That July morning, the crowd of Baltimore onlookers watched as Nicoletta Daríta de la Brown climbed atop the base where a statue of Roger Taney had stood. Then, the Afro-Panamanian artist burned sage to cleanse negative energy and wafted smoke with an owl’s wing. She lifted up a round gold mirror that symbolizes awareness and wisdom.
“I wanted to make it safe,” said de la Brown, reflecting on the decommissioned monument to the U.S. Supreme Court justice, who wrote the majority opinion in the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision declaring Black people could not be U.S. citizens. “I can stand in it, on it and hold it and feel powerful and carry all of my ancestors with me.”
Coming from a family of healers, de la Brown, 39, is a chamána (shaman), interdisciplinary artist, sculptor and filmmaker. A former instructor at the Maryland Institute College of Art who attended the Baltimore School for the Arts in high school and walked through Mount Vernon Square and saw the monument every day, she creates performances tied to her spirituality. They are a way to honor her heritage, and a brand of art wrapped in medicine.
“In this time of civil unrest and social inequity and us trying to find equitability, sometimes I have to just get out of my head and get back into my body,” she said.
Whether atop the base of a Confederate-era statue or perusing the 15th-century gallery at the Walters Art Museum, the Baltimore artist aims to create safe spaces and cleanse environments that were not historically built or intended for her.
“As a Black woman, I sometimes feel unprotected,” said de la Brown. “If I’m claiming the space as a Black woman, that means that everybody is also invited to the table.”
She does not see her performance art as a sign of protest, but as a process of healing — rituals passed down from generation to generation. It’s a family affair, and her eldest son, who is a film student at the Baltimore School for the Arts, documents the performances. During an age where violence and police brutality are documented on cameras and shared online, the potential to be triggered and relive trauma is constant, she says.
“Every time I see a Black body or a person of color experiencing injustice, I have a physical reaction, because I see myself, my son, my mom,” she said. “It’s activating traumas that I didn’t know were still there."
During a recent Zoom interview from her Mount Vernon apartment, de la Brown was sipping hibiscus rose tea and perched on an ornate white throne adorned with gold wings. She purchased it in March to honor herself, and feel secure and safe. In Panamanian culture, gold symbolizes protection and closeness to God.
"What I’m doing is healing, and I’m showing that what’s also valuable is joy,” said de la Brown.
During the artist’s childhood, her grandmother taught her rituals based in Yoruba practices in the kitchen of their Brooklyn brownstone. De la Brown learned about herbs and how to use crystals — some that she’s had since she was 3. When her Catholic school classmates took Nyquil for a cold, de la Brown was told to hold a rabbit, do a ritual dance and put stones in a pot. She also felt a divide on spirituality. For Catholics, she saw that rituals were tied to gilded statues, altars and grand cathedrals. At home, she learned it was holistic.
“It was the way that we picked the fruit at the store,” she said. “It was yuca, the bacalao. That was a spiritual moment when we went home and we cooked and everyone ate.”
The Yoruba faith, which centers on orisha worship and ancestor veneration, originated in West Africa and existed centuries before the trans-Atlantic slave trade. There are more than 400 orishas, or deities, that represent primordial divinities, deified ancestors, and personified natural forces and phenomena. Yoruba’s spiritual practices spread across the African Diaspora and into Latin America and Colón, a majority Black and Afro-descendant province in Panama where de la Brown’s family is from.
For a performance artist, it is not always clear how her work fits in the traditional art world. While audiences might not understand what they’re seeing, onlookers do have emotional responses to her performances. The director of MICA’s graduate program in community arts, Kenneth Krafcheck, says de la Brown lovingly knocks down walls. He said her work is not an abstract idea but art that washes over you.
“You are experiencing love, someone cares, someone is interested in who you are,” he said, describing one performance he witnessed. “I felt like I was a part of something real, something evocative, and that there was more being made out of the moment than I would have realized possible.”
Last year, the purpose of de la Brown’s nine-hour performance at the Walters was to challenge centuries of beliefs in how Black women are allowed to interact with what is sacred. Becky Stavely photographed the Walters performance and was blown away by de la Brown’s ability to create connection and “spaces for others where they’re seen and heard.”
“It was all done nonverbally, visually, communicating through dance, and connecting with the artwork around her,” said Stavely. “She literally brought people to tears.”
De la Brown said her work has included developing healing arts and education enrichment programs for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, Kaiser Permanente, and Red Bull Amaphiko. Amid COVID, she’s been teaching high school art and mindfulness, meditation, tea rituals, and how to filter and unplug in between classes during the new normal of digital learning. As an Artist Navigator Fellow at Maryland Citizens for the Arts, she said she has hosted virtual workshops since March for hundreds of local artists on sustainability, creating rituals, practices and self-care.
She remembers questioning as a teenager whether she could be a Black Latinx woman and an artist. “I honestly wanted to be invisible in plain sight,” de la Brown said of her teenage self. Her biggest failure, she says, was not loving herself out loud.
Today, she is the founder of VidaMágica. Love, a creative platform dedicated to providing women of color with self-care, wellness workshops, and retreats. She created a project called Art Antidote to aid underserved youth in recovery from psychological and physical traumas through free therapeutic arts services and healing public art installations for pediatric hospital patients.
In collaboration with her son, de la Brown is finishing a performance series this fall called Three Bodies, which started with her ceremony at Mount Vernon Square. She also did a cleansing ritual at a fountain space in Washington D.C. In August, she performed a ritual bath and cleansing at Patapsco Valley State Park, where she lay in the river to release all the fear and anxious energy trapped inside her during COVID.
“The more that we’re ourselves in public space,” she said, “the more that we can be vulnerable, the more powerful we are, and the more we can feel connected.”
Stephanie Garcia is a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities.