Monumental work a tribute to slain men

ART

September 28, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

A photograph spotted on the Internet inspired South African sculptor Ledelle Moe to create a colossal head of steel and concrete and dedicate her work to the thousands of young men who met violent deaths during Africa's civil wars, including those who died in the struggle against apartheid.

Little did she know how timely the monumental piece would seem.

Called Collapse 2, the sculpture, now on view at Maryland Art Place, has a horrifying resonance against the backdrop of videotaped beheadings carried out in Iraq by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi. But those atrocities had not even begun when Moe began sculpting the piece. "I wanted to do a series of portraits that monumentalized the people who die in conflicts that we don't know about," Moe said.

"I had been looking at the giant Olmec heads [from South America], which I learned were memorials for fallen soldiers, people who had died in combat," the artist recalled. "And then I found a picture of this unknown young man who had been beheaded in Liberia's civil war, and it resonated with me because here was another male victim of the violence that results from the complexities of African countries."

As a privileged South African who had witnessed the injustices of apartheid as a child, Moe felt compelled to address the tragic conflict in her homeland. It was, she says, a way of "reconciling myself with what's going on in the world - my white colonial catharsis."

The 33-year-old sculptor says she chose the Internet image of the decapitated Liberian youth primarily because of the expression on his face and the fact that he was just one among thousands of anonymous, forgotten victims of Africa's wars.

"What struck me about it was how serene he looked given how brutal his murder had been," she recalled. "The enormous scale [of the sculpture] is part of the content of the work, in that I wanted to blow out of proportion something that may have been overlooked."

At Maryland Art Place, where Collapse 2 occupies an entire room in the gallery, there is little chance it will go unnoticed. The 2-ton, rough-hewn piece has a monumental solemnity that is both elegiac and awe-inspiring.

And despite her subject's recent association with the terrorist beheadings in Iraq, Moe says she is pleased when people are also able to read the work in other contexts.

"Some people see in it a serenity that has no connection to the beheadings in Iraq," she says. "Others read the face as if it were asleep rather than dead."

In any case, she says, "It's got less to do with Zarqawi than with the fact that this is a fallen soldier. I could have chosen any brutal murder and represented it on a larger scale. It's just taking one anonymous person and putting it all down by making it big and heavy."

Moe grew up in Durban in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province and attended high school and college there before winning a scholarship to study at Virginia Commonwealth University. Since 2001, she has taught sculpture and metal fabrication at Maryland Institute College of Art.

Her art springs directly from her experience in Africa, an impulse that has also motivated such renowned fellow South Africans as artist William Kentridge and writers Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing.

"It's a consciousness that you can never shake," she says. " ... I feel fortunate to have missed most of the bad stuff. Still, I have a huge nostalgia and longing for the country I come from."

Maryland Art Place is also exhibiting video and installation art by Brian Kain and paintings by Tammra Sigler. All three exhibitions run through Oct. 30. The gallery is at 8 Market Place, Suite 100. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Call 410-962-8565 or visit www.mdart place.org.

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