I was so happy that I was like look, see, I did it. Somebody believed in me.
AK: How has your work evolved over time?
HR: It evolved with me. So I’m a late bloomer. Again, I never thought of my path in life until after the divorce, so that was in my thirties, early thirties. And I was so caught up in society’s smoke and mirrors: you work for somebody, go to school, get married, have kids, and you put in the work and build up that retirement and so forth, and how hard it would be if you were an entrepreneur and so forth. And as I was painting—and painting for my daughter—I was connecting back to my roots, to who I am, to find out who Harmonia is. And my grandmother was suddenly introducing me to my culture with the gods and so forth and the colors, and so it was easier to connect with all this. And as I did my own research and question—because I question everything, like even Lucini which is a Yoruba tradition, I grew up with a Cuban version of the Yoruba tradition. However, a lot of it has changed, even the gods look mixed and stuff like that, but the original religion came from west Africa. So as I was doing this research and really diving into it, not only did I find connections to how they colonized us and how they forced us to convert to Christianity, and how they forced us to hide—like we hid our gods through the Christian faith and everything like that—it got more interesting and it unfolded. And as it unfolded so did my art, my art started to unfold. So if you’re asking where it’s going to lead to, now or in the future, I don’t know, because as I’m experiencing life it’s revealing itself, like page after page, so I don’t know what’s in the future.
AK: You mention in your artist statement that your Afro-Cuban background influences your work. Do you feel that your relationship with your heritage has changed or grown since you started exploring it through art?
HR: Yeah, I mean, I never fit in anywhere and I realized it’s okay, I’m multicultural, and it gives me a certain unbiased view of everything. Because it’s not like I’m one hundred percent Cuban and I have those values and that view, and even though I wasn’t raised by my mother’s Jewish side—I did not know that neither did my mother—it still is a part of me, and I still have Italian and German and those beliefs, and so with that combination I really wanted to show my unique view of the world.
AK: One prevalent theme throughout your work is reimagining classical paintings and motifs. What inspired this idea?
HR: Well, my certain background. So I don’t fix the surface when I see a problem, I don’t just see the surface and put a band-aid on it. We have to see the root of the issue, and there’s several, especially with racism and prejudice, there’s a root. And it’s the foundation of America is just those Christian views. It is. I mean, you know, you have the man and the woman, and they get married—I mean no matter what other religion you are in it’s getting married, and if you think about it anything that was important and strong in the African culture is considered evil and devil in Christianity. So think of red, right? First of all, it’s a powerful color in the Asian culture, however, it also is in Africa. So red is significant as well. Also, snakes are very important, very strong, very knowledgeable creatures, and they’re [considered] sinful. Or even angels: white, pure. And then you have the devil: darker. And so you have all these subconscious elements that keep us at a certain level. And that’s why I want my artwork to empower—to see us in these ways, these godly ways, other than just having us with Black power, like for example, there’s tons of us with the American flag, or always showing us battling racism when it should go further. It should see us being empowered because then it allows our generation to think differently. And it also brings us together. Because if you see it, there’s Oshun—that’s the African goddess—there’s the birth of Venus, and so when I paint these reimaginings it’s not mainstream, the African culture. What’s mainstream is the Greek mythology and European culture. So if I utilize the image we all know of and replace it with our gods, then it will be like, who’s she, Oshun? Oh, let me look her up, do a quick Google search, and it will tell you oh, it’s the god of love, same thing as Venus. And it’s like oh, I see it. And so it teaches us this culture, my culture.
AK: A few years ago you painted The Creation of God, a work that quickly went viral and garnered tons of positive feedback. However, it also stirred some controversy. How did it feel to receive such strong reactions, and now that some time has passed what are your thoughts on it now?
