When one thinks of grief and mourning, one often imagines it on an intimate scale. A flower placed on a grave. A photograph on a fireplace mantle. A charitable contribution made in honor of a deceased loved one.
South African sculptor Ledelle Moe has a rather different way of processing her grief. She sculpts huge, hollow heads, so large you can crawl into them. She creates colossal figures that appear to have toppled over in the public square after a time of tumult. She makes giant reclining figures at rest, arms stiff at their sides, recalling ancient sarcophagi or the bound bodies that go inside them. The size and scale of her work feel monumental, the weathered quality suggests a distant time and place, long ago lost to history. Even so, Moe says, her pieces are “really a deeply personal way of grappling with the weight of things.”
On view at MASS MoCA beginning Dec. 14, Moe’s show entitled “When” consists of about a dozen large-scale sculptures, pieced together in a way that reveals steel armature inside a scarred concrete skin. The sculptures, taking over the entire expanse of Building 5 on the MoCA campus, immediately call to mind the grand recurrent themes of history — the fall of ancient civilizations due to hubris, unending conflicts born of tribal grievances, turbulent changes in political regimes thanks to shifting social philosophies, environment or climate. Even the title of the show suggests a passage of time and the inevitable rise and fall of societies and cultures. But as Moe tells it, her work is smaller than all that, a response to private needs allowing her to work out her feelings as she physically skirmishes with her materials.
“I make all the work myself,” explains Moe, who heads the sculpture department at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. “I bend the steel myself, I weld it, I apply the concrete myself. No one else makes these things for me. Grappling with scale on that level puts my body in proximity to the bodies where I’m almost a servant to the sculpture and I’m working on this thing and I need to climb on it and move around it and reach over it… I think there’s this part of making the work on a large scale that I love — being dwarfed by things.”
In other words, full-immersion grief.
Wandering through the graveyard of fallen, aged sculptures, visitors might feel as if they have come upon an excavation site in an ancient land. We can draw comparisons to classical funerary sculptures, as with her pieces “Relief” of 2010, or toppled Victorian-era cemetery monuments, as with her series “Erosion” of 2009. Allusions to ruin, decay, perhaps even unseen violence, are all implicit.
Moe’s “Memorial (Collapse)” consists of four giant heads that are part of a continuing series. All male, they peacefully lay on their sides, eyes closed, as if asleep. The heads (which weigh an average of 2,000 pounds each) are worn, and the wire mesh that serves as the support for the concrete is visible, like a wound or old scar. The heads were made after Moe came across a series of “exquisitely beautiful” photographs of people who had died in violent conflict. One photo, of a young man killed in Liberia during the Charles Taylor conflict, especially struck her.
“I could just not put this image away,” she says. “I made this large portrait which was really my own personal way of coming to terms with the enormity of events that otherwise you don’t know how to process. And so, that was a mustard seed of an idea that linked directly to personal events that had happened in my life in South Africa, where people just did not need to fall victim to the power structures that were around, and they did. And it was really a way to reconcile that within myself.”
Moe’s group of sculptures entitled “Transitions/Displacements” were made in 2012 and are large human figures that appear to float above the floor, not so much at rest as in a state of suspension. The concrete is worn and grooved. The seams of the pieces section off the figures into a grid where steel armatures are visible.
“I made them in that chapter of losing my mom and my grandmother,” says Moe. “They were these enormous figures that started to resemble sarcophagi. And it did dawn on me one day when I was watering the concrete and I was walking between them and pouring the water onto the concrete so that it would harden and cure, that I felt like I was embalming or treating the surface of these sculptures in a very mournful way. I realized that the work was very much about loss and coming to terms with the ephemeral nature of life.”
In “Congregation,” created between 2006 and 2015, hundreds of small concrete heads the size of a fist are installed on the wall, a vast crowd of varying tonalities and facial features. Moe created these small heads as she traveled in those years, incorporating sand and earth from whatever locale where she happened to be working. (Moe travels a lot. Before returning to her native South Africa in 2006, she lived and worked in the United States. She was an adjunct professor in the sculpture department at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore.) The added earth and sand create a link uniting distant people and places.
One of her most ambitious sculptures is the new “Remain,” an 18-foot tall androgynous kneeling figure surrounded by a network of metal rods that protrude from the body to support a swarm of ambiguous forms. The figure recalls a seated Buddha, a kneeling Egyptian pharaoh or perhaps a Mayan goddess. It is entirely mysterious and seems rife with contradictions, emanating both strength and vulnerability.
“I think the figure is a strangely androgynous figure,” says Moe. “It’s kind of a he and a she, a solid and a whole, a cavity and a solid structure simultaneously.”
Moe says the figure seems to be pausing, waiting for the next action.
“It’s a moment of contemplation that’s a little bit more like a deliberate pause than waiting per se.”
Also tacit in Moe’s monumental forms is a question about monuments themselves. What purpose do they serve? Who do they honor? And what happens when the monuments we erect contradict who we are? Such questions have taken on a special resonance in recent years following the removal of Confederate Civil War statues in the United States and the removal of a statue honoring Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town in 2015. Rhodes, who served as prime minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896, was an ardent believer in British imperialism and advocated the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race governing indigenous South Africans as a “subject” race.
Can a monument’s time come and go?
Moe thinks so.
“Power structures become obsolete,” she says. “If it’s a symbolic extension of the power structure, then when it’s moved it’s a symbolic shifting of that power structure and a very important one.”
The thing about monuments of any sort, and particularly the work of Moe, is that while they can appear solid and sturdy, they, like all of us, are subject to wear and some re-evaluation over time.
“Ledelle Moe: When” is on view at MASS MoCA Dec. 14 through Sept. 7.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.