Helen Evans Ramsaran- 12 Years
By Antwaun Sargent
For many decades, Helen Evans Ramsaran has developed a research based sculpture practice of bronze reliefs, stone cravings, and paper amulets to ponder personal and collective histories that have existed in nature. Often wedding African motifs with an African-American sensibility, Ramsaran’s skeletal works are a part of a sculptural tradition that include artists such as Jack Whitten, Elizabeth Catlett, Mel Edwards and Simone Leigh who also draw on what the late curator Okwui Enwezor called, “the spatial language which inhabit African sculptural idioms.” Her “Prehistoric Stamps”(1987-88) series, for instance, of experimental abstractions, made in Zimbabwe, suggest the age-old origins of seeds, fossils, and animals and recall the rituals of the Shona Karanga and Ndebele people. Ramsaran formal concerns came into focus on trips across the African continent in the early 1980s. The influence of African artmaking traditions can be seen across her oeuvre where materially she has often used Bronze in experimentations that explores what can be known from the natural and supernatural, primordial and modern. Often the results have been inanimate, sculptural works that allude to ancient rituals, species and artforms that represent alternative narratives of humanity’s presence. For example, “The Sanctuary Group” (1993), a series of large tree-like bronze forms, are informed by the Poro initiation ritual of the Meande people of West Africa.
Show us the significance of prehistory and history, is not the only function of Ramsaran’s sculpture.
Recently, she has developed a body of work entitled, “Extinction” (2019), that explores what may yet to come. The series is a response to the 2018 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that stated by 2030 we would have to limit global warming to 1.5°C to avoid dramatic and deadly change in our environment. The report gave us 12 years to change our behavior, effectively imagining and creating a new way in which to live. If not, the prospect is extreme heat, floods, drought and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. Ramsaran’s small and calligraphic abstractions of white, non-glazed, clay renderings recall bleached insects and coral reefs, which protect coastlines and provide habitats for marine life. The works are handmade which is to say delicate and imbued with a fragility that is felt contemporaneously. In evoking our current climate, the sculptures also are an opportunity to consider our mortality and the reality that calamitous, man-made crisis has been our inheritance all along.
The strikingly elegant, fossil-like carvings hang against a blue backdrop that recall the sea, are aptly individually titled, “Ghost Species.” Poetically, Ramsaran’s renderings eschew the imperial impulse of monumentality, scale and supremacy, in favor of mediating on the small, seemingly invisible ocean organisms. The series also include, more hopeful, small-scale clay works, “Corals New Beginnings” (2019), which are painted vibrantly as to suggest life or rebirth. The artist’s decision to work in miniature, bucks the current trend of blowing up our histories and likenesses, larger than life itself, and placing them on the grand plinths of dead and dying empire without due consideration. At a scale closer to life, Rasaran, in a sense, creates counter-monuments to what has been and what could be. The work forces us to crane our necks, to look closer: pay more attention to the ornate details of the marginal, the abandoned, the underrepresented and understudied. Their histories are our histories, their fates are ours too.