The cover of the April 1958 issue of EBONY featured a photograph of a teenager studying art at the American Academy in Rome—the first and last time that a visual artist was ever on the cover. That teenager was none other than Barbara Chase-Riboud, whose stunning Malcolm X steles are the focus of a major exhibition now featured at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through January 20, 2014. (Afterwards, the show travels to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive from February 12 to April 27, 2014.)
In the tradition of 19th-century romantics, Chase-Riboud is a world-class sculptor, poet, and the acclaimed author of powerful novels that explore the psychological and metaphysical essence of African and feminine enslavement, including the international best seller, Sally Hemings. Like her contradictory and complex bronze steles, Chase-Riboud’s art represents the accumulation of vast issues and continents, secrets and discovery, opposites and revisions, lost and found civilizations.
EBONY: You began this stele in 1969, after the year that followed various eruptions in the Civil Rights Movement, most notably the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Malcolm X, however, died in 1965. Why did you decide to name the collection for him, and what made you wait to create it?
Barbara Chase-Riboud: I was the first American to be invited to visit the People’s Republic of China in 1965, two years before Kissinger and four years before Nixon. These multicultural influences informed the next decade of my work, which included other series as well as the Malcolms. The Malcolm steles, with their complexity and overlapping cultures and influences, their inter-ethnicity and profound historiology, led me to a new level of cultural integration. With the assassination of the famed civil rights hero, the steles dedicated to him became iconic and rare memorializations.
My Malcolm steles, begun in the mid-1960s, have been likened to contemporary interpretations of the steles through which we have paid homage to historic figures from the beginning of recorded history, in such geographically far-flung places as Greece, Scotland, China, Ethiopia, India, and South America. The steles combine cast bronze from wax manipulated into folds and crevices with skirts of knotted and braided silk and wool fiber, which falls to the floor, hiding the support underneath.
The first four works were developed as a result of my search for an expression of pure abstraction, beyond what I had achieved with my more surrealistic, base-bound objects. Moreover they were informed by my decade or more of travels throughout the world—Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Russia, China and Eastern Europe.
EBONY: Were you living abroad when you began this collection?
BCR: Yes. I had completed my master’s at the Yale School of Architecture and Design and was living in London. I went to Paris for the weekend, met my first husband, and never came back.
EBONY: As a sculptor, what do you try to communicate through your art? Does it differ from the things you try to communicate in your writing?
BCR: The two disciplines are very different. For many years, I kept them strictly separate. As the 16th-century sculptor Pomponius Gauricus said, “Writers operate through words, sculptors through deeds.” I’ve never written a word about Malcolm and I’ve never made a sculpture of Sally Hemings.
EBONY: Your work mixes “classicism” of Europe with aesthetics of the African continent. Why do you choose to integrate these two very different approaches to art?
BCR: I believe in métissage, the French word for cultural, intellectual and racial mixing or integration. The more mixed, the more varied, the more sublimated the DNA, the more beautiful. Brazilians with their tri-racial heritage are the most beautiful people in the world.
EBONY: Many of your literary works focus on the cultural iconoclasts of Black womanhood, such as Sally Hemings, Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman. Why do you choose to explore the stories of these women in your writing, particularly as historical fiction?
BCR: I am an accidental historian, but it’s only in historical fiction that one can explore the invisibles of history and the unwritten underside of the flow of time and power. I’m interested not in the winners who write history, but in the losers, the oppressed who submit to history and survive. It’s only speculatory exploration, not biography as such that one can interpret the lives of these “invisibles” who have been excised from mainstream history because of race, gender, war or politics.
EBONY: Your life as an expatriate is fascinating. What made you leave for France initially, and what has kept you there? Do you see yourself ever returning to the states full-time?
BCR: I never use the word expatriate and don’t answer to its connotations of love it or leave it. Many artists who have international reputations don’t live in the country they were born in, but they’re never referred to as expatriates. In 2013 it’s a silly word, as the world has shrunk to the iPhone and finally to universality. When we now know that galaxies number in the billions, how can one refer to expatriatism? It’s an obsolete word, like colonialism. I prefer “citizen of the world.”
EBONY: In the United States, