Guest Voices: Ledelle Moe

Today’s guest post comes from South African artist Ledelle Moe. Although born in South Africa, Moe’s heritage is geographically diverse, as are the many places she has lived. Often dealing with place and identity in her work, Moe created a stunning outdoor sculpture for the Earth Matters exhibition. Below are her reflections on the meaning of this work and her creative process.

 

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Ledelle Moe (b. 1971, South Africa)

Land/Displacements, 2012–13

Concrete, iron, Collection of the artist

 

In preparing to write for this blog, I have reflected on journeys travelled. Outside of the everyday of “being” in a place, the conscious trips I have taken feel like important pilgrimages. The ones I will site touch base with the beauty and history of South Africa.

On the 6th of October, I travelled with a friend to Robben Island for the day. During this trip an ex-political prisoner guided the tour through the cells. Nelson Mandela’s autobiography-“Long Walk to Freedom” came to life as my feet walked through the place that he has written about in so much detail. The book itself is a history lesson and an adventure story. It follows a man whose bravery and convictions, trials and triumphs are explained in a way that makes you feel as though he is writing you alone. Image

I re-“read” the book as an audiotape while driving across the country last year in preparation for making the work at the African Museum. His story and my journey from Cape Town to Durban had overlapping points such as Mthatha and I felt awe at being able to access this amazing country to revisit it and acknowledge its richness no matter how complex and difficult the history.

The trip to Robben Island left me with a heavy weight of the history of the prison and South Africa and as a result I felt compelled to try and understand the people that were victims of horrific injustices. In each cell there is now an image of the prisoner and a paragraph in their own words of the time spent there. Since then I have been drawing small pen and ink cameos of each person. This helps me to slow down and remember and walk through this history.

Both the visit to Robben Island and the trip across country reminded me of the thoughts Carol Becker articulates in her book “Thinking In Place” In this book she speaks about the impulse to travel to a place that holds a personal and political history, her reflections being, that through the act of making a pilgrimage to a place a possible reconciliation with the past and history of that place is possible.

During my cross-country trip last year I stopped in a town called Elliot, not far from Mthatha. It was this landscape that I used as inspiration for the work at the African Museum. The land itself makes up the base of the Drakensberg Mountains and has a unique place in the evolution of colonial South African territorial history and land claim. It marks one of many junctures of land ownership issues that are pervasive throughout South Africa.

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The small figures that are attached to the larger form of the sculpture were made from an accumulation of soil that I gathered along the trip. In taking the soil, I acknowledge the place I am in, while also removing a small part of that place and displacing it. In doing this, I felt it was a small gesture of “land claim”- of taking what is not mine and acknowledging that act. This investigation was a reflection of the migrations of my own family.

The articulation of the work itself, I hope speaks to a connection and disconnection, and of collective and individual grouping of peoples as they move transiently through and from the land.

As I sit here on table mountain writing this, I can reflect on this geography, explore this history and yet its with this distance that I begin to understand the place I have called home in the States in more focus. Similarly, when in the States the distance allows me the perspective to understand South Africa. It is with this paradox and duality that I feel very grateful to be able to participate in the show “Earth Matters” – that asks us to consider the earth under our feet and acknowledge it.

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Guest Voices: Adejoke Tugbiyele

Todays guest post comes from fine artist Adejoke Tugbiyele. In 2013 Adejoke assisted world-renowned, Ghanaian artist El Anatsui with the installation of his sculpture “Ala”, in the Smithsonian Gardens.  As she prepares to show with artist Nnenna Okore at the Joburg Art Fair, Adejoke shares her experience working with El Anatsui in this week’s Guest Voices.

Working with El Anatsui

Working with El Anatsui was a dream come true.  It could not have felt any better to do so at The Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art. Before me stood, on the one hand, an artist whose reputation deems him an institution by himself, and on the other, an institution which promotes and preserves the legacy of artists like El Anatsui.  I do not come from a family of artists.  Like many children of Nigerian parents, I was encouraged to go into the medical field.  In fact, I went to college as a pharmacy major for two years right after high school. Clearly, that was not the role the universe intended for me.  I quit and eventually went on to study architecture.

