Black Rainbow, 2017. Crocheted synthetic hair, artist’s hair, LED lighting, and frame, 120 x 180 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Mortal Coils: A Conversation with Angela Hennessy

Artist and educator Angela Hennessy lives and works in Oakland, California, where she teaches at California College of the Arts. Through writing, studio work, and performance, her practice examines mythologies of blackness embedded in linguistic metaphors of color and cloth. Hennessy has exhibited at the Bellevue Arts Museum, Exit Art, Ampersand International Arts, Pro Arts Gallery, Southern Exposure, the Richmond Art Center, and the Oakland Museum of California. She also volunteers with hospice, assisting families with home funerals, death vigils, and grief rituals. She is certified in the Grief Recovery Method and has trained with Final Passages and the International End of Life Doula Association.

Maria Porges: Your new work continues to use hair, which was one of the primary materials in your 2018 show at Southern Exposure Gallery in San Francisco. What brought you to hair as a material for sculpture?
Angela Hennessy: I started thinking about hair in graduate school, about 15 years ago. I was working with black velvet, separating out the fluff that makes it velvety from the threads. The fluff looked like afro hair on the barbershop floor.

Around that same time, I also began looking into Victorian end-of-life rituals and mourning practices, thinking about overt gestures and displays of grieving. Based on further research, I saw that hair was a very specific material used as an exchange between the living and the dead in many cultures: making offerings of hair—for instance, shaving one’s head when a close family member dies—or Victorian hairwork and hair jewelry. These objects of mourning were really what I was interested in—how hair became the material that connected one to the dead, while marking the separation caused by death.

Mourning Weave, 2014. Woven Velcro, velvet fuzz, and frame, 24 x 20 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MP: Most of these historical works with hair are relatively small, but you’ve used it on a massive scale, especially in the pieces for the Southern Exposure show.
AH: That was really a big shift for me. My formal education is in jewelry and metalwork, so I’ve always worked really small. This is one of the interesting things about textiles, though—you often have some element that is a building block, so that through repetition or accumulation you can create something massive. The works in the show followed that path—whether by using a crochet stitch or making hair flowers that are only a few inches across, but making many of them.

MP: Black Hole and the freestanding Mourning Wreath (both 2017), among others, were clearly conceived on a large scale.
Everything I made for that show was developed on an expanded scale. The work was inspired by the space. Originally, I’d written a proposal for placing the mourning wreath in another space, where the ceilings are 30 feet high—I’d been thinking that big. So adapting to the expansive space of Southern Exposure wasn’t as hard as it would have been otherwise.

MP: Your newer work seems to have taken a big jump forward into another set of ideas.
AH: I’ve been thinking about tools of restraint. In 2018, I participated in “A History of Violence,” a show presented by the Queer Cultural Center at SOMArts in San Francisco, and I did an installation called Bling. It had chain pieces in it—gold crocheted wire and a large chain link of black hair. I was thinking about how chains were devices of captivity and restraint, but they have also become, at a different scale, objects of adornment, of status and wealth, specifically in African American communities. In hip hop and rap communities, having gold is part of the performance. For me, too, writing in The School of the Dead Manifesto (2017) about gold and black grieving things, which are extractions from Africa—gold as a material, black as a material—I am thinking about that cycle of participation. I think that’s something about African American culture, about how black people have survived. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the resilience—thinking about how an object can call up a particular history and still be of the present moment.

This is how I look at materials: How are they relevant in the contemporary moment? What is the biography that a particular project will carry with it? It’s like reading the object backwards. I’m interested in how its legacy informs the work in its current shape.

Mourning Wreath (detail), 2017. Synthetic and human hair, found hair, artist’s hair, gold leaf on copper, enamel paint, chain, wire frame, and cement base, 105 x 72 x 36 in. diameter base. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MP: The gold in your work is very beautiful—it creates its own light.
AH: The way that materials interact with light has long been an entry point for me. When I first started using black velvet, I wanted to work with a material that would absorb light. I was thinking about mourning clothes and the negation of the body—ideas about light and spirit and the soul. With metal, that interaction with light is crucial. We are programmed to be attracted to shiny things. That’s probably the reason why I was drawn to metal in the first place. I remember my godmother wearing shiny silver rings, and how my grandmother was always wearing a bit of gold—and just being dazzled.

