If you go:
What: “Hannibal,” sculptures by Littleton Alston.
When: Opening reception 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday. On display daily (1 p.m. to 4 p.m.) through Feb. 28.
Artist talk at 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8.
Where: Lied Art Gallery at Creighton University, 2500 California Plaza.
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Littleton Alston has a colossal head.
Actually, he has two colossal heads, each on pedestals in the spacious, industrial workshop near 20th and Cuming Streets where Alston, a sculptor and Creighton University art professor, makes his work.
Each head is about five times the size of the average human cranium, but that doesn't convey their scale. These heads wouldn't fit through most doorways.
Alston's life-size sculptures can be found around the Omaha area. The sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. outside of city hall is Alston's, and it is his likeness of baseball great Bob Gibson that greets visitors to Werner Park in Sarpy County.
These busts are different. They are white cast plaster, and their enormity is imposing. When Alston started making his colossal heads a few years ago, it led to a progression of thought.
“I make these large heads,” he said, “and logically at some point, I started thinking about putting things on them.”
Those things are helmets. Six massive, ancient-inspired helmets that until recently hung in a row at the center of Alston's studio by chains latched to a steel girder. They weigh as much as 400 pounds each.
The helmets are the focus of Alston's latest exhibition, “Hannibal,” opening Saturday at Creighton's Lied Art Gallery.
In general, they resemble the protective headgear commonly associated with ancient Roman and Greek soldiers, sheets of bronze hammered into shape. Individually, they have their own distinct characteristics, including a curved trunk jutting from the nose of one helmet and a mane of bisected bowling pins covering the surface of another. Yet another is constructed quiltlike from old tractor tires into intimidating behemoth.
Alston's inspiration for the show is Hannibal Barca, the Carthaginian military commander and legendary tactician who took on the Roman empire during the third and second centuries B.C. In addition to the helmets, the show features a pair of drawings of Surus, supposedly the favorite among Hannibal's battalion of war elephants.
The show is about Hannibal, but to hear Alston describe it, it's also about war, the role of underdogs, the meaning of materials and time itself. It's about things that change, things that never change.
“The idea of the Hannibal exhibition really talks about this whole concept of what helmets are, our ideas about this ongoing thing that human beings do, which is war, and the cycle that goes on as long as we live,” Alston said. “If you look at the world and how we evolve, wars are agents of change.”
Civilizations form, some societies emerge, others disappear, and at what Alston calls “pivot points in history” there stands someone like Hannibal, altering the course of history.
He was the underdog, expected to fail, and he changed how Rome became Rome. “And without that, civilization wouldn't be what it is now,” Alston said.
Alston's first brush with Hannibal came as an African-American kid growing up in Washington, D.C.
“During the '60s' Black Power movement, blacks started to think about the term Afrocentrism, started to think about history differently,” he said. “So you have black Cleopatra. You have films like 'Cleopatra Jones.' There were even re-drawings of Hannibal being distinctly African with ivory tusks behind him. I remember that. He was wearing like a leopard skin. There are posters you can find. There was a sort of an embracing of him within the culture I grew up in D.C. It was almost like, 'Who is this guy?' ”
That guy is poised for a comeback. Movie star Vin Diesel has been trying to get a Hannibal-themed trilogy off the ground for years. Hallie Berry has been tied to a television miniseries about his legacy.
But, as Alston sees it, Hannibal never went away. His is a story told and retold for centuries, taking various forms. He likes to point to a critical battle scene in Peter Jackson's adaptation of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, a battle in which elephantlike creatures are used to charge and trample.
“That's Hannibal,” Alston said, “reinterpreted into modern metaphor. It's fascinating how it comes up again and again as this menacing thing that has to be suppressed.”
It's a permanence Alston sees in the materials used in his sculptures. The helmet made of tractor tires represents a timeless phenomenon: instruments used in peacetime re-purposed for war. Think of scrap drives, he said. Think of items used to cultivate a land refashioned to protect it.
The bowling pins on another helmet can be seen a few ways. There is the troubling image of soldiers as pins knocked down in battle, he said, but also a more literal reading: the sport of the so-called everyman and everywoman, the people who fight the battles when war is waged.
Alston has been in Nebraska for 25 years, but it wasn't until the experience of creating this show — an exhibit inspired by a man who lived more than two millenniums ago, half a world a way, in an era with such things as war elephants — that he says he first felt like a Nebraskan.
“Even though I tried hard to not feel that way,” he said. “I wanted to feel more cosmopolitan. And I realized there's a sensibility and a way of being close to the earth, and it ties into certain things. I could see why in war time, these rural areas and communities are the first to sign up, because it's part of that DNA of understanding what ground is, what Earth is, what is right, what is wrong.”
The realization came to Alston thousands of miles away from home, during an artist residency in the Umbria region of Italy, where he encountered a path traveled by Hannibal's armies thousands of years ago. He returned to Nebraska, to his downtown studio and colossal heads, and set to finishing the helmets for his upcoming exhibition.
“It's logical that I can put the heads and helmets together at some stage,” he said. “But right now I wanted to talk about that outer skin, that protective surface. Being inside and then feeling the outside. Like being in the center of the country and feeling the shores.”