Art: PHREE, Swept Away to Uncharted Territories

By Leslie Cunningham

Freedom can only be achieved when we stop resisting and accept our lives as an accumulation of our experiences and the connection to our ancestors. This is what Dina Mccullough’s art represents to me.

Primarily known for creating mixed media installations and sculptures, Dina is a 47-year old African American self-taught contemporary artist who revels in making multi-dimensional spaces of speculation, imagination and human experience. Her work “The Free Wall”, a multimedia work of copper, plaster, clay and tile that depicts slaves and their lives, is now in permanent collection at the Myers House in Albany, New York.

Originally from Philadelphia, Dina didn’t choose art, it found her at a time when she was embracing sobriety, melting wax for candles, and putting the pieces of her broken life back together at Extended Stay outside of Atlanta. “Before I found out who my real father was in 2015, I felt like something was missing in my life,” shares Dina. Today, under the moniker Phree Spirit Abstracts, Dina creates what she wants, without restraint. Provocative, confrontational and at times obfuscous to ingest all at once, Dina’s art mostly addresses issues around feminism, politics, and history, putting her in the ranks with of other bold expressionists such as Kara Walker and Xaviera Simmons. Dina says she was inspired to create “The Free Wall” after reading the story of a reburial project that honored 14 African slaves after 200 years. “After reading about the Schuyler slaves, “I wanted to celebrate they were finally getting a proper burial.”

An offering to the ancestors, Dina’s latest work is called “The Scales of Injustice”. In this work, Dina sheds light on the torture and pain experienced by African women during slavery. What started out as an art piece about slave blocks has morphed into a beautifully disturbing multimedia installation comprised of six women who are impregnated with cotton, coffee, rice and indigo – products that highlight how these commodities fueled America’s dependency on slave labor. In her art journal, she writes:

Over four hundred years ago,
we were beaten kidnapped, murdered and raped
the most fervent prayer was our children could escape
the land of the free
of tobacco, rice, indigo, cotton
no life mattered
our essence was forgotten

In Scales, Dina uses heavy chains for hair around a mold of her own face on each model. “Throughout the process, the ancestors spoke to me. They didn’t want to be seen as slaves, they were African queens who deserved to be honored and respected. Read more in TRIBES Spring 2017 Issue 37.