Sculptor Zulu Heru: Burning (Man) to create

As a featured artist at Burning Man, Zulu Heru will showcase his massive, fire-breathing African tribal mask in the Nevada desert later this month.|

Support ‘Farmer the Rigger’

Those wishing to contribute financially to the project, including collectors interested in purchasing the sculpture after Burning Man, can contact Neru at ZuluHeru.art. To contribute to the “I Am a Pioneer” documentary, visit Kickstarter.com. Watch Zulu Heru speaking about these projects, with video of the process, at Zuluheru.art/farmer-the-rigger.

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.

“Since about April 15, I’ve worked on this sculpture every single day, full time, for at least 15 to 18 hours a day,” he said. “I actually live in LA, but I’ve been here full time, working on this from the first sketch to now.”

That’s about 115 days, for a total range of 1,725 to 2,070 hours. “I’ve spent a lot of time here, becoming good friends with Marco,” he added, pointing to a towering sculpture of a naked man, wrapped in plastic. “I’m the model for that project. When you spend a lot of time with another artist, you end up doing a lot of projects with them.”

The two became friends working on another Burning Man installation, which is how Heru ended up in the Petaluma warehouse. Though he’s had help, and will need a small team to erect the sculpture once it arrives in Nevada, Heru said that large projects don’t always require large groups of workers.

“It doesn’t take a lot of people, it takes the right people,” he said. “It’s all about having the right cooks in the kitchen, rather than just having a lot of cooks.”

One thing he could use, as the project nears completion, is additional sponsors.

“The fundraising has gone well, I reached my crowdfunding goal, but I still need more money to see it through and ship it to the desert,” Heru said. “This has turned out to be more expensive than I thought, so I need private donors, I need private collectors, I need someone to potentially buy this sculpture and place it after Burning Man. It doesn’t have a home yet, and I really need help with that.”

Most artists look for buyers after the festival to offset the immense cost and labor associated with the works displayed at Burning Man.

He’s also at work on a short film about the project, to be titled “I Am a Pioneer,” and hopes to raise $5,000 for that through a Kickstarter campaign that has so far raised $2,000.

“Now, I want to make more sculptures,” he said, asked what happens after Burning Man. “I want to make bigger sculptures. I want to make more diverse sculptures. I want to pioneer this lane for others who want to do this kind of work. For me – and for those who will be inspired by this sculpture – this is just the beginning.”

Support ‘Farmer the Rigger’

Those wishing to contribute financially to the project, including collectors interested in purchasing the sculpture after Burning Man, can contact Neru at ZuluHeru.art. To contribute to the “I Am a Pioneer” documentary, visit Kickstarter.com. Watch Zulu Heru speaking about these projects, with video of the process, at Zuluheru.art/farmer-the-rigger.

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