“When I was first approached by Jonas, I have to admit I thought, ‘what does this white man know about black female empowerment?'" Discover the unlikely yet deeply powerful collaboration behind Vogue Scandinavia’s exclusive short film Birth of Oshun
In 2017, Harmonia Rosales, an Afro-Cuban American artist from Chicago, released an artwork that caused waves – across both cultural and racial discourses. Titled ‘The Birth of Oshun’ – with Oshun representing BIPOC – the work was Rosales’ own interpretation of Botticelli’s masterpiece ‘The Birth of Venus’. Oshun is a West African doggess of the Yoruba religion, and something of an equivalent to Greek mythology’s Venus: representing femininity, fertility, beauty and love.
It was just one part of Rosales’ ongoing artistic repertoire, depicting women and people of colour assuming roles of power and beauty in iconic Westernised works. Rendered using oil paint, raw linens, gold leaf and wood panels, the works also incorporate iron oxide to portray not only African soil but the decay in African history, to amplify the question, “Why? Why have we accepted Eurocentric perceptions of beauty and historical narratives for so long?”
“I would have never dreamed my art would travel to places I’ve never been,” says Rosales, yet her works did exactly that – reaching Scandinavia where Danish director Jonas Bang stumbled across her work online and, in his words, “was instantly blown away.” “Harmonia’s body of work holds two major qualities: it's both very direct and very deep,” Bang goes on. “Her paintings hold a clear meaning at first glance but when you look deeper numerous messages pop up and they evolve around complex themes like oppression, art history, beauty and empowerment.”
We are universal. It’s a beautiful thing to connect with like-minded individuals.
As Rosales’ works, like 'The Birth of Oshun', challenge people to see things in new ways, it can often elicit a range of reactions – yet this doesn’t ever hold her back. “I believe a true artist creates for themselves,” Rosales reflects. “When you create for yourself, you don’t put too much weight on what others think. However, when creating anything about awareness and empowerment, the message and image has to be conveyed loud, clear and accurately.” This is a red thread that runs throughout all of Rosales' exhibitions, including her 'Master Narrative' which is on tour in 2023 across the U.S., currently showing at the Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis.
Bang’s discovery prompted him to dive into interviews and articles about Rosales’ work and the characters in her paintings. Soon, the question arose as to how it could somehow become a film project. Cue Scandinavian production company new—land who jumped onboard, leaving the only next step as reaching out to Rosales to form a a collaborative partnership and approach the project as co-directors.
Despite being in two very different parts of the world, the collaboration was soon formed “through a lot of calls and emails,” says Bang. “When I was first approached by Jonas, I have to admit I thought, ‘what does this white man know about black female empowerment?’,” Rosales muses. “But I was very curious because no one had approached me with this particular collaboration before the film. Upon meeting Jonas and the new—land team and viewing his portfolio, he is a true artist who focuses on awareness and true artists can understand one another. We are universal. It’s a beautiful thing to connect with like-minded individuals,” Rosales states.
The resulting short film, Birth of Oshun, is in its essence, an elaboration on the original painting that captured Bang's attention. Yet, the video has its own character, its own feeling, its own identity. "It felt quite important that the film shouldn't look too much like the painting but rather feel like a piece of art in its own aesthetic universe, but of course rooted in the painting," Bang comments.
Photo: Sara Samsøe
The lasting message from Birth of Oshun? 'Not all Venuses are born the same. But the sun doesn’t ask permission to shine and neither should you.' In Rosales' own words: "Beauty comes in all forms and colours despite what society’s expectations put on us."
The Birth of Oshun by Harmonia Rosales and Jonas Bang is available to view on Vogue Scandinavia's YouTube channel.