Conjuring Rainbows from Her Own Clouds

Two beginnings.

Adelaide Damoah awaking from an intensely sexual dream at the same time as experiencing excruciating pains due to endometriosis. Or, as per the title of one of her works: It’s 3 a.m. and One of the Most Intense, Spiritual, Divinely Feminine, Creative, Sexual Experiences Just Happened in My Brain While I Slept off the Pain And: Where My Whole Body Came More Alive than It Ever Has Been, but Only in My Mind. In the studio, she makes colourful body prints. One is gold, red, and green against white and startling in its brightness. She sets them aside and doesn’t think about them again. Fast forward two years to the start of the pandemic. Damoah experiences a crushing pain in her chest and calls the emergency services. The medical advice is to stay at home. She stays up until 6 a.m. crocheting, drinking tea, listening to podcasts, fearful that if she sleeps, she will never wake up again. Eventually, the pain passes. Then there is illness in the family, deaths of people close to her, an intense loneliness. In the isolation, she sets up a reading group, exploring critical theory by writers like Franz Fanon, deriving some comfort from the sense of fellowship that comes from virtual meetings. She reads and writes poetry. When she returns to her studio, she hangs those very colourful works she made two years prior. She feels better.

What follows is a period of play. Making work but playing, really, without pressure of expectations or preconceptions (in fact, it was only after Damoah met with Sakhile Matlhare of Sakhile&Me that she even started to think of this period as work).

She re-reads Audre Lorde. Lorde knew plenty about pain. She had cancer three times. The first was in the breast. “I want to write about the pain,” Lorde wrote on October 10th 1978. “The pain of waking up in the recovery room which is worsened by that immediate sense of loss. Of going in and out of pain and shots. Of the correct position for my arm to drain. The euphoria of the second day, and how it’s been downhill from there.”(1) Then, in 1984, in the liver. Diagnosed as terminal by doctors in America and given only two to three years to live, Lorde went to Germany where she received naturopathic treatment.(2) She survived until 1992, but in those intervening years she was still challenging white feminists to acknowledge their systemic privileges; she was still writing and inspiring Afro-German women.

Where My Whole Body Came More Alive than It Ever Has Been but Only in My Mind (2021); Pigment and spray paint on canvas; 76 x 76 cm

One was Ika HügelMarshall, who was active in the women’s rights movement in Frankfurt and in ADEFRA (Afro-Deutsche Frauen). Meeting Lorde in 1987, the year cancer was found in Lorde’s ovaries, Hügel-Marshall went on to write her autobiography, detailing her experiences of racism in Germany. She would later co-author the documentary film Audre Lorde – The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992. (3) Other AfroGerman women – writers, activists like May Ayim and Katharina Oguntoye – also published their history, their stories.

In 2020, Damoah revisits a key critical text for her, Lorde’s 1978 essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” and she seeks to reconnect with joy as Lorde suggests. Pleasure: experienced through the body, whether dancing alone in the studio, or staring at a tray of pure pigment and feasting on its colour. A riot of colours: pinks, yellows, oranges, deep purples, coppers, sparkly whites, ultramarine, and cobalt blues. A departure from her usual palette of black, gold, red, white, and blue. Allowing chance elements to intrude, experimenting freely on different surfaces, including found objects. Building up patterns, layers. Then also uncovering, revealing what is concealed, like the meticulous undressing of a clothed body. In the process of scraping away, vertically, tidily, something new emerges. Sometimes Damoah deliberately or accidentally destroys what was hidden, or she embeds it deeper below the surface, burying it like a secret. The work becomes a palimpsest, holding both the known and the unknown within it. Other times, the original canvas disappears entirely, overlaid by gestures that change it beyond recognition. Only the artist can attest to its former appearance; the viewer is left with a surface that hints at what may lie below. Pigment obscures writing. Damoah’s poems – a collection that, for now, is unread by everyone but its intended recipient, who may or may not exist – remain out of reach. Lines are revealed only in tantalizing fragments. 


Until she feels it again: the exhilaration of being alive, “a feeling of stepping out of something very dark into the light.” (4) All the while remembering that these acts of making are what heal her. In retrospect, even the choice of surfaces, however chance driven, feels prescient: handmade paper which was already in Damoah’s studio is made of Khadi rag, renowned for being acid-free, as if the work was always about self-preservation.


