Dark Goddess — Women embody strength and spirit

Two women are sitting together on a glacial stone. They are looking at each other, and they are moving together. Sun dapples the leaves around them and glints on earrings and diadems. One lifts an earthenware tea pot with the muscle taut in her arm.

Kahywanda Wilson and Alyse Grange, cousins and close friends, share a moment in Obeah’d, a photograph named for a Caribbean tradition of faith and knowledge aligned with African Diaspora magic and spirital practices, and holding a sense of personal power. They have created the image together with awardwinning photographer and poet Shanta Lee, in her ongoing series, Dark Goddess.

“The dark goddess means to me beauty, power and strength,” Kahywanda says in a conversation that Lee has shared in the show’s second incarnation, at the Fleming Museum in Burlington, Vt. “… It’s about your inner feeling — what you would put into it.”

“When I look at the pictures, that’s what I see, is powerfulness. I see strong. I see life.”

‘When I look at the pictures, that’s what I see, is powerfulness. I see strong. I see life.’ — Kahywanda Wilson, embodying one of the goddesses in in Obeah’d

This spring, the third incarnation of Lee’s artwork has opened at the Bennington Museum, interwoven with Lee’s poems and original sound by composer Damon Honeycutt, known internationally for his work with Pilobolus dance company among others, and with artifacts from the museum’s collection.

The idea of the Dark Goddess began for Lee almost 10 years ago. Speaking from home in New Hampshire, she remembered the first seed stirring. She learned the name of Pomba Gira, an Afro-Brazilian god, spirit, feminine divinity with a kinship to the Yoruba Orishas.

Pomba Gira is a woman with passion and power, Lee said. And she began to ask herself, what would it look like to explore the pantheon of goddess that goes beyond maternal nurturing and caring.

She wanted a larger understanding of the sacred woman in all of her aspects — real, alive, active, raw — a woman who can laugh and dance and embrace the dark.

‘Dark is where you get regenerated. This is where you get rest. It’s not anything to shy away from.’ — Shanta Lee

“Dark is where you get regenerated,” she said, remembering conversations with the women who embody the divine spirits in her photographs. “This is where you get rest. It’s not anything to shy away from.”

Kahywanda said Alyse felt that energy, they say, when they came together outside in a beautiful place with someone they love as family. Kahywanda felt the affirmation all the more deeply because they are both cancer survivors.

“For me to see her in that light, and for her to see me in that light, it meant a lot to both of us,” she says — “because we made it.”

Dark Aphrodite sits on the railroad tracks in the center of the wood, crowned in gold. Shanta Lee and L.E. Crowley
Photo by Shanta Lee

Dark Aphrodite sits on the railroad tracks in the center of the wood, crowned in gold. Shanta Lee and L.E. Crowley

Lee has been fascinated to talk with each one of the women in her photographs, she said. She thinks of as her co-creators in the work, and they would often immerse in a month or more of world building to shape an image together.

“They didn’t have to choose any goddess or deity that exists,” she said. “They could make up their own — it was their own relationship, of their choosing.”

They would explore together, she said, and they all took a very active part in imagining a mythology, a place, divine being. DonnCherie McKenzie as a Crow Goddess leans toward the bowl of a tree trunk, and sunlight gleams in an aureole of feathers. Eve walks in an apple orchard. Eileen ‘Re’ Sheppard as The Morrígan climbs to the high ground in a Northeastern forest.

“For some, this has been an act of reclamation,” Lee says, “and taking oneself back in ways that are not always easily accessible in our culture,” introducing her work from the Fleming Museum in Burlington.

‘For some, this has been an act of reclamation, and taking oneself back in ways that are not always easily accessible in our culture.’ — Shanta Lee

Talking with the women who become her co-creators has reshaped the way she envisions her work, she said. She has changed and opened her relationships — she is not the all-knowing photographer behind the lens, making all the choices for a model who will be passively shown.

She and the women who embody the goddesses are talking together and creating together. The women in the photographs shape their own images. She asks them how they feel when she sees them. She asks them how they feel when people walk into a museum and look at them.

They choose where they will create the scene, what they will wear — how they want to feel. They talk about how they will stand and move, and who will be with them, what they will hold and where they will look.

Often they look you in the eye. They look out, wanting to engage with you as equals, Lee and Honeycutt said.

“If you’re asking me a question, and I’m looking right at you” … that contact can invite you to come close, to be involved, Lee said. They can challenge you. “I always want my work to face outward and have space for someone to come in.”

‘I also grew up around a lot of strong women.’ — Damon Honeycutt

Hearing his sound woven through her images, Honeycutt felt the strength of the confluence.

“I also grew up around a lot of strong women,” he said. “My grandmother was running one of the few female-run-and-owned lumber businesses in the Pacific Northwest, and she took that over from my great grandpa when she was 19. I mean, she was spitfire. And my mother … I was just raised around women of that caliber.”

Coming in to the show for the first time, he heard his composition transformed and unexpectedly enlarged.

