The Abolitionist Aesthetics of Patrisse Cullors, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter

“Imagine if culturally we understood that protecting Black women meant protecting all of us,” reflected Patrisse Cullors, renowned for her activist work with Black Lives Matter (BLM), a global network she co-founded in 2013 with Alicia Garza and Ayo Tometi. “I think that’s what this show means to me.”

The show referenced here, “dedicated to all Black women and femmes around the world,” is the exhibit Between the Warp and Weft: Weaving Shields of Strength and Spirituality—an introduction to Cullors as an artist wielding her protection spell over Black women. While she has exhibited her artwork in previous shows, this marks her first solo exhibit, one based in “abolitionist aesthetics.”

(Ryan Pfluger)

“Abolitionist aesthetics is the building of art and cultural spaces and places that aestheticize care,” Cullors said. “What would it look like to aestheticize love, boundaries, protection—all the tenets of abolition that I deeply believe in?”

“Black women don’t even have a framework for being protected,” Cullors continued through tears. “The assumption is that you’re just going to be discarded. For most Black women, it’s not even a part of our language.”

With abolitionist aesthetics, Cullors articulates a visual language affirming protection. In this vein, each of the artworks featured in her show is dedicated to a Black woman in her life.

Cullors also centers the symbol of the sword that stems from her spiritual practice of the Yoruba religion—which has resonances across Santeria, Lucumi, and Vodou—and her specific connection to her spiritual guide, the orisha Oya, a warrior deity represented by the winds and storms.

“I see Oya’s sword as an opportunity for Black women to reclaim what protection looks like for us,” Cullors said. “Whether that’s protecting ourselves from white supremacy or protecting ourselves from Black men. … If we’re thinking about this from an African perspective, these Orisha are genderless. If you’re a cis man or a cis woman, you can be a masculine Orisha. You can be a feminine Orisha. These are not wedded to a gender. And I think that’s very important. Each of these Orisha actually play with gender often.

“I’ve been talking to Oya a lot over the last few years. She is our warrior, and she once was a person [that existed in history]. Oya ended up being a king at one point. And she was always this fierce warrior who protected herself but also her people. I’ve been accessing her and her sword as this symbol of protection.”

Oya’s sword is also reflected in the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, which Cullors, along with Garza and Tometi, created as a shield against the extrajudicial killings of Black people by state actors and vigilantes. Its aims for protection ignited a global movement.

Cullors’ spirituality, which she has practiced for over 20 years, not only informs her art and perspectives but also her daily living and decades-long activism—from the resistance of jail expansion in Los Angeles to BLM.

“It’s a reclamation of my lineage,” Cullors said. “For me, it’s accessing a tradition that is matrilineal. I think there is a deep desire for me, and I think many Black Americans specifically, to connect to something beyond an Abrahamic tradition, a Christian faith, a Muslim faith. And it’s a tradition that isn’t about evangelizing. In fact, it’s really taboo to go and evangelize and tell people they should convert to Ifa. Instead, it’s a tradition that calls you.”

Cullors experienced a divination reading when she was around 19, which led to her eventual initiation at age 26 into this spiritual practice.

“I grew up a Jehovah’s Witness,” Cullors said. “That was a religion that felt deeply disconnected from who I was, even as a young person. I really loved the storytelling of the Bible, but when it came to the shunning of people, and the discarding of people, it didn’t feel right. While my grandmother was Christian, she was culturally Black Indian and brought all the medicine components in our lives and our community and our family life. I distinctly remember seeking out more understanding of earth-based practices.”

The search for an earth-based faith seems to be experiencing a renaissance among a new generation as the Christian church undergoes a decline.

“I think we’re witnessing a renaissance around going back to the land,” Cullors explained. “And going back to practices that are analog, that don’t involve a screen, that are less reliant on the kinds of Western technology that often shuns spiritual technology or indigenous technology. Ifa is binary code, the first binary code. It’s a technology. And we have always used technology and spiritual technology to advance our lives and our people’s lives.”

However, “the Internet is not what it used to be,” Cullors observed. “It used to be a place where many of us, especially Black women, felt like our voices were democratized. And then white supremacy and racism and misogynoir quickly understood that it can troll Black women and cause serious harm on our lives through the Internet. And until we are willing to confront white supremacy, racism, misogynoir, Black women specifically are going to be hunted—whether that’s through social media or in real life. When Big Tech aligns itself with police, military, and doesn’t have great infrastructure to stop Russia and China and Iran from infiltrating our movements and our Internet, we’re going to have a hard time.”

Cullors experienced “trolling” first-hand when she became the target of a right-wing media story inferring the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation misappropriated the funds they raised in the wake of racial justice protests in 2020 with the purchase of a $6 million-dollar mansion,as well as Cullors’ own private purchase of a home. First reported from the pages of right-wing conservative platforms, the manufactured controversy eventually made its way to more progressive media outlets and social media.

“I think what’s most disappointing are the Black gossip sites that picked up the story as if it were something bad,” Cullors lamented. “We live in a country that has divested from Black wealth and the ability for Black people to be upwardly mobile for the last hundreds of years. And every moment where we’ve had some semblance of stability, financial stability, we have been criminalized for it. I think about Tulsa [and the destruction of Black Wall Street], I think about all the Black land that has been stolen from Black people. I think about how at the height of Reconstruction there was more Black land ownership than exists now.”

“I was really proud of being a Black homeowner,” Cullors continued, “and I was really proud this small organization that I started in 2013 with a few women was able to afford a $6 million home. I’m not there anymore, but the intention was for it to be used as a community center. Anyone who understands money and finances, when you have cash, you need to make sure that it appreciates. And buying a home actually adds value to the work that you’re doing and to the business or company or organization that you’re running. There isn’t a single civil rights legacy organization that doesn’t own property. And so, the idea that Black Lives Matter wouldn’t, and that we didn’t get the chance to even tell this story before it was criticized, was a deep disappointment.”

Not only does Cullors regret how the story unfolded, she also believes it was the spark that led to the targeting of other Black women—from Claudine Gay’s forced resignation, after only six months as Harvard’s first Black woman president, to the U.S. Court of Appeals 11th Circuit ruling that Arian Simone’s Fearless Fund for Black women owners of small businesses was discriminatory.

“I was the beginning of the backlash, let’s be really clear,” Cullors said. “I’m the beginning, and if this is successful, they’re going to just go one by one by one. And now, how many Black women have been targeted? Can’t even count how many of us have been targeted.”

It is no wonder she is wielding Oya’s sword—in art and in her daily practice.

In 2017, Cullors returned to art school to hone her skills. She co-founded the Crenshaw Dairy Mart art collective in South Central, Los Angeles, and in 2019, launched the innovative Social and Environmental Arts Practice MFA program at Prescott College. Both of these projects are grounded in her abolitionist aesthetics.

BLM may not get much media coverage as of late, and continues to be vilified by political opponents. Nonetheless, Cullors feels the movement is in good hands.

“Black Liberation Movement will never die,” Cullors insisted. “It’s existed in many iterations [from anti-slavery to racial uplift to civil rights to Black Power]. This iteration of the movement is still alive and well. Whether the media is focusing on it or not, Black people are always going to be resisting the conditions that we’ve experienced.”

Cullors said this while acknowledging that she has taken a backseat to let others steer the course.

“I think when you hold on too tightly to something,” Cullors said, “you don’t allow it to evolve, and you don’t allow it to really live out its destiny. I’ve offered BLM back to the people. You all decide what is next for this amazing, courageous action that was created by three Black women.”

It may not be clear what the future holds for BLM, but Cullors knows what she wants for herself.

“My future is more art, more love, more care, more time with my child,” she mused. “My future is creating spaces and places that allow Black women to feel seen and protected and cared for, and building out the next set of institutions that really center abolitionist aesthetics.”

Art. Family. Community. Institution building. These too are part of the liberation struggle.

Between the Warp and Weft: Weaving Shields of Strength and Spirituality opens Saturday, June 15, at the Charlie James Gallery in downtown Los Angeles. It runs until July 20.

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.