‘Clay. . . lets you leave your mark exactly how you put it down’: An interview with Raven Halfmoon
J. Kēhaulani Kauanui (Kanaka Maoli)
Sep 30, 2023
Raven Halfmoon (Caddo Nation) is a sculptor and painter who combines Caddo pottery traditions with contemporary motifs found in such movements as Land Art to create large-scale sculptures, some weighing as much as 800 pounds. In an exhibition co-organized by The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska, where it will show next spring, Raven Halfmoon shows some of her largest sculptures to date for Flags of Our Mothers, her first traveling exhibition.
J. Kēhaulani Kauanui (Kanaka Maoli/Native Hawaiian) is an activist and scholar whose work focuses on colonialism, indigenous sovereignty and resurgence, decolonization and anarchist praxis. She recently spoke with Halfmoon about her solo exhibition, and the ways in which innovation allows for cultural continuity, the strength and power of women in Indigenous communities, and decolonizing knowledge through artmaking.
Kēhaulani: I’d like to start by asking about your early training. It’s my understanding that Jeri Redcorn—a world-famous Caddo potter—introduced you to ceramics when you were just thirteen, and that she has been instrumental in passing on this tradition to you. Would you say more about this cultural transmission as a form of acquiring Indigenous knowledge in the context of your tribal nation and beyond?
Raven: With Caddos, passing knowledge on is especially important, as it is in a lot of Native communities—and we have always passed knowledge orally. Getting that experience with an Elder—learning traditional ways of pulling clay, coiling pots and so on is more than just art making, it's learning the stories, learning about the history of the clay—why it looks this way, why we pull it this way, what we mix into it, the pit firing, and so forth. That's how I had my firsthand in clay, learning from Jeri Redcorn. I've known her most of my life. I was always drawing, painting, sketching at a young age but I wanted to continue that artistic experience and use other mediums. And so, my mom took me out to Jeri's house, and we went out and made some pots. And then I went on to study it in college and continued with the contemporary side of clay.
When you look at my pieces, you can see my fingerprints in them. It’s really important to leave my mark in my work and the clay.
Raven Halfmoon (Caddo Nation)
JKK: It's my understanding that Caddos have a long history of being renowned potters working with clay, and am wondering about the cultural continuity in your work along with your forms of innovation; deep tradition on the one hand, and that newness on the other…
RH: Caddos have been working with clay for thousands of years; we're known for our pottery—the images used on the pottery vessels, as well as mine in some cases, is ancient. It’s really important for me to understand the traditional practices. Historically, Caddo pottery was hand-coiled and pit fired with natural materials such as cottonwood tree bark or other natural elements. Although I don’t work in the completely traditional manner, I use that knowledge for my contemporary sculptures. I enjoy pop culture, and so my art is a mix of both traditional and contemporary. I use Caddoan imagery and iconography, whether that be the Red River symbol which I put on my pieces, or other elements that are drawn from traditional pottery. Caddos were always known for using dark chocolate-colored clay bodies, almost black, and I like to pay homage to that.
JKK: The color contrast in your work is striking, and the large scale of your pieces is compelling. I also think about how with clay you’re working with the elements of the earth itself in a very tactile, and intimate way.
R: Yes, and clay is also tied to place and time. Land has always been important to me. When you look at my pieces, you can see my fingerprints in them. It’s really important to leave my mark in my work and the clay. Clay has a long history, not only with Caddo people, but with many other tribes. I will always use clay in my artwork however, I also studied painting when I was in school. My pieces have a painterly look to them, which is how I glaze my sculptures.
JKK: Turning to your new exhibit, I’d like to ask about the gendered dimensions of your work given that it is a homage to the powerful Caddo women. It is my understanding that the Caddo people are matrilineal, meaning identity and belonging are based on kinship through the female line (which is different from matriarchal, which means ruled by women). In the show, I noticed you reference your maternal line and the mothers of the past, and future. Could you speak more to how that influences your standing as a Caddo woman and artist?
RH: These are powerful women that have raised me. My sculptures are true to what I know as a 21st-century Native American female artist making work. I want my sculptures to speak to this. I have strong women on my mother’s and father’s sides. I want to make artwork that honors the powerful women who influenced me and raised my parents and their parents
Flags of Our Mothers speaks to the influence of women who have raised us collectively. For example, when we see national monuments, they're mostly men. And I want to see the women who raised us, the mothers who raised all of us, the grandmothers who raised us. So, I build them. And that's what this show is about, especially the piece called Flag Bearer, which is my dedication to all the powerful women who surround me.
JKK: Speaking to that incredible 13-foot-tall piece titled Flag Bearer—the singular Native woman freestanding figure—I was going to ask you if she memorializes anyone in particular, but what I'm hearing you say is that she’s a composite, so to speak.
RH: Yes, my sculptures are rarely of someone in particular. I mean, I've made my grandmother before, and my mom and I've made some sculptures that are a replication of me. But these pieces are meant to be Indigenous women. They're meant to represent not just my family, but someone in your family as well, or someone in the viewer's family. It's how I think of my work as holistic; it's all of us.
JKK: When I saw your exhibit, I couldn’t help but notice the X marks on some of the sculptures. I interpreted them alternately in two different ways. The first is related to what Ojibwe and Dakota scholar Scott Richard Lyons theorizes in his book X Marks: Native Signatures of Assent. In that, as just one example, he examines X marks on treaties and what they may have meant to the Native treaty-signers. But I also considered the ways in which an X mark can be used as a target for somebody, a negation, which had me thinking about settler colonial violence and the targeting Indigenous people(s) for elimination. Then, I read and heard some interviews in which you talked about the X marks representing tattoos and/or blueprints for laying out ideas.
RH: Anything a viewer brings to a piece is valid because it’s part of their experience, their interpretation of the work. And none of that is wrong. The symbols are blueprints for laying out structural elements, like in the faces [in the sculptures]. The figures represent our continuance—we're still here. They're carrying on history and sharing knowledge. It is a gift to be here, creating, for me.
JKK: We've been discussing your art production in relation to the longevity of Indigenous tradition—the continuities of what persists. But I also want to ask if you consider your work to be decolonizing? To be clear, I don't see the two as mutually exclusive (or some false binary), but I am making a distinction between Indigenous persistence and projects that decolonize knowledge.
RH: Well, for one, even still existing for a lot of Indigenous communities given what we have survived is decolonizing. And regarding what I make, it is political—it is decolonizing; I'm talking about my experience, I'm talking about what my grandfather survived, and what my grandmother survived in boarding schools, and the fact that I'm even here making work. I'm here, my family's here, and I get to have my name and speak to these stories that continue to live in museum spaces and share this history. I think that in and of itself is just amazing.
I'm here, my family's here, and I get to have my name and speak to these stories that continue to live in museum spaces and share this history.
Raven Halfmoon (Caddo Nation)
JKK: The Aldrich write-up for your show notes that you claim a feminist genealogy and I want to ask how you think about that in relation to decolonization and ways of knowing?
RH: My work speaks to political events and I'm within the feminist frame—talking about being a woman—this experience of being Indigenous, being a woman and what that looks like today.
We have all these movements—like Black Lives Matter and calling attention to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. These movements are what I talk about, because it's what my family deals with, and what I see within my friend groups. We know people who are missing. What we’re seeing politically and socially—it's all within my work. It is also why some of my pieces are black, white, and red—that's a tie to the Missing and Murdered (the red handprints are for blood). My sculptures are also all curvy big women. That's what I see, and that's how my family's built. That's how I'm built. That's how I was born and raised to see women.
Raven Halfmoon (Caddo Nation) is from Norman, Oklahoma. She attended the University of Arkansas where she earned a double Bachelor’s Degree in ceramics/painting and cultural anthropology. Her work has been featured in multiple exhibitions throughout the U.S. as well as internationally. Halfmoon most recently finished a long-term residency at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, MT. She lives and works in Norman, OK. Halfmoon is represented by Kouri+Corrao Gallery in Santa Fe, NM and Ross + Kramer Gallery in New York, NY.