MP: One of your recent works resembles a hanging basket with chains coming down from it. What is this about?
AH: It has a light inside of it. I read a book by Simone Brown about the lantern laws. In New York in the 1800s, black people couldn’t go out at night without carrying a lantern and literally lighting their bodies—so, this piece reflects thinking about light as a form of surveillance. It’s a question of visibility: How or when or where does one step into the light, take up space in it? I’d like to invite artists and poets to stand under this piece and read.

MP: I’m interested in how you understand the intersection between these issues of visibility and feminism. What role does feminism play in your work?
AH: I relate to feminism through my materials. They are coded with gender and labor and ideas about artificiality and naturalness, about authenticity. I am very specifically using materials that will question the viewer’s assumptions and make more space for contradictions. There are also ideas around the hierarchy of the senses—that definitely plays a part in how I engage in a larger feminist conversation. Textiles make us aware of our bodies and sensory experience, specifically the desire to touch, to feel, to know something by how it feels. It’s complicated territory.

Bling, 2018. Synthetic and human hair, artist’s hair, hair rollers and foundations, foam, athletic tape, twist ties, wire, elastics, chenille stems, Velcro, enamel paint, gold leaf, copper sheet, glitter, black lava sea salt, pigment, steel knobs, and wooden rings, 192 x 156 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MP: Did these ideas find their way into your recent Emerging Artist exhibition at Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco?
AH: That show certainly continued these ideas, but I really wanted to look at what kinds of objects or images do the work of mourning—and how we can create contemporary mourning practices. The MoAD show is based on something in a cemetery called a scattering garden, where you go to scatter ashes. Usually there’s a pool of water, and it’s beautifully landscaped with trees. I’m thinking of the gallery as a landscape. I’m also thinking about a crocheted sunset, working with the black rainbow spectrum. One thing that’s really shifting for me is that sometimes I work more literally, and sometimes I work in a more abstract representation of ideas. I feel like my vision is going to be different, less descriptive.

MP: This brings up your The School of the Dead project. What does that involve?
AH: Right now it’s a manifesto—basically a call for action. It asks the reader to look at her relationship to death, both through personal and cultural narratives. Aesthetic practice can be a way into a conversation that people have some anxiety about. The School of the Dead is about using aesthetic practice to break open that relationship.

The classes that I’ve been teaching at CCA for almost 10 years—“The Dying Salon,” “Over My Dead Body,” and “Death by Death”—all look at how artists navigate the relationship between the living and the dead through their creative work. I wanted to take this out of the academic institution and make the content available to other communities.

The School of the Dead combines that curriculum with my experience as a hospice volunteer, doing grief rituals and death doula work, and with my experience as a survivor of gun violence. All of that comes together to inform my ideas about death and grief and what it means to live a life formed by the knowledge of one’s mortality. Most of us know we are going to die—we come to that in different ways as we grow up—but it’s also pretty easy to just get up in the morning, to forget the possibility of one’s death or that of loved ones. This experience, of course, varies across demographics of race, class, sex, and gender. I am very interested in how the racial aspect, the narrative of race, figures in—how that narrative of violence and death informs how black and brown people show up in these conversations. I think of The School of the Dead as a program to guide people into the conversation about mortality. How does the knowledge of one’s mortality inform the choices that we make on a daily basis?

The School of the Dead Manifesto, 2017. Risograph artist book printed at School of Art/College of DAAP, University of Cincinnati. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MP: Many of the mourning rituals once built into culture have disappeared; our current death practices have sanitized them out of our daily lives.
AH: They have been handed over to professionalization—that has had a big effect. But just as there’s been a return to home births, we’re at a moment of thinking about what happens at the other end.

MP: People are taking more control of the end of life?
AH: “Control” is the operative word. Death is a thing that happens, that we have no control over, so what is that desire to control it, how does it manifest? I’ve been thinking a lot about death with dignity laws, which are starting to pass in many states. I certainly want every person to have the death they want to have.

