“Concrete Breathes.” A conversation with Ledelle Moe

Congregation, image provided by Ledelle Moe

Interview by Helena Feder

A sea of expressions. I can almost hear their voices, converging in waves.

I’m standing in front of dozens and dozens of individual faces, half smiling or frowning or lost in contemplation. These faces belong to small, delicately sculpted heads, half life-size, grouped in a loose pattern—like a continent seen from the sky. They float, forming a tapestry of shadows on the wall where they hang in the African Gallery of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.

Some are facing forward, but none of them seem to be looking at me—no eyes look at me darkly, but none admire me either. Many are angled to the side, wooing, lecturing, or reproaching each other. A few linger on the periphery (artists? philosophers?). Others seem more alone in the thick of the crowd. One or two look toward invisible feet. Commissioned by the museum, Ledelle Moe carved the many concrete pieces that collectively form Congregation over a dozen years ago. I’m watching her adjust several of the heads, which have shifted over time.

Born in South Africa, Moe studied sculpture at Technikon Natal and Virginia Commonwealth University and is a founding member of the FLAT Gallery in Durban. She has taught at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), the Corcoran College of Art in Washington, DC, Virginia Commonwealth University, and St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Moe’s work has appeared in numerous venues, including the Kulturhuset (Stockholm, Sweden), the NSA Gallery (Durban, South Africa), the International Sculpture Center (Washington, DC), The Washington Project for the Arts (Washington, DC), and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (New York City). Her projects include large-scale concrete installations at Socrates Park and Pratt Institute in New York City, and The African Museum of Art in Washington DC. Moe is the recipient of a Joan Mitchell Award and Kreeger Museum Artist Award, and her recent projects include installations in Miami, Martinique, Switzerland, Senegal, and Massachusetts. And she currently lives in Cape Town, working as head of the sculpture department at the University of Stellenbosch.

We spoke during her visit to the North Carolina Museum of Art to adjust Congregation in 2019 and continued the conversation through email. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Feder: You’ve worked with concrete a very long time. How did it become your primary medium?

Moe: I began working with concrete as an undergraduate student in Durban. It’s a very plastic, clay-like material, and I find the limitations and immediacy of it to lend itself to wonderful variations of sculptural forms.

I have discovered that it’s possible to find a bag of cement almost anywhere in the world. When travelling I mix the cement with aggregate (coarse grained particulate material, such as sand, gravel, crushed stone, etc.). The two pinkish-colored heads in Congregation, are made from the foundation of the new wing of this museum. The color of the concrete changes relative to what aggregate is mixed with it. Concrete is everywhere: under our feet, tons and tons of it.

Concrete stops many things from growing. It participates, for good or ill, in the ecosystem in which it is placed.

Yes, it does. Concrete dates all the way back to the Parthenon and there are structures made with concrete that predate that. The environmental impact of cast concrete is huge, as is the manufacturing of cement. This process is responsible for an enormous carbon footprint: it is a very intense process of mining and heating to create the convenient bags of cement that are so affordable and accessible. It is a ubiquitous material. And it’s meant to last: it’s used for bridges, times capsules, and bunkers. In the late 1800s steel-reinforced concrete was revolutionary. The two materials, steel and cast concrete, are in tune with each other.

Sometimes my students furrow their brows and say, “You use concrete? What kind of carbon footprint do you have?” And they’re right to ask. But I remind them that material I use is a very small drop in the bucket. Its prolific industrial use poses serious environmental issues. By making works out of concrete, I am contributing to but also foregrounding this dilemma. Its material permanence is one that I’ve chosen to work with deliberately in the narratives I hope to tell of impermanence, change, and loss.

I like using concrete in a poetic way, as with these little heads. It’s a really spongey, malleable, full of character material. I feel that the industrial qualities of concrete and the way in which it can fold and behave as a skin are complications that I hope to find in the work: a kind of fragility in contrast to the material’s harshness.

Collapse I, that lives here in the NCMA museum park, feels very fleshy.

There are many applications of concrete that are quite fleshy. It’s so often cast into geometric shapes—cast concrete, slabs, water pipes and things like that, but it also undulates, and spills, and pours, and oozes into all sorts of wonderful magical shapes. The Collapse I piece is hollow. The concrete is modeled over a steel frame and is quite thin and fragile in places. These large pieces appear solid, and although they weigh a lot, they are also fragile, hollow shells.

Collapse I, image provided by Ledelle Moe

Hence the “No Climbing” sign on Collapse.

You can easily climb on the sculpture and it will hold a lot of weight. I think the sign is there to protect people from pieces of wire sticking out of the sculpture, rather than the sculpture from people. The pieces weather and the surface becomes “skin-like.” I see this weathering as somethings that speaks to the inevitable decay of the body. When they do fall apart, interesting fragments of the work remain.

Are these pieces reminders that everything dies, decomposes, or deconstructs?

Yes, like when a building’s getting torn down or built. When things are in partial deconstruction or construction they’re fascinating. It’s a nice time for Collapse because she’s in her prime. She won’t last forever, and that’s a core conceptual point of these pieces. The steel in her will be gone in…I don’t know how long! I’m surprised it’s lasted this long. Maybe it’ll be fifty years or more.

The title Collapse is interesting, because one seems invited to see this reclining figure as collapsed, and the material itself is, as you said, in the process of fragmentation.

The title references emotional collapse and structural collapse, things that teeter on the edge of either, as if saying, “I’m not quite sure if it’s going to be okay or not.” The work sits ambiguously between animal/human, body/landscape.

Your other piece in the museum park, another large concrete object, is Untitled. It’s a human curled into herself, but from the outside it’s almost spherical, like a rock.

Collapse was designed to stretch the scale of the body to echo the contours of the landscape, and in a similar way Untitled resembles part of a landscape, as you say, a rock or boulder.

Collapse I, image provided by Ledelle Moe

How was Collapse composed?

The large pieces I make are constructed with welded steel frames. The mesh is tied onto this frame with tie wire, and the concrete is then modeled onto that surface.

There are so many expressions in this crowd of hundreds of small concrete heads on the wall in front of us. I see few frowns…

Are they frowning? Do they look a bit like the sun’s in their eyes? There’s a sleepy one, a pensive one…

That’s true. But this gentleman here—

Yeah, he’s frowning. Some of what we see is how the angle of the light casts different shadows. We might see different narratives in a different light or arrangement. Now, this is the moody group here…When I’ve done large versions of this piece, at G Fine Art in Washington, DC and the Perez Museum in Miami, I’ve changed the mood from section to section. There’s almost a kind of hierarchy inherent to the people up here [pointing to the top of the wall]. They possibly look more important because they are positioned above the others. Some look indifferent (on the edges and in open spaces) and those at the bottom are contextualized by the weight of the group above them.

You mentioned earlier how much you love the smell of concrete when you’re working with it.

It’s fresh concrete that has a particular kind of smell, it’s an earthy, rich smell. In a newly constructed building where the concrete is very thick and dense you can smell it intensely. There’s a lot of concrete getting poured, a statistic I heard was: five and a half million tons of concrete is poured per day around the world.

Concrete is ubiquitous, industrial, and non-biodegradable; its prolific use poses serious environmental issues. By making works out of concrete, I am in conversation with this dilemma. I’ve chosen to work deliberately with the material to speak about the impulse to create permanent structures but also to speak about the impermanence, change, and loss. Sculpting the body on a small and large scale in concrete allows me to slow down and be with this material in an intimate way.

There’s a beautiful book, Mark Kingwell’s Concrete Reveries, that came out in 2007. The book walks the reader through various cities looking at concrete. It brings the use of concrete to life, even with graffiti on it, the way rust bleeds into it—it’s a skin. A skin that we’re surrounded by. It ages and speaks volumes about what’s going on. It’s a canvas in a way and very porous. If we poured water on a few of these small heads in Congregation, they could hold almost a cup of water.

Congregation, image provided by Ledelle Moe

As we’ve talked about monumentality, your new installation at MASS MoCA, When, includes an eighteen-foot sculpture titled Remain—a beautiful rendering of a woman surrounded by a constellation of smaller forms connected to her body. What do you think about the removal of civil war monuments here in the American South, and the removal of other monuments to conquest or empire elsewhere in the world?

In the work Remain I am exploring the singular body in relation to multiple bodies. The singular body is conceived of as a dynamic, porous site, a kind of assemblage of forces, in flux and in constant change. It speaks to the notion that a permanent monument can be understood as a “series of events,” both in terms of its material, which is subject to the ravages of time—erosion, touch, accretions, chips and gashes, marks and patina—as well as shifts in political meaning and context. Even location.

In 2015 the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa resulted in the removal of the Cecil John Rhodes statue on the University of Cape Town campus. These initial protests, centered around this monument, sparked a vital and necessary series of conversations about South Africa’s colonial history and the monuments that continue to symbolize institutionalized racism. I believe the dialogues around the monuments in South Africa and the USA are essential and necessary. The removal of the statues brings these contested histories into focus and allows for an opportunity to address the injustices of the past and present.

One of the most compelling dialogues with the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue in Richmond is Kehinde Wiley’s piece Rumors of War outside the Virginia Art Museum. I first encountered this work in New York City’s Times Square, before it was moved to Richmond. On approaching the work late one night, after a long international flight, I felt awed by the sense of heroic monumentality; it’s a stunning sculpture. Inscribed into the stone pedestal is the title of: Rumors of War. The way this piece questions power is complex and compelling.

Remain, image provided by Ledelle Moe

Is anything about your work mysterious to you?

The forms I make become both figures and landscapes simultaneously. These ambiguities of form I find fascinating and keep me looking, seeing and wanting to understand the world around me.

The interviewer wishes to thank Ledelle Moe for her warmth and generosity, and Amanda M. Maples, the NCMA’s Curator of African Art.


Helena Feder is the author of Ecocriticism and the Idea of Culture (2014), and several articles, essays, interviews, and poems in venues such as North American Review, ISLE, Guernica, Green Letters, and Radical Philosophy. She is also the editor of You Are the River (forthcoming 2021) and Close Reading the Anthropocene (forthcoming 2021). Helena is Associate Professor of Literature and Environment at East Carolina University, and a Mellon/ACLS fellow-in-residence at the North Carolina Museum of Art (2019-2020).