When Lakea Shepard was growing up, her father impressed upon her the age-old maxim for dealing with aggressors: “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words should never hurt you.”
The advice likely would’ve resonated more had she not been aware of the guns he kept in the house, which she was expressly forbidden to touch. This contradiction opened up questions about the meaning of protection, how it was to be brandished, and whom it was for.
And as a Black woman raised in the South, it didn’t take long for Shepard to feel unprotected.
Amid horrific gun violence across the nation, coupled with the tens of thousands of Black women and girls that go missing every year, these questions about protection morphed into the driving theme behind her work—woven mixed-media masks that utilize bullet casings, gemstones, and beadwork to arresting effect.
The masks belong in the series Poppa Said Girls Don’t Play with Guns, which is part of Shepard’s first solo museum show, Malik: Sovereign of Faith, on view at CAM Raleigh through August 29, 2022. I spoke to the Winston-Salem-based artist about her process, turning pain into purpose, and what protection means to her now.
INDY WEEK: I’m curious about your choice to focus on headgear as opposed to other forms of wearable art. What do you think is more resonant or powerful about headgear?
LAKEA SHEPARD: Initially, I considered anything from the shoulders down to be “fashion” and I was so resistant to making fashion. I made up my mind that I was going to focus on the neck and above.
But I’m also a Virgo, so I think a lot. I’m very analytical and everything revolves around my mind. I feel like something that Black people need to tap into more is accepting our thoughts and shuffling through our thoughts so that we don’t pass down those generational curses, trauma, and unresolved issues.
For me, focusing on the head is a form of physical therapy.
With masks, and especially with the type of masks that you make, it completely obscures the identity of the person behind it. That person can be anybody or they can be nobody. Why did you make that choice?
I do that mostly because I feel like I’ve been given a very special gift and I don’t want people to focus on my skin tone versus my gift. People get so distracted by the skin tone of Black people that they can’t receive the message. I like to obscure the face so they can be focused on what I’m trying to present.
I’ve noticed in your work, especially the piece Culture Vulture, that when you look at the masks from afar they can appear intimidating, but when you get closer and examine the details, you see a lot of delicacy and preciousness. Is the integration of those two concepts intentional?
With the details, I wanted it to feel very luxurious. But the message behind it isn’t luxurious. That particular mask was inspired by the fact that so many Black people have gotten their ideas stolen, gotten their land stolen, gotten their physical body stolen, and we need to talk about it. Why is this happening and why are we letting this happen?
I wanted to combine materials that will draw people in; then when they look at it they see little messages in there. For example, there’s a little hand that’s choking a little Black person, and there are some little legs that are broken off and bloody at the end. I wanted people to be drawn by the beauty, but then I wanted them to be exposed to the real story.
A lot of the pieces date back to 2013. How has your relationship to them changed over the years?
I’ve actually gone through several phases of that body of work. When I initially made it, it was extremely heavy on me, simply because I put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into them. And then after finishing one of the first pieces, there was [the Sandy Hook] school shooting. So after that happened, it solidified exactly what I was supposed to be doing, which was trying to figure out how to protect myself as a Black woman in a world of people who don’t accept me.
As I’ve grown into an adult, I’ve realized that the work was very necessary for me to sort out all the thoughts that I had about what it means to be protected from the people around me with my faith, with relationships, and with love. It makes more sense to me now and I feel like it’s current work. When I made it, it was way ahead of my time.
How do you understand protection today as a Black woman? What does that look like to you?
I feel like protection now means listening to my intuition. I feel like I’ve made a lot of mistakes because I’ve second-guessed my intuition, and I feel like as women, we were blessed with that sixth sense. Along with that is utilizing the wisdom that has been passed down and not being afraid to turn my pain into purpose. Then turning that purpose into wisdom that I can hopefully pass down to other women that will be protected from making the same mistakes that I’ve made.
Correction: A print version of this interview incorrectly listed the exhibition run date as through February 2022. The correct exhibition run date is through August 29, 2022.
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