JW. Can you give me a brief background and tell me how you came to ceramics?
DH: My journey in working in clay started in 2015 when I enrolled in Professor Jeff Campana’s Ceramics, 1 class as an undergraduate BFA student studying printmaking and drawing at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia.
I only took the class because one, I needed a three-dimensional class to fulfill my BFA degree in printmaking and two, I had never worked in clay before and I wanted to work in a medium that was new to me. This class changed the trajectory of my life. Jeff’s passion for clay inspired me. The opportunity to work in a medium that records the memory of its maker speaks to me conceptually and formally. Along with my background in printmaking, ceramics pushed my ideas of mark-making and how a line can become a form, and a form can become a texture.
I graduated from undergrad in the spring of 2017 with a BFA in printmaking and ceramics with an Art History minor. I enrolled that following fall as an MFA in ceramics at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. In May 2020, I graduated with my MFA from the University of Iowa. Currently, I am working as a practicing studio artist primarily working in clay.
JW: A lot of your work has a consistent dark look to it. Is that from the clay you use or some type of stain or glaze or firing technique?
DH: My current ceramic body of work is a mid-range brown clay stoneware that when fired in oxidation will fire to a charcoal black at cone 1. However, I fire my work to cone five. The clay body consists of a black mason stain and is not glazed. So the work has a matte finish in appearance. I work with this clay because I want the clay medium itself to be content to discuss what it means to be a black man and person of color in places, spaces, and times when being a black person may or may not be welcoming or hospitable. These ceramic objects are vessels, each making symbolic allusions to the black body.
JW: You also employ a lot of texture. Can you tell me more about your process of creating that texture?
DH: Due to the innate memory of clay, I chose the material to illuminate the resonance of touch and repetition. I use a regular ceramic needle tool to mark the surface of the clay, which reminds me of the etching process of marking the surface of a copper plate. I see this process as a three-dimensional print.
With this in mind, I also wanted to create a texture that felt welcoming. For some, it may be a cozy blanket, a shaggy carpet, a furry dog, and or a soft warm sweater. When I think of the essence of welcoming, my mother’s hair always comes to mind. My mom pulls her hair out, and discards it throughout the day, leaving traces of herself wherever she goes. Similar to how forensics finds missing people through hair follicles, I associate the remnants of DNA to my African ancestry, even though I’ve never been to Africa. Formally, the consistency in hair can simulate waves that also mimic the sound and the beats found in hip-hop. Lastly, this texture resembling hair can now imply the surface of coral. This pulls from the history of the middle passage when some enslaved Africans were thrown overboard, and their burial was amongst the coral. The sculpture’s coarseness appears soft and inviting which leads the viewers to desire to touch and question the materiality of the artwork.
JW: How about the shapes you come up with – many are very organic and almost “glob-like”, while others remind me of ceremonial objects (like crowns or drums). Where do you find the inspiration for these shapes?
DH: I find inspiration for my forms through history, sci-fi, hip hop, pop culture, comic books, West African traditional rituals, and architecture. The glob-like or bulbous shapes found in many of my sculptures originate from the robots and drones in sci-fi movies like Star Wars and Star Trek. While also speaking to art history fertility goddesses.
During my research investigating the symbol of the pineapple as an icon for welcoming and hospitality, I discovered how colonial figurative painters created images of enslaved African women with their breasts hanging out while presenting a pineapple with a basket of fruit. These dehumanizing paintings used pineapples and fruits to represent power, wealth, and abundance. I want my work to humanize and elevate the beauty of Black people.
JW: You reference the pineapple “as a symbol that represents welcoming and hospitality” — but also as a tool that sea captains used to announce the arrival of new African slaves to port. Those 2 things seem very, very different. Can you help me understand more about the symbol of the pineapple?
