Close up of “Mother Warrior” (ink, acrylic, colored pencil, fabric, glitter, rhinestones and mixed media collage on canvas) / Kristin Guglietti

Jamea Richmond-Edwards arrived in a black satin suit and orange alligator boots for her first one person show in New Jersey titled “7 Mile Girls” on Nov. 7 in the Rowan University Art Gallery to a full house of 100 people.

When spectators walked in, they were greeted by black-inked figures with acrylic nails surrounded in colorful fabrics, print, glitter, fringe and spray paint.

Richmond-Edwards grew up in Detroit, the hair and gator capital, during the late ’80s and early ’90s. She paid attention to popular fashion such as Coogi sweaters, alligator shoes and real and fake Gucci bags that people would wear. Her collages are a reflection of her life’s experiences and her identity as a black and indigenous woman.

The show’s title “7 Mile Girls” refers to the street in Detroit where Richmond-Edwards grew up, which was one mile away from the popular “8 Mile” where Eminem’s early 2000s movie takes place.

“I’m inspired by my coming of age during that time in the ’90s while living in Detroit that happened off of that street,” Richmond-Edwards said.

The subjects in the paintings that are inspired by women from the artist’s life, such as her mother who dressed well, stare at onlookers. The protective braided hair style they share is an integral part of black culture and a form of empowerment.

Richmond-Edwards described her subjects as “fly girls,” which means women who have a sense of agency of their body and selves — who look good and live freely. 

Mary Salvante, Rowan’s art gallery director, said the halo around the head of some figures is Madonna-like, which refers to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Richmond-Edwards grew up Catholic, so the aura reflects her religious upbringing.

Salvante first saw Richmond-Edwards’ work while walking through the gallery district in New York City about a year ago.

“I see her work through a window of the Kravets Wehby gallery and I just stopped in my tracks. I was like ‘oh my God! Who is that?’ and ran in and I just fell in love with her work,” Salvante said. After that she found Richmond-Edwards’ website then contacted her about bringing a show to Rowan.

“Shirt with Lace Heart” shows a “boosting” scene where people go to a store and shop for knock-off Gucci or fake Chanel purses. It’s something that Richmond-Edwards saw growing up.

While many pieces were borrowed from the Rubell Family Collection, one of the largest privately owned collections of contemporary art, four of the paintings are being seen for the first time. Two of them were created specifically for “7 Mile Girls”: “Scrap Dress” and “Girl with Red Cape.” The other two were loaned from private collectors from New York: “Two Sisters and the Horned Serpent” and “Three Orbs and Serpent.”

The Native American motifs of the serpent are a part of the artist’s Choctow ancestry. The paintings are an “example of my experience which is very American, very indigenous, very black. All those things manifest in the work,” Richmond-Edwards said.

Orbs are another reoccurring motifs seen in “Three Orbs and Serpent” and “Girl with Red Cape.” Six years ago, while Richmond-Edwards lived in Virginia, the artist and her mother looked outside the window and saw an orb floating in the sky.

“I began obsessively cutting out orbs and I didn’t know why but I just began cutting them out,” she said. “Then two or three days after I cut them out, my mother had another encounter with one.”

Richmond-Edwards, who is also a mother to three boys, is featured on the Washington Post and Huffington Post’s “Black Artists: 30 Contemporary Art Makers Under 40 You Should Know” list from 2013. Her art is also on four book covers. She is inspired by Deana Lawson, Beverly Buchanan and artists from AfriCOBRA.

Salvante has made a point to show women artists and artists of color because she acknowledges that the traditional art world hasn’t always been as diverse as it could be.

When Richmond-Edwards creates works in her studio, she doesn’t sketch anything out beforehand.

“I don’t know where the painting is going to go,” she said. “I allow it to lead me to where it needs to be.” 

“7 Mile Girls” will be on display at the Rowan Art Gallery until Dec. 21.

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