Artist and designer Januwa Moja designed Queen of Spades to honor the goddess Oya/Yansa. Oya is an Orisha, a Yoruba deity or spirit meant to reflect one of the manifestations of God. Moja invoked Oya because the deity is a warrior spirit who controls the weather (especially the winds, which bring change) and who guards the realm of the ancestors. She is the also the Orisha of the Niger River in western Africa; in Yoruba, the river is called Oya, which literally translates to “She tore.” In Santeria, a practice that combines African and Caribbean religion with Roman Catholicism, she is identified with Our Lady of Candelaria, an apparition of the Virgin Mary honored on Tenefire, one of the Canary Islands.
Moja constructed this from different patterned fabrics significant to different parts of Africa. These brightly colored fabrics are produced for export in Holland and Indonesia. African communities use the cloth in various significant ways – for example, politicians will buy bolts and have their portraits printed on the fabric for distribution during a political campaign.
Moja created the feathered headdress and two necklaces as part of this ensemble. The necklaces, made from bone, antler, beads, and cowry shells, are not made to be worn as mere decorative jewelry, but armor, as befits the powerful Oya.
Photographer Renee Cox wore Queen of Spades and its headdress in her work Yo Mama Madonna. Cox chose Moja’s garment because of its distinctly African look, which aligned with her artistic vision. In the photograph, Cox, donning the pieces, depicts herself as the Madonna, with her own son representing in Christ Child on her lap. Cox’s choice to include Queen of Spades as part of her work draws an interesting connection to Oya’s identification with the Virgin of Candelaria, as the latter is sometimes depicted as a Black Madonna. This plays into Moja’s vision of the robe as a way of honoring the goddess as she was seen in the African Diaspora.
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- T.C. for MOBIA