Sep 22, 2021

Cowries as Currency for Abundance: An Interview with Charlyn Magdaline Griffith Oro

by: Katelyn Rivas

Child of the Diaspora, Charlyn Magdaline Griffith Oro, creative body of work and activism illustrates liberation through Ancestral Connection. Griffith Oro has a sacred and strong connection to carrying on the work of ancestors who have come before and is intentionally reclaiming lost origins and stories through her creative practice. In this interview, Charlyn Magdalene shares how connecting to the past has given her a stronger relationship with self and how she has brought that knowledge to the public through her art.

Katelyn Rivas: I would love to start out with you telling the origin story of your creative practice and your other activism practices. How did that come into being? What has called you to maintain your practice over the years of doing this work? 

Charlyn Magdalene Griffith Oro:  My mom passed in February and I’ve been spending a lot of time going through her archive and she kept everything from all of our childhoods/adolescence, me and my two much older brothers. One of the things that I found in her stuff was all of these newspaper articles and bulletins about me when I got this award  for volunteerism and activism that wasn’t called activism at the time. I found these thank you notes from my teachers at my school, because I would go and spend time with the classes that were for children with special needs, who had autism and things like that.

I would volunteer at my mom’s job at the time. She worked at a facility for people, living with severe disabilities. We were a family of folks that were like, whatever little we have, we’re going to share it. I think that that’s where I got my very early start. I think that helped me to understand the flow of money, the way that as an individual, I could say, “oh, these are the things that I do that help,” that have impact, that are creative, that are loving, that are really just stuff that I know the people that I’m hanging out with deserve the resources, you know? I just remembered that time. I think from then I had a sense that I was going to be an educator. I’ve always been creative, I’ve always done crafty things. I’ve always been really interested in curating space. 

Portrait of Charlyn Magdaline Griffith Oro.

KR: Can you talk more about your identity as an artist who examines communication pathways between ancestors and progeny? 

CGO: I think honestly one of the first ways that I have understood, maybe not with this language, but, I have understood the idea of ancestors and their impacts in our lives is through seeds. My mom kept seeds when I was young. We had a garden. I mean, that’s also the way that I first understood generosity. You know, my mom grew food and would take it to all of our neighbors. She would bake bread for the church and, you know, we would share that. The seeds that she kept from each of her harvest, she would always make sure to keep to use for the next year. And as I’ve grown and matured in my practice and doing urban gardening work within ecology and deepening study of blackness and the diaspora, I started really looking at my heritage and wanting to know more about my genealogy.

Spirits have always spoken to me and I didn’t understand what it was. The culmination of all of this information has made it make sense to me over the years where I can say, “oh, I get it like, oh, this is a message that’s being sent by this or that.” It makes sense because this is the life that my ancestors lived, it’s the dreams of me they had when they were alive. It’s also about wanting to make sure to acknowledge those who have been, because I think in the forgetting of others,  you know, we can lose sight of ourselves of who we really are.

KR: What role does memory play in your creative work and how does memory show up in your body as well? 

CGO: That’s a good question. I think that that question really ties into what I was just saying about trauma. It’s not to focus on it, but I think that  both trauma and joy leave markers on our body in ways that impact how we experience the present. So for me, I have done a lot of work to sort of untether my body from my memories, so that I do not mistake discomfort for a lack of safety so that I don’t mistake good feelings as the only things that I’m trying to encounter.

That way I can push myself into the future and envision something. I can, you know, push myself into the past to go and be a part of something. I can feel my intuition a little bit better because in those circumstances, it’s actually my intuition. It’s not my anxiety, if that makes sense. I think a big part of that access has also been honestly childbirth, having given birth to three children and having the drastically different experiences with their births, but still having that veil lifted during that time really showed me what was possible. I was like, “oh, the magic that I thought I had is real.”

KR: How does connection to land and space affect your practice? 

CGO: I travel a lot, and I come by it because my parents were, as my brother said, explorers. My parents migrated twice across the Caribbean and Atlantic oceans. They did it young and then migrated us young as well, and then encouraged us to travel and took us everywhere they could. I think that being a child of the diaspora and having family in many different places across the globe has aided me in communication with land in a particular way. My spiritual practice, my growing up with a parent that was very spiritual, learning to pray early meant that we were always giving things to the land, the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and we acknowledged things around us.

KR: Does your work with the cowrie shells and the counting technologies play into that at all? 

CGO: I do believe that the carriers have a part. I will say that one of the things that I researched about those cowries has been whether or not my use of them in bulk is detrimental. I feel like I’m guided by something else, someone else, anything else, to use the materials that I use. What I found out about the cowrie was that they are in such abundance, they recreate themselves or procreate in such a volume that it’s virtually impossible to make them extinct.

KR: What does your collection of cowries look like now?  

CGO: I think that I’ve used so far for this project somewhere around 1500. I’m about to order them by the pounds. I’m going to get 32 pounds of them. The other thing that’s been interesting about the cowries is that my ancestors used cowries as a currency until the transatlantic slave trade when traders went and harvested cowries and presented those for as payment for enslaved people. And at the point that that began to happen they moved in their monetary system, which was valued as  gold.

It basically stripped my ancestors of our wealth, not just via the theft of our people, but also via the theft of our currency, like the theft of the value of our currency. So to use the cowries as an accounting mechanism is a reclamation.I am getting that relationship back. My ancestors used the cowrie to communicate divination practices. These practices are still used across many of the African traditional religions throughout the diaspora. I also found out that villages used shells and sticks to create sculptures, not unlike my own, in order to send messages.

KR: So what is your sculpture going to reflect on with the The Free Philadelphia Library archives?  

CGO: Yolanda Wisher is my curator for the project, with the fellowship that I’m in. And one of the things that we’re looking at is how I might be able to present this work along the waterways and Philadelphia. The Delaware and the Susquehanna Rivers are the waterways that would have been involved in transporting enslaved people from the Caribbean to Philadelphia. One of my elders who passed away last year, mama Denise Valentine. She actually did a commemoration of the MAAFA, which is the Atlantic slave trade and the holocaust involved. And she did a walk from the port along the Delaware River where the enslaved people were put on display and transported into the city. I was just thinking about that and honoring work that has been done before me and this fairly new ancestor actually, because she asked, so recently, to pick up where she left off and, you know, continue with the work that she showed me.

Find out more about Charlyn’s work here:

Last updated: Sep 27, 2021

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