“I went to the opening, and I heard my own music, my own soundscape, and I thought ‘I composed that?’ …” he said with a note of wonder. “I think it’s magical.”

Shanta Lee and her co-creators explore many faces of the goddess in many cultures, including anger. Press photo courtesy of the artists
Original Berserk

Shanta Lee and her co-creators explore many faces of the goddess in many cultures, including anger and fierceness. Press photo courtesy of the artists

As they explore their relationships with goddesses, the artists ask questions, some of them written clearly on the walls. They ask the meaning of sacred and profane — who defines what is holy, or who is holy, or where? Who sets the boundary between inside and outside holy ground?

Sacred means to make holy, Lee and Honeycutt explain in the show, and profane at the root means before the temple. In Western thought, sacred and profane can often appear as opposites, but in their imaginations, they are more nuanced and blended. Holy at the root means whole — it means healthy, healing, well.

Re, who embodies the Morrígan, describes her experience in making the photograph as deeply healing. Like Kahywanda and Alyse in Obeah’d, Re says in her oral history that for Shanta to see her in this way, to help her explore and take in the strength of a goddess, felt as freeing and deep as a river.

‘It was a conduit opening up for me. That was my experience, and I felt I was channelling this energy.’ — Eileen ‘Re’ Sheppard as The Morrígan

“It was a conduit opening up for me,” she says “That was my experience, and I felt I was channelling this energy.”

The Morrígan embraces a vast well of power, Re said. She traces the Morrígan’s origins in old and middle Irish, in different interpretations of her name — phantom, great queen. She is a woman, a being of the crossroads. (Pomba Gira, who sparked this whole arc of work, is also associated with the Orisha Eshu, a god of the crossroads.)

“We all have pain in our lives,” Re says, “and to move beyond it we have to learn to go into it — that is how healing can take place. … I can find power in experiences where I may have felt powerless or oppressed, I can reach deep down to find the strength to move beyond that experience.”

‘We all have pain in our lives, and to move beyond it we have to learn to go into it — that is how healing can take place. … I can find power in experiences where I may have felt powerless.’ — Eileen ‘Re’ Sheppard

In Re and Lee’s invocation, the Morrígan holds the continuum of life, and of transformation. She holds the strength to move beyond pain and fear. For someone who has suffered childhood trauma, she can help them to learn how to dance.

“To transform that energy into something that is useful and productive,” Re says, “and not self-defeating, and not handicapping, is a huge part of that transformative process.”

“We tap into the sacred feminine whenever we engage with things that bring us joy, things that bring us pain. There can be a spiritual practice, in learning to work with what we experience in life, to grow and to strengthen ourselves and to gain knowledge and wisdom.”

‘To transform that energy into something that is useful and productive, and not self-defeating, and not handicapping, is a huge part of that transformative process. — Eileen ‘Re’ Sheppard

For her and for Lee, the Morrígan and her sisters re-define what it can mean to be a goddess. Western culture often sets strict limitations Lee said.

Honeycutt agreed, remembering his father, an artist, looking back to his own figure drawing classes and talking about aspects of Mary, often the most powerful image of the divine feminine in Christian thought, and how she appears in artists’ imaginations … and how she could appear.

Lee has also re-imagined and challenged the Greek pantheon in her most recent collection of poems, Black Metamorphoses (2023) — as she engages with Ovid’s mythology, she she tells her own stories of transformation, “bathed in ancestral memory,” she writes, “myth, and a sense of the timeless, of the shapeshifting, resilient Black body.”

Her poems weave through the Bennington exhibit too, in a film with Honeycutt’s music, as she recalls strong feminine influences who have shaped and influenced her, living people and ideas and stories.

She honors the tired neighbor at the dry-cleaner who tells her ‘the wonder has left my woman.’ She digs down to find ob- as a root from old Hebrew, a woman of power. She recalls legends of the rich firmness of ripe corn, and she asks what would it mean for a goddess of corn not to give herself wholly to feed other people, but to renew and sustain herself.

Shanta Lee and her co-creators explore many faces of the goddess in many cultures, including protection. Press photo courtesy of the artists
Dark Goddess

Shanta Lee and her co-creators explore many faces of the goddess in many cultures, including protection. Press photo courtesy of the artists

Lee feels drawn to goddesses who exist because they balance out the gods, she said, because they’re actually the ones who can fight the demons. In her photographs, and in the words of the women who embody them, they become lithe beings who can act with the full force of an agile and ardent body and mind.

They stand up and face the people who come toward them, with laughter and an understanding of consequences — with the strength to see and call out someone who acts in weakness or fear — and with a passion for life.

“I like to have the work be almost like it’s sentient,” Lee said, smiling and thoughtful. “It has its own rights. I can take the break from it and then return and see how it expands.”

She compared making this series to learning to ride a motorcycle, heading out onto back roads with room to move and trusting that that machine is going to guide you when you’re working in tandem with it, she said, and letting the place guide you as you move,
and listening.

This story first ran in the Hill Country Observer — my thanks to editor Fred Daley.

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