Amirah Chatman is a Black Queer Artist living in Portland, Oregon to pursue an MFA at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, and to be closer to nature. She is a multidisciplinary figurative artist and has had multiple works displayed in Phoenix, Arizona, her hometown. Amirah is currently exploring visual ideologies of Heaven and existence, placing their figures in turbulent otherworldly locations.
My journey in Portland began during the early months of the COVID-19 Pandemic, following the back-to-back losses of my high school best friend, my Grandmother and Grandfather, and after being active in summer protests largely sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Thousands of people were dying every day from the virus, and footage of modern-day lynchings by police and racists was being spread all over social media. I was depressed and anxious, seeking to create some beauty in a world that felt ugly, bleak and violent. In the wake of so much loss, I found myself ripe with curiosity about the afterlife, identity, existence, and fantasy.
I sought to depict myself and loved ones rested, peaceful, vibrant and free. The way I had previously illustrated the figure was against a solid color or gradient background. It was visually appealing but it felt lacking in depth and it felt empty. I needed to build an environment for my figures to reside in. Where do we go, and what does that Place look like?
I began researching images and depictions of the afterlife, seeking that visible feeling of repose and freedom. I grew up in a loosely Christian family, and therefore looked primarily at Christian and western art. I wanted to see what was offered within my culture already in the way of representation. What I found were mostly depictions of white people as angels, white babies frolicking through big fluffy white clouds. I was unsurprised, but still disappointed. For a religion so focused on spreading its word, and historically converting other cultures, we were very absent in the interpretations of the afterlife.
Do people of color get to rest in these places, are we allowed to fly and frolic?
While the images I found seemed peaceful, they lacked diversity and variety. In the few portrayals of heaven I found that did include black people, there seemed to be a running theme of white saviorship and how our adjacency to whiteness was what would lead us to salvation. Some paintings were even blatant copies of anglo-angelic art. The idea of only being included in this narrative by emulating the white-dominated aesthetics didn’t sit well with me, and I realized that I needed to create a new Place for me, my friends, and those that we’ve lost to exist in: somewhere unique, complex, lively, and inclusive.