The artistic fusion of paintings by Lamavis Comundoiwilla
This article is a collaboration with Stanford Prison Renaissance, an interdisciplinary group of Stanford students, staff, and faculty who partner with people incarcerated by phone and in visiting rooms to produce an annual zine.
May 1998. Mother’s Day, to be exact, and Lamavis Comundoiwilla was scrambling to find the perfect gift. While incarcerated in Corcoran State Prison, he took out his art supplies and created a hand-drawn map. Amazed by his talent, his mother pushes him to pursue this new passion, and a few days later, his father writes to his cell and offers to buy more drawing materials.
This is the original story of Comundoiwilla’s artistic journey: a gift for Mother’s Day catapulted him into a world of creativity and expression, and with this story, the underlying essence of his work is rooted in a devotion between mother and son. It shows by the way Comundoiwilla talks about her. Her voice brightens. He tells his story with the same energy of a melody by John Coltrane: full of nostalgia, sincerity and love. Each artist has their origin story, and that of Comundoiwilla exudes a deep admiration for the women in his life.
Fast forward to 2018, and after being transferred to San Quentin State Prison, Comundoiwilla has resumed painting. Along with his artistic practice, he devotes himself to intensive research and applied historical knowledge. Diving into military history, he discovered how historical dictators, such as Hitler and Napoleon, suppressed and destroyed ethnic art. “Artists were humanity’s first reporters,” says Comundoiwilla, and therefore believes in the need to reclaim this powerful tool. During his study of modern art movements, Comundoiwilla came across “Goldfish” (1902) by Gustav Klimt and was struck by inspiration. It has become his favorite painting. Originally titled “To My Critics,” Klimt’s painting opened people’s eyes to the corruption of the Viennese government and the Catholic Church. Comundoiwilla believes that contemporary art carries the same potential for political advocacy and social change.
His investigation of modern art diversified when Comundoiwilla realized that painters like Picasso and Dalí were drawing inspiration from ancient Egypt. “Why do we call Picasso the father of cubism,” he asks, “but we don’t recognize the Egyptians from whom he was inspired? Because of this question, he strives to recover the stolen and eradicated art from pre-colonial civilizations.
Comundoiwilla’s mission is to study pre-colonial African history. In this endeavor, he uncovered long records of the greatest matriarchal societies that ever existed, such as the Candaces of Meroe who were the queens of the Kush kingdom. Contrary to the patriarchal nature of Western societies, the Candaces illustrated the strength of matriarchal governance. Appalled at the hypersexual and degrading portrayals of women in Western mass media, Comundoiwilla turned to the Candaces for a radical muse. He paints black women, inspired by the historic queens of Meroe, because he wants to change the way we portray them in today’s society. Her painting, “Amani Candice”, is a vibrant recreation of Kandake Amanirenas, the queen who defended her kingdom against the armies of the Roman Empire.
Stylistically, Comundoiwilla’s paintings are Fusion – a technique created by the artist himself. When people told him that everything in art has already been done, he fought back and proved them wrong. “Blending is when you use dots and strokes together to create a painting,” he explains, “and it’s always done with intention. Each geometric symbol has a meaning. In “Amani Candice”, Comundoiwilla takes the Eye of Providence, which is visible on the dollar bill, and adds its own message to the Masonic triangle. Breaking with the fraternal organization, he transforms this masculine symbol by painting various shapes of eyes that belong to women of color.
Asked about the future of Fusion, he was bold and resilient in his response: “Black excellence in history is left out of the conversation, but today I won’t let that happen. I want to be in control of my art. His paintings represent the future of the United States in which the ethnic minority will become the majority. We see this hope in “New American Patriot,” in which Comunoiwilla replaces Uncle Sam with a multiracial Indigenous woman. She is adorned with pre-Columbian badges and in her eyes, “BLM” is reflected upside down. It’s about describing how Black Lives Matter isn’t just a movement; it is also a reflection of the new generation of voices working hard to transform our nation.
“2042” is a tribute to what the future holds for the United States of America. “This country was stolen from Native Americans and Mexicans. It was built by black slaves. The industrial age would never have happened if the railroads hadn’t been created by Asians, ”says Comunoiwilla,“ and I can’t wait for this nation to belong to the people who built this country.
Today, as Comundoiwilla paints in his prison cell, the world experiences a global pandemic and the injustices of systemic violence. In San Quentin alone, the COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in 2,900 infections and 32 deaths.
“I survived the coronavirus, but I lost a lot of friends. The media want to show how people fight in prisons, but they don’t understand that we are a close community. Even if we don’t get along, we are still close. Death affects everyone. Devastator doesn’t even explain what it was. That’s an understatement, ”describes Comunoiwilla.
Because of the pandemic, the prison has become an even darker space: “It has been a mess. An unimaginable waste. During this tragic era, filled with grief and loss, he turned to art for a sense of peace. As the pandemic forced the world to pause and think, Comunoiwilla used this time to cultivate new works of art as a mode of healing and expression.
Throughout her time in prison, art enabled Comunoiwilla to deal with challenges and difficult memories. “Can you imagine anyone judging you for the worst day of your life?” For the rest of your life? That’s what it’s like to be a convicted felon – to wear a scarlet letter all the time. There must be a better way for broken people to get back into society. I’m not a guy who tries to hurt people. I changed. I’m not the same person I was when I was 25. Art has a lot to do with it. It gave me comfort and peace. It taught me to understand myself.
For Comunoiwilla, grief entered her life when her daughter passed away at just 11 months old. “I realized that I became an angry person when my daughter died from lack of health care. Pre-existing conditions made her ineligible for the health care she needed. That’s why she died. My daughter died because of the money, that’s why I started the robbery. As Comunoiwilla reflects on his past, it is telling that his role as a father was intensely complex and sacred. “A lot of dads aren’t there for their kids, but it wasn’t me. She would wake up on top of me, lying on my chest, every morning. We laughed. We played. It was my daughter. My everything.”
During this difficult period, Comunoiwilla questioned God, his faith in humanity and his reason for being. “If there is a God, what kind of God allows a child to die? ” He asked. However, he soon found a revelation that pushed him further to express the complexity of life and art. “The idea of God is omnipresent, and if God is in everything and everywhere at all times, is God in you? It was a payback for me. My sadness is something I had to go through, and God lived it with me. The whole time I didn’t believe in God, it was like not believing in myself.
Through her grief, healing and continued reckoning with life, Comunoiwilla’s message can be felt by all struggling artists and individuals, all navigating humanity’s unique battles and striving to find a path healing: “Religion is believing in yourself, and art is a religious experience. . “Now all of his paintings are dedicated to his daughter, mother and the strong women in his life. Through intricate strokes and detailed patterns, his paintings serve as devotion – a revelation that turns art into a spiritual creature, political and cultural.
Comunoiwilla’s works will be presented in the Prison Renaissance Zine at Stanford. Prison Renaissance connects incarcerated people to a community of artists, forming a collaborative space in which art bridges the gap between the general public and those in prison. To transform the ongoing dialogue about criminal justice reform, Prison Renaissance strives to center and amplify the voices, leadership, artistic practice, and academic work of inmates.
Previous issues of Prison Renaissance Zines:
Your incarceration, number i
I’m incarcerated, number II: don’t forget me
Incarceration to you, COVID-19 problem