From 1996 to 2007 my artistic practice consisted of visualizing human agency from a didactic position with the production of assemblage sculptures based on historical facts. My studio practice of critical making was a layering of material culture as a means to familiarize the viewer with American and African Diaspora history. I framed each body of work during this period with provocative titles ranging from Aunt Jemima Redux to Black Like Me, which concluded my aesthetic expressions through the application of didactic sculptures.
While assemblage sculpture has held its own from Picasso, Rauschenberg to Nevelson and Renee Stout, I felt limited by its lack of permanency. By 2008 I began augmenting my repertoire to include indigenous metal casting techniques as I researched the history of iron manufacturing in North America from the inception of Iron Plantations of colonial Massachusetts to the dwindling American steel industry. While the initial workers of iron plantations were indentured Scotsmen, imported Africans soon became the dominant labor force for North American Ironworks. The use of cast iron within my studio practice is both a material and strategic homage to the working classes of pre and post-industrial North America. On a more personal note infusing the use of cast iron in my practice positions me as one of a handful of women of African descent employing this medium in contemporary art.
Metal casting with its metamorphic and meticulous task-oriented steps required before the final reveal is unparalleled as a medium for my aesthetic expression. Nonetheless, by 2011 I began melding casting techniques with digital media. The inclusion parametric design within my studio practice allowed me to work larger, and more methodically. My research focus, the human agency of the American working class remained constant. Ambient Void furthered my art-based research practice as it explored the intersection of homelessness and Taylorism where the impact of industrial-technological advances came to impede upon the need for the human body that in turn reshaped applications of human agency. Ambient Void is a large-scale installation incorporating sound and light made of over 12,000 slip cast eggshells. The creation of the sculpture mimicked manufacturing concerns such as quality, time management, labor, labor relations, cost analysis, and the concern for beauty. Ironically, the creation of Ambient Void returned my practice to a point of vulnerability that I had previously sought to correct through the use of metal casting.
Shortly after the creation of Ambient Void, I was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in 2011. Going to Nigeria was an opportunity to engage source material of Yoruba culture from an emic perspective that heretofore my years of study had only allowed from afar. I was now able to fuse my understanding of Yoruba culture and arts with my inquiry into vulnerability and human agency, along with indigenous casting methods. The fellowship involved studying traditional lost wax metal casting in relationship to the Yoruba concept of Ori-how humans come to have heads. While there are elements of my works that are figurative my approach to my research in Nigeria was far more essentialist. Employing my background as a Medical Anthropologist I explored human relations in juxtaposition to my own head’s response to emotional environmental changes that occurred during human interactions. This very subtle registration of data would lend itself as the foundation of all my future studio outputs. By the conclusion of my time in Ile Ife, Nigeria I hit upon the esoteric method for the use of time and thought as actual mediums in a work of art. This is a tricky concept, all works require time and thought. However, I am refereeing to the use of the metaphysical properties of time and thought as embedded particles of the artwork’s medium of construction; just as a painter would employ paint or a sculptor clay. I sought to make tangible the realms of time and thought. I hypothesized that touch, specifically human touch, served as a conduit for the transference of the etherealness of time and thought. The Fulbright represented a doorway into the line of inquiry between ethereal properties and human agency, but the Being Humans Fellowship allowed me to actualize my theories.
As the Being Humans Fellow at Penn State University, I developed the palimpsest experiential Human Touch Project. Using traditional metal casting wax, participants voluntarily selected a color-coded box containing a dollop of wax and are asked to embed into the wax their interpretation of one of five emotions: green: jealousy; red: anger; yellow: love; orange: happiness; or blue: pride. The Human Touch Project was designed to explore the aesthetic relationship between human and ethereal connectivity. Time and thought are investigated and addressed within the invisible space that exists when human beings connect by way of a simple touch where the transference of human synergy and emotionality become embedded in the initial wax touches. The exhibitory element of the project furthers the research, as audience members are able to locate themselves via their affordability to touch the initial waxes as well as reconfigure the waxes into new touches. Human agency is effectuated as audiences are engaging the etherealness of time and thought as a medium when they participate in the manipulation and alteration of the wax touches. The success of the Human Touch Project proved that the ethereal nature of time and thought are equal mediums of expression just like paint, metal or clay and are sustainable in their aestheticism.
The totality of my prior aesthetic explorations regarding the relationship between human and ethereal connectivity led to solidification of ideas and methods within my studio practice. In my present research, I have returned to Yoruba philosophical thought with the investigation of the Yoruba concept of Awo (mystery) I am investigating the ethereal nature of mystery and human connectivity. Unlike, the Human Touch Project where I sought to have humans connect with one and other via the ethereal mediums of time and thought; with the development of Awo I am exploring the original relationship between hand and mind, a relationship with the self. This seemingly simple reflective engagement is the foundation of human advancement and in particular the human journey beyond the self.
Through the construction of miniature porcelain hand-held objects a sensual invitation to explore mystery unfolds within the boundaries of relational aesthetics. It is refreshing in our rapid world to hold an object and lull humanity into a state of critical reflexivity. With this line of inquiry, I have expanded my research-based practice of the mediums of time and thought to include mystery and motion as a reorientation towards the human self and ultimately, humanity.