This week we’re exploring the power of Scent - the sense that is perhaps the most strongly tied to our emotions and memory. Our Muse guiding us through the subject is Aisha Cort, the founder of our newfound obsession The Vela Negra - a chic line of artisanal candles, home scents, and body care inspired by her Cuban and Guyanese roots. Here, the scent designer, formulator, and entrepreneur on celebrating her Afro-Latina roots through the art of scent, how scent can help us balance our minds and emotions, and her favorite beauty rituals passed down through generations.
Follow Aisha and explore her creations at @thevelanegra
What is your hometown, and where do you live today?
I was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts and today I live in Washington, DC. My mother is Cuban and my father is Guyanese, so I started going to Cuba when I was 13 and since then I have been going back and forth. I have lived in Cuba for a bit, in Spain for a bit, and in Puerto Rico for a bit as well.
Please tell us a bit about your work and the mission of La Vela Negra
Vela Negra is a candle company, but it's more so home fragrances. Now we are expanding into body and skincare products. The scents are mostly based in my Cuban heritage and for many of the body products I use Guyanese coconut oil.
Vela Negra started as stress relief , because life can be stressful. I had had the idea of starting a candle company for a while, but it wasn't until the pandemic, when everything just sat us down and I finally had time to execute it. It definitely wasn’t perfect when it came out, but we just kept going with it and people really responded to it. We launched July 2020, so it’s my baby.
What are three items from La Vela Negra that everyone needs?
I have my top [candle] fragrances - I love Morena, Ashé and I really like Azúcar. I really like all of them, but those are my top three that I have burning in my house. I'd say get a candle, a body butter, and a scrub, and then figure out what fragrances you like.
I made a body butter with tobacco and vanilla, the fragrance that's in the Cuba candle. For me, I like that I can put the body butter and then I don't need to put on perfume. It's not overpowering, it’s not masculine or feminine, it’s more unisex. And people ask me like, what's that smell? It's me!
The next collection that I'm working on in the fragrances now is Georgetown and it's a tribute to Guyana because everything has been so focused on the Cuban side and the living in Puerto Rico. Guyana has come up in the skincare, but there are fragrances like the falls of Kaieteur, the highest waterfalls in South America, that I want to capture.
Guyana is great for nature, tourism, and ecotourism. It's in the Amazon and people only live on 10% of the land, the rest is jungle. So it's this beautiful unexplored land. There are a lot of Amerindian tribes that are still holding down their sovereignty, even as people are encroaching upon the Amazon. There's mining, but there's also a lot of preservation. There’s development, but there's also a lot of underdeveloped areas in Georgetown and it's still this beautiful country that has a lot to offer. I am still trying to figure out what am I going to touch on. There's a lot.
You’ve shared the impact that your grandmother had on your craft. Can you tell us more about what you learned from her?
As a kid I had very sensitive skin, so my mom used to make my lotion because the store bought one wouldn't work. I would watch her playing around with soaps and then trying natural things. My mom was self-taught because she was like “this stuff isn't working and I'm not going to put medication on my child's skin” so let me do some research and find out what's good for them. I think all of those things you see when you're a child resurface when you become an adult and you don't realize how or why. As a kid you sit in the kitchen and see all this, but you're not paying attention. Now me, my sisters, and my little cousins, we're going to my dad's sister to learn how to do these things from scratch.
A few months ago she sat down with me and my dad and we went through the whole process of making coconut oil from scratch. And it's like, okay, this is what we're using, we're breaking up the coconut, grinding it down, boiling it up, letting it sit overnight. You can see the care that goes into a candle, that goes into your body butter, your scrubs. It's not just thrown together and mass produced. I'd like many people to have it, but it takes time and people are generally understanding and they like that. These processes, and what goes into them are part of that heritage.
From my grandmother I learned how to knit, that was my thing, crocheting and knitting. There was one Christmas where everybody got a scarf because I was doing exams and I like things that keep my hands occupied. Same thing with candle-wicking. The process of watching stuff melt down, stirring it up and pouring it away and waiting for wax to cure is like ASMR or whatever it's called. It is meditative as well, because you're concentrating on what you're doing at that moment. Now when I'm making orders it's like this is my candle-making time. I have playlists because music is very calming for me and while I’m making them it’s a really cool space to be in. There’s something that pulls me back to working with my hands, getting out of my head, and just being there.
My grandmother has always been a maker. She trained as a tailor before she came to the U.S., so growing up most of our clothes were handmade. When MC Hammer was out in the 80’s, my grandmother made me and my cousins Hammer pants. You see, all these things are part of one's heritage. I'm keeping this tradition of making handmade things, crafting and taking your time with things alive.
My grandmother also used to make her own hair products before she cut her hair. Even before that, her own grandmother used to make her a coconut oil to put on her hair. So all these practices are intermingling and weaving and then being passed down in some way shape or the other. Making candles was a part of that. My grandmother would just make candles because she liked to throw dinner parties. To make taper candles with beeswax you have a string and you dip, a layer forms, then you do another layer, until you have a long candle. There are easier ways to do it, but again, there's something meditative about the time and the care that goes into the process. It becomes an intangible thing that when it's all put together, it resonates with people.
"...Scent is registered in the frontal cortex, the same part of your brain that registers memories and images."
La Vela Negra is a beautiful homage to your cultural roots. Which scents specifically are inspired by Latin America and how?
Ashé, you hear that in Afro-Cuban like Santeria practice. People say Ashé, it's like a blessing and a greeting. In my family when we say it, it’s like how people would say ‘Bendición’. Also, it is kind of this understanding of an essence that every living being has. It's your life, energy, Ashé.
I go for fragrances that create a feeling. Like for Ashé, I tried six different fragrances until I felt that the smell was communicating what I wanted. The same thing with Morena and Azúcar, or even Coquí. That whole season that you drink coquito, what does that feel like? Trying to get that into fragrance is a whole process. You have making sure that things burn right and that the fragrance works, but also getting it down so that when you smell it, it hits the frontal cortex where all your memories are. Making sure that it connects with that part of your brain and makes you feel something is important for me.
Morena also is an homage to my cultural roots because almost everyone calls me "Morena." In my family it is a term of endearment. What I wanted to do with Morena was to take that feeling of affection and put it in this fragrance. That’s why it smells like chocolate, with a touch of cinnamon. It also has vanilla and berries, something that moves you. When you smell it, it's like a hug. Also, Wepa. Wepa is a celebration. Its tropical, light and just makes me really happy to smell it.
Scent is one of the most emotionally charged senses. As an artist in this field, what can you tell us about the power of scent?
Scent is registered in the frontal cortex, the same part of your brain that registers, memories and images. When you can trigger that, you're also triggering deep seated memories, so you may smell something and all of a sudden, it's like you're transported back to six years old sitting in the living room or the dining room, eating pancakes. For some people [scent] brings them to certain places. The smell of certain syrups or perfumes. And it's not so much sound, it’s not so much touch, but smell is intricately woven into that part of your brain, so that's what I'm tapping into. That's when candles tap into aromatherapy or aromatherapies. They try to trigger those parts of your brain to bring you to a calming place to evoke emotion and good feelings. Scent is definitely the most powerful sense. If you take away sight, if you take away touch, smell remains, you can't taste without smell. You can’t enjoy your foods without smell. Even going back, smell lets you know if something is good or bad its one of those primary senses, it’s very interesting.
In a few words, how do you define your approach to beauty?
Simple. I wash my face, I put toner, then a lotion that has SPF and if I don't sleep then I put on concealer and mascara. I don't wear makeup generally, just lip gloss. I find that for me, simple is best. I love makeup and I love the things that it can do, but when you're talking about beauty, a lot of it is taking care of your skin, like what you do with your products. Taking care of the base so that when you do put on makeup you're not a completely different person, but you’re just enhancing what you already have. That I do think I get from my mother and my grandmother, both very beautiful women. Yes, you wear makeup, but you don't need to.
Any inherited beauty practices you’ve picked up from your mother, grandmother, your family, or your roots along the way?
I love Korean sheet masks and I think I get this from my mom and my grandmother. They didn't use sheet masks, they used egg whites. You crack the eggs and you may want to whip them a little bit, but it’s still going to be drippy. You then spread it on your face, leave it for 20 minutes, let it harden and then just wash it off. Like my grandmother used to say “Te pones asi de linda! Asi de jovencita”. When I don't know what's happening with my face or when I don't drink enough water, I go back to the egg whites. My grandmother was 94 when she passed and her face did not look that age at all.
Now we have more access to facts. We know drinking water and eating a lot of fruits and vegetables or making smoothies to make sure that you get your vitamins and taking care of your body is important. I think that [what you eat] comes out. Trying to keep stress down is also important, I’m not very good at that, but I’m working on it.
What are the highlights of your skincare routine?
Having a good face wash, the basics, I have a toner lotion with an SPF. I also use a face steamer. I got one during the pandemic and I have definitely noticed a difference. I'm doing that once or twice a week and then a face mask once a week or once every two weeks, if life gets crazy. That’s my basic skincare routine.
Favorite self-care or mindfulness ritual?
It really depends on what I need at the moment. Sometimes I just need to be quiet, put my phone down, turn the ringer off and just sit or lie down. I prefer to meditate lying down. Sometimes it’s a nap and then other times it's more directed and intentional. I also write. For me journaling isn't a ritual, but it's just sometimes there's stuff in your head that you need to get on paper.
Other times I light a candle, have a glass of wine, watch a movie. Self-care can just be realizing that I need to change up the pace of the way my day is going. When I have things booked out I need to start thinking about my time and including moments of rest. My love told me this, he said ‘Boldly make time for yourself’, and that's what I've been trying to do as I've gotten older and especially this year. What he said, that’s really stuck and understanding my rhythms and my patterns and what I need in order to be productive and be present is essential.
"I'm keeping this tradition of making handmade things... There’s something that pulls me back to working with my hands, getting out of my head, and just being there."
Favorite escape in Latin America? Or where do you want to go next?
Cuba is my number one, but I also love Tulum. I was going long before it started developing. I like that you can find what you need in Tulum; if you need to go party, you can find a party. If you need to chill in a hammock, you can do that too. I also think Tulum has some kind of spirit. Even as more people go there, it's not just because of hype, they keep coming because they keep finding things. Like when you go to a Xenote, the first time I went I just like stood there and thinking how the pictures don't do it justice. You get in that water and these things have been there for hundreds of thousands of years. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. There is something about the place, so I keep coming back. Same thing with Havana, it has its own pace and its own rhythm. Theres also something about Cuba that keeps you there and coming back. It's always where I feel most at home, but then Mexico is really calling and I am not sure why.
Discover more at @thevelanegra