DH: In order to answer this question, we must start from the beginning of how the pineapple became a symbol of welcoming and hospitality. When most people think of pineapples, they think of Hawaii. But why is that? Through branding, the Dole Pineapple Company made Hawaii’s culture synonymous with the pineapple’s symbolization of welcoming and hospitality. However, Hawaii had not heard of pineapples until the early 1900s, and it’s not their culture. Actually, the tradition of the pineapple as a symbol for hospitality is rooted in slavery and agricultural colonization of South America, the Caribbean, and the Southern The United States and particularly, South Carolina and my home state of Georgia. The Pineapple as a symbol of hospitality is now a doorway into vivid explorations in trade in early colonial history. When slave ships came to port, captains would impale pineapples on a fence post, a sign to everyone that they are docked and home for business. For colonial society having a pineapple in your home meant you were wealthy. The pineapple was not eaten by the rich but viewed as a welcoming, elaborate art form to decorate banquet tables and parties. When the pineapple began to spoil the pineapple was brought to the poor, for the poor to eat. A narcissistic gesture by the wealthy to share their abundance with the poor and destitute. However, the cultivation of the pineapple was through the hard work, blood, and tears of enslaved Africans and indigenous people. I want my work to suggest the past, discuss the present, and explore possible futures interconnected to the African Diaspora.
JW: I see you spent some time at the Taller Experimental de Grafica in Havana, Cuba. Can you tell me about that experience and how it has affected your art?
DH: My experience and opportunity to make prints at the Taller Experimental de Grafica in Havanna, Cuba is pivotal to my start in gathering research on the history of the Middle Passage, which was the sea voyage of slave ships from West Africa to the West Indies.
Many of the traditions, religions, and cultures of people from West Africa along with the melding of indigenous people are still present in Cuba. I felt I was home in Cuba and for the first time in my like I felt like I finally belonged to a place and its people. The techniques found in printmaking from scratching, carving and repetition are how I develop my concepts when working in clay.
DH: The process of completing a sculpture begins with me intuitively working with the clay. I usually, listen to hip hop music or I’m listening to a movie that I have previously seen multiple times playing in the background like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Harry Potter. All of my sculptures are never drawn before creating them. My work is based on research. I allow my own personal thoughts and interest to connect with the historical knowledge of the pineapple as a symbol for welcoming.
I use a combination of coil and pinch techniques when building the form of my sculptures. When I begin making any sculpture the form first resembles the robot R2D2, from the science fiction movie Star Wars. Formally the shape of R2D2 looks like the shape of the lower half of the pineapple. From this shape, I then use my hands to manipulate and deconstruct the form. The process of creating the form is when I’m working fast.
Once I am happy with the form, is when I begin to work slowly and deliberately. I use a regular ceramic needle tool to scratch or create marks on the surface of the clay. I let the music or sounds I’m listening to dictate the length and repetition of the markings on the surface of the clay. The ritual in the repetition of marks induces me to a transcendental state. My consciousness moves through time and space, past, present, and future become one when creating my work. These marks become a texture or cover for the work.
The recent work, Prepare is a sculpture that explores the ceremonial procedures in preparing a party. When preparing a party you want your guest to all to feel welcomed and their needs are taken care of. I relate the ritual of preparing a party to how society arranges the conditions for people to live. However, not everyone in society is treated the same. Black people and people of color and those on the margins of society must navigate in a society that may or may not be hospitable to them. This work speaks to providing a place of refuge to those who have not felt welcomed.
JW: The coronavirus pandemic has made life more difficult, especially for artists. How are you pushing through these difficulties to create art and maintain your artistic lifestyle?
DH: The coronavirus pandemic has made me and every artist very aware of not wasting time procrastinating on the business side of art. I am in a transitional time in my life. I just recently finishing my MFA and moved from Iowa. Due to the pandemic, many of the residency opportunities I had lined up were canceled or rescheduled. So I have not been able to make work in clay since March 13th, which was the start of the lockdown imposed at the University of Iowa. I am using this time to photograph and document work, update my website, research possible opportunities, and most importantly resting my body and mind. Fortunately, before the lockdown, I had made a lot of new work in hopes to show this work later in the year and in 2021. So thankfully, I am not seeing any change in the purchasing and interest in my work. I will be moving into a new studio space in late September. So I’m excited to see how the work will evolve in my new environment.
JW: What are your goals for the future?
DH: My goal for the future is to continue pushing my ideas and letting the content decide the direction and medium the work should be. I also look forward to curating exhibitions and mentoring other artists.
More of Donte’s work can be found on his website.