Deja Marie Combines Spiritualism with Activism to Investigate her Rich Cultural Roots

Deja Marie Combines Spiritualism with Activism to Investigate her Rich Cultural Roots

Deja Marie was raised by her Puerto Rican grandmother in upstate New York. As a child, she suffered from a rare anxiety disorder known as ‘Selective Mutism’ and found it difficult to speak with people outside of her immediate family. In elementary school, she turned to drawing and reading to communicate, and wrote and illustrated children’s books. As she evolved as an artist, Marie started focusing on identity issues and exploring her Afro-Latina roots.

Not Real Art Artist Of The Day Series

When she was growing up in Buffalo, Marie didn’t feel like she completely fit into the Black or Latinx communities. When she enrolled in a primarily white Catholic college, some of her fellow art students refused to engage with her work. As a woman artist of color, she experienced discrimination from various angles. Her early feelings of alienation caused her to become a visual arts teacher working with inner city youth and teenage refugees later in life. The strength Marie gained from overcoming a communication disability, and feeling out of place during her formative years, enhanced her ability to help others in similar situations.

My artwork is primarily about the liberation, exploration, and freedom of creative expression of culturally derived artwork that helps both the artist and viewer grow internally. I believe that there is enough room within the contemporary art world for people who work within of all sorts of mediums and methods. I find it to be important that artists of different ethnic backgrounds, nationalities and cultures have the same opportunities, without having to deal with the many levels of bias that has so long perpetuated the contemporary art space. Art is one of those special things we have in life that has brought us together as human beings no matter what stretch of land we’re on.

Marie’s luminous oil paintings on wood incorporate elements of her grandmother’s spiritualism with symbols from West African Yoruba culture. She is heavily influenced by dreams. Images of birds, jaguars, and vines have mythological origins. In addition to painting, she creates mixed-media sculptures from found objects and papier mâché. She’s been making art since she was a child and considers herself a mid-career artist. Marie still encounters moments of discrimination, but prefers to focus on viewers who respond to her message. As she explores her diverse cultural heritage and shares her experiences through teaching and painting, the inspiration she received from her grandmother gives her work richness and strength.

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Deja Marie — Artist Statement

The creation of my artwork seeks to bring connectivity, health, education, and cultural expression, to a diverse group of individuals through thought provoking imagery. Within each body of work that I create, my goal is to show the pure beauty of the African diaspora, and encourage their descendants to explore a culture outside of assimilation. My artistic process consists of extensive research and inspiration of various cultures on the African continent and beyond, along with the use of my own AfroLatin/Caribbean culture. When I enrolled at Villa Maria College, a private and small Catholic art and physical therapy school in Cheektowaga, New York, I gained more resources and freedom to conduct such research for my artwork. I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Integrated Arts, with an Associates in Fine Arts, and a study of contemporary social issues.

I begin my concepts with small studies utilizing the oil painting medium, leading to the finished piece of work often created on wood. Oil paint is my preferred medium to create with as I love its richness of pigmentation, and the versatility between being able to create both realistic and fantasy like effects that I aim to achieve. I have a balance between creating very realistic imagery, to creating imagery that has AfroFuturistic influences. While I create paintings on wood, whether it be found or bought, I get into a deeper mindset that helps me feel more connected to my cultures traditional practices, and the way in which they would create artwork on natural objects such as wood, stone, gold etc. I also have a preference of using found objects from the earth, wood, wire and papier-mache when creating sculptures.

The artwork I present to my audience is heavily influenced by liberation, mythology, spirituality, Afro-Latin culture, and East and West African culture (most notably Yoruba culture). These bodies of work have the ambition of telling profound stories, leaving viewers to discover all that is hidden inside, each time they interact with it. Each piece of artwork holds onto my core values of hope, prosperity, cultural expression, health and education. I view the people of the African Diaspora in a beautiful, expressive and versatile way, and it’s how I want to continue to see them represented in the art world. Every exhibition, event, or discussion I have, is dedicated to this.

Deja Marie – Grant Submission Work

Deja Marie. Pumzi ya Maisha (The Breath of Life), 2020
Pumzi ya Maisha (The Breath of Life), 2020
Mixed Media on wood
20 x 24 inches

Pumzi ya Maisha is a part of an 8 series body of work called A Dance in the Milky Way. This piece in particular came to me within in a dream, and is my artistic interpretation of how the creation of man looked as described in the book of Genesis. I utilize different influences from West African (Ghanaian and Nigerian Yoruba) culture through the use of the Adinkra symbols which tells a story of the character within the body. I also incorporate nature within this piece using the vines as a representation of constant growth, and the Bird of Paradise flower native to South Africa, symbolizing within itself ultimate freedom and joy.

Deja Marie. Kikelomo, 2020
Kikelomo, 2020
Oil on canvas
20 x 16 inches

Kikelomo is a Yoruba Oriki name meaning "a child is meant to be pampered", this piece depicts the weight of motherhood, physically, spiritually, and mentally. Through the use of symbolism with color, nature, and Adinkra symbols that move the story, I aim to show the importance of maternal relationships. As viewers gaze longer at this piece, I want them to see the serenity, patience, and love and this mother has within herself to help raise her child filled with life and prosperity. Well after the mother has finished her initial job of raising her child into adulthood, she will still continue to have her child resting on her head, within her mind, and heart. Whatever burdens Kikelomo will face, or happiness she feels in life, will also be endured by her mother because of the spiritual connectivity she has created.

