Bekezela Mguni Offers Poignant Exhibit in Light of Ukraine War

John Maurer

-John Maurer

Timing is everything. And while artist Bekezela Mguni began creating her latest exhibit – entitled I come from a holy place – in 2018, the now completed collection of art provides an even greater cultural context today given the 2022 Russian conflict with the Ukraine. Mguni’s exhibit was discussed Saturday morning, July 23rd at the Mattress Factory’s Boxspring Cafe in the Mexican War Streets of North Pittsburgh. Mguni, a queer artist and an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago has lived in Pittsburgh’s Hill District for the past two decades. Her current installation, I come from a holy place, is a part of a larger artistic project, a collection of works from both Russian and American artists entitled Pop-Aganda: Revolution & Iconography, where the art provides commentary of the moral ideology that underlies propaganda as we know it, while simultaneously the pop-art sensibilities in the works put those commentaries within a cultural context from which to view them. All of which are timely and compelling themes in today’s current events in Europe.

Bekezela Mguni

Mguni’s exhibit is a four-wall collection on the fourth floor. As soon as the elevator doors open, one is immediately greeted with Mguni’s piece, Affirmation, a circular mirror wreathed in hand-assembled dried flowers with the phrase and title of the exhibit, “I come from a holy place” printed in capital letters along the bottom curve of the mirror. Within the viewer’s own reflection, this piece serves as a portal into which one enters the installation understanding that the artist isn’t just trying to communicate where they come from but asks the viewer to consider their own origins. Upon further exploring the violet painted sub-room, one is greeted by an enlarged photo of Gomphrena flowers captioned by a purple neon sign that reads, “You your best thing.” This is a quote from Toni Morrison, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning novelist that Mguni refers to as her “ancestor.”


Foundation / Altar

This flowed into the next piece, Foundations/Altar, an assemblage piece built from salvaged tin, steel, and a black marble fireplace mantle and ornamented with small statues, shells, flowers. These materials provide the “foundation” to two photos of Mguni’s parents holding her as an infant. According to Mguni, she mused while creating the piece “How do I affirm black people in a world that tries to erase and destroy us?” Perhaps her hypothetical answer is offered in a photo of graffiti Mguni currently has as her Facebook banner which reads ”More Black Self-Care.” Ultimately, the piece places the artist and her parents in a context which empowers and uplifts her and asserts that when looking for truth, we shouldn’t look outside but inside, a message that could also be taken from the previous piece, Affirmation.


On the third wall was a collection of a dozen printworks made utilizing both screen printing and inkjet printing. Each one was composed of a background image of flowers overlaid with patterns of yellow circles and dots and images of June Jordan and other culturally impactful Black women. All three elements – the background photos of flowers, the screen-printed patterns, and the portraits – were all used repeatedly in similar, but not exact, compositions that create a feeling of defamiliarization causing one to scan each and every one over and over again to find the details that differentiate them.


Beside this collection of images, vertically arranged and constructed from more salvaged metal were three Adinkra Symbols, one of which was Gye Nyame (which means “the omnipotence of the creator,”) could also be seen in the earrings being worn by Mguni.

The fourth wall was comprised of a myriad of different pieces. The first piece the viewer is drawn to is the television screen playing footage of Toni McClendon, a peace activist, speaking at the 1987 World Congress of Women in Moscow. Alongside this piece is a dozen books in stacks of four, each stack sitting upon a metal L-bracket fastened to the wall. Among these books were Beloved by Toni Morrison, Feminist Theory by Bell Hooks, and Dawn by Octavia E. Butler. These pieces are arranged among a few more printworks including images of icons such as Audre Lorde, Gladys Bentley and Zora Neale Hurston that were composed in a distinctively different style than the printworks on the opposite wall, and a collection of family heirlooms including a cocoyea broom, an antique clothes iron, and a mortar and pestle.

Beyond the artwork itself, it’s important to understand Mguni’s process for this installation. At points, there are other less obvious connections to her social activity. For example, the wall-sized photo of Gomphrena wasn’t just taken by the artist, but she grew the flower itself, and other flowers used in her prints, in East Liberty Garden. This was part of a program Mgnuni sponsors called “Flowers for Black Girls.” As part of this initiative, Mguni and a group of others gathered at the Wood Street “T” station on October 24, 2014 with over 500 flowers with messages attached such as “You are valuable,” to hand out to Black trans/women and girls. Mguni chose October 24th because it was the birthday of Teaira Whitehead, a Homewood teenager whose body was found nude and doused in bleach on a trail in Riverview Park a few weeks earlier. No arrest has ever been made for the crime.

In total, Mguni’s creativity, artwork and messages are poignant and moving in any decade or generation. But viewed juxtaposed the headlines of today’s Ukraine conflict, they were especially impactful and worth the trip to the fourth floor.


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