Multimedia artist and founding member of the Earthseed Black Arts Collective Nikesha Breeze’s new show Four Sites of Return is as much about ritualistic forms of creation as it is about experimentation and self-discovery. Divided across four main tenets—ritual, remembrance, reparation and reclamation—the massive installation takes up the entire first floor of downtown gallery form & concept, as well as parts of its second-story catwalk, and winds up with the potential and versatility to be so many things to so many different kinds of people.
“In essence,” Breeze says, “I’m a ritual artist.”
This is perhaps most evident in the show’s clay mask selections, a monumental 108 ceramic death masks sculpted by hand that flared into creation through what Breeze calls “ancestral memory.” Created one a day for 108 days, no two are alike, most noticeably in texture; Breeze placed the pieces outside before firing them in a kiln, allowing nature to play a role. Some are wind-beaten and sallow, others aged and scarred; each looks more like a mold than a hand-sculpted face—each carries palpable life and looks like a Black person who might have lived. The faces, Breeze says, came to her through her hands in clay.
“I made one, and it was such a powerful feeling to hold that mask in my hands and to feel this tactile relationship to even a conceptual idea of it being an actual ancestor’s death mask,” Breeze explains. “I wanted to make death masks, which are traditionally made with the faces of nobles or elders, because it’s about honoring a person, but what about all those people who were never honored? All those beautiful ancestors who’ve been lost or invisibleized? Could I make a mask for those who had never even had their face seen in our history? It was so deeply moving that I realized there were many more than one.”
The masks exist in a sublime tandem space with Breeze’s large-scale archival portrait paintings. Looming door-sized, the paintings begin with stretched canvas covered in black gesso. Like the masks, Breeze places the canvas outside to let nature creep in and make its own adjustments; unlike the masks, however, the paintings are based on real photo portraits of Black Americans from just before the Civil War. Breeze found them through the Library of Congress archives and, after considering dozens, recreated those which spoke to her: a well-appointed woman, a nicely dressed older man with a young boy beside him, a pair of young Black girls, well-dressed and conveying a multitude of emotions within their stark expressions. Being photographed at the time was probably nerve-wracking, Breeze hypothesizes, especially for Black people prior to emancipation; none of the photos on which the paintings are based carry their subjects’ names, save, Breeze says, “Freeman” hastily scrawled in pencil on the back of the photo of the two young girls. The implications of that name, from that time, are many and add another layer of intrigue. Like the masks, Breeze somehow captures life and emotion in motionless eyes, and Breeze says her search for another name originally inspired the series.
“I encountered [the photos] while studying my own biological histories, when I came to a point where my family line ended with ’1857, plantation,’” she tells SFR. “Before that, almost nothing; after that, nothing. As I started digging into archives for even a mention of a name from my family history, the one I found was Dinah, so I started looking for any mention of a Dinah in wills, in slave bequeathments, and in that process, what I found was that Dinah was a catch-all name given to Black -enslaved women—like Little Black Sambo. There was Sambo. There was Dinah.”
If this is uncomfortable for some to read, it most certainly should be. As celebratory as Four Sites of Return will surely feel to some, there’s a level of accountability for the privileged baked into its elements. It’s not a harsh, scolding mirror or even a surface-level admonishment. Rather, it’s Breeze’s soul laid bare with a subtle onus placed on the non-marginalized who see it. This isn’t to say the implications of unpacking conditioned racism or privilege is gentle per se, nor should it be—nor is it Breeze’s responsibility to unpack any emotions that arise from her audience. She has invited the more privileged in her audience to take stock of their own part in an ongoing system which benefits white supremacy without spelling it out for them and while focusing on enduring Black bodies.
Take pieces that will hang along form & concept’s catwalk—pages based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, though re-appropriated and rewritten by Breeze to alter its racist narrative. It becomes a new story in Breeze’s hands, it becomes a new full-length book, she says, and individual pages will hang framed and readable. Or look to the showstopper piece in the center of the gallery’s ground floor: “The Ark of Return,” a stunning rowboat conceived, designed and built by Breeze using 3D modeling techniques, woodworking, mesh and copper plates sewn around its hull like scales and etched with symbology, ancient languages, proprietary languages, numerological rumination. Each of these processes was new for Breeze, but digging into them, she says, proved challenging and satisfying. Within the boat itself, also etched on copper, is a three-pronged being Breeze has dubbed “The Black Goddexx of Time;” long cotton textiles hang from the ceiling, treated with wheat and sugar—reminders of a small fraction of labors forced upon enslaved people for centuries. Actual earth sits beneath the boat itself.
“It’s this psychic, spiritual boat for all our returns, all of my stories, the truth of the faces that have disappeared, the return of what has been taken as well as our abilities within the African diaspora,” Breeze says. “How do we continue to make our own boats, to hold ourselves and to move through the future in our own bodies? It’s this Afro-futurist form of conductor that carries us into new freedoms, it is a mother-maiden-crone type of mythical being that carries all directions.”
To obtain the etching’s look, Breeze used a process similar to electroplating for bookmaking, though she eschewed the precision needed for uniform copies with her own changes to the methodology. Again, it’s experimental. Because of this, one of the three faces of the entity bears an almost blue patina. Somehow, it’s perfect.
“What’s interesting for me is that as I continue to follow these lines of inquiry into materials and concept and put them all together, it’s teaching me what the work is about,” Breeze notes. “In creating these spaces that are comforting to Black bodies and Indigenous bodies, in being connected to ancestors and a space to grieve, the white gaze also has a chance to feel healthily implicated and able to sit in reckoning. There’s a really different experience, I find, with who is seeing the work. A great accountability...it’s a very specific intersection. It really feels like magic.”
Of course, this merely scratches the surface of Four Sites of Return. Breeze has long been a performance artist as well, and will perform a day-long durational movement piece with special guests on the day the show opens. Later in its run, find a screening of her film Stages of Tectonic Blackness and, she says, other possible additions.
“Those who know how long I’ve been building on this work, even at times when people have said, ‘It’s not so bad right now, why are you making things about Black death?’....It’s a zeitgeist,” Breeze concludes. “The work I’ve been doing for a long time, the consciousness I’ve been building, all of it colliding with a time where...it’s sad that [the show] is so pertinent right now. I can’t wait for the day where work about Black death and Black life is not so necessary.”
Nikesha Breeze: Four Sites of Return Opening: All Day Friday, April 30. Free. form & concept, 435 S Guadalupe St., 780-8312