“Within my lifetime, I’ve seen five generations of family,” Gilda Edwards wrote in a retrospective about her work. “So far, my ancestry can be traced back to Morocco. I suspect my roots go deeper into Africa because I see evidence in my family’s spiritual habits. In many African cultures, consultation with the spirit world is a necessary way of life. The dead are a direct link to ‘The Divine’ and will guide our course to the ‘Holy Spirit.’ In my culture, relationships with the dead are unsettling. For years I’ve had visits from the dead in my dreams. Now I welcome the communication, and I am attentive to the messages. I use the messages for spiritual guidance in my work.”
When Edwards completed her formal education as an artist, she began flavoring her paintings with images she saw in books of African Art. The masks and animal patterns she mimicked drew questions from observers that she couldn’t answer. She didn’t know what they represented, but they fascinated her.
Over years, she learned quite a bit more about where the images came from, and the reasons they were made, prompting her to move into more sculpture and installation work. It was different from the techniques she had learned, because in most African cultures, art had an intended purpose or use. But she wasn’t sure about what purpose her art might serve.
During the long period in which she was educating herself about African art, she suffered the loss of her older sister and her father. She brought some of their clothes and possessions back to Columbus from her hometown of Philadelphia, and kept them stored in bags.
“I was going to make a quilt for my mother of these things, but every time I opened the bags, I’d get upset and close them back up,” she says.
She finally came across some writing about the African Yoruba culture, where the belief system says that God’s power is in everything – from water to a blade of grass.
“I started contemplating a rock,” she says. “A rock has power. It can be part of something that was once built, it can be used to hurt someone. It was about that time that I decided that anything that I use in my art had to have an existing life before. But while Africa is my conceptual base, the things I use are from the environment I live in.”
Edwards created a series of “Power Figures,” inspired by those made be Congo healers in Africa and given to people to help them get well or improve a skill. She used things she found in the trash around her neighborhood, and made up people who could use her power figures in American ways. A pair of waterskiis and an old tennis racket became an ancient-styled homage to contemporary physical fitness, meant to help an imaginary skiier and tennis player.
Then she began to work on opening the bags of family heirlooms. She took baskets from her sister’s hospital stay and subsequent funeral and cut them apart. The pieces were used to construct a reliquary to hold her sister’s clothes. She made another for her father, using his old neckties to make Mojo bags that cover the motley baskets. In this piece, like other reliquaries, the the bags are used by Edwards “to connect me with him. They communicate my feelings about him to him.” Last year, she created an entire reliquary environment for the dead. It was literally a small room, built in the front gallery of Acme Art Company, filled with pictures and other symbols of memories from her loved ones who have passed on.
“It had this dream that I was in this room and all these dead people were looking through the windows at me,” she says. “If you are thinking in the African way you can’t make a move without the ancestor’s permission. I felt maybe that was my consultation.” Edwards’ art is the method that she uses to patch together a spiritual history. The effort and discipline it would take to become a bona fide practitioner of any African religion is too intense.
“I see connections between my dreams, the materials I collect, and my healing from grief, I use all of this material in my making art process,” she wrote. “My mother has been accumulating her own collection of items from the dead. We reminisce about who has died since my last visit home. Reminiscing has also become a part of my process. My mom rarely misses a funeral for anyone in our Germantown neighborhood, ‘Funerals tend to bring out the most long-lost neighbor,’ she says. She always gets the funeral programs. Since I collect them now, she gets them for me. She is content that I want to remember. I am thankful to share this part of life with her.”
This story is a sidebar to Culture Clash
This story is © Tracy Zollinger Turner, it cannot be reprinted
without her express, written permission
A version of this story originally appeared in the
Columbus Guardian newspaper on November 7, 1996