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A Black woman with yellow and black printed blouse and fat sneakers sits in a window sill among pieces of an art installation, an altar with framed photos, a Black Madonna figurine, green potted plants, crystal glasses, and more.

Loni Johnson poses with her Remnants altar installation.

Photo by Alejandro Chavarria from World Red Eye

  • In Altar Installations, Loni Johnson Cultivates Space for Ancestral Spiritual Memory

    The immersive installation Requiem of a Black Girl features gold frames covered in collages of Black women, gold bamboo earrings, cowrie shells, and mirrors. Empty frames hang on the red walls alongside them, surrounding a lace-draped wooden rocking chair sitting empty. In another corner, a wooden jewelry box sits open, surrounded by three candles, a bell, and statuettes of Black men and women. Creating a space for reflection and prayer, Johnson welcomes people to her altar. This was multidisciplinary artist Loni Johnson’s contribution to the exhibition Boil, Toil + Trouble at Art in Common in Chicago.

    Loni Johnson is an artist, educator, and mother born and living in Miami, Florida. A graduate of the New World School of Arts in 1998 (where she returned to teach until 2012), she received her BFA from the SUNY Purchase College of Art and Design in 2003. She is also an activist focused on supporting young Black artists. She serves as the lead coordinator of Art Detectives, an art education program at the Perez Art Museum Miami and co-founded Miami Melanated Arts, a collective for Black creatives in South Florida.

    Using the medium of altars, Johnson unpacks her spiritual lineage through works that reclaim ancestral memory, hold space for reverence, and create a uniquely Black iconography. Her roots, she explains, are embedded in the American South, where Christian evangelization was a form of Black religious erasure. Hidden in plain sight through Black ritual and tradition, hoodoo, a derivative of West African spiritualities, persisted. As such, her art honors those who walked before her, who carried and sustained Black spirituality, but it also borrows from various traditions to create her own sense of spirituality. In doing so, her altars counteract Eurocentric and patriarchal ideals of divine representation.

    “There are ways that we have celebrated the lives of our ancestors that we tend to do but don’t recognize that they are connected to how our ancestors did it,” she said in a recent interview. “This idea of trying to get back to our original ways of spirituality, that is connected more to the Motherland, and us coming from West Africa and us being rooted in the South, and not relying so much on the Eurocentric ways that are being fed to us.”

    A trench art sculpture featuring a Black Madonna figurine with outstretched arms in the hollow interior of a bullet casing. A rectangle has been cut into the side of the casing with a scalloped edge on top. Inside, a Madonna figure stands in a long gold dress and headdress. The top of the casing has a Christian cross upraised on the metal.
    Miniature Black Madonna carved in a bullet casing, artist unknown
    Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Alan Laird

    Her journey started with the Black Madonna, a subset of religious paintings, icons, or statues depicting the Biblical Mary with dark skin. In Miami, she grew up surrounded by the Black Madonna outside her home, but it wasn’t until 2017 that she began incorporating the figure into her art, after extensive research about its history.

    The first studies of the Black Madonna refer to Byzantine icons, attributing her skin color to smoke or age damage. The sheer number of icons and statues depicting her, however, challenge the idea that her skin was darkened accidentally. In Spain and France, her black skin is associated with a Bible verse: “I am black and comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem.” Skeptics argue that these explanations reinforce cultural whitewashing and discredit theories focused on religious fusion. The Black Madonna’s skin aligns with the color of fertile ground, visually reinforcing ancient cultural and religious memory—key to Johnson’s art.

    Regardless of the origins and arguments, statues, shrines, and icons of the Black Madonna, just like Johnson’s altar, challenge the ideas that whiteness is inherent to piety and devotion and that men control divine power.

    Johnson was initially surprised by the European embrace of Black Madonna, curious how colonizing countries could acknowledge a Black woman as the Mother. The Black Madonna represented Black women within a mainstream religious sphere, and Johnson was inspired to “acknowledge and honor the Black Madonnas in my own life because I come from a long lineage of amazing women.” Throughout her life, she had witnessed how Black women, femmes, and girls were and are continually made invisible, but also how altars created by and for Black people can hold space for them both within secular and divine narratives.

