Sculptor Zulu Heru: Burning (Man) to create
Inside the enormous, sculpture-filled warehouse of celebrated artist Marco Cochrane, Los Angeles sculptor Zulu Heru has been hard at work for months.
His project, an imposingly large, fire-spurting mask made of scrap metal – created specifically for this year’s Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert – is nearing completion, though the numerous pieces, each weighing hundreds or thousands of pounds, have yet to be fully assembled. Once done, the striking sculpture, which Heru has named “Farmer the Rigger,” will demonstrate to the world exactly what its up-and-coming maker is capable of.
“This is my coming out to the world,” said Heru. “I spent nine years in the Army, basically putting the world first, serving my country. Now is my turn to put my art first. This is how I want to express myself.”
The artist and welder is originally from Richmond, Virginia. While in the military, he served as a tank commander and worked with the Army Corps of Engineers. After leaving the service, he went on to earn a degree in sculpture from Howard University in Washington D.C.
“This sculpture, ‘Farmer the Rigger,’ is basically a portrait of my career,” said Heru. “Initially, my first job was a farmer. I worked at an urban farm in Richmond, Virginia, and we brought fresh produce into food deserts in the inner city. In that, I found the love of labor. I learned a work ethic that sparked my interest in learning other vocational skills.”
While still enlisted, he studied architecture and became a heavy equipment operator and a certified crane operator, through which he learned the art of rigging. A rigger – a word derived from early nautical terminology referring to the rigging of sales on a ship – is a skilled tradesperson specializing in the use of certain large mechanical devices, including an array of fixed and mobile cranes to lift and move heavy objects.
It’s a skill he puts to good use in assembling massive sculptures. Like many of his works, “Farmer the Rigger” is a large-scale African tribal mask, made of metal, reclaimed objects, re-purposed mechanical parts and stained glass. It will eventually be fitted with propane tanks designed to shoot jets of fire into the desert sky. Intentionally interactive, the massive jaw – with tractor-like teeth borrowed from a decommissioned escalator – will move up and down, to be opened and closed by festival attendees.
Once assembled, the mask will be supported on arched “legs” made of old ships’ anchor chains, 1,000 pounds per 13-foot section, 80 pounds per link. Each link will be anchored into large metal fists covered in sheet metal skin. Two stained glass rectangles, in a bulletproof shell, make up the eyes on the mask’s face. The sculpture, once installed on the Playa, will be oriented so that the eyes are illuminated by the setting sun.
“This piece is a compilation of the 10,000 hours I’ve spent learning this vocation, all of those hours birthed into a single physical object,” Heru said.
That number is a pointed reference to the general notion that it takes at least 10,000 hours of work to achieve an expert level of knowledge and skill in a particular art form or practice.
Said Heru, “This piece here is all of my skills meshed into one sculpture.”
The upcoming festival will mark Heru’s third contribution at Burning Man, and his first time as the lead artist of a major project. Last year, he was part of the massive build team assembling “Black Asé: Black Burner Project,” working as an engineer with lead artist Erin Douglas. This year, the stakes are exponentially higher.
“This time I’m in the driver’s seat,” he said. Most artists have to entirely fund their efforts at Burning Man, but as a featured artist in 2023, Heru recieved a grant from the festival, although it didn’t cover the total project cost. “This time it’s more difficult because I’m in the front, I’m the CEO, I’m the artist. It’s my vision. I’m wearing a lot of hats, and not just building a sculpture.”
Currently in pieces, some of which are still under construction, “Farmer the Rigger” will be loaded onto a flatbed truck on Aug. 15 and transported to Burning Man in advance of its opening on Aug. 27. The world-famous event runs through Sept. 4.
When put together, Heru’s 17-foot-wide, 9,000-pound sculpture will rise to approximately 23 feet, and will be surrounded by smaller art pieces, including sculpted human figures and painted metal drums, some of which will also shoot fire from attached propane tanks.
Asked to estimate the number of hours he’s spent on this specific project, Heru stands still to do the math in his head.