Part of the idea of The School of the Dead is to create space for these conversations to happen. There’s a taboo around talking about death, but I find that when I do workshops and intentionally create a space that says it’s ok to do that—to talk about death and grief—people really want to. It’s hard to get them to stop. I think that there’s a way we can create more spaces and opportunities to hold these very difficult conversations and remind ourselves about the precariousness of being human.

I’ve responded to this in my work through particular ideas of surrendering. For a long time, my crochet work was about stitching and holding things together. But then I reached a point in grad school at which I began to wonder what would happen if I just let things fall apart. In Angela Carter’s story “Reflections,” there’s a character knitting two worlds together. You pass from one world to the other through mirrors. And when this person starts to drop stitches, everything begins to falls apart.

Study for Black Hole, 2018. Pierced copper sheet, acrylic paint, and LED light panel, 11 x 9 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MP: You said in an interview a while back that you were seriously considering moving into a post-studio phase—not making objects anymore. After making so many objects recently, what are your thoughts now?
AH: I was doing a lot more writing at the time of that interview. It has been a couple of years since the shooting I was in, and part of my response to that trauma was to question the role of art-making for me, and not having the desire or impetus to make things that took up space. I was in an existential crisis, trying to figure out what it meant to be a human in a body, trying to do and be and accomplish things. I was trying to make things, but nothing was doing what I wanted it to do, so I felt burdened by materials and objects and kept having a desire to give all my possessions away. I did give away a lot of things. I was really questioning what all of it meant. Words and language occupy a different space—the idea of something as opposed to the physical representation of it. Sometimes the representation just doesn’t live up to the idea.

Sometimes I feel like I have access to language, that words can articulate bodily experiences that I’m trying to communicate. But then—and this is something I’ve noticed about death and grief—there’s a moment when words don’t work anymore, and language fails. I’m trying to figure out what happens in that failure. Sometimes only objects can communicate those ideas.

For example, Black Hole was the most challenging piece to make for the Southern Exposure show. I had no idea what I was doing. But I knew that my questions were about black bodies, in both celestial and terrestrial realms, so I was thinking about outer space and also about holes within one’s body or mind. I felt like I wanted to create a hole that could make a space for those questions. At the center of the sculpture, there’s a very specific mixture of magnesium powder, black salt, and other pigments. I was coming back to the idea that I’d had with the black velvet: Could I make a material that would absorb light? You can’t actually see into the center of the piece, it’s over eight feet wide, so its center just drops into darkness.

Black Hole, 2017. Synthetic and human hair, artist’s hair, black velvet, foam, pigment, salt, ground mirror, and wood base, installation view. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MP: It looks like an Anish Kapoor sculpture, where the darkness is so complete it’s anti-light.
Right, there’s a refusal—a resistance to being visible.

MP: Your work takes place on different platforms: writing, teaching, and making. What do you think of as the ideal site for your ideas?
AH: I’m still very much in love with gallery-type, white box spaces—with the gallery as a site for interruption. When I think about putting my work inside a gallery space, I don’t see it as neutral—it’s stepping into a set of values and hierarchies. When I painted the walls black at Southern Exposure, it made such a difference. I had done this before in my studio—put black work on black walls, and I had seen how people responded. People would come in and almost jump when they saw all that blackness. Moving forward, though, I’m thinking about working with some performance artists, so the work can be activated. Because I’m also in a realm where the work can be looked at as adornment, as ritualistic, I feel like it is more and more calling for a performative gesture. I’ve had a couple of friends who are dancers saying, “I want to wear this.” So I’m thinking of making some headpieces. Sometimes, too, when I am looking at the chains, I can hear the sound of clanking in my head. I’m interested in playing with those ideas and in what might happen by adding movement and sound.

MP: Who are you making your work for? Who is your ideal audience?
AH: That’s easy. Ultimately, what I am trying to do is to make myself recognizable to my ancestors—I’m trying to communicate with my dead people. Everything I make is in service of them.

“Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” Hennessy’s solo exhibition at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, CA, runs through August 11, 2019.