Asase Yaa cradles earth in her left hand. She is the Great Mother, the keeper of past and present, and strength can be found in her beauty.
She also is Antoine “Ghost” Mitchell’s wife, Erica “Ayxa” Williams, who serves as both model and muse for his paintings, as she did for so many of the works in his exhibit “Profile of a Black Woman,” at the Greenwell Springs Road Regional Branch Library in Baton Rouge.
The show runs through Sunday, Nov. 30, before moving to the Baker Branch Library in December, and it celebrates the power of black women as well as Mitchell’s appreciation for black women through history.
Especially his wife. He calls her his wife-queen, and her likeness can be found in his painting of Nzinga Mbande, the 17th century queen of the Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms of the Mbundu people in southwestern Africa.
Her face also is that of Asase Yaa, the main subject of one of Mitchell’s most recent paintings.
“My wife-queen was eating grapes one night while watching television, and I took out my sketch pad and starting drawing her,” Mitchell says. “This is how I saw her, and this is how I see the Great Mother, Asase Yaa.”
Mitchell is a regular exhibitor in the East Baton Rouge Parish Library system. His work primarily focuses on African and African-American themes, all composed in fine detail through graphite, color pencil and acrylic paint.
“I’ve had so many wonderful women in my life,” he says. “There are my mother and grandmother and now my mother-in-law. And my wife-queen. Women are my muses. So, when I honor them by showing my appreciation, I’m also expressing my appreciation not only for black women but for all women. They are strong and beautiful in this world.”
Mitchell’s art began focusing on women when he was a student at Southern University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in art in 2007. He’s tackled other subjects along the way, including social justice, music and historical figures, but all roads somehow lead back to the iconic black woman.
The project is continuous, beginning with one-night exhibitions, then progressing to this two-library tour.
“I credit Mr. Robert Cox for how I started looking at people in my art,” Mitchell says. “He teaches at Southern, and he’s the director of Southern’s Visual Arts Gallery. I saw things differently after taking his class.”
So differently that Mitchell began packing a camera with him while at school. If he saw someone interesting, he’d ask permission to take a photo. Most of these subjects were female students walking from one class to another.
“Some of them became friends for life,” Mitchell says. “And some I never saw again after taking their photos.”
One would eventually become his soulmate. Mitchell met his wife at the first of his one-night exhibitions celebrating black women. She read poetry at the event, which impressed the artist. Her facial features were as strong as they are in so many of his paintings of her likeness depicting historical and celestial characters.
“My wife is my strongest critic, and that’s good, because she’s honest with me,” Mitchell says. “She tells me what works and what doesn’t.”
This criticism is most prevalent in Mitchell’s development of a comic book series titled “Sankofa’s Eymbrace,” which includes a cast of strong female characters. “Sankofa” is represented in this exhibit by the series’ cover art.
And then there are the women who inspired Mitchell through music and movies.
And a screening of the 1985 film “The Color Purple,” inspired one of Mitchell’s most popular paintings, “Sistaahhh, You Been On My Mind.” The scene is an impressionistic depiction of the film’s diva Shug Avery singing in a blues club.
The room is dark except for the spotlight on Shug, making her appear more of a magical creature than a blues singer.
Which is the point — Mitchell wanted the painting to be as magical as Shug appeared in the scene.
“I told my wife-queen that I wanted to relax when painting this scene,” Mitchell says. “I didn’t want to concentrate on the woman’s face — I just wanted to paint her, to create her presence.”
Now she stands as strong in her beauty as the other women in Mitchell’s show.