United States

The Presence of Absence

Angela Hennessy, Mourning Wreath (detail)

This is the second article in a series focused on artists whose work is adjacent to jewelry. For my purposes, jewelry-adjacent artists use material, techniques, or themes related to jewelry practices. The body is present in their work, not necessarily as the recipient of adornment, but in the importance of the physical body to their form, topic, or narrative. The adjacency of these artists to jewelry provides fresh perspectives to those of us immersed in the field. A companion to this article published in Metalsmith magazine (volume 41, number 3) as part of their ongoing Jewelry Thinking series.

Angela Hennessy, Black Oracles 1-5

The global pandemic has brought mortality to the minds of everyone. The loss of life is incalculable, making grieving familiar, even as the pandemic disallows for the physical connection of traditional mourning practices—even sitting by someone’s bedside as they pass away. In her essay, “Grief, Interrupted,” for the London Review of Books, Jude Wanga speaks of the disconnectedness of grieving right now:

There is no closure. No final chapter. No poignant moments of holding hands with my loved ones and letting them know I loved them as they take their final breaths. No family sitting with me for a week, to bring food, care, love, hugs. No hugs at church, or at the cemetery. There’s just nothing. There may never be anything again. I am broken. I am a skipping record, a stutter in time. This is grief, interrupted.[1]

But grieving isn’t new, though it is more often experienced in discrete moments and not at this global scale.[2] Angela Hennessy[3] uses her practice to process her relationship to grief personally and culturally as a Black, queer woman. In doing so, she creates a place for collective mourning and a space to honor those who came before, where the viewer is invited to consider what grieving means.

Angela Hennessy, Mourning WeaveAngela Hennessy, Blacklets: A Speck of Soot or Dirt (detail), 2007, unraveled velvet fuzz, thread

Victorian mourning jewelry was an early influence during her graduate studies at California College of Art, rooted in her high school and undergraduate studies in jewelry. Victorian mourning jewelry provided a way to keep a deceased loved one physically present and connected to the living, using their hair to create intimate objects of remembrance. Queen Victoria began the trend after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861, wearing a locket of his hair for the remainder of her life.[4] Victorian mourning traditions also included lengths of hair braided into bracelets, strands of hair intricately arranged in pendants, and visually complex wreaths adorned with the deceased’s hair as flowers and flourishes surrounding their portrait.

As Hennessy researched this tradition, she realized that hair had a place in grieving rituals across culture and history. A quick Google search on hair and mourning results in a wide range of bereavement practices. The recently bereaved might shave their heads (Nigeria), not shave their facial hair (Greece), not comb or groom their hair (Philippines), keep a lock of hair for a year (Lakota), or use their hair to cover their face (Ancient Egypt). What fascinated Hennessy in this variety is “how hair became the material that connected one to the dead, while marking the separation caused by death.”[5]

Angela Hennessy, Blacklets: A Speck of Soot or Dirt (detail)Angela Hennessy, Blacklets: A Speck of Soot or Dirt

Hennessy’s exploration of hair began with fuzz. As she deconstructed black velvet, separating the velvety fuzz from the threads of the backing, she recognized its resemblance to a Black barbershop floor after a haircut. Her first piece using the fuzz, Blacklets: A Speck of Soot or Dirt, paid homage to this material discovery and questioned its identity. Later, she applied the velvet fuzz to woven Velcro in a large, gold, oval frame, creating visual texture and contrast. The shape of Mourning Weave references a traditional locket, one that might have held a snippet of hair, and the oval frame of Victorian portraiture, often placed in the center of Victorian mourning wreaths.

Melanie Bilenker, a selection of pieces from the HomeWork exhibition

It’s interesting to note that while Hennessy’s starting point was clearly jewelry informed, it didn't result in creating jewelry. Art-making often leads artists down unexpected pathways. Melanie Bilenker is a white American artist whose work is also rooted in Victorian mourning jewelry.[6] Her work remains connected to the historic techniques of Victorian hair jewelry, expertly reimagined with modern materials. She uses her own hair to create intricately drawn domestic scenes showcased in lockets, poignantly intimate and powerful in their simplicity. That Bilenker and Hennessy produced such disparate work from the same historic reference highlights the wealth of interpretations that come from including different voices in art world conversations.

One reason for the diverging exploration is that the hair Hennessy uses is her own, biracial and not straight, which carries added cultural meaning. White hair has the privilege to simply be a line. The hair in Hennessy’s work is not neutral. It is Black hair, Black women’s hair, Black queer hair, biracial hair. By using Black hair as material, she references a complex cultural history that includes ancestral trauma and cultural oppression as well as the pride, beauty, and joy of Blackness.

Angela Hennessy’s tools

Hennessy’s personal experience provides a narrative that threads through her work. The absence and discovery of family connections, the struggle of defining oneself when embodying multiple identities, the finality of a parent’s death, a near-death experience, the weight of ancestral grief coupled with the continuation of violence against Black bodies today, the requisite grieving of being Black in America. Through her creative research, she holds space to experience the beauty and anger, joy and sorrow, that can exist simultaneously.

Angela Hennessy, Black Rainbow

Several of her pieces are made of crocheted synthetic hair in shades that reflect the diversity of her family, combined with her own hair. Black Rainbow and Setting of a Black Sun are large sculptural crocheted pieces made through the repetition of small interlocking loops of hair. Their macrame quality reflects nostalgia for Hennessy’s childhood, one growing up in small towns on the Northern California coast in the 70s. She refers to the crocheting process as a way to hold things together, a meditative act of physically connecting her different racial histories, the disruption of her family unit, and the layers of grief connected to existing in this world that considers your presence “othered.”

Angela Hennesy, Setting of a Black Sun

Much of Hennessy’s practice recognizes the vagueness of grieving, the longing for things unknown and difficult to name. Unidentified Grieving Objects extend from the ceiling as ropes of Black or blond synthetic hair interrupted by voluminous poufs in the 2017 exhibition When and Where I Enter, at San Francisco’s Southern Exposure (SoEx) gallery. The monumental Mourning Wreath moves the Victorian wreath tradition off the wall, supported by a single steel column that invites approach from all sides, leaving nothing hidden from view. It is laden with swags of synthetic black hair braided, woven, and meticulously arranged. Gold-leafed copper medallions suspended from chains drape into the center of the wreath from the top.

Exhibition view, Angela Hennessy, When and Where I Enter

The visual effect of these pieces in relationship to each other is striking, the tones of gold with shades of blond to brown to black hair set off against the black walls of the gallery space. Painting the white walls, suggested by the SoEx curator and embraced by Hennessy, was a subversive and effective way to disrupt the white cube. Hennessy had previously shown her individual pieces on black walls, set apart but included in white-walled venues. Hennessy’s work requires an unapologetic reimagining of the whiteness of the art world. By painting the gallery from floor to ceiling, she signals a shift in expectations to a viewer familiar with the typical gallery experience and challenges the whitewashing within art spaces.

Exhibition view, Angela Hennessy, Black Hole

Hennessy’s handling of hair as a material is seductive. She treats hair as a textile with luxurious texture and visceral tactility, perfectly coiffed and arranged in monumental forms, beautifully lit and set apart. The etiquette of art denies viewers the fulfillment and satisfaction of touching the sculptures, denying, too, the privileged desire to touch Black hair and in so doing to insert power, ownership, and dominance over Black bodies. Tiff Massey’s neon piece Bitch, Don’t Touch My Hair, was made as a self-portrait but, as she says, speaks for every person of color who has curly hair,[7] unequivocally stating the disrespect inherent in this invasion of someone’s personal space. The tension between the wish to break the oft-forgotten taboo of touching Black tresses and the refusal of the wish due to the etiquette in what have been traditionally white spaces is rather poetic.

Tiff Massey, Bitch Don’t Touch My Hair

While hair is the primary material Hennessy works with, it isn’t the only one. She distributes gold, both real gold leaf and materials that mimic gold, in varying quantities throughout her pieces, referring to her interest in jewelry. The inclusion of this material brings reflections on concepts of value, as well as the visual language of light and light-emitting bodies, into her work. Gold can be found in small details like the medallions in Mourning Wreath or in the visual brilliance of Sun, from Hennessy’s emerging artist exhibition in 2019 at the Museum of African Diaspora (MoAD), everybody loves the sunshine.[8]

Exhibition view, Angela Hennessy, Sun

For that exhibition, Hennessy was inspired by the scattering garden, a dedicated outdoor space designed for the ceremonial scattering of ashes. She transformed the MoAD gallery into a texturally rich landscape for the release of grief. The sun and the rainbow are symbols of renewal and hope that manifest in the sky, accessible from any landscape. Sun, made from gold twist ties, among other things, allows Hennessy to bring the transformative power of celestial bodies into the gallery space.

 “I remember my godmother wearing shiny silver rings, and how my grandmother was always wearing a bit of gold—and just being dazzled.” –Angela Hennessy

Exhibition view, Angela Hennessy, BlingExhibition view, Angela Hennessy, Bling (detail)

Hennessy uses chains to comment on the Black American experience. They present as physical objects of oppression as well as a cultural symbol of power, success, and dominance within the context of hip-hop. Her piece Bling, included in the exhibition A History of Violence, organized by the Queer Cultural Center, includes the flash of oversized gold chains made with gold twist ties hanging next to chains made of Black hair. Curator Rudy Lemcke states, “the trope of the necklace combined with the work’s references to shackles and collars re-inscribes these forms with beauty and liberatory power. Its meaning is a flash of reflected light, the bling of adornment from the surface of a deep cultural wound.”[9] Much of Hennessy’s work recognizes these cultural wounds, both individual and collective, while creating the space to grieve and, through the recognition of grief, invite healing.

Angela Hennessy, I Love You to All the Black Holes

Hennessy’s work utilizes light beyond gold’s flash. LED lights illuminate Black Rainbow from behind and shine through pierced metal in I love you to all the black holes. Light is often used as a symbol of hope and healing, while voids often represent loss and grief. The gravitational pull of black holes is so strong that they trap light. Hennessy was intrigued by the light-absorbing quality of the black velvet from the beginning of that material exploration. In this piece, she honors the voids and illuminates them, providing a message of support.

Angela Hennessy, Black Hole (study)

Sometimes words fail to articulate a felt experience, and objects, try as they might, can fail to represent ideas. No one process or object does all the things necessary to convey the complexities of being human. Hennessy’s art practice includes the physical embodiment of her ideas outside of making. She is verified in the Grief Recovery Method, an activist for the visibility of black women,[10] and a professor who teaches classes about the role of death in art.

Angela Hennessy, School of the Dead Manifesto

She wrote a manifesto, The Book of the Dead, combining ideas from these roles with her experiences as a survivor of gun violence. Across her work, she is specifically interested in how race features in the understanding and acceptance of the inevitability of death. While coming to terms with one’s mortality is universally human, there is a marked difference for a Black person in America. The violence of slavery, which included the intentional severing of family bonds and the loss of ancestral continuity, caused voids in Black Americans’ heritage. Even now, the continued inequity of the medical system and the violence of the carceral and police states continue to disrupt the stability, safety, and lives of Black Americans, causing incredible pain and loss in both individual families and larger communities.

Lori Talcott, Homeopathic Object

When Hennessy speaks to an audience, she takes a moment to invite all in attendance to center themselves, then speak the names of their dead. This straightforward grieving ritual is a way to acknowledge those who came before. Simply saying the names of those who have died is a way to bear witness, to recognize their loss to the self and the community, to remember and be remembered as being connected, and to grieve the loss of connection. This ritual acknowledgment of grief and the wound it leaves provides a possibility of healing. This ritual act resonates with the work of Lori Talcott, whose practice is based on the medieval idea that the wound contains the remedy. Both artists incorporate rituals that ask the participant to speak their pain and, in so doing, recognize the source. Hennessy also invites others present to honor the grief of those around them. This brings the presence of the departed into the space and acknowledges the universality of loss.

Angela Hennessy, Of Chains and Corpses

Hennessy stated pre-pandemic, “the work that I do now is about making space for death and making space for the dead. And a big part of how we do that is by reclaiming these ruptured lineages, the family ties that have been shredded, completely unraveled.”[11] As the pandemic forces conversations about mortality in every corner of the globe, and the violence by American police against Black and brown people continues unabated, Angela Hennessy’s work provides a place for reflection on the reality of loss and an invitation to grieve.

Exhibition view, Angela Hennessy, Black Hole

Angela Hennessy’s work will be included in Queer Threads, at the San Jose Quilt and Textiles Museum[12] from April 13–July 3, 2022. The latest version of this evolving exhibition, curated by John Chaich and much delayed by the pandemic, will include artists from the original iteration alongside artists from the region.

[1] J. Wanga, “Grief, Interrupted,” London Review of Books, February 11, 2021, LRB Blog.


[2] This article by the Council on Foreign Relations gives a broad overview of the global shift in grieving: https://www.cfr.org/article/coronavirus-funeral-how-world-has-learned-grieve-pandemic.

[3] See more of Angela Hennessy’s work on her website: http://www.angelahennessy.com/.

[4] M. Mendoza, “Death and Mourning Practices in the Victorian Age: Victorian Rules for the End of Life,” Psychology Today, December 8, 2018. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-grief/201812/death-and-mourning-practices-in-the-victorian-age.

[5] M. Porges, “Mortal Coils: A Conversation with Angela Hennessy,” Sculpture Magazine, July 30, 2019. https://sculpturemagazine.art/mortal-coils-a-conversation-with-angela-hennessy/.

[6] L. Ramzi, “This Artist Crafts Victoriana Miniatures Out of Her Own Hair,” Vogue, January 10, 2021. https://www.vogue.com/article/victoriana-hair-art-exhibition.

[7] Tiff Massey’s neon installation Bitch Don’t Touch My Hair is available as a limited-edition print that benefits The Equal Justice Initiative through Absolute Art. https://www.absolutart.com/us/artist/tiff-massey/artwork/bitch-dont-touch-my-hair/.

[8] The exhibition Everybody Loves the Sunshine was named after Rob Ayers’s 1976 song of the same name. Listen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M36OGCfYp3A.

[9] R. Lemcke, “A History of Violence,” The Queer Cultural Center, June 7, 2018. https://queerculturalcenter.org/history-of-violence/.

[10] Visit https://www.instagram.com/seeblackwomxn/ for more information about a movement to center the work of Black women and protect Black girls.

[11] D. Wright, “Into the Void: An Interview with Angela Hennessy,” Nat. Brut, Spring 2018.  https://www.natbrut.com/angela-hennessy.

Rebekah Frank

Rebekah Frank is a studio artist, independent writer, and arts consultant. Her essays can be found on Art Jewelry Forum as well as in Metalsmith magazine and Surface Design Journal. She enjoys traveling the world in search of interesting experiences to fuel both her art and writing practices.


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