By Haley Wilson
The Birmingham Times
Yogi Dada picked up her first paintbrush at age 5—and she hasn’t looked back.
“I have been creative since childhood. My mother put the first paintbrush in my hand when I was 4 years old,” said the multifaceted artist.
Though Yogi Dada’s art spans a broad range of fields, she is perhaps best known for her collection of “wearable artwork,” which she calls “Dadas,” that can be found anywhere from museums to the earlobes of passersby.
The limited edition printed earrings also can be found in a gift box featuring nine assorted mini snack bags of Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn Co.’s hand-crafted kettle corn, which is part of a partnership between Yogi Dada and Naughty But Nice’s founder Tanesha Sims-Summer.
“I am sure I have made at least 2,000 sets of custom-painted Dadas since their inception,” she said. “Dadas are hand-painted earrings that I design front and back with a different design on all four sides. My clients are primarily confident women who have something to say, and I am their bullhorn of color.”
While Yogi Dada is widely known for her Dadas, her artistry has no bounds. She can often be found reading at open-mic events or drumming in Birmingham’s local parks.
“I wrote my first poem by the age of 5. I don’t even know how I knew about poetry, but I just wrote a poem,” said Yogi Dada, who is now making strides in the filmmaking industry.
Her debut film, “GRAFFICA,” was voted Best Feature Film in the Black Lens Shorts category at Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival in 2021. The film also was screened during the festival’s Black Lens Film Week, which was held on February 18 and 20, 2022.
“I was part of the [Dorothy Jemison Day Theater (DJD Theater) at Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA)]” she said. “This program catered to three artists focused on doing specialized projects—[and] GRAFFICA was born. The name comes from my mixture of graffiti art and my love of Africa.”
Born Yolonda Carter in Mississippi but raised in Rochester, New York, where her father moved to take a position as a financial analyst, Yogi Dada, 50, was quickly immersed into the state’s fine arts culture. “My mother really encouraged me to invest in my creativity,” she said. “She was one the first people to put a paint brush in my hand.”
“I really enjoyed growing up in the 70s and 80s. I got to really witness the boom in the art scene, especially growing up in [Upstate] New York. Hip-hop was just getting started, as well, so I really witnessed the clothing, the artwork, and the music. It was a really cool scene to be around.”
Yogi Dada attended Rochester’s Rush-Henrietta High School, where she was in the poetry club, the creative writing program, and the Black Student Union. “I also participated in every single talent contest. … I actually used to break dance,” she said laughing.
After graduating from high school in 1989, Yogi Dada moved to Homewood, Alabama, with her family. She enrolled at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University (AAMU) in 1990. She then attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), graduated in 1995, and took a “pause on my passion . . . because I was discouraged.”
“I stopped painting for 17 years,” she said. “I worked as an optician during this time at Lens Crafters.”
In 2009, Yogi Dada lost her mother, Victoria Carter, to breast cancer. “I fell into a deep depression,” Yogi Dada recalled. “My mother had always been my champion and pushed me to pursue my craft. Her voice became my inner voice, and I could hear her telling me to use my talent, but I had turned away from that part of myself for so long.
“In 2008, a good friend invited me to a painting party she was hosting at her home. I told her I’d attend but didn’t want to paint. When I got there, she had all these canvases, brushes, and paint. I painted for the first time in 17 years, … and it was cathartic. Every emotion I had been suppressing came rushing out, and it reaffirmed who I was. Two years after that I made my first set of Dadas.
“It was funny because [my artwork] is something I can’t run from. … It’s literally the core of who I am. It’s my identity.”
Yogi Dada puts love into every one of her creations. Each earring, for instance, can take more than 40-plus hours of preparation. Her first “wearable artwork” featured a “hand-painted set of large, flat wooden earrings with funky graffiti-style motifs telling “my story. … I’m the ‘New York chick, poet, and rapper,” Yogi Dada said.
By 2012, Yogi Dada set up a limited liability company (LLC) and has been guided by several influences, including the bright colors of graffiti art and the sunrises and sunsets of Africa. Another one of her influences is Willard Wigan, a Black man from Birmingham, England, who specializes in microscopic art.
“[Wigan] is dyslexic and never learned to read or write, but he creates intricate microscopic sculptures and has been extraordinarily successful,” she said. “And that stuck with me … By divine inspiration I pondered what if I just did what I was created to do? I thought about what it would be like if I had been born with scales and gills then surely I was created to live in the ocean. Fish just swim. … That has become my mantra: ‘Just swim.’ I know I am doing what I was created to do, and my spirituality guides that philosophy, as well.”
Updated on 2/24/2022 at 4:15 p.m with corrections and clarifications.