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Arts and Life

“Calafia Was Here”: An artist’s vision to bring a legendary Black warrior queen to SLO

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Benjamin Purper
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Erin LeAnn Mitchell works on her mural "Calafia Was Here" on the walls of the SLO Museum of Art building.

In the 16th century, Spanish author Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo wrote a romance novel about a mythical island ruled by Black warrior queen Calafia. Historians say the fictional island, named California, may have served as the inspiration for the Golden State’s name when Spanish explorers arrived here in the 1500’s.

Now, there’s a new mural in San Luis Obispo inspired by the legend, called "Calafia Was Here," which explores the unrecorded histories of Black Americans in the West.

On a sunny day in downtown San Luis Obispo, people walking by the creek are noticing someone on a ladder, painting bright colors on the walls of the SLOMA building.

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Benjamin Purper
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Mitchell used a variety of colors that she chose with input from SLOMA curators.

“We've got some really bright yellow, some really bright purples and blues and greens, and black," said Emma Saperstein, SLOMA's Chief Curator, while describing the mural.

The artist is painting vibrant female forms which seem to be running, and who share the walls of the museum with colorful plants and flowers.

Saperstein said the artist is using these running women to represent Calafia and the Black identity she embodies.

“So, she’s using this legendary story to activate that history and dialogue," Saperstein said.

Erin LeAnn Mitchell, the artist, is busy working — and Saperstein is careful not to disturb her. According to Saperstein, she’s “in the zone” right now.

Saperstein brought in Mitchell, a fine artist from Birmingham, Alabama, to work on the annual SLOMA mural project. Mitchell’s work mostly focuses on Black women power, and this particular project brings that theme to California and the broader Western states.

“We want to really celebrate her expertise and her experience and really dig into some of those themes that she’s dealing with in the work," Saperstein said.

According to Saperstein, Mitchell is using every inch of space to bring life to this mural.

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Benjamin Purper
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The mural covers all of SLOMA's walls with different color schemes throughout.

“So we could walk over to the deck and you can see her work on that side, she's working on the large creekside wall, and the front, and she's really thinking about the work as sculptural. And so, it's like the narrative goes all the way around the building. So you really can't miss it," she said.

But beyond being narrative and sculptural, Saperstein said the mural is also colorful and appealing to just look at if you’re downtown at the bar across the creek.

“Yeah, you can go have a drink at Sidecar, and contemplate, and look over at the museum. I love to do that," Saperstein said.

A couple days later, on another sunny day downtown, Mitchell is no longer in the painting zone — she’s in speaker mode now. She’s giving a tour around the SLOMA building to museum patrons and students.

“I wanted the orange to pop out the most because it's a poppy! And it's kind of a moment that you can't miss, it's a breath of fresh air, like oh — green, purple, yellow, this orange that is glowing,” Mitchell described.

Mitchell said that when SLOMA commissioned her for this project, she started thinking about stories of Black Americans in the West, and how little she feels that history is known or taught — especially in a largely-white city like San Luis Obispo.

“So I’ve been to California before, but when it came to working for this project with the museum, I wanted something that would be connected to the Black population here. Also understanding the demographic of the city, but also the history. Because I, just thinking about what I’ve learned in school outside of the riots in L.A., I didn’t know anything specific about this area," she said.

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Benjamin Purper
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Erin LeAnn Mitchell stands in front of her work with SLOMA Chief Curator Emma Saperstein during a members-only tour of the building.

Mitchell described how a friend then mentioned the story of Calafia to her, and got her thinking about how important this story of a Black warrior queen is to the mythology and origin of California — including the Central Coast.

“The story fell in line with kind of what my art practice is already, which is a lot about Black women power, and I just feel it had to be done and it was meant for me to bring this story here, and talk about that, and bring up a larger conversation of what little Black history is recorded here," Mitchell said.

She said although the story is fictional, it helps highlight the importance of Black representation throughout California’s history.

“So I really gravitated towards the story, because it's a Black, powerful woman who has autonomy of her body and is progressive in the means of what she wants to do and accomplish," Mitchell said.

You can see "Calafia Was Here" at the SLOMA building on Broad Street in downtown San Luis Obispo, and the museum’s website is sloma.org.

The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Shanbrom Family Foundation.

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