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Spiritual Bodies

Baralaye working on Serpent I, 2019
Baralaye working on Serpent I, 2019

A gauzy plaster and burlap form mounted on a wooden frame, Revelator, 2016, is an imposing sculpture. “I was thinking about what it means for someone to exist between heaven and earth, manifesting things that are heavenly while being grounded in the material,” says sculptor Ebitenyefa Baralaye.

The work is one acquisition for the new International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston, South Carolina. It is on the site of Gadsden’s Wharf, once the largest slave port in the US—up to 40% of enslaved Africans disembarked there. Baralaye feels the acquisition is appropriate: “For a lot of enslaved people, holding on to a hope that was bigger than themselves was key to dealing with the oppressive reality of their lives.”

Baralaye was born in Nigeria, grew up in Antigua, studied ceramics at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and now lectures in Detroit. Primarily working with clay, he often incorporates other natural materials such as wood, plaster, and fiber. “I’m very much interested in Black and African abstraction, particularly from West Africa, and I speak through that lens,” he says. “I also think about what it means to represent the identity of Blackness now, here in the US.”

Ebitenyefa Baralaye, Portrait II, 2021, Invisible Man, 2022, and Apreye, 2022
Ebitenyefa Baralaye, Portrait II, 2021, Invisible Man, 2022, and Apreye, 2022

Another motivation is his faith and his interest in spirituality. A recent series of glazed stoneware busts refers to the significance the head is given by the Yoruba people, who believe it is where the soul resides. Baralaye is expanding the series to include the entire body.

The IAAM spotlights the history and achievements of Black Americans. According to the museum, “Baralaye’s work perfectly fits our mission of telling the untold stories of the African American journey”.

Ebitenyefa Baralaye,Revelator, 2016
Ebitenyefa Baralaye, Revelator, 2016

Baralaye’s work has also been shown at a number of international galleries including Friedman Benda, Shoshana Wayne Gallery, and David Klein Gallery in the US, and the Korea Ceramic Foundation in South Korea. His most recent exhibition, Making Space: Tracing Tomorrow, was at Friedman Benda Los Angeles, where he showed decorated terracotta and stoneware vases. What Baralaye refers to as “finial” forms, these pieces take inspiration from Yoruba sculptor Olowe of Ise, who worked as a royal artist for the Arinjale (king) of Ise in the 19th century.

Baralaye says that works such as Revelator capture the joys and power of the African American experience. “It’s important for me as a Black person to understand history,” he says. “But it is also important for the things that speak to Black creativity to not simply be in response to Black struggle.”

Photos: Courtesy of Ebitenyefa Baralaye.

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