Looking at Esmaa Mohamoud’s sculptures at Chicago’s Kavi Gupta gallery, you might not immediately know that they are dealing directly with the killings of Black Americans by the police.
Darkness Doesn’t Rise To The Sun But We Do (2020), One of the works in the show, is comprised of a mass of dandelions made of steel that has been painted black. Part of a larger installation called Faith in the Seedsthe blossoms are bathed in a dim orange-colored light meant to evoke a sunset.
The sculptures may have a peaceful, contemplative air, but they’re also a stark reminder of the racial injustices that have become so common that no one has to be reminded of them.
“A lot of what I’m working on right now deals with re-approaching understandings of Blackness that I have had as a child from the perspective of a 30-year-old Black woman and debunking a lot of that,” Mohamoud told ART news, “The dandelions were a large part of that. They’re a plant that seems so innocent when you’re a child.”
Mohamoud’s political message and her personal history collide throughout the show. In Nirvana (Oh Sweet Elham), a colossal sculpture of a pink Cadillac on rims so massive that visitors can walk beneath the car and gaze into its engineless core. The work was inspired by a Cadillac-shaped VHS cassette rewinder owned by Mohamoud’s grandmother that got constant use—the two often spent time together watching movies when Mohamoud was young.
Those memories sparked in Mohamoud an interest in the history of the Cadillac in Black culture. At the dawn of the luxury car market in the early 20th century, Black people were often not allowed to buy Cadillac’s and other lavish automobiles. That changed after the Great Depression when, facing a steep downturn in sales, Cadillac became the first auto manufacturer to market cars specifically to Black people.
Gluttony, Gluttony, Gluttony (2022) is another example. She says like many Black girls she used shea butter almost every day when she was younger. It was only after researching how this well-known moisturizer got from West Africa to the Industrialized West did Mohamoud learn how it too was a symbol of oppression. “It’s a $200 million dollar industry,” Mohamoud said, “and the young girls who harvest shea nuts in Ghana and across West Africa get paid 50 cents a day. When I learned of the totality of the effects of Western consumption, it was really disturbing.”
Three busts carved from ethically sourced shea butter that has been dried until it takes on an ivory color,bust depicts a reflection of the African girls who harvest shea nut. (One can currently be seen at Kavi Gupta’s Expo Chicago booth.) Each bust sits on an Italian marble plinth and is surrounded by 15,000 sculpted shea butter nuts.
The shea butter project won Mohamoud a spot in Kehinde Wiley’s Black Rock Senegal residency, where she continued her research into harvesting and production of shea butter. Mohamoud had intended to photograph girls in Senegal who worked harvesting the nuts, but she became seriously ill and had to trade in her time at the residency for trips to the hospital.
However, determined to move ahead with her project, she enlisted three African girls in her native Canada to stand in for the girls in Senegal and with the help of 160 cameras, via a process called photogrammetry, 3D modeling software, and digital sculpting, was able to create the busts out of a mixture of shea butter, wax, and damar resin.
“Figurative work is not really my forte,” Mohamoud said. “I usually create objects and speak through objects almost in place of people. But with this it was very important to me to capture these girls, and to capture them in shea butter. It seemed like the only way to move forward, given how the project began.”