Katrina Coombs

I M(O)THER: Threads of the Maternal Figure

Katrina Coombs' I M(O)ther: Threads of the Maternal Figure

May 22 - October 2, 2022

I M(O)ther is a reference to several deliberately ambiguous maternal personalities that have been a part of Jamaica-based textile and fiber artist, Katrina Coombs’ understanding of her experiences, desires, passions, and role as a woman, and the relation of the maternal figure as an Other.

The twelve artworks in this exhibition invite us to enter a world of wonderfully constructed fiber forms, created over several years in response to a number of personal experiences, reflections, and observations. Each piece contributes to our collective appreciation of Coombs’ oeuvre, as well as of the range of visual possibilities that can be attained when working with natural and synthetic fibers.
While fibers are central to all pieces, Coombs skillfully incorporates cowrie shells, amethyst stone, mirror, and beads in select creations. These non-fiber elements are used to communicate conceptual ideas of identity, the maternal figure, wealth, ancestry, and security. Coombs communicates her range of ideas in pieces that are intended to physically envelope the viewer in some instances, and in other instances keep the viewer at a distance. Her use of colors indicates a desire to strategically stimulate our perceptions by providing us with tints and tones of reds, yellows, oranges, and cream.
Installation view of Katrina Coombs, "I M(O)ther: Threads of the Maternal Figure" , Photo: Ryan Gamma
Installation view of Katrina Coombs, I M(O)ther: Threads of the Maternal Figure

Photo: Ryan Gamma

Katrina Coombs, As It Breathes Life, Life Is Taken 2020 Hand-woven mixed fibers and cowrie shells 46 x 77 x 1 ½ in. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: Ryan Gamma
Katrina Coombs
As it Breathes Life, Life is Taken (detail)
Hand-woven mixed fibers and cowrie shells
46 x 77 x 1 ½ in.

Courtesy of the artist
Photo: Ryan Gamma

Though majority of her works are autobiographical, the experiences of other women and non-biological maternal figures are also significant in the structure and thinking that underpin her works. Like the ambiguous personalities that inspire the pieces on show, the artworks do not make definitive statements. However, they make clear suggestions that are intended to inspire questions, emotions, and commentary. It is perhaps best to appreciate each piece as both personal and communal reflections about maternal instincts, and female social expectations and emotional desires.

This exhibition is guest curated by Rosie Gordon-Wallace and co-organized by the Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator (DVCAI) and Sarasota Art Museum.

This exhibition is made possible, in part, with generous support from:
Platinum Sponsor
Shari and John Hicks


Katrina Coombs

Katrina Coombs

Katrina Coombs was born in St. Andrew, Jamaica. She holds a BFA with Honours in Textiles and Fibre Arts (2008) and a Certificate in Curatorial Studies (2009) from the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. In 2013, she obtained an MFA in Creative Practice from Transart Institute via The University of Plymouth. Coombs’ work has been featured in numerous international exhibitions in Kingston, Manila, Berlin, New York, Bogotá, Miami, Chicago, and Washington. She lives and works in St. Andrew, Jamaica.

An Afro-Caribbean Aesthetic Approach of Motherhood

by Alix Pierre

Jamaican Katrina Coombs is part of an established tradition of female fiber artists. She follows in the footsteps of precursors Sheila Hicks, Xenobia Bailey, and Magdalena Abakanowicz. But her work also resonates with that of contemporary artists Tau Lewis and Nnenna Okore who are also leaving their mark. Multimedia journalist Marcia Veiga and contributor to the digital platform The Spaces aptly states:

For decades, fiber and textile art weren’t recognized as significant within the art industry, relegated to mere “hobby crafts” – a derogatory term that devalued and dismissed the works of women artists. Today it’s been reclaimed and championed by the feminist movement, with textile artists exploring gender, politics, and intimacy in their works. 1

Precisely, with I M(O)ther: Threads of the Maternal Figure, Katrina Coombs moves the narrative forward. She brings into the visual arts world postulates about Afro-Caribbean, African, and African American women and motherhood that permeate the literary critical theory circles. There is an extensive corpus of essays, studies, theses, and dissertations theorizing ways womanhood shapes the Afro descendant female identity at the intersection of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. Some of the most thought-provoking authors include Andrea O’Reily2, Simone James Alexander3, and Helen Cousins4 among others. Using a historical, sociological, political, or gender studies lens, they discuss Black motherhood at the intersection of female agency, resistance, and empowerment.
In her lexicon, motherhood covers a wide range of meaning. She intentionally refers to threads. The term alludes to the creative process itself. A thread is a strand of material intertwined. The act of stitching together different strands metaphorically mirrors a narrative told by different narrators. But it can also imply different plot lines. Consequently, the mother figure is plural, polysemic. The life cycle frames Coombs portrayal of the Afro-Caribbean woman/mother. It is delimited by two rites of passage indicative of the human biorhythm. The exhibit begins with an ode to Oshun (Oshun’s Glory), the river Orisha, and ends with a tribute to ancestors (Lost Souls Not Forgotten). The complexity of the maternal figure identity lies between those two markers signaling the two-edge nature of human existence.

Access to Coombs universe is circuitous. The spherical figure is omnipresent. Whether in the form of a cylindric cone, oval seashell, glass beads, or baskets, it grounds the artist’s writing. The circularity is symbolic of the womb or breast, metaphors for femininity. Circularity is also characteristic of the structure of oral narratives. Coombs taps into the African-based folklore of storytelling. Usually, stories are told to an audience formed in a circle around the storyteller, or the role of storyteller alternates from person to person around a story circle. Like African folk narratives, the exhibit follows the pattern of repetition. The same conic form appears in Oshun’s Glory, Seed II, Armour of the Other, and Gathering. For their part, the installation pieces As It Breathes Life, Life is Taken, Beauty Between Her Thighs, Cornucopia, Inward Soul, and Golden Flow offer variations of the elongated oval form of the vulva.

The circular motif allows Coombs to consider important phases in a woman’s (reproductive) cycle. We will concentrate on three: (in)fertility, maternity, and infant mortality. Coombs anchors the show in the spiritual realm. She introduces the subject of (in)fecundity by referencing the Yoruba deity Oshun, the river Orisha. Oshun’s Glory obliquely alludes to the female deity’s preeminence over her sixteen fellow male counterparts sent with her to earth by the supreme god Olodumare. Incapable of executing Olodumare’s charge to populate the earth they call on her. Using her sweet and powerful waters she brings life to humanity and other species. In Coombs’ work, Oshun’s attributes as protector, savior, and nurturer of humanity are on full display.

Installation view of Katrina Coombs, "I M(O)ther: Threads of the Maternal Figure" , Photo: Ryan Gamma
Installation view of Katrina Coombs, Oshun's Glory
Finger-knitted mixed fibers
Dimensions variable

Courtesy of the artist
Photo: Ryan Gamma

Directionality plays an important role in the reading of the installation. The twenty-five suspended cones/breasts shooting downwards are reminiscent of the Senufo maternity figures. Whereas in the West African sculptures the breasts point forward horizontally, here they follow a vertical line ready to shower the earth. In both Oshun’s Glory and The Gathering, the cones and small baskets protrude or lie on their convex side. Abigail Moffett and Simon Hall explain that there is a hidden message here. In the context of Ifa divination, it signifies “the river is full” or fertility5. Conversely, the concave side represents drought. These are breasts of pregnant women.
Coombs expands the image of fertility with the use of cowrie shells as in As It Breathes Life, Life is Taken. Moffett and Hall suggest that the shape of the ventral orifice of the shell represents the structure of the female vulva6. Coombs establishes further the connection between the cowrie shell and fertility by designing an open vulva with a vertical line of cowrie shells drawn in its center. The art piece also echoes the protective nature of Oshun. Scholar Amir Golani writes that the usage of the shell activates fertility and protection from evil. He states, “The resemblance of the underside of a cowrie shell to a half-open human eye has also been recognized and interpreted as a prophylactic against the ‘evil eye’ and its malicious effects.”7 The artist expresses more in-depth this duality of life and death in her last work Lost Souls Not Forgotten.
We submit it is a representation of the Afro-Caribbean view on the afterlife. Lost Souls is an iconographic depiction of the pan-African circum-Caribbean cosmology. The Yoruba believe that the body is physical and ephemeral while the soul is spiritual and immortal. Life is conceived as a continuum of phases. Pantaleon Iruegbu explains, “Life is one. But it is lived in different phases. Thus, this life is one phase, life after this is another… death is as importantly celebrated as life because death is not final, but a transition to a life yonder.”8 This is rendered in the work through the composition. The viewer is presented with a suspended circle of small packages symbolizing in our view tiny bodies wrapped in mortuary shrouds. Half the circle is made of actual wraps and half of their shadows projected on the wall behind.
Installation view of Katrina Coombs, "I M(O)ther: Threads of the Maternal Figure" , Photo: Ryan Gamma
Katrina Coombs
Lost Souls Not Forgotten
Woven merino wool and silk
Dimensions variable

