To date, the Nigerian-born, U.S.-raised sculptor Hamzat Raheem has cast and sculpted just seventy faces of an epic marble project that will feature the countenances of more than ten times as many volunteers. The end result will be Stone with 1000 Faces, an immersive sculpture viewers will someday walk through—”the size of a small building.” Raheem started the project in 2021, after earning his Masters In Sculpture in Japan at Kyoto Seika University, and he humbly accedes that it will likely take him a lifetime to complete.
Raheem is speaking to me from a studio that is very much not the typical “artist-at-work” warehouse idyll that magazines splash across their pages. Instead, he works in the garage of his childhood home in Massachusetts. He admits that as a child of immigrants—the family moved to the U.S. in 2004 when Raheem was eight—he realizes it wasn’t his parents’ dream for their son to be an artist. Still, once they recognized his talent and dedication, they got behind him fully to the extent that they renovated their large garage into a multi-room studio complete with a dedicated area for prayer.
“You can never get lonely in there,” I quip. As he speaks to me, sculpted marble faces stare out from the white walls behind him. It seems they are emerging organically from the walls, serene in their stillness.
A different take on neo-classical sculpture
The studio itself is humble, but Raheem is a born artist—effortlessly cool with his idiosyncratic fashion choices, intellectual discussion peppered with pop culture references and easy ability to slip between Japanese and English. Today, he wears what appear to be limited-edition, hyper-cool sunglasses that look to have been engineered in reverse.
He laughs when asked about them. “They’re Oakley XL Prizms,” he admits “I just wear them upside down because the lenses hurt my cheekbones. I think they look so much better this way.”
To get metaphoric, Raheem is flipping more than just his accessories; he’s also flipping people’s perception of what sculpture is. In his marble carvings of Black faces, he has veered sharply away from the typical, neo-classical sculptures we’re accustomed to: white stone chiseled into smoothly athletic and bountiful young bodies with Caucasian features.
Yet what he’s doing isn’t exactly new. Emeritus Howard University classicist Frank Snowden, Jr. points out in his book Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks that the racism found in our modern museums, galleries and the art world at large was not a factor in the ancient world. Many people are unaware that the Ancient Romans and Greeks depicted African faces and bodies in their frescoes, mosaics and sculptures because museums and galleries have largely favored both white bodies and white sculptors in recent history.
Oakland-based sculptor Dana King told Reuters in 2020, “Space is power. When a Black body in bronze is placed publicly, that story is magnified because of the powerful space. It allows children to look up into the faces of these sculptures and say, ‘Who are you? And why are you standing before me?’”
Consider that in America, no Black person was commemorated with a statue until 1974. Less than a quarter of the 700 public sculptures in the “Ethnic-African American” category of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Art Inventories Catalog were made by Black sculptors. That’s 700 in a catalog of over 5,000 registered public sculptures.
Changing the course of history and toppling a historically colonialist art regime is a big task. But these are the preoccupations of Raheem’s observers rather than Raheem’s vision. He is focused on a spiritual goal, a project that fuses his personal passions, the integrity of his faith and the legacy of his family.
“When I turned 16, I was like, ‘Okay, now I’ve lived in America for as long as I lived in Nigeria,’” he says. “I never introduce myself without introducing myself as Nigerian as well as American. It’s a really, really important part of my life.”
The 28-year-old artist took his first trip to Japan in 2012, then enrolled in New York City’s prestigious The Cooper Union in 2013, which had a 3% acceptance rate the year he got in with a full tuition scholarship. Two years later, he returned to Japan to study at Kyoto Seika University, where he carved marble for the first time. After graduating from The Cooper Union in 2017, he pursued his passion for marble carving while working in an Apple store.
He began his Masters in Sculpture with a focus on stone carving in 2019 at Kyoto Seika University and graduated in 2021. That same year, he completed Stone of Sex and entered what he describes as a Faustian pact with “the art world’s patron Satan,” Stefan Simchowitz. Raheem sold Simchowitz Black Face White Stone and Stone of Sex for $100 each.
Raheem explains that Simchowitz is “this really well-known art collector that has this collecting practice of finding emerging artists and providing them with some definition of working capital. And then later on, after five to 10 years of owning their work, he’ll flip it at an auction for significantly more than he bought the work for originally. He has his business model that works for some artists, but when he reached out to me, I had worked on this really powerful marble sculpture and he offered to pay me $100 for it. It was such a theatrical experience that I felt like I just had to comply with the deal.”
But not necessarily in a bad way. Raheem saw it as “an opportunity to live action roleplay, like a fight with the devil.”
On the business of sculpting
In early 2022, Raheem needed Black Face White Stone to be a part of his first solo exhibition.
“He refused to loan it,” the artist says, recalling how Simchowitz also admitted the sculpture was “meaningless” to him. Weeks of emotive emails flew back and forth between Raheem and the collector and his team before finally the sculptures were offered back on the proviso that the return shipping was paid for by Raheem.
“That was my first major win as a young artist,” he concedes. “At that point, as I fully committed to being an artist, I had a conversation with my father, and he basically told me that whether I liked it or not, I had to start thinking of myself as a businessman. Nobody expects their son to become a marble sculptor, so when I sort of decided that this is what I was going to do, it took my parents a bit of convincing, but they really believed in me and then really instilled this pride in business for me. So, I felt like I was dealing with this art collector as a business person.”
This is essential context for Stone With 1000 Faces. Business is fundamental to Raheem’s vision, because a project like this requires capital.
“I intend for it to take a very, very long time,” he says, “because the end product is for the faces to be carved into a single block of marble, and the block of marble will have to be colossal, like nearly the size of a small building. And it’s going to be a sculpture that somebody can walk into and experience the faces within the object. Before I can do any of that, I need capital.”
Behind him as we speak are those first few faces, serene and beautiful in their quietude, including those of his parents and model Paloma Elsesser, whose sculpture was featured on the cover of Paradigm Trilogy. There are no hard and fast rules about what other faces Raheem will include in his project, but volunteers must be willing to “sit for 45 minutes, have their faces covered in green goop and then cast, before the nose is removed.” It’s not for everyone, he makes clear, though he is not fussed by how beautiful a face is despite the messages he’s received from those asking if their face is good enough.
“I began collecting faces after that tumultuous experience with [Simchowitz], initially as a practice of understanding why people collect things at all,” he explains. “I started with my mother, then father and brother, and then I began seeking volunteers.”
There are multiple casts of his mother’s face, and he has used various techniques to color her sculpted likeness in shades of beige, brown and black.
“My mom really, really loves this process of collecting the face,” he says. “In Islam, technically a man is allowed to have up to four wives if he can afford to. And my father is a very devout Muslim, so technically, according to the religion, he can have three other wives. My mom absolutely will not have that. So, I buried all five of those faces—my father and the four of my mom—and I’m working on this composition called My Dad and His Four Wives. My dad and four different versions of my mom’s face.”
Raheem’s faith is central to his art and his life, and in discussing it, it is evident he has really questioned and considered how to be a modern, young Muslim who feels equally at home in Japan, Nigeria and America.
“What do you think about when you hear the term ‘Islamic art’? You think about these geometric patterns, you think about calligraphy, you think about architecture, but you very rarely think about figurative sculpture or figurative painting,” he says. “The reason is because Islam in itself was this massive monotheistic project, and part of that project was destroying idols that people are worshipping.”
This destruction of idols and the revelation of the singular greatness of God is the central premise of Stone with 1000 Faces.
“[In Islam], whoever creates an object that’s supposed to have the qualities of a living thing is going to be interrogated during Judgment Day by God, and they’re going to be asked if they can breathe life into that object. Because they can’t breathe life into it, that reveals the greatness of God as the only existence in this universe who can give life to inanimate objects.”
Praying five times a day has been part of Raheem’s life for as long as he can remember.
“It’s something that really dictates the nature of my day and my work. I can’t sculpt for 12 hours straight because at high noon I have to pray, in the mid-afternoon I have to pray, when the sun goes down I have to pray, and I have to pray before I go to sleep. My day is always punctuated by prayer.”
Raheem posted a photo of Black Face White Stone to Instagram in 2020, captioned “‘With this self-portrait, I declare mastery over white supremacy!”In less than three decades, the artist has established a practice across Japan and America that connects deeply to his Nigerian roots. With Stone with 1000 Faces, he is ensuring that his self-portrait is not a lone face in the room (or the art world). He will be—as all who view his sculpture will be—surrounded and enamored by the beauty and sanctity of Black faces carved into unbreakable marble.