    Two false walls in a larger room, painted bright pink and adorned with gold frames and an altar table in the corner. On one side, a toy piano, and on the other side a mirror.
    Loni Johnson’s installation in the exhibition titled The Front Room at the New World School of the Arts.
    Photo by Loni Johnson

    She remembered her grandparents’ house, where the pink walls of their den were covered with photographs and memorabilia of past and present loved ones. Was this not an act of devotion, an altar to Black people? This was just one practice through which Black spiritual traditions persist today, just like spitting on a broom that sweeps a person’s feet or lighting a candle for good luck. These rituals within Black communities, Johnson explained, are ancestral spiritual memories. Her works—framed as explicitly spiritual—seek to reclaim and rekindle this heritage.

    “I think it’s really important to offer a space for us to begin to reacclimate ourselves and
    get ourselves familiar with that ancestral memory,” she said. “There is a stigma that is connected to these more spiritual—for lack of a better word—pagan ways of practice and ritual that we have been told are dark and evil. These are actually the ways that we have survived. These are the ways that the enslaved ancestors were able to get by and pave the way for us to exist.”

    To do so, she began to reexamine pieces of Black life and identity through a spiritual lens. Everyday objects found in dollar stores and local beauty shops, like lace, cowrie shells, sequins, bamboo earrings, hair beads, and small cosmetic mirrors became, for her, part of a uniquely Black iconography of Black womanhood. These objects tie back to West African Yoruba cosmology, material representations of ancestral memory and the spiritual presence of Black women. She often incorporates statues of the Black Madonna into her altars, as well as her grandmother’s jewelry box and family photos. In doing so, she uplifts the existence and importance of Black female divine power throughout history.

    A gallery wall painted pink, with a gold-framed mirror on the wall and a line of votive candles along the floor.
    Johnson’s installation for the exhibition Remnants at Locus Projects in Miami.
    Photo by Zachary Balber

    As her altars are anchored in her own familial memories, Johnson installs and deinstalls her works on her own. She wants her objects to exist only within museum exhibits, not private collections, to ensure access. She acknowledges that her altars are living. They often contain food, water, and candles in specific numerologies. Two numbers decide the quantity of items: nine is associated with the Yoruba deity Oya and Johnson’s life path number, and seven is an ancestral number, making the altars even more personal to her. Having these offerings is critical to the altars’ impact, as well as visitor response.

    Johnson is not opposed to visitors leaving their own offerings, acknowledging that people will react to her work in different ways. Visitors are active participants in her altar, and she actively hosts altar-making workshops for community members surrounding the museum or gallery. In doing so, she invites people to create an altar for someone they would like to remember. By selecting and designing an object that holds their memory, visitors can process grief.

    This was a central theme of The Repast, Johnson’s work featured within the group exhibition Give Them Their Flowers, centered on the histories and memories of Black queer Miamians. Her installation held space for those who have passed on and whose memories persist within their loved ones. Journalist Nadege Green, in an interview with Hyperallergic, foregrounded the importance of Johnson’s contribution, “to have a space where we can get together as a community to say: We missed them, we love them, and at this moment, we’re going to make sure they get their flowers.”

    Like Requiem, golden frames filled with familiar faces hang alongside empty counterparts, surrounding a small table holding the same jewelry box, two goblets of water, and a wooden statue of Yemayá, the Yoruba goddess of motherhood. The piece reflects the tradition of Black homegoing services, in which families return to a person’s home to celebrate their life surrounded by the objects that hold their touch. Importantly, a wooden chair sits empty, holding space for all who honor the lost.

    This altar installation is a critical example of Johnson’s work. Throughout her career, she has cultivated experiences of Black spirituality with traditional Black mourning, recognizing Black femme divine power and holding space for ancestors.

    Gallery walls painted pink, lit by large windows. In one corner, an altar with frame photos and potted plants. On the walls, gold framed artwork.
    Johnson’s installation for the exhibition Remnants at Locus Projects in Miami.
    Photo by Zachary Balber

    Emma Cieslik is a museum professional in the Washington, D.C., area and a former curatorial intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

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