Radio Ancestrale, an installation commissioned by Tarble Arts Center, EIU, 2000

Radio Ancestrale, an installation commissioned by Tarble Arts Center, EIU, 2000


“Nowhere is Kongo Angola influence on the new world more pronounced, more profound, than in black traditional cemeteries throughout the south of the united states. The nature of the objects that decorate the graves there, as well as in places as diverse as Haiti and Guadalupe in the West Indies, reveals a strong continuity. That continuity might be characterized as a reinstatement of the Kongo notion of the tomb as a charm for the persistence of the spirit.” —Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit

Radio Ancestrale was inspired by a photo in Robert Farris Thompson’s book, Face of the Gods. The picture showed a cast concrete grave marker in southern Florida with a radio set directly into the concrete as a communication channel to the underworld, the land of the dead.

radio tomb

I was immediately struck with a vision of a space full of tombstones with radios, all playing at once, pulling from different areas of the radio spectrum, fading in and out of static, music and speech to tell a broad range of stories. It seemed the perfect realization of the Crossroads—a simple and direct image of communication reaching between the worlds of the living and the dead.


Radio Ancestrale examines communication with the ancestors and spirits, specifically as expressed through the concept of the Crossroads and the complex of the altar and the grave. The Crossroads is the liminal space between the world of the living and the land of the dead, a place of danger, opportunity, chance and change. In the cosmology of the BaKongo people, all exceptional powers have their origin in some form of communication with the dead. Hence, the grave becomes an altar, and BaKongo minkisi—power objects and altars—can be thought of as portable graves, invested with the living power of a spirit.

The root of my practice as a sculptor has been a journey into the art, spiritual traditions and philosophy of the Kongo. While I have worked with material from many diaspora cultures, the elements which most strongly and consistently strike their way into my work are based in Kongo influence. Radio Ancestrale is the most complete and complex expression I have yet realized of the visual poetry and metaphor of Kongo culture and its diasporic legacy. A veritable lexicon of Kongo spiritual metaphor, Radio Ancestrale also adds to the tradition, playing on the recontextualization and improvisation which are the heart of this highly mutable and innovative culture. This installation is one voice in a centuries old call and response dialogue which embodies itself in the cemetery practices of Africa and the American South, as well as aspects of the Southern Yard Shows which have grown from these practices.

The Installation

Composed of fourteen grave monuments enclosed within concrete walls and a fifteen minute musical/vocal score which plays through the monuments, Radio Ancestrale is both event and environment. Radio Ancestrale challenges the Western concept of death as a morbid and final darkness, presenting an involving experience which leads the audience to explore unfamiliar cultures and promotes a broader perspective of art, religion and the world.

The physical installation includes fourteen hollow concrete grave monuments, each fixed with an antique radio as an engine of communication. Rather than names of specific deceased individuals, each marker names a common supplication or prayer which might be directed to the Land of the Dead for fulfillment, such as Wisdom, Love, Beauty, Health or Protection. Other objects embedded in the concrete play metaphorically on these themes in the style of memory vessels, a common form of memorial created by fixing possessions of the deceased to a jar or jug, creating a container for spirit.

Surrounding the installation is a faux concrete wall painted with vévés, the ritual inscriptions used to call upon the Lwa or Haitian Vodoun deities. The vévés on either side of the gate are for Legba, the Lwa of the crossroads who must be invoked first in any ceremony to summon the other Lwa. Both side walls are inscribed with the Minokan vévé, which collectively summons all of the Lwa. At the rear of the installation is the vévé for the Ghedes, Baron Lacroix, Baron Cimitiere and Baron Samedi‹the Lwas of death and the cemetery.

The Soundtrack

The score was composed at Engine Studios, a state-of-the-art digital mixing studio, utilizing digital samples, analog field recordings and live instrumentation. All tracks were improvised live, then composited to produce the final score. The structure is organized around radio static, representing the liminal space between the worlds of the living and the dead; and sounds of movement and travel, representing the soul’s journey. Breaking the space are vocal and instrumental communications between these worlds. Fifteen minutes long, the score plays in a constant loop, a cycle of motion and emotion. The music reaches back and forth across time as well, quoting a wide variety of musical styles as the installation space vacillates between historical roots and the present.

The Grave Stones

Radio Ancestrale Installation beauty gravestone


The three idealized porcelain doll heads topping this stone reference tradition concepts of beauty. Shells, jewelry and porcelain flowers decorate the stone, as well as porcelain doll arms which reach out in a position suggesting display. The title is scratched out in reverse on shards of pink mirror. The radio is a style which might have graced a vanity table, but it is a clock radio, suggesting the eventual fading away of physical beauty.

Radio Ancestrale Installation fidelity gravestone


The central item in this stone is a gas hearth, symbolic of “hearth and home.” The pink plastic of the radio is suggestive of domesticity. It is a clock radio, referencing the passage of time and reinforced by the miniature mantel clock which sits upon the hearth. The dials of the radio are naval buttons with anchor designs, which hold the couple to each other and to home. This is a good idea, as the wedding figurine features a naval man. The radio is an admiral brand—the masculine name coupled with the feminine color is a nice pun alluding to the compromises and the sharing that go into making a relationship last. The ball and chain which encircles the couple holds them together forcefully, suggesting the possible struggles encountered in fidelity. The steel balls used to create the ball and chain were salvaged from andirons, another symbol of the hearth.

Radio Ancestrale Installation health gravestone


The radio is teal, a color reccomended to doctors by the AMA for its suggestion of calm and healing. Set into the stone is a medicine cabinet, topped with a ceramic prenology head advertising “trilafonperphenazine, a full range tranquilizer.” Inside the cabinet, visible through the mirror are various items including an anthropomorphic healing root, three paquets congo, a preserved water moccasin, a pint flask with a cross cut out of the alligator hide covering, a syringe, poppy heads, and antique medicine bottles. The bottles include High John the Conqueror Root Perfume, Atrask’s Magnetic Ointment, Doct. Marshall’s Snuff, and a bottle labeled Dr. Jayne’s Expectorant filled with grave dirt and ashes.

Radio Ancestrale Installation justice gravestone


fashioned from antique roofing slate, the Justice stone is in the form of an oversized scale. The design of the radio has columns suggesting courthouse architecture. Atop the tall pedestal of the stone is a wooden Nkisi Nkondi, a form of religious sculpture from the Kongo containing a spirit which is capable of mediating cases in the absence of the king. At the base of the stone are a gavel on a small iron table, a broken set of leg irons, and a glass chicaken signifying mpembe the white chicken often used as sacrifice when invoking justice.

Radio Ancestrale Installation love gravestone


Man traps hang from one arm of the cross, a heart shaped wind chime from the other. The apex of the cross is a torch topped with a glass bauble shaped like flame or a heart, suggesting the phrase “to carry a torch,” as well as connoting passion, love, seeking and eternity. A circle of golden bees surrounds the base of the cross to suggest sweetness and the buzzing feeling one gets in the belly when infatuation sets in. The face of the stone is a mosaic of a heart pierced with a sword, the emblem of Erzulie, Haitian lwa or goddess of love. Set into the top of the stone are items including a brooch of flying cherubs holding a heart, medallions decorated with dancing couples, a cast love charm of African origin, 2 tokens from a peep show booth depicting different sexual positions, and fingernail clippers with an image reminiscient of Trojan condom ads, for taking nail parings to cast a love spell. The name of the stone is spelled out in red tile.

Radio Ancestrale Installation luck gravestone


At the apex of the Luck stone a card playing trophy proudly displays a winning hand. Both the radio and the antique mirror tiles spelling the name of the stone are green, a color often associated with luck. The extended base encloses a drink tray printed with a roulette wheel and other games of chance. Dice are set into base at the cardinal points. Resting loose on the base are an 8-ball and a “lucky seven” domino puzzle. Several cast metal luck charms are set into the stone’s face, including a three legged African money charm and a Mexican El Indio charm.

Radio Ancestrale Installation open the way gravestone

Open The Way

The crowning decoration of this stone is a flashlight and three compasses. Set into the stone are many skeleton keys, as well as a car horn for clearing the path.

Radio Ancestrale Installation protection gravestone


Protection is capped by two shooting trophys, whose rifles point out at the viewer, daring them to step out of line. The main inset feature is an ornate safety deposit box door, protecting not just the individual but their assets. Also set into the stone are a knife and many, many locks.

Radio Ancestrale Installation safe travel gravestone

Safe Travel

Safe Travel incorporates a Traveler brand radio with small airplane propellors decorating the tuning dials. The stone is topped with a section of heavy-duty radial tire. Inset items include a bottle in the shape of a touring car, two small compasses and a Saint Christopher medallion.

Radio Ancestrale Installation second sight gravestone

Second Sight

A crystal ball set in a radiating copper cap crowns the apex of Second Sight. Metal swami heads attached to the corners of the radio help attune it to the mystic vibrations of the past and future. Directly above the radio is a glow in the dark statue of Saint Clara, the patron saint of television due to her ability to see far away events. Other items set into the stone include taxidermy eyes, a golden lizard, an ankh, and a masonic emblem.

Radio Ancestrale Installation steady work gravestone

Steady Work

A bulldozer is dug into the stone, sculpting the final form with its heavy blade. This massive beast of a machione is symbolic not only of work, but of clearing the obstacles to finding work. The radio is an alarm clock insuring early rising. Various tools and machine parts are set into the stone to aid the worker in accomplishing his tasks.

Radio Ancestrale Installation strength gravestone


The red bull featured on top of the stone is a decorative tequila bottle, referencing strength and power in the form of the bull and also, semi-facetiously, as strong drink. Set into the face of the stone is a large decorative axe belonging to Shango, the Yoruba deity concerned with lightning, strength and military might. His Haitian counterpart, Sen Jaques, is represented in the figures of cavalry men astride rearing horses set in at the flanks of the axe. The red and white radio is in Shango’s colors. Set in below the radio is a golden military medallion with rays reaching out like the sun.

Radio Ancestrale Installation wealth gravestone


The stone’s title is spelled out in cowrie shells, often used as currency. the radio is green, to signify cash, moohlah, greenbacks. Set into the stone are various items including a large dollar sign, two African money charms, five oversize coins, military jewelry, and various beads, crystals, gems and pyrite.

Radio Ancestrale Installation wisdom gravestone


The title of the stone is spelled out in antique blue mirror. Set into the base is a flower vase with the figure of a shriner, alluding to the wisdon of secret orders. Around the waist of the figure hangs a sash made of a bracelet inscribed with the Ten Commandments. Flanking the shriner are two black terra cotta birds, referencing the Yoruba cult of The Mothers. A gold star set into the stone symbolizes the wisdom of the heavens, as do the blue diamonds that skirt the base. At the very front of the base is set a stone that strikingly resembles the human brain.