Like a family reunion or cherished photo album, to see Ekua Holmes’ art is to see her life and lineage. She shows me two separate altars she constructed, on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, in an exhibit devoted to her work. One side depicts her grandfather, Comado Hendrix. The other, her aunt Mary Maxwell. Their facial expressions are open, skin tones a deep warm hue of browns, reds and oranges, made from a collage of mixed media that include letters and newspaper clippings.
“I feel like memory is like looking through a window in time," Holmes said. "And I set these altars up as windows where I'm looking at characters from my family, members of my family, and imagining or pulling on elements of their personalities that I knew about.”
Her grandfather was deeply religious, an Arkansas lumber man. On his suspenders is the word "blood.” It’s a piece where Holmes interrogates the phrase: pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. This is the core of her work. This unpacking of her family legacy. She remembers her mother’s concern when she first told her she wanted to be an artist.
“I remember her saying, are you sure you don't want to be a teacher or a nurse, maybe?" Holmes said. "And I was like, 'no, I want to be an artist.' So even though she didn't discourage me, which I think was important, she kind of left it open. And let me find my way."
She found inspiration at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, a place she grew up down the street from, in Roxbury. Holmes remembers wandering these halls awestruck as a child. Now, an exhibit of her work — titled "Paper Stories, Layered Dreams" — can be seen at the heart of the museum. There are more than 40 works, including original illustrations from Holmes’s published book projects: "Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement" by Carole Boston Weatherford, "Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets" by Kwame Alexander, and "Black Is a Rainbow Color" by Angela Joy.
Around her, crowds peek over when they realize that the artist who created everything in the room is in their midst. Some walk over to offer a congratulations. Others, like Carolyn Major, couldn’t help but give her a hug. A teacher for over two decades, the work touched Major deeply.
“Ekua’s artistry just provoked such a feeling of purpose, profound intellect and just grassroots memories of growing up in this area of Boston," Major said. "And the need for people to come together and recognize the commonality of all people working towards the good of all.”
Each collage has subtle details. A comic strip here. An ad there. Some images capture moments she experienced walking through her community. A father and his son at a bus stop. An elegant older woman she saw once at Legal Seafoods and felt compelled to photograph. Eventually, Holmes saw her again years later and shared the portrait that she made with her. There's an image of a little girl jumping rope by herself, joyous and unencumbered by life’s tragedy. Holmes layers the canvas and gives it meaning, a yellow brick road leading to the future. In that child, she sees herself, who she was before losing her father and grandmother the same year at a very young age.
“Some of it is found papers. And by that I mean things like newspapers, magazines, old stamps and different things. And some of it is made papers, which means I create the patterns myself," Holmes said. "And I like to work in a quilt-like process where I'm layering things and fitting things together like a puzzle to tell the story.”
In her portraits, Holmes works mostly in primary colors that remind her of those she found in a box of crayons in kindergarten. In her illustrations, she honors Black history, Black art, Black pioneers, bringing important new voices into these galleries. Nearby, a mother and daughter read one of the books she illustrated together.
“I feel happy that these people that I've represented in this work are living here [in the museum] for six months and interacting with people who are coming through, people who will recognize them as neighbors and friends, as family members," Holmes said. "I feel very much like they belong here the same way I felt when I came here at eight years old.”
Outside, sunflowers sprout on the lawn of the MFA in honor of Holmes’ effort to spread joy through local neighborhoods by planting these golden blossoms. Inside, she’s created a space where she hopes people can cry, contemplate, and know that they too belong here.
“I'm between Africa and America and my former student, Chanel Thervil, is the community artist. And so this to me has become a corridor," Holmes said. "It's become a 'Humboldt Avenue.'” It's become a place where you can sort of look at the history of African Americans in a particular kind of way.
Holmes wishes that her mother could see what her faith in her daughter yielded.
"Paper Stories, Layered Dreams: The Art of Ekua Holmes" is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston until January.
This segment aired on August 2, 2021.