-By Erika Urivez
In the DeVos Place Convention Center, 108 clay faces representing people of color who have died from systematic oppression haunt a hallway located on the upper level, bringing viewers face-to-face with the reality not many see in person.
Top 25 artist, Nikesha Breeze, 39, of Taos, New Mexico took 108 days to create her large-scale installation, “108 Death Masks.” Each mask was individually hand-sculpted from clay originating from New Mexico to honor the indigenous people and unities. The bronze on top is a coating of red iron to represent the blood that has and continues to be shed on the earth.
Breeze created each face to depict a unique individuality and to tell a different story behind each crafted feature. Every face came to her while praying to her ancestors, connecting with those unknown 108 souls from her African-American and Assyrian-Iranian heritage, whose stories were lost due to oppression.
Her inspiration for creating the death masks came from a deep-rooted feeling and an urge to bring others to the same awareness.
“It was this feeling through my own, personal study that I came to this place where my whole history was disappeared because of slavery, and I felt an endless line of stories erased from me, behind,” Breeze said. “And I also at the same time, witnessing the constant news of another death of another black or brown person across the world. It felt like there was endless forward happening.”
The installation tells an endless story about systematic violence, oppression and racism. Breeze put on display an issue she described as being an ongoing, endless, shared wound for people of color in both the past and present. She explained how, in the past, histories were erased through colonization, forced migration and slavery. The stories of African-Americans and the indigenous people were forgotten, people she recognizes as the victims of the issue. It continues in the present through different forms including lynching, police brutality and mass incarceration.
Breeze invites people to step up to the masks and experience the reality of what she defined to be “black death” while also reflecting on themselves as a person. She wants them to see how they may play a part in the matter and how it may directly affect them in their own lives and communities.
“My intention as an artist is to have people have a visceral reaction to the endlessness of the erasure (of the history) and then also come back to the individuality of human compassion,” Breeze said.
The story behind the masks is one that Breeze hopes viewers also feel in a physically moving way similar to how she felt it. She hopes to show the individuality of one human face and of compassion.
If Breeze were to win ArtPrize, she would continue putting the proceeds towards her main goal.
“As far as supporting my communities, I would definitely work towards investing in the arts and cultures in my communities, supporting organizations that are supporting artists of color and activists of color,” Breeze said. “Part of even beyond winning, this installation is meant to support other organizations working for social change, so if I was to win, I know that some of those proceeds would go to actually supporting these organizations and the rest would be to continue to make this work and hopefully to get it into larger institutions and open the dialogue further around how we can directly affect systematic racial injustice.”
To follow Breeze’s journey of social change, find her on Instagram @nikeshabreeze or her websites about the full story of “108 Death Masks” and background on the artist herself and more work she has done.
The installation “108 Death Masks” is showcased at the DeVos Place, located on 303 Monroe Ave. NW, on the upper level. Those with donations of $108 will receive an unframed print of a death mask of their choice, while each original mask is sold at $1,008. Proceeds will go towards the continued work done to raise awareness on the issue.