HR: Well, I was really hurt, I cried. Because I received, I would say, such overt racism that it was blatant racism. So yes, I consider myself a woman of color, but I will never know or understand completely walking around with dark skin and how that is. So this gave me, I felt, a taste [of what that’s like] because I’m being associated with and putting forth these dark-skinned subjects. And now they’re calling me out because they’re so angry, now they’re calling me, you know, [the N-word], they’re calling me, you know, Black bitch—it’s just such hatred, and I didn’t understand it. Like there will be these long-winded emails that are so hurtful and racist, saying like why are you painting monkeys? It was so consistent across all media, and a friend told me you’re doing something good, don’t stop. Right? So I had to take a breather, and you know, I continued, and now I’m numb to it. However, thinking back on it now I always think about why are they upset. Black art is all around, right? Are they upset because they think that I’m appropriating culture? First, I can’t appropriate anything, cause I’m everything. Maybe not a hundred percent, because nobody’s a hundred percent, but literally all these things. But also I’m not bashing any culture, I’m just showing the similarities and differences, and always to question everything you’re learning. But the thing is, I think I’ve gotten why they’re upset. Because if you see a museum, they have art categorized: they have art as art—that’s the main gallery—which is European art done by white males. And it’s all about budget too, because then they have a budget that’s for the minorities: we have women here, white women artists, and then they’ll have, you know, the Asian section. It’s all really segregated. And then they’ll have just African,—and so this is Black art, African art, it has a certain way it looks, you know? If I drew the gods in a different style it’s going to be labeled as Black art, and that’s okay because I’m staying in my quote-unquote lane. However, by painting it in a more traditional way—and that’s all it is, is more traditional—and comparing, that’s where it gets like, you cannot go up to their level of this art that we put in museums, that we place as priceless art. You get what I’m saying? I realized that’s what they get upset with.
AK: What’s the last artist or artwork you saw that moved you?
HR: I do have contemporary artists who I love, however, I would say when I got Lasik surgery, which was two weeks ago, in the office there was a Norman Rockwell painting, and it just brought me back to when I was a child and was influenced by Norman Rockwell. And I keep forgetting to name him in all the interviews, but I loved him because, just like Michelangelo, he would tell a story with a woman in it, and he would be detailed with it. You could almost see their whole life, like the subject’s whole life, and everybody was doing something, every corner of the painting was doing something. And this is why he was like a children’s book, but not. So when I sat there and I saw one of his paintings—I don’t know the name of it, but it was a little girl at this dentist’s office— it just brought back memories of when I first was creating art and who I looked up to.
AK: What are you working on now?
HR: Well, several things actually. So I’m working on a series right now that hopefully will be shown in late 2021 and it’s more on the Yoruba culture. But also I’ve gotten, especially since Covid, into writing. So I was going to do an art book, but it evolved into something way more, and that’s my current project. So I’ve got simultaneously a complete series and a book.
AK: So that’s a different genre for you!
HR: It is, but it isn’t too. Because I tell stories through my painting, so it’s just now translating it into something where you can understand it more. I mean, it is going to be like fiction, but it’s going to have a lot of meanings in it, leaning towards all of my paintings combined.
AK: 2020 has been a challenging year. What would you tell artists who are maybe feeling overwhelmed or disheartened, and might be struggling to create?
HR: It’s hard when you’re trapped in the house and you’re not able to really do anything or have any kind of ideas floating around you. What I would say is that an artist has many outlets to create their art. And I get depressed when I can’t paint, or don’t have an idea, and I’ll look at that blank canvas. However, when you have something else to create, or get involved in, whether it’s your children— that may spark an idea—or conversation with friends family that you need to connect with that you haven’t connected with because you’re a busy artist and you’re an introvert but you’re starting to connect that helps with the creative process. Also, writing has helped because it takes the edge off of me not creating an actual piece of work. I would tell artists to think of other ways to keep busy that are still creative. And don’t push it. Don’t push the creative flow at all, you don’t want to force anything.
AYA KUSCH is an editor, artist, and freelancer based in San Francisco. She grew up playing with mud, which eventually led to a love of clay and a subsequent BFA in sculpture. She is fourth-generation Japanese and a third-generation potter, a Bay Area native, and a former bookseller who still obsesses over the best way to organize a bookshelf. She loves good design, contemporary art that will worry your mom and confuse your dad, and sculptures that make you look up. She is currently working on a book about art from Edo, Japan.