Our author Massa Lemu talks to Ledelle Moe about her sculptural practice.
Massa Lemu: I would like to start by commenting on the amazing texture of the surfaces of your massive pieces in your solo show “Traces” at Commune 1 in Cape Town last year. Your old work shares this granitic texture (if I may say so) but there is a degree of transformation in the new pieces. Can you describe this metamorphosis and comment on the processes that were involved in building these textures?
Ledelle Moe: I see the concrete as a three dimensional canvas- a skin of sorts upon which I can draw with line and shadow by cutting into the surface of the cement. These marks reflect the reach of my arm and a physical extension of my own body. In treating the surface plane with repetitive scoring/scratching, I re-find the form underneath. In the process of working through this visual and physical process, a texture of hide seems to evolve. In the last sculptures you refer to, the surfaces have an almost sack like quality to them. I find the disparity between this skin and the pressing volumetric form beneath it to be an interesting tension in these works. I find that the form and formlessness of the sculptures allow for a tension in our reading of the shapes. This is a place where I hope representational form and pure texture collaborate to blur the edges of meaning.
ML: In contemporary sculptural practices the predominant critical attitude seems to be anti-monumentality by way of ephemera and disposable commodities and mass media items. Some contemporary sculptors are responding to the long standing tradition of the idea of sculpture as permanent, as monument while also commenting on commodity culture and consumption. Where, if at all, do you position your practice in these critical discourses?
LM: I ‘m drawn to the paradox of permanence and impermanence – the place where the monumentalization of something implies the loss of another. If I reference commodity culture- it’s in the ubiquitous use of concrete in our daily lives, it surrounds us and is an extension of the foundation and skin of urban life. Using such a common and easily accessible material to create precarious stories and narratives is my way of talking about the precious and the disposable.
ML: Some of your new pieces are a direct result of your fieldwork at an archaeological site right here in South Africa. What attracted you to the site? How long did you stay there?
LM: The Cradle of Humankind in South Africa is a very special place. It is here that some of the oldest traces of human ancestor fossils are found. I travelled to this site and lived in a tent close to some of the unexplored caves. The solitude of this experience allowed me to reflect on how we leave traces and “markers” behind. The process I employed involved digging in the dirt and including that soil and sand with cement to create small concrete carvings. Sculpting these forms was a gesture that spoke to the land, my taking a part of the land and my questions around belonging, landownership and place.
ML: Is there a particular geological period that is the most aesthetically significant to your practice?
LM: I am interested in the evidence and speculation around early geological ruptures and fissures and the consequent reconstitution of rock and sediment that we see today in the South Africa landscape. These land masses provide a backdrop and “canvas “upon which our colonial and post colonial history unfold. As the natural weathering of the landscape occurs, so does the evolution of our own histories as landowners, migrants, farmers, artists.
ML: What was the experience working on an important historical site marked by the intersection of geological and archaeological temporalities?
LM: The erosion of the landscape, the borders and boundaries of this particular landscape bring the ocean, for me, into focus. Over the years, In addition to working in the cradle of humankind, I have also worked extensively in and on the ocean. The ocean as a landscape that connects and separates us from other land masses is a compelling space. Recently I have exhibited in Miami and Martinique, on both journeys I have travelled over the Atlantic to participate in creative spaces that look at the nature of the ocean as geographical and political space. In One World in Relation Edouard Glissant speaks about his journey from France to Martinique by boat and reflects the quality of time and contemplation that this trip allows for. Reckoning with the weight of history, shifting geographies and displacement of people through these waters he acknowledges this passage and articulates his thoughts on Multiplicity and the diaspora. These historical and personal currents are for me, echoed in the endlessly shifting landscape of the ocean and the ambivalent tensions it holds. In my own personal history, my Grandmother migrated from the Shetland Islands, Scotland to Cairo during the Second World War. Displaced and separated yet joined by the ocean to her homeland, she settled in South Africa. The narrative of her life as a nurse and the subsequent retelling of the story creates a personal narrative of the sea. Our family’s ethnography is that of shifting boundaries, of legitimacy and illegitimacy. The heterogeneous nature of our histories creates a rootlessness that is not linked to a specific geography, or fixed heritage. This deeply informs my work, as does a preoccupation with the ocean and its connection and disconnect to the bodies of land that we inhabit. Identity in this sense is an imagined heritage simultaneously linked to a lived experience and actual geography. These narratives involve the sea in its ability to create passage between worlds and create the gulf that consumes and erases history. These paradoxes of what is remembered and forgotten and real and imagined, are underpinning to much of the work I have made, in that they are an attempt to make the intangible tangible and the anonymous personal.
ML: What knowledges and new insights did you dig up from this site and how are they shaping your work?
LM: I took away with me the abundance of the landscape and the very transitory nature of time. While living alone in this ancient archaeological site, the daily routine of living, eating, working was contextualized by the natural environment. The enormity of the landscape, the fragility of my needs and the wild animals were foregrounded. Since then I have been drawing the landscape and working with sound. In these new works combine the landscape with sound.
ML: Within this archaeological context, your sculptures look like they are excavated items that belong to a bygone era, beyond ancient Zimbabwe, Moai and Stonehenge. But the “ornitho-anthropomorphic” forms in such pieces as Husk seem as if they have been saved at that crucial weathering moment when they were about to erode into utter unrecognizability. The pieces carefully balance at the tense moment between permanence and transience. The form of the dead bird, as it features in the concrete materiality of the pieces and on such a colossal scale, in Husk 1 evokes the uncanny and the eerie, drawing one to death’s paradoxical presence at the very core of ones’ life, if I am allowed to say.
LM: Yes, exactly, I hope that these pieces can speak to the mythology of birds. In particular I was looking at the story of the sunbirds in Zimbabwean culture. In this myth, the migrating swallow flies through the room of a house before anyone can catch it. One day Nosenga, son of the sky god, catches the bird and day breaks, ending the darkness. These sculptures are hollow forms, reminiscent of sarcophagi and hold together an unoccupied space. This “unoccupied “space, for me, represents the paradox at the heart of your question- of both being and not being simultaneously.
Massa Lemu is a Malawian writer and artist.