Of course, the ensuing series ‘Radical Joy’ wasn’t created in a vacuum. It owes much to Damoah’s former research, in particular, her investigations of three key artists who have influenced her practice: David Hammons, Yves Klein, and Ana Mendieta.


Hammons’ technique for body prints involved him coating his skin, clothes, and hair in margarine then pressing against paper laid on top of illustration board, usually set on the floor. There was often a stasis in his performance – between rolling on paper and the act of getting up – a few minutes of contemplation where, amongst other things, he thought about the best way to move without smudging the image. He would follow this by sifting powdered pigments over the work and then spraying it with fixative. 


Damoah has adapted this method. In place of margarine, she uses Shea oil which is derived from the kernels of the seed of the vitellaria paradoxa, the shea tree which grows in East and West tropical Africa. Not only is this a meaningful material in terms of referencing her Ghanaian heritage; it, too, speaks to self-preservation, self-care. Rich in nutrients, it soothes and repairs skin, nourishing it with vitamins and antioxidants. 


Yves Klein’s ‘Anthropometries’ from the early 1960s made use of nude female models as ‘living paintbrushes,’ their breasts and thighs rolled in his vibrant, patented blue and pressed against surfaces. Before that, Robert Rauschenberg and Susan Weil collaborated on the ‘Blueprints’ series (1949-51)(5) : delicate cyanotypes, created with Weil’s technique of shining ultraviolet light on a nude body posed on a big roll of architectural blueprint paper. As the negative shadow of the body’s outline developed, it was washed blue. 


Damoah eschews these cool tones for a richer, warmer palette though there is a parallel, perhaps, between Klein’s aim to replicate costly lapis lazuli and her using at least one precious pigment (her hot pink is six times the cost of an ordinary pink). Like Weil and Rauschenberg and Ana Mendieta, it is her own body that she deploys. Except there’s an unfair expectation that black artists have a responsibility to reference the weight of both their history and their present. Hammons’ and Mendieta’s practices were overtly political, reflecting their marginalized positions. Damoah’s is rooted in the Ghanaian concept of ‘Sankofa,’ which believes it is important to understand the past in order not to repeat the same mistakes in the future and the present, and she has consistently engaged with what she describes as “the continual consequences of the epistemic violence of colonialism and intersectional feminism.” (6)


In addition to those expectations, despite its prevalence, there is a historical bias against the woman artist using her body in a way that does not conform. If she is deemed too conventionally attractive (Schneemann, Wilke), her work may be commercially viable, but she is chastised for being vain or pandering to the ‘male gaze’; if her body is considered to lie outside those parameters, she is ‘othered.’


In the context of early mainstream feminist practice, using sexual imagery was declared even riskier. Feminists’ troubled conflation of the erotic and the pornographic led to the marginalization of artists like American painter Joan Semmel. In the early 1970s, she explored the erotic from a female perspective painting high-key colour nude couples having sex, only to find they were ill-received by some women’s groups in the art world. She recalls, “[That] doing sexual art made me not politically correct seemed absurd. I ignored it. But I paid a price, in terms of being left out of certain shows.” (7)


If making such work was already difficult for a white woman (and Semmel’s was less controversial than that of peers Cosey Fanni Tutti or Betty Tomkins), how much harder would it have been for a black artist to explore desire? At the 2016 exhibition Black Sheep Feminism: The Art of Sexual Politics at Dallas Contemporary, for instance, which showcased Semmel amongst others, black artists were not represented. Just earlier this year, queer black photographer Ajamu X claimed, “I think we live in a country [UK] that has a fear of the erotic, a fear of pleasure.” (8)


These twin concerns – the sense of responsibility Damoah felt as a black artist to engage with weighty subjects and as a woman artist to be wary of eroticism as subject matter – led to her shying away from exploring that part of herself in her practice. However, as a consequence of the pandemic, during which she lived alone and was forced to spend time by herself, with herself, she was spurred into reevaluating that self.


And in following Nietzsche’s call to allow contradiction (“How else can we adapt and survive? How else can we accept new ideas?” Nietzsche asks), she found herself back with Lorde who argues in “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” that the erotic is about the deeply felt, that it can be a bridge that connects the spiritual to the political and is not something that should be confined to the realm of sex alone. “The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of its depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honour and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.” (9)


For Damoah, this also meant accepting that, notwithstanding a sense of catharsis or empowerment that comes from educating oneself, of plugging gaps left by the (British) education system’s treatment of history, there’s an emotional and psychological cost to researching and enacting traumatic histories, of literally embodying that grief and pain, which is too often overlooked. (What was the psychic cost to Ana Mendieta of making her visceral performances that spoke to male violence, of smearing herself in blood and burning her silhouette?)


It‘s 3 a.m. and One of the Most Intense, Spiritual, Divinely Feminine, Creative, Sexual Experiences Just Happened in My Brain While I Slept off the Pain (2021); Pigment on canvas; 153 x 102 cm

Damoah recognized that her own practice typically put her body and mind under stress. But why must the black artist deny herself the celebration of the body as-tool as a sensual entity? Why shouldn’t a black artist also speak of joy and be authentic to all aspects of her experience? Lubaina Himid articulates similar feelings: “I need to be able to see myself. I need to make paintings that feel like what it means to be me. We need to feel we belong in those shared spaces. Telling stories of the black experience that are both everyday and extraordinary is what I’m here to do.” (10)

So Damoah made the shift with this series and permitted herself to use her body as a vehicle to express passion and desire, love, and longing, to dedicate herself to what Lorde describes as “the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy.” It was an act of self-care, literally healing the psyche after continually re-opening a wound. Just allowing herself the space to play, to make for the sake of making, felt like a radical act, Damoah says. 

This, then, is how ‘Radical Joy’ got its title. The series was not conceived in chapters; its organization came later. Yet these chapter names “Moonlit Power,” “Heavenly Bodies,” “Mysteries of Desire,” “The Embodiment of Play” conceal as much as they reveal, hinting at romance or sexuality whilst retaining an air of mystery. Perhaps the word “chapter” is deceptive because these works don’t demand to be read in a linear fashion. They can be engaged with in the same spirit with which they were made: fluidly, simultaneously. That said, each has its own mood.

“Heavenly Bodies” sees a marked contrast between the velvety black backgrounds and bubblegum colours that explode like fireworks in a night sky. It’s the most joyous chapter. The works on wood came from discarded panels Damoah found on the site of her studio. Their scale happened to be perfect for body prints, encompassing her knees to her head. 

In Where My Whole Body Came More Alive than It Ever Has Been, but Only in My Mind, the imprint of breasts sits, heart-shaped, at the centre of the composition. Floating above, two co-joined views of the same face: a head caught turning, jawlines an inverted echo of the dip between the breasts. Meanwhile, the edges of the composition fare with their own drama: glow-red palms; a constellation in yellow and green crackling across the site of pain and pleasure towards the base.

The body could be curled up on its side in bed in each panel of the diptych It’s 3 a.m. and One of the Most Intense, Spiritual, Divinely Feminine, Creative, Sexual Experiences Just Happened in My Brain While I Slept off the Pain, but there’s nothing restful in the kick of legs or the illuminated yellow hand. The eye is pulled between a smudge of blue and a green knee. It’s as if the two selves are in dialogue. Mind and body. Pain and pleasure. 

This doubling recurs in The Pain Took Me to Another Place with the Pleasure and It Was a Magical, Beautiful, Creative Womb Space on an even bigger scale. Hands are thrown up as if the figures were caught by surprise, surrendering to the joy even as arms criss-cross between them. It is a neurological
reality that the receptors for pain and pleasure are very closely situated and Damoah alludes to this in several titles. The triptych Moon Cycle, Period, Full Moon. This Week, I Have Simultaneously Experienced Intense Pleasure and Excruciating Pain, for example.

The pain took me to another place with the pleasure and it was a magical beautiful creative womb space (2021); Pigment on canvas; 120 x 183 cm

The play of colours in ‘Mysteries of Desire’ is much subtler, tones and shapes emerging from a murky darkness. Everything is less defined. Titles could be descriptions or instructions: Softly, Gently, Slowly, So That Every Part of You Caresses Every Part of Me. Damoah became obsessed with Bataille in lockdown. She read all his erotic fiction, then his L’érotisme (1957) or “Death and Sensuality,” as it is called in translation. (Bataille Really Did Crack My Brain Open is one of the titles of a work on wood from the ‘Heavenly Bodies’ chapter.) For Bataille, sex is always transgressive. He claims both eroticism and death lie at the heart of the human experience, and it is transgression, itself a manifestation of the world of play, which allows us to progress. Here, too, there are links with Ana Mendieta’s practice which implicates viewers in the violence of its imagery. It’s our identification with others which causes us to
confront ourselves. Such is the role of the erotic.

These works on paper are densely layered. There’s a Kind of Violence in My Desire for You took months to complete, drinking in the most ink, the most pigment. Damoah would labour on it and then hang it up until it was dry (twenty-four hours) and return to it to appraise the composition. The paper grew weightier, and she stopped counting the layers after the eighth. The resulting composition, indeed the whole chapter, shares qualities with the sublime. With its drips and splayed body, it allures and frightens at the same time. A succubus waiting to envelop. Or is just capturing that urge for connection borne out of the pandemic where every sense seemed compromised – the absence of touch from a lover’s kiss or grandchild’s hug to the unwelcome press of a stranger’s body on a crowded rush hour train; the literal loss of taste and smell that came to characterize symptoms of Covid-19?

Damoah has said that Moonlit Power exists in its own magical realm. A lone work as a chapter. The recurring use of the moon as a symbol across the series reminds us how much of women’s lives are tied to its cycles, our bodies in flux, our moods lurching even. Luna, lunacy. The madness and magic. The moon as feminine. For centuries, we relied on its light to cut a path through darkness. As the Greek poet Sappho wrote, “When, round and full, her silver face, Swims into sight, and lights all space.”

Moonlit Power is redolent of this history. It is mysterious. Dark when dimly lit, it invites contemplation. But shine a light on it, and all its colours glimmer, revealing themselves. This dual nature and the likelihood that not all the works in ‘Radical Joy’ will elicit joy, emphasize Damoah’s point: the impossibility of fully knowing joy until you have known pain. We oscillate between the two states in the intimacy of the gallery space, just as the pandemic elicited a complex, often contradictory, set of emotions. For many: gratitude for their good fortune that they were still alive coupled with a sense of mourning for who or what they were missing. Not two endings, not really. Because neither the series nor the pandemic is over. The latter lingers on, refusing to die just yet, and the former is like an open invitation, which Damoah can accept at any time. She has come to describe ‘Radical Joy’ as “a palette cleanser,” a rest from those intense, meditative works that characterized her practice before and will again. A breathing space before reengaging with colonialism which she has described as her lifetime’s work. She can even envisage keeping two separate studios in future, like sculptor Louise Nevelson who retained one for her white works and one for her black. Text may play an increasingly important role, creating new possibilities for narratives to emerge.

For now, ‘Radical Joy’ reminds us that even during a period of the most intense pain, there can still be pleasure if you dare to open yourself to receive it. As Lorde says, “When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the life force of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.” And not a moment too soon. 

  1. Audre Lorde The Cancer Journals Foreword by Tracy K. Smith 2020 [orig. 1980]
    UK Penguin Classics, p.17
  2.  Lorde discusses her choice in her essay collection A Burst of Light Toronto:
    Women’s Press, 1988.
  3. Audre Lorde – The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992, 2012, documentary, Director
    Dagmar Schultz
  4. Conversations with the author, August and November 2021
  5. See for instance ‘Light Borne in Darkness’ (ca. 1951), by Susan Weil and Robert
    Rauschenberg, monoprint: exposed blueprint paper, 6.25 x 9.75 inches. Milwaukee
    Art Museum
  6. For a fuller appreciation of the breadth of Damoah’s practice see her website
  7. https://hyperallergic.com/457281/beer-with-a-painter-joan-semmel/ accessed
    on 05/11/ 2021
  8. https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/v7mjmj/ajamu-x-archive-black-queer-historyphotography accessed on 09/11/ 2021
  9. Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” 1978 in Lorde, Sister
    Outsider California: The Crossing Press, 2007, pp.53- 59
  10. Interview with Zoe Whitely https://artbasel.com/news/lubaina-himid—tellingstories-of-the-black-experience-that-are-both-everyday-and-extraordinary-is-whati-m-here-to-do- accessed 31/10/2021

To view/download the full catalogue also featuring an essay by Peju Oshin and an exclusive interview with Damoah and Sakhile Malthere of Sakhile & Me, please click this link.