The Xhosa people have a saying: Ulilandele igama lakhe, which means “He follows his name.” Across many cultures, the act of name-giving by a parent endows the child with an expectation to live up to the name given. As an artist interested in language structures and the way that we absorb and exert ideas, exploring the meaning behind my own name has recently emerged as another channel to consider how the application of names/words carve out our experiences.
Kenturah is a conflation of my dad’s name, Kenneth and a biblical name Keturah. Kenneth is derived from a Gaelic name meaning “born of fire” while Keturah comes from a Hebrew word for incense meaning “to produce a pleasant smoke.” The symbolism of fire and smoke represented in my name is the point of departure for my new series, “Namesake”.
The burning of incense has mystical roots from the ancient north Africa to the performance of ceremonial rites in China. Spiritual texts allude to it as a metaphor for prayer by which converting an aromatic material into smoke allows it to dissipate and enter another dimension where God resides. Shamanistic practices use it in rituals to ward off bad energy. Both instances evoke the idea of an invisible world that can be accessed and leveraged to fulfill a task that would alter a particular circumstance. This concept parallels my understanding of speaking as a transcendental activity. We see echoes of this in our technology, where a spoken word can be digitized and released and influence people around the world in a matter of seconds via social media. Words have power and our use of them has consequences.
So is my word that goes out from my mouth. It will not return to me empty, but it will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
This text makes a lyrical assertion about language and represents the greatest potential of our use of words. It is also the text I used for the first drawing in the “Namesake” series. It is a self-portrait made by writing this text on shavings of palo santo (“holy wood”), a type of tree bark from South America that is traditionally used as ritual incense. They were then burned, converting the inscribed wood into plumes of smoke. A residue of soot was left behind, to which I added liquid, turning it into black ink. I then applied the ink to rice paper using rubber stamp letters. In essence, this drawing is a byproduct of burned, dissipated, text. The portrait represents the idea that our current state of being is a result of words that have been released into the atmosphere.