I moved to D.C. in 1985. Back then, no one knew me as an artist: My day jobs were working at day-care centers. I got my first break in 1989, when I was in a show at the Dallas Museum of Art. I was trained as a painter, but I'm one of these artists that can't stick to one medium. Much of my artwork deals with botanicas and herbal remedies. I like to deal with these women who have strong personalities and create tableaux for them.
I call this room "Fatima's." This is where my bedroom used to be, but it was too cold to sleep here in the winter. There was something about this space that was so apart from the house. I ended up bringing work back here, and around the same time, I started developing this alter ego named Fatima Mayfield, who is a fortuneteller and root worker. All of a sudden, I realized I was going to make this room into a parlor, where she sits and thinks about her clients -- a thinking room where she contemplates what she needs to do or where she mixes remedies. Plus, New Orleans really inspired my work. I have a spiritual connection with the city. I think it was because I had been studying African art and saw the connection between African belief systems and the vestiges of voodoo in New Orleans. I started adding things to the room. It mirrors my process. It's turned into an assemblage.
As you can see, all the things I collect from botanicas are in these cabinets, but they also serve as reference materials, and they end up in my paintings sometimes. On a round glass coffee table, there are mixed-media pieces, mostly glass: pastries, food and things like that. The intention was to make a dinner for Erzulie, the Haitian goddess of love, beauty and wealth. She loves beautiful things and food. One of the cakes is made out of cardboard and fabric that I found at T.J. Maxx. I have it standing on a glass cake stand that was made for me at Pilchuck glass studio in Washington state, where I was a resident [artist]. I had the vegetables and string beans made for me. I have to create oysters to sit on these shells -- these are real oyster shells. The project has been going on since 2004. In the end, it'll be made up of found objects: a mixed-media piece that comprises this table of goodies.
The room itself is feminine, but at the same time, there is power in it, because you are dealing with the idea of magic and empowerment and being able to change circumstances. A lot of men hesitate coming in. They say it feels like it's someone else's space, and they shouldn't be in here. It's a spiritual environment. Fatima isn't the first alter ego I've had. Years ago, I created a fortuneteller named Madam Ching. She was very different from me: an older woman who was very wise. Then when I turned 40, everything changed. I had the right to say and do what I wanted. I projected a woman who was the real woman I was becoming.
PHOTOS: David Graham