Courtesy of the artist
Photo: Ryan Gamma

Coombs reveals the Kongolese understanding of the cosmos was believed to be divided in one visible and one invisible part. David Westerlung argues that the visible world where the living reside is above the earth and the invisible world below is populated with ancestors and other spiritual beings9. Coombs gives a revolving motion to the work of art through the projected blurred shadows. Lost Souls Not Forgotten suggests that the deceased ancestors did not really depart but keep watch over the living.
Ultimately, we see the hanging bundles are minkisi. These can be best described as elements of the Kongo pharmacopeia designed to protect. Mary McCurmin argues:

Minkisi were sacred objects that housed ancestral spirits and were used for divination, healing and social justice by the Kongo people of Central Africa. When the Kongo were brought as slaves to the New World, they contributed significantly to the development of African American artistic and spiritual culture. In the Caribbean, aspects of minkisi have been retained in the creolized spiritual beliefs of Haitian Vodou, Cuban Palo Monte Mayombe and Brazilian Candomble.10

We add Jamaican Obeah to the list of creolized spiritual beliefs. Equal to other Afro descended artists, we believe that Katrina Coombs recontextualizes elements of the minkisi in her work to explore healing caused by the pain of motherhood.

Jamaican fiber artist Katrina Coombs is the first Black Caribbean woman living in the Caribbean to be invited to exhibit at Sarasota Art Museum. Coombs is affiliated with the Miami-based Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator (DVCAI). Founded in 1996 by its current president, Rosie Gordon-Wallace, DVCAI is committed to supporting and promoting emerging artists from the Caribbean Diaspora, Caribbean and Latin American Diaspora, and African American artists.

With twenty-six years of experience in exhibition programs, artist in residence programs, education and outreach activities, and art and international cultural exchange throughout the Circum-Caribbean, the art incubator has worked with the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts (EMCVPA) in Jamaica for the past fifteen years. The work continues with lecturer and artist Coombs who is an EMCVPA graduate. DVCAI invited Coombs to participate in an artist residency in 2018. That experience led to her contribution to Inter | Sectionality: Diaspora from the Creole City, the 2019-2021 traveling exhibition.


1 Marcia Vega, “12 Female Fiber Artists Transforming Space Through Textiles,” https://thespaces.com/12-female-fibre-artists-transforming-space-through-textiles/, 1.

2 Andrea O’Reily, Mother Outlaws: Theories and Practices of Empowered Mothering (Women’s Press, 2004).

3 Simone James Alexander, Mother Imagery in the Novels of Afro-Caribbean Women Writers (University of Missouri, 2001).

4 Helen Cousins, Rites of Passage in Postcolonial Women’s Writing (Rodopi, 2019).

5 Abigail Moffett and Simon Hall, “Divining Values: Cowries, the Ancestral Realm and the Global in South Africa,” Cambridge Archeological Journal, 2019, 4.

6 Moffett, “Divining Values: Cowries, the Ancestral Realm and the Global in South Africa,” 5.

7 Amir Golani, “Cowrie Shells and their Imitations as Ornamental Amulets in Egypt and the Near East,” Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean 23/2, 71-83, 76.

8 Pantaleon Iroegbu, Enwisdomization and African Philosophy (International University Press, 1994), 23, 26.

9 David Westerlund, African Indigenous Religions and Disease Causation: from Spiritual Beings to Living Humans, (Brill, 2005), 103.

10 Mary McCurnin, “From the Old to the New World: The Transformation of Kongo Minkisi in African American Art,” DOI https://doi.org/10.25772/N583-DH42, xii.


Katrina Coombs, Oshuns Glory, 2020
Katrina Coombs
Oshun’s Glory (detail)
Finger-knitted mixed fibers
Dimensions variable

Courtesy of the artist
Photo: Katrina Coombs


Katrina Coombs

Saturday, May 21

1 PM – 2 PM

Sarasota High School Alumni Auditorium

Katrina Coombs will speak with Rosie Gordon-Wallace, exhibition guest curator, about her unique use of the fiber medium and the Museum’s new exhibition, I M(O)ther: Threads of the Maternal Figure.

Join us for a free hands-on weaving activity following Katrina Coombs’ Artist Talk from 2pm-4pm where local teaching artist Elizabeth Goodwill will demonstrate finger weaving and fiber exploration.

Be one of the first visitors to experience I M(O)ther: Threads of the Maternal Figure. Members receive early access before the program.

I M(O)ther: Threads of the Maternal Figure opens to the public on May 22, 2022.