Demystifying the Past: Cora Marshall on Spirituality, Heritage, & Re-Imagining Herstory Wednesday 12 September, 2012

Marshall - Big Web - 920x350

By turning inward and reflecting on past experiences, I always glean a spark of wisdom to shine the way for what lies ahead. But what happens when that past has been partially, if not completely, erased? For Washington D.C.-based artist Cora Marshall, the quest to rediscover herstory overflows into beautiful works of art. Centered in […]


By turning inward and reflecting on past experiences, I always glean a spark of wisdom to shine the way for what lies ahead. But what happens when that past has been partially, if not completely, erased? For Washington D.C.-based artist Cora Marshall, the quest to rediscover herstory overflows into beautiful works of art. Centered in spirituality, Cora’s work connects to lessons from her African and Native American past.

Like many women of color, Cora’s roots are extremely mixed. Her background, which includes a white slave owner, a former slave, and Cherokee blood, can be laborious, if not impossible to trace. However, Cora’s stunning artwork shows that when the path to our cultural history is blocked, we can turn inward for the answers we seek.

As a creative spirit, Cora has solved the puzzle of her past with grace, drawing inspiration from the iconography, symbols, use of materials, and spiritual ceremonial garb used in Benin, Samburu, Bamileke, and other African cultures. In this interview, we discuss Cora’s artistic celebration of self-discovery, culture, and freedom.

Cora Marshall

Your work seamlessly integrates many elements of African and Indian symbolism and spirituality. How much does your cultural background shape your art?

I believe your past is the ground beneath your feet. When it is firm and steady, you stand tall and can proceed with grace. When it is shaky and unsure, you must go forward cautiously without the benefit of having points of reference to guide the way. As an American of mixed ancestry––African, Native American, and White––my past is an enigma. Nevertheless, I am attempting to place myself on more solid ground by visually exploring my cultural past through my art. Still, claiming such a mixed background is not an easy process.

We can journey inward and touch the terrain of the heart, soul, and mind and fashion a spiritual landscape that exceeds the horizon of our corporeal, and oft times dissonant physical reality. We can apperceive the present and our cultural past. We can create imaginal worlds that give context to the here and now and view these possibilities from multiple perspectives. And as a visual artist, I can exteriorize this place for all to see. This is my journey.

Banna by Cora Marshall
24″x24″ Acrylic

I love the depth of color and richness of emotion in your “Dark Matter” series. I think that “Banna” particularly captures the whimsical, imaginative, and mysterious nature of black women. Could you share with us what inspired this piece?

Much of my work, including the painting Banna from the Dark Matter series, is about finding what’s missing, i.e., connections to and lessons from my past. To find these missing pieces, I use paint and other materials, to adopt, adapt, and bring to life lost stories from the dark history of slavery and conquest as I attempt to fuse these connections one stroke of the brush at a time.

The series’ title, Dark Matter, is taken from the term scientists use to describe one of the most mysterious things in the universe—dark matter. Most of our universe is missing, that is, we cannot see or touch it. This missing mass is referred to as dark matter. Its existence is only implied by the effect it has on stars around it. Like dark matter, though the particulars of my past cannot be seen or touch in the usually way, through my paintings, I know it is there by the effect it has on who I am and will become.

Who are some other black female artists that you admire and draw creativity from?

Actually, there are too many to name. The top four would be: Renee Stout for her Nkisi works, Charlotte Ka for her use of color and forms, Lois Jones (She was one of my teachers at Howard) for her philosophy and technical influence, and Betye Saar for her storytelling and mixing of media.

Ndebele by Cora Marshall
24″x24″ Acrylic

When I look at your work, I feel a sense of longing for a more ancient and ceremonial time. What role do you think that your art plays in re-creating our history?

While indeed much of my work is about re-creating our history, it is also about re-contextualizing it. By that I mean that the “conqueror” gets to write the history. This written word is told from their particular point of view. I think what I offer is an alternative viewpoint by imagining other narratives. For example, my mixed media painting series, Runaway: Going, Going, Gone is inspired by my discovery of “Wanted” advertisements from the early 1700s and 1800s.  The title of this series refers both to the auction block on which my ancestors were sold and to the dangerous flight from slavery to freedom. These ads describe runaway enslaved people in, sometimes, minute details. Descriptions of hair color and styles, clothes, complexion, scars, size, and demeanor conjure vivid images in a real and tangible ways.

The paintings provide a visual representation for the enslaved that heretofore only existed in the classified sections of historical newspapers. These visual portraits transform the runaways from “paper beings”to personalities who have faces, physical attributes, and attitudes. The goal is not only to create a physical likeness based on descriptions in the advertisements, but also to reveal deeper insight into their character, expression, experiences, and personality. For the next phase, I am emancipating their voices by creating imagined first person narratives based on historical facts. Hopefully, by so doing, they can tell their stories from a in a way that outsiders cannot.

Samburu by Cora Marshall
24″x24″ Acrylic

The symbol for Live Unchained is derived from the West African adinkra symbol of sankofa, which demonstrates the importance of returning to the past to build the future. Do you find that in order to progress in your artwork, you must “go back, to go forward?”

I’ve used the Sankofa figure in many paintings, in particular the Grandmother series in which I meld African, Cherokee, and Christian symbols. But to answer your question, on occasion, I wander into poetry. Here’s one of mine that I think expresses my journey.

I know the power of yesterday

to awaken the now

 The power of the ancestral voice

that resonates and rouses memory

deep down inside

The clear vision of the past

that expands the horizon of possibilities

and reveals a heritage and a history

So that I may see

the cracks in the universe through which I can slip

to experiment and experience

I know the power of yesterday

to awaken the now

 It is the power of knowing

of identifying

of connecting to

the who of what I am

Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?

To me, living unchained means to live mindful of the possibilities of all that you are and can be.

Written by Aleyna Jones



  • Noreen says:

    I really enjoy your website and the creativity associated with it. I am learning so much about past and present women of color and what their contributions to society as a whole have been.

    I especially liked the Cora’s artwork and hope to purchase her art in the future.

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