Helen Altman’s Spice Skulls are a pungent take on life/death themes. Each skull is made from a different spice or seed, and the juxtaposition of materials commonly used for cooking and eating (and thus belonging to the realm of vitality) shaped into expressions of death, forces a new take on both items.
When taking a deeper reading of the collection, cannibalism, since we eat that which the skulls are made of, resonates through the piece and hints at the question of whether we are eating ourselves and/or others; are we devouring land at the expense of ourselves? Are we spoiled by fancy, flavorful food when so many are starving? Is this an allusion to the consequences of the Spice Trade and consequential explorations? Or is it simply just an illustration of how people, at death, return to their natural state – of being one with the earth? Seeds for the next generation’s crops?
To conclude any or all of the above to be the sincere aim of the artist would be a mistake – we can only accept that Altman likes to “create objects that are simultaneously convincing and yet blatantly absurd in their obvious artificiality.” It could very well be that Altman just wanted to put that aging spice collection to good use, and in what more endearing way than in the human face.