Why is this significant?  It is significant because despite my telling him that I was graduate sculpture student at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), El kept introducing me to people as an architect. As any graduate student would, I showed him images of my work during one of our strolls through the Museum’s African art galleries, asking for a critique of some sort. A man of few words… he merely smiled.  Sure enough, and before I knew it, he was requesting detailed sketches and technical drawings of his pryamid installation for the Smithsonian Gardens. This task was not as easy at it sounds.  I often had to switch back and forth between a metric ruler to one in inches and feet, the latter being the system I’ve used most of my life here in the United States.  El didn’t care and remarked that our system in the U.S was “very colonial.”

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Adejoke Tugbiyele

Water Go Find Enemy (2013)

Perforated metal (woven), palm stems, brass wire and copper wire

During the installation we became short on the mirrored plexiglass that was used in the construction of El’s pyramid, a delicate material which was meant to be inserted underneath of sheets of cassava graters in pre-specified areas. I sketched out a rough estimate on paper of the total number of existing mirrors and those needed, and sent them to Anthony Stellaccio, the project manager for Earth Matters.  We corresponded back and forth and a decision was finally made on how many more mirrors to purchase.  I was glad that my experience in design and construction management came in handy in supporting Karen Milbourne (curator), Anthony, and their team at the Smithsonian.

Over time, it became apparent why El valued my help.  While installing the pyramid in Washington D.C, he was simultaneously preparing for two other exhibitions in Amsterdam and London respectively.  That London project recently won him the prestigious £25,000 Charles Wollaston Award for his work, TSIATSIA – searching for connection, 2013.  El took several breaks to his hotel room to manage the London project from D.C. and he must have anticipated that he would have to do the same in Amsterdam.  I was thrilled when he said I could join him in Amsterdam as his assistant (or architect, I suppose) to manage the installation at ArtZuid.  This was paid work, whereas at the Smithsonian I was one of the four or five volunteer assistants selected by Karen Milbourne.  I should also mention that the South African artist and one of the artists in Earth Matters, Ledelle Moe, initially recommended me to Karen.  Ledelle was a professor of Sculpture at MICA and gave me very inspiring critiques in my studio.

I can’t thank the Smithsonian Museum enough for the wonderful opportunity of working with El Anatsui.  The volunteer program is very special and one that I highly recommend graduate students should take advantage of.  The exhibition Earth Matters is genius in its selection of artworks that represent a continent whose land has, and will, always matter.

-Adejoke Tugbiyele

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Adejoke Tugbiyele and El Anatsui                                       Doug Johnston, Adejoke Tugbiyele and El Anatsui

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El Anatsui (b. 1944, Ghana)

Ala, Site-specific installation, 2013

Adejoke Tugbiyele

Master of Fine Art, Sculpture (2013)

U.S. Fulbright Student Fellow (2013-14)

Website: www.AdejokeTugbiyele.com

From the Archives: Graters of Cassava

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Cultivated plot, near Jos, Nigeria.
Photograph by Edwin R. and Emily Dean, 1966.
EEPA 2002-120042
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

  

The Earth Matters exhibition features, for the first time, three earth works installed in the Smithsonian Gardens (SG) on the National Mall. This monumental undertaking was detailed in an earlier post by SG supervisory horticulturist Jonathan Kavalier, but the works began in conception long before they ever materialized in physical form. The artists, Ghada Amer of Egypt, Strijdom van der Merwe of South Africa, and El Anatsui of Ghana and Nigeria (and Ledelle Moe, whose outdoor sculpture has also been installed outside of the National Museum of African Art), each came to visit walked the gardens before they even began the process of creating, getting a feel for the unique spaces of the garden and beginning the thought process about what shape and material form their earth works would take.

El Anatsui, for instance, looked to challenge conceptions of what an earth work might be made of in his work, Ala, named for the Igbo earth goddess. The pyramid of mirrors and rusted metal that ultimately emerged seems deceptively industrial when first viewed.  But Anatsui says that he “settled for something that just rests [on the ground], something which is light but has allusions to the earth—because the material I am going to work with is rusted metals. Metal is from the earth, as are the reflective sheets. Glass is silica, which is soil, so I am still using the earth. …” (personal communication with curator Dr. Karen E. Milbourne, Sept. 10, 2012).

But for Anatsui, in this and past works, each metal sheet references a very specific usage of earth. In a standing arrangement with manufacturers from his home base in Nsukka, Nigeria, Anatsui asks that used cassava graters be given to him.  He leaves them in his studio yard for months or years so that they rust and take on different patinas. Made from discarded galvanized iron oil drums and punctured with nails to create a surface upon which tough cassava root can be grated, these graters signal, for Anatsui, the intersection between nature and human intervention in the form of agriculture and food cultivation. Anatsui’s earth work shows us the common ground shared by nature and industry.  

Cassava (Manihot esculenta) is a staple crop in western Africa, particularly in Nigeria where Anatsui continues to live and work today. High in carbohydrates, this common plant is cultivated throughout the world in sub-tropical or tropical climates due to its high resistance to drought. In this photo from 1966 by Edwin R. and Emily Dean, taken in Nigeria, a cultivated plot of cassava can be seen in neat tidy rows. Here, we can see the crop as it looks when growing, although the true value of cassava is not in view – the tough roots are where the nutritional value is, necessitating the use of the tough galvanized-iron-and-metal graters that Anatsui utilizes.

Today, Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of cassava, and farms tend to look different today than they do in this photo from over forty years ago. Though the neat rows remain, farms tend to be much larger and the crop is useful in that it can serve as a cash crop during good harvests, but can also feed its producers as a hardy, nutrient-rich subsistence crop during leaner times. Where does agriculture fit into your conception of the earth? Do you consider it “natural,” or does your definition of earth differ?

Guest Voices: Earth Works at the Smithsonian

Happy Memorial Day! We at the Smithsonian hope you are enjoying a happy and relaxing day with family and friends.

Our guest post today features Jonathan Kavalier, a supervisory horticulturist with Smithsonian Gardens, who was integral in making the Earth Works happen in conjunction with the Earth Matters exhibit. This partnership marks a first for the Smithsonian – never before has land art been installed on the National Mall. Learn about the process of making this amazing feat happen – with 30 million visitors to the nation’s capital looking on. 

merwe 1Strijdom van der Merwe’s piece, Land Reform, on Independence Ave. in Washington, DC – photo courtesy Jonathan Kavalier

As a horticulturist, I don’t often have the opportunity to participate in art exhibitions. So when museum curator Karen Milbourne approached me with an idea for a collaboration between the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) and Smithsonian Gardens, my interest was piqued. I met Karen when she attended a talk I gave on building gardens in Madagascar, a country I had the immense pleasure of living in for two years before joining the Smithsonian. Since I was already emotionally invested in Africa, the idea of collaborating with NMAfA sounded great, and definitely supported Smithsonian Gardens’ mission to enrich the Smithsonian experience through exceptional gardens, horticultural exhibits, collections, and education. What came out of many discussions was an idea to commission earthworks from several African artists in some of the Smithsonian Gardens.

moeLedelle Moe’s outdoor sculpture piece, Land/Displacements, outside the National Museum of African Art – photo via Pinterest

Now two years later, this idea has finally come to fruition. My job was to manage the logistics of installing these very different earth works involving sculpture, living plants, and earth moving. Add to that the challenge of working around existing garden infrastructure and the 30 million visitors that come through the Smithsonian annually, all without compromising the artists’ visions. I am very happy to say that the earth works have all been successfully installed, and some rice planting finally happened a few weeks ago for Ghada Amer’s piece, Hunger. We’ve actually been growing rice in our greenhouses for the past two months, eagerly waiting for the warmer weather to arrive so we can plant the rice into the Earth Works exhibit.

The most challenging, and rewarding, part of coordinating these installations was working around the visiting public during what is the busiest time of year for Smithsonian Gardens. Lots of time and effort were put into ensuring the public’s safety during the course of the work, but the reward of observing visitors witnessing the creation of these exhibits was priceless.

merwe 2Looking down Independence Ave. along the folds of van der Merwe’s Land Reform – photo courtesy Jonathan Kavalier

We hope you’ll stop by the National Mall this summer and fall and see these spectacular works of art that only could have happened with the partnership and hard work of Jonathan Kavalier and the rest of Smithsonian Gardens. They mark a true “first” for the Smithsonian, revealing the constant connection between art, humanity, and the land that each earth artist in the show has skillfully and distinctly revealed.  Don’t miss it!