108 Death Masks: A Communal Prayer for Peace and Justice
This expansive work contains 108 individually sculpted and hand-carved ceramic death masks. Each face is sculpted from a single leather-hard clay slab that has been meticulously textured and pressed to the size and shape of my own skull. This blank face is then carved in detail to reveal the individual humanity of each form. They are hung at eye-level and span 90ft in a continuous line across the space The work began as a deep prayer for the reclamation of my own ancestral voices. I wanted to find a way to honor my ancestors in a physical form. I wanted to feel their faces in my hands and touch them with a tenderness that could somehow relieve even one moment of pain they may have felt. This initial impetus for the work grew as the work began to manifest. The masks took on a life of their own. The work began to extend beyond itself, beyond my own personal desire to reclaim my ancestor’s voices, towards a deeper felt recognition of the loss of life in black, brown and indigenous communities that continues to this day.
Each face inhabits the clay. They are of elders, mothers, fathers, sick, healthy, broken, and beaten, loved and lost, each face reminding us of our own mortality, humanity and fragility.
Step One: Raw Clay
I begin with New Mexico Clay. The dark brown and red clay is harvested from Southern New Mexico, and rich with the spirit of that indigenous land. I use New Mexico clay to honor the indigenous pueblo communities of New Mexico who have resisted colonization and continue to work towards indigenous sovereignty. This clay also honors my own African-American family who settled in New Mexico in the early 1900s as some of the first black families to develop the community of Blackdom, NM. Blackdom is a historic freedom colony in Chaves County, New Mexico, that was founded by African-American settlers in 1901 and abandoned in the mid-1920s.
The clay is rolled out into a large thick slab. At this point, the prayer begins.
Each slab is treated as if it is a body, I begin to draw and press textures into the body of clay, as the body of my ancestors, imparting story, history, wound, tension, time and experience into the clay through the use of fabric, stone, wood, hair, whips, cracked earth, heat and bare hands and feet. These textures become the literal skin of the ancestors. With the stories and scars of life embedded into the clay flesh.
Step 2: Molding
In this stage, after the clay slab has been texturized, I press the slab into a form that i have made of my own skull shape. This step is necessary to help the clay get stiff and move into a leather-hard state for me to begin carving. It also serves as an essential element in the deeper understanding of this work. By utilizing my own skull shape and facial structure as the base form, I am drawing forth my own physical heritage as the foundation for the work.
Step 3: Carving
In this stage, after the mask has become leather-hard, It is removed from the form, and the work begins. Each face is carefully and meticulously sculpted using wood carving tools, dental tools and hands. The face emerges out of the abstraction of the clay slab textures, and the spirit that pushes through the form. The nose would widen or narrow, the mouth would enlarge or shrink, the entire face would emerge out of the process itself, feature by feature. As each piece finishes it is then dried in open air shelves.
This part of the process is the longest and most delicate time. The unique quality of each piece achived through this form of careful looking and deep prayer. I create and intimate and loving connection with each and every face. The clay takes on a life of its own as the faces rise to the surface of the work.
Step 4: Bisque Firing
After each piece is carved and dried. It moves into the kiln. It took 3 Kilns and 9 firings to complete all 108 death masks.
Step 5: Glazing
In this step, after each mask is taken from the kiln, I coat the mask in Red Iron Oxide. This, alongside cobalt and rutille pigments create a bronze-like patina, reminicent of an ancestral artifact.
Step 6: Glaze Firing
In this step, the dry glazed work, is fired for the last time. The work emerges as the finished piece.