Have you been making art during the pandemic? I know some of the works in your exhibition at The Shed are new commissions but wasn’t sure if they were finished before March …
Yes, I was working on The Shed exhibition during the pandemic and refused to stop. I have two assistants who help me a lot. They share the labor of making the paintings by punching dots and ovals, sewing, gessoing, and so on. A few paintings weren’t finished before March 2020. The film/video Rope/Fire/Water was finished in 2019 and updated it in 2020 as a result of George Floyd’s death as well as the passing of Congressman John Lewis, to whom I dedicated the film.
Could you talk about the process of making Rope/Fire/Water? It sounds like it had a long gestation period. What did it feel like to return to video after twenty-five years?
Rope/Fire/Water grew from the small seed of an idea I had when I was a child of about eleven or twelve years old. (I’m not sure how old I was, but I was very young.) It was a childhood memory of seeing a photograph of a lynching in Life magazine. I was visiting a friend, Denise Thompson, in Philadelphia. Her mother was cooking meat. I opened Life and saw a gruesome photo of a partially dismembered African American man lying on his back on what may have been a log. He was burning from the inside out. White men were smiling as their picture was taken around the smoldering, charred body. It was as if they were at a picnic. The smell of meat being cooked for dinner and the sight of the brutalized burning body made me ill and I couldn’t eat meat for a year. The smell of the cooking fused with the horrific image. I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do. This was during Jim Crow and segregation.
A family friend’s father had been lynched for being a prosperous Black businessman. Her eyes still held the gaze of terror she experienced when she lost her father to racist murderers.
I feel the project, or painting, intuitively selects the medium I will work in. I chose to work in film for Rope/Fire/Water. In the 1970s I submitted a proposal about what I saw in Life to a women’s cooperative, A.I.R. Gallery. It was a performance piece. They turned it down. I was the only nonwhite member. The final format, thanks to The Shed, is a film. I feel it’s the best way to express the ideas, and I didn’t want the piece to be seen only by those who could attend a performance. It’s also longer now and filled more with historical facts, which I couldn’t easily do as a performance piece. Film/video has legs and increases the size of the audience who can see it. As a performance it would have been very limited.
You were a founding member of A.I.R., and so I’m wondering how the other members of the group could reject your work? How did that happen?
They had no empathy for issues of race. One of the founding members has been saying for years that she didn’t recognize me as Black. Her comment got back to me.
When you say the film has “legs,” it sounds like you might want it to travel outside of the art world, beyond The Shed. Do you have any ambitions for that?
My 1980 video Free, White and 21 has legs. I’m not sure what to do with Rope/Fire/Water. Part of my worry has to do with safety issues, seeing how volatile this election and the past four years have been. I may want to restrict it to the show at The Shed. I need to think about it.
How long had you been accumulating the data related to lynchings and racist attacks in the United States that you recount in the video? How did you choose what to include?
I have some of the images in my memory of photos I have seen over the years. One of my assistants helped me to locate images. I had also written different accounts of lynching for the appendix of a book published by Midmarch Arts Press in 1997. The book was about an African American woman artist who used negative racial stereotypes of African Americans in a derisive way as well as mocking the civil rights movement. I had noticed that, at the time, African American artists who used images of negative stereotypes of African Americans were welcomed into the white art world. Work critical of negative stereotypes would be rejected. I was also aware of a work, Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock, 1986, by African American artist Pat Ward Williams. It shows the image of a lynched African American man with written text. I decided to include the same image of the lynched man in the film.
Your new painting Four Little Girls refers not only to a specific episode of racist violence—to the murder of Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Rosamond Robertson at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in September 1963—but also to the long history of Black churches being burned. While viewing the show, I was reminded of something Adrian Piper said in our interview for this publication regarding that long history: “Americans need their racism.” What are your thoughts on that?
I agree with Adrian Piper. I have noticed that racial violence flares up in a poor economy. I would like to refer you to the website of a First Nation educator, Asiba Tupahache of the Matinecoc Nation on Long Island. Her web publication is Spirit of January. She deals with issues of oppression. My clearest understanding of oppression and racism came from reading her publications. She’s working on a book that I feel everyone should read; she deals with stereotypes and the depth and breadth of racist behavior and beliefs and their sources.
Thank you for that. What would you say to someone who claims they are “colorblind,” that they are unprejudiced, impartial, and therefore nonracist?
I don’t believe that one can be colorblind. One who has privileges is often unaware of the suffering of others. Part of privilege is looking down on someone in order to pull oneself above them. It’s the privilege of finding employment, rather than being turned away. It means the privilege of property and wealth and passing that along to your family members. It is the accumulation of stable wealth. Racism blocks many access routes to accumulated wealth. That means your workplace may be free of people of color who do not have these privileges, and who would be turned away when you would be hired. It means not wanting anyone who looks different moving into your neighborhood. I’m always careful when white people use the words color blind, impartial, and nonracist.
Are the abstract paintings on view in the show political to you or do they elude politics? To me, they felt political; I’m thinking about the new “Plankton Lace” series and how it relates to climate change.
Yes, I would say “Plankton Lace” is more political. According to a friend of mine who is a docent at the Museum of Natural History, plankton provides 50 percent of the planet’s oxygen and without plankton the oceans would die. Sea life lives on it. Human activity, like the runoff of fertilizer in the ocean, creates toxic bloom. Florida, for example, has many problems with this bloom, or toxic plankton. Climate change is making it worse.
A beautiful side of plankton is bioluminescence. At night along the shore and in the waves, it creates a luminous hue of blue as the waves roll in. If you google “plankton bioluminescence” you will see very beautiful images of luminous plankton. Much of the sea life in the ocean lives on plankton, including whales.
I’m curious to hear more about your use of perfume in your paintings, beginning in the 1960s.
Putting on perfume on the paintings was just play. However, I wondered recently if it was a way to reverse the negative experience that I had of my friend’s mother cooking meat and of seeing the gruesome image of a lynched man and the smell of burning flesh.
As one of the Museum of Modern Art’s first Black curators and as a founding member of A.I.R. Gallery in the 1970s, could you speak to the most important differences between US art institutions then and now? Are things changing for the better at all?
Some museums are changing for the better. The curators at the Museum of Modern Art have totally changed the collection on view to the public recently by integrating men and women of color … for example, Mel Edwards, an African American sculptor, has a number of sculptures in the same gallery as Jackie Winsor, a white woman artist. When I first came to New York, the art world was white and male, and the only women artists showing were usually were the child, the spouse, or the girlfriend of a white male artist.
I’ve admired your role as an activist for many years. What makes for effective activism, in your experience? Was there an event or protest that stands out to you as particularly successful?
I feel that the protests that grew as a result of the killing of George Floyd were a total surprise as they were diverse and insistent. Something has fundamentally changed. First Nation people came out to protest Floyd’s death, but it wasn’t covered in the media. A First Nation friend sent me a video of the protest.
Sometimes I protest anonymously. Sometimes I use my name. Years ago, in the 1970s, I would protest the art world by sending letters in the mail about racism to institutions and individuals that were signed “The Black Hornet.” I think activism is different for everyone. My writings reach more people. Although I’m not a filmmaker, I also feel that film and video formats have legs and reach more people than my paintings. An exhibition of paintings has time and place limitations.
I was stunned and thrilled to see my statistical report from 1987—“Statistics, Testimony, and Supporting Documentation,” about racism in the art world—resurrected for the 2017 exhibition catalogue for “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85” at the Brooklyn Museum. I thought it was lost forever.
Do you think the great waves of protests worldwide against police brutality and racism will cause changes in global culture, and if so, how?
I feel they will create changes in various cultures around the world. Some people seem to be more mindful about the disparities of privilege within their own segments of society. There are also some cultures that are authoritarian that don’t tolerate any form of dissent. Those cultures will be hard to change.
Do you think they will cause changes in the art world, and if so, how?
There will be gradual changes in the art world, but the arts are often the last to change. I recently met with a person who ran the diversity departments in a number of universities. She said that the art departments were the most resistant to change.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a new plankton painting. In total, I’m working on three new paintings, all abstract.
On what can one depend on in this time of deluge? What kind of spiritual or nonspiritual armor helps?
I try to think about things rationally through critical thinking. For me, spirituality is magical thinking. Spiritual experiences can be good or bad, but I prefer science and facts over magical thinking. I just try to keep busy doing my own work and try to keep day pages and artists’ diaries. I can recommend a book by Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way. It was originally written to help writers with writers’ block. It turns out that it also helps visual artists. You can read it if you are or aren’t spiritual, although she has a positive spiritual aspect. When I read the book, I was flooded with ideas. It’s a very positive publication.