Deja Marie. Ife Ti Emi (Spiritual Passion), 2020
Ife Ti Emi (Spiritual Passion), 2020
Oil on wood
6 x 4 feet

Ife Ti Emi is a part of an 8 series body of work called A Dance in the Milky Way. This series focuses on mythology, and the spiritual longevity of love between Black/African people across the African Diaspora, that has been attempted to be hidden through the lens of the media.

Deja Marie. (I'm As Puerto Rican As A Coqui), 2018
Soy De Aqui Como El Coqui… (I'm As Puerto Rican As A Coqui), 2018
Oil on wood
4 x 4 feet

My identity and culture runs strong through my veins, however, this piece represents my journey of “chasing” it. My true liberation lies within the feathers. I was ambitious to retrieve more of myself back and share my culture with a wider audience once I did that. I use the Coqui (small frog native to the island of Puerto Rico) to represent myself, jumping around attempting to grasp onto pieces my identity, that had been lost through my phases of assimilation, and a willingness to fit in with others. As the Coqui catches more and more feathers of identity it becomes truly liberated. I titled this piece Soy De Aqui Como El Coqui, to honor my grandmother who never forgets who she is and where she comes from.

Deja Marie. Mlinzi Wangu (My Guardian), 2021
Mlinzi Wangu (My Guardian), 2021
Mixed Media on canvas
40 x 30 inches

Mlinzi Wangu is a piece that represents many things from spiritual connectivity between man and animal, to a glimpse into what beauties lie within Heaven on earth. Through my continuous use of Western and Eastern African influences, as well as influence from my own Afro-Latin culture, I attempt to guide my audience through this tale with symbolism alone. I am also heavily inspired by my own dreams and try to interpret them through my paintings. Every aspect of my artwork should be viewed as if there is more than meets the eye. The question that should be asked is who exactly is Mlinzi Wangu in this piece? Is it the figure? The Black Jaguar? The Nature that surrounds them? The galaxy that appears to consume them? Or, a force that is omnipresent and unseen? While the figure in the background appears to be forming the nature around them, is that exactly the case? Both manner of creatures’ illuminate with pure golds and blues so vibrant, you get a sensation that you couldn’t hold a gaze to them in the physical form. While working on this piece, I found myself being taken aback by the image I was creating. I felt as though I was walking through a gem of land deep and hidden from humanity and upon reaching a certain point, I was confronted by these two beings. The more I put brush to the blank canvas, the more I revealed the imagery hidden behind it. I am always interested to know what feelings invoke my audience when they view my artwork.

Deja Marie – Artist Bio

I have had a burning passion for art since I was a young child starting the craft at the age of three years old. Art has been a generational blessing passed down in my family, and the amount of expression that I can create within a body of work motivates me to continue my artistic journey. I grew up in the city of Buffalo, New York alongside Lake Erie. I was raised and heavily inspired by my grandmother, a sweet Boricua (Puerto Rican) woman who traveled from Guanica to NYC with a dream of political activism, community work and spiritual expression. We used to take walks alongside the shoreline and gaze at Canada, which seemed like a different world to me at the time. I became very inspired by this scenery to create the world around me, connected with my own perspective of life.

Art had been a big aid in helping me communicate better growing up. When I was a child, I suffered from a rare and extreme anxiety disorder known as "Selective Mutism". I had a very hard time communicating with many of those who were not in my immediate family, and I could not physically speak at all in school. One outlet I had in relieving my anxiety, was drawing and reading. I was recognized for creating complex imagery for my age in art class. I began writing and illustrating my own children’s books in grammar school, and utilized art as my form of communication during that time. Later on, I began developing rather perplexing identity issues due to my being an Afro-Latina. I was often discriminated against, and excluded from both my Black and Latinx side in school, forcing me to question who and what I am. This lit a spark inside me, and inspired my creations of culturally expressive artwork, because subconsciously, I was proud of my identity. I desperately wanted to change the narrative that there was just one specific “Latinx look.”

My passion led me to study Latinx history in the Americas, the African culture that is deeply-rooted in it, and how I could bring this together within my artwork to tell a story and educate individuals. When I began my journey of identity exploration within myself culturally, ethnically, nationally and racially, I found these ideas to be more meaningful to me, rather than creating something with no real idea behind it. I began focusing my concepts on my community, because I saw the way my expressionist work of identity touched them.

They related to my work on the struggles that we share together, along with our beautiful cultures. I have reached a point now in my professional career where creating artwork has become selfless, as my goal is to be a voice for those of my community who want to see artwork that represents themselves in a beautiful way. I can happily say my work has touched, inspired and educated many diverse groups of people through various gallery and virtual exhibitions I’ve held, or been a part of. I work as a dedicated Visual Arts teacher for inner city and refugee youth, and inspire them to explore who they are, and be creative regardless of societies judgements, or disabilities they may have.

Deja marie on the Web And Social Media

Here is where to find out more about Deja on the web and social media:

About the Artist of the Day Series

All artworks have been published with permission of the artist. Our "Artist of the Day" series is a regular feature highlighting artworks from the 100's of grant applications we receive. The "Not Real Art Grant" is an annual award designed to empower the careers of contemporary artists, and this is one way we honor all entries we receive. Find out more about the grant program here.

Kirsten Bengtson-Lykoudis

Kirsten Bengtson-Lykoudis is a writer, photographer, and former New York gallerist based in Richmond, Virginia. She has a masters in fine art, a BA in Russian literature, and is earning a masters in nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins University, AAP.