Published August 21, 2023
Indigenous Matriarchs, Art as Cultural Preservation, and Experiencing the Human Touch in Clay: An Interview with Artist Raven Halfmoon
Raven Halfmoon (Caddo Nation) first touched clay nearly twenty years ago at the home of a Caddo elder in Oklahoma. Now, her figurative coil-pot sculptures breathe a life of their own, standing tall and resolute at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut. Splattered in blood-red glaze and adorned with valiant graffiti tags, Halfmoon’s texturally abundant monuments blend past atrocities with future acceptance, bringing agency, attention, and renewal to the powerful women in her Native lineage.
Today marks one month of Flags of Our Mothers, your first traveling museum exhibition. Where are you right now and how are you feeling?
RH: I am just so honored, so blessed. This is everything I've dreamed about! Things have been a little crazy today – I’m actually at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana, co-leading a pit-firing workshop called First Fire with a group of Indigenous ceramic artists. We’re here to talk about what's going on in the art world, what we’re facing, and then of course to create and fire our work. I’m really excited about this new venture because I feel like the Native art world and the contemporary art world are two separate spaces and this collaborative project aims to merge them.
I’d like to start with your relationship with clay as a medium, which is the soul and heart of your current body of work. When did you first start working with this ancient material as old as the Earth itself?
RH: I had my first touch of clay when I was 13 years old under the guidance of a Caddo elder named Jeri Redcorn. Before her, traditional Caddo pottery practices were entirely lost—no one was making pots the way my ancestors did because no one knew how. Single-handedly, she revitalized the practice through lots of research and experimentation. So I went out to her home and she showed me how to build coil pots and how to pit-fire them. From there, I went on to study painting and clay at the University of Arkansas where I also majored in cultural anthropology. But I was never really interested in making functional pottery; I wanted to build figures of women and speak my truth as a Native woman living in the twenty-first century. That, I’ve always known. So all of these factors came into play when I really figured out what I wanted to build—what I wanted to say with my work.
You know, I always say the bond I have with clay is my longest romantic relationship. I mean Caddos have been working with it for a thousand years. It’s truly ever-growing, I’m forever learning from this material. I love to push its boundaries too—the largest figure at The Aldrich, Flagbearer, is almost thirteen feet tall and probably weighs over 3,000 pounds.
Aside from their sheer magnitude, one of the first things that jumped out to me when I saw Flags Of Our Mothers was the incredibly tactile nature of each piece. As you layer your coils, you leave your markings apparent, giving them this rugged textural richness.
RH: I’ve always really liked the human experience in clay—the looseness and gestural nature of it. I don’t want my work to look machine-made. When people see my pieces a thousand years from now, I want them to be transported back to the moment I made them, so leaving my touch in clay is key. I think that’s really what I’m drawn to when I think back on what my ancestors made. Caddos were mound builders and I’ve always been influenced by their earthworks which span across the American Midwest—ceremonial sites where pottery and artifacts were stored and preserved for generations. Both the idea of building in large scale as well as the community aspect of these sites have always struck me as important to carry on.
How has the traditional Caddo pot-making process influenced your own, which is decidedly contemporary?
RH: I don’t like to use the word “traditional” when speaking about my own work because I feel like it’s a disservice to the people who make pottery the traditional Caddo way. They dig their own clay from the ground and never use commercial products or tools, there are a lot of elements that go into replicating the ancient practice. But I do draw from the imagery and iconography seen on traditional pots, so that is definitely a continued narrative in my work. You’ll see the motif of the Red River, for example, which is this spiral kind of design that appears in various pieces in Flags of Our Mothers. It represents the Red River that Caddos settled on—the line that divides Oklahoma and Texas. I’m also drawn to the dark clay bodies that Caddos have always used, chocolate browns and blacks.
In a film on view at The Aldrich, you say that artists are “cultural preservationists of our time.” How does this idea apply to your work and the political messages behind it?
RH: Humans have always used art as a mechanism to learn about the past. I think as artists living today, we have a really important job to capture what's happening in the world. Again, I’m a young Native woman living today. I grew up with Native history, with Caddo culture. But the world is also fast, materialistic, trend-driven. It’s fashion, pop culture, music. I feel like it’s my artistic duty to converge the stories of my upbringing with the broader cultural landscape of today.
My work has always been tied to sociopolitical movements, be it BLM, BIPOC, MeToo, women’s rights, or body-positive movements. Celebrating curves, celebrating who you are. The figure has always been important to me; you’ll see big heads appear repeatedly in my pieces. It’s homage to my mother, to my grandmother, to these strong beautiful women that raised me. Because growing up, I never saw monuments or sculptures in national parks or anywhere in public that looked anything like the important women in my life. So I decided to build them.
As the Caddo origin story goes, long ago elders led their people out of a dark subterranean universe to the sun-filled world above. Along the way, they warned their followers never to look back the way they came. Those who ignored this warning lost their way out of the darkness. How do you interpret this parable?
RH: Native people have always been an adaptive people. We've been put through these horrible atrocities, these ugly histories, but we’re still pushing forward. It's the march on, the journey ahead. We’ve got to keep adapting and keep building new traditions. After all, we’re still here and thriving, you know?
Testudo is always looking for more voices to write with us about the art world. If you’d like to pitch an article, please see our pitch guide for more information!