Raven Halfmoon’s Monumental Ceramics Counter Stereotypes of Indigenous Culture
Portrait of Raven Halfmoon with her work, Caddo x Couture, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
On a recent phone call, the artist Raven Halfmoon was exhilarated to share something she had just read: “Did you know that the Easter Island heads have full bodies?” Archaeologists started digging, she continued, and they’ve found that the legendary monolithic sculptures have torsos underground. For Halfmoon, a sculptor who relishes the boundless possibilities of clay, the simple thrill lay in the realization that these ancient stone statues are bigger than we’d previously believed. “To think about how people made these is what absolutely blows my mind,” she said. “How monumental they are just fascinates me.”
Halfmoon’s work delivers its own magnitudes in terms of physical size, but also presence and personal history. Long inspired by the colossal Easter Island mo’ai and Olmec heads, she sculpts hefty, prodigious figures that represent and honor her Native American heritage on her own terms. Wall-mounted heads of fierce wolves and decorated buffalo, and larger-than-life portrayals of majestic, mighty women, animate stories from her Caddo culture and reference the imagery of Caddo artifacts. Shaped from dark clay with rough, irregular surfaces, they thrum with energy and demand visibility. “I feel like my pieces are monumental reflections of identity,” Halfmoon said. “Not only is it my understanding and interpretation of culture, it’s a fight to maintain a place for it in today’s world.”
Halfmoon has recently been building bigger still. This month, her works grace Ross+Kramer Gallery in “Okla Homma to Manahatta,” the artist’s first New York solo show. The exhibition features her totemic heads along with never-before-seen sculptures of Appaloosa horses and several wall pieces. The title “Okla Homma to Manahatta” acknowledges Halfmoon’s roots: It combines the Choctaw phrase from which the name of her home state was derived with the original Lenape name for Manhattan. The latter nods to her mother’s Delaware heritage (the Delaware, so named by colonizers, originally called themselves Lenni Lenape).
Raven Halfmoon, OKLA HOMMAO HOYO, 2020. Photo by John Berens. Courtesy of the artist and Ross + Kramer, New York.
The works on view were made during Halfmoon’s ongoing residency at the Archie Bray Foundation for Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana, where giant kilns have enabled her to experiment on a new scale. “I call myself a goldfish,” she said, “because everywhere I go, I max out the size of the kiln. I grow to its size.”
Art has always been a part of Halfmoon’s life. A member of the Caddo Nation, she was raised first in Binger, Oklahoma, then the nearby city of Norman, and was always strongly connected to her Native identity. “I grew up learning a lot about my tribal history, going to dances, and being culturally involved,” she recalled. Her grandparents were also avid collectors of Native art, and her family encouraged her to create. “I was always drawing, using markers, crayons, paint—anything I could get my hands on.” Whenever she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, her first answer was “artist.” (Her second: CIA agent.)
When Halfmoon was 13, she was introduced to clay through the artist Jeri Redcorn, who is largely credited with reviving the ancient techniques of Caddo potters. Redcorn showed the teen how to make traditional Caddo pots, which are formed by coiling hand-dug clay and refined with tools like stones and wood paddles. But it was at the University of Arkansas, where Halfmoon studied painting and ceramics, that she truly fell in love with clay. Her work became heavily informed by anthropology courses: Not only did she learn about the megalithic heads of the Olmec and Rapa Nui civilizations, which inspired her super-sized ambitions, she also had access to a collection of Caddoan vessels on campus. Her art and anthropology classes, she said, helped her understand her “role in a continued cycle of Caddos creating with clay.”
“Not only was I thinking about their cultural significance, but who made it, whose hands it touched, and what the object was used for,” Halfmoon added. “It was important to build monumental works and carry the mantle of material knowledge forward for the next set of makers. For me, using an ancient material like my ancestors did connects me to them, and I hope to evolve that craft with my work.”
Rather than creating vessels, Halfmoon gravitated towards materializing portraits that unapologetically take up space. But she’s less interested in recording specific visages than depicting a richness and endurance of lineages—what she describes as “a mishmash” of family and family history. “I consider them multiple facets of me, but they also represent multiple generations—my great-great-grandmother, grandmother, my mother, my aunt, cousins, my ancestors, and what they’ve created.”
Many of these busts and stacked figures are glazed with trickles of red or white paint over their eyes, on their cheeks, or elsewhere on their bodies. The marks often draw on the iconography of Caddo vessels; while they could easily have come off as mere afterthoughts, they instead imbue the stoneware figures with uncanny power.
On some works, Halfmoon has also painted pointed phrases from conversations she’s had with non-Native people, like “YOU DON’T LOOK NATIVE” and “DO YOU SPEAK INDIAN?” Such pieces are meant to spark more informed conversations. “They’re educational tools,” she said. “My work is trying to unfreeze stereotypes of, we all live in a teepee, we all have long black hair.” Other sculptures showcase her name in unmissable lettering. The mark-making is more than a claim of authorship; it’s an assertion of indigenous identity and sovereignty. “This name that I have, Halfmoon, has lived through genocide, boarding schools,” she said. “I’m carrying my family forward.”
In 2021, it’s difficult to look at Halfmoon’s stark, drip-style painting and not think of the splashes of red paint that protestors have used to stain problematic public sculptures around the United States. Despite the chasm between the underlying subject matter, there’s a shared note of protest in Halfmoon’s uncompromising marks and the blunt slogans that covered many Christopher Columbus statues and Confederate-era monuments. Although Halfmoon is influenced by the visuals of graffiti, she said, she isn’t actually referencing these public splatterings. But in recent months, as she began to make larger works, the protests have stayed with her.
“As I build bigger, I really can see my pieces in public spaces, even as replacements for some other things that might need to come down,” she said. “With 2020, there were so many movements happening and it made me think, who are the next people we need to look up to?” Functioning as memorials of her ancestors, her works would offer a fitting and long-overdue corrective to myths about America.