Can’t believe it’s shea butter: Esmaa Mohamoud’s surprising sculpture

Shinan Govani, Toronto Star, October 30, 2022


The buzzed-about sculptor will show her work at Art Toronto


At first glance, the bust resembles a classical Roman sculpture, hand-wrought in marble. 

A closer inspection brings this revelation: the piece is actually carved of solid shea butter.

“At the base are thousands of shea nuts made of shea butter that have each been hand-cast from real Ghanaian shea nuts,” the artist Esmaa Mohamoud tells me.


Ebony in Ivory, I is just the latest unveiling in a splendid new series courtesy of the most buzzed-about young artist in town. On display this week, exclusively in the Olga Korper booth at Art Toronto – the country’s largest art fair – the work also cements Mohamoud’s status as a major talent to watch. One with much to say.


The series is a continuation of the exploration of Black body politics in her practice. “Ebony in Ivory investigates the invisible labour behind one of Africa’s largest exports – shea butter – used extensively in many commonly used home products worldwide,” the 29-year-old Torontonian shares. “However, the shea process is rife with problematic practices.

“The work,” she adds, “intends to explore the economic exploitation of young African girls who primarily make up the shea nut harvesting industry and emphasize what shea butter is primarily used for – Black hair and skin.” 


With her work resonating far and wide (a prestigious solo show at Chicago’s Kavi Gupta Gallery is on the horizon, and she seems to have definitely struck a chord on Instagram in recent years), the OCAD grad is continuing her mission to make “Black culture tangible,” as a profile in “Elle” recently surmised. In her previously best-known series, One of the Boys, she fabulously transformed basketball jerseys into Victorian-style corsets and crinolines (in the process, taking on matters of race, sport and heteronormativity).


In dreams 

Because sculpting is such a tactile, even hypnotic, practice, I was curious if she ever dreams that she’s sculpting. “A large part of my practice,” Mohamoud says, “involves creating multiples. That kind of work requires entering into a sort of meditation as the actions become more and more repetitive, and especially when muscle memory kicks in. 

“I don’t really remember if I have ever dreamt of making art before,” she adds. “However, I have for sure dreamt of new pieces and I’ve rushed to write them down on my phone before I forgot them first thing in the morning.”


Indeed, one of her more familiar pieces, the sculpture The Brotherhood FUBU (For Us, By Us), she says, “was a sketch in my notebook for five years before it was fully realized in bronze at Harbour Square Park.”


Self-care for a sculptor? Everyone is different, Mohamoud says, but in her case, “I prefer to work six to seven days a week in the studio. But I also invest in getting regular massages for my tense muscles. I take about four breaks a day.” This, too: she must have music on when she is in the groove. “When work becomes repetitive in its gestures – which my work often does – I find it’s necessary to have something else stimulating my mind while my hands work. I listen to everything except techno. In the studio lately, I have been listening to Etta James, Moses Sumney and Thundercat, especially while making Ebony in Ivory, I.” 



Esmaa Mohamoud, Ebony in Ivory, I, 2022. Shea Butter, Italian black marble, wax, damar resin 60 x 30 x 30 in. Unique Edition 4 of 5 (+1AP)


Art attack

Spending a good chunk of her childhood in Egypt, where her family hails from, and then London, Ontario, Mahmoud identifies herself in many ways: Black, yes, and Canadian, but also Egyptian and Arabic-speaking. Add to that: she was the only girl in a family of five kids. All of which manifests in her art.


Asked to name a couple of highlights in her career thus far, she says, “The first was when I signed on to have a solo museum exhibition of my work tour around Canada. I was only 26. I never imagined a tour of that magnitude would happen so early in my career.” The second? “Being selected to work with Nike for New York Fashion Week. This was my first time working with a big brand and finding a happy medium between what the client wanted and what I found to be authentic to my practice.”


Though she has previously talked about her art being influenced by film – allusions to everything from Wizard of Oz to the amazing 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams abound – she tells me that’s more accidental that anything else. “For the most part,” she says, “I don’t intentionally land on the movies as reference. The last movie I can think of that influenced my work was Moonlight.”


As for what’s next, Mohamoud says this, “I’m working on a future piece that will involve chroming objects that aren’t meant to be chromed.” She’s particularly interested in learning the process of rendering objects in black chrome. Overwhelmingly, though, she is consumed by one thing these days: “I feel like I have only just started to dive deep into my exploration of shea butter, so that material is at the forefront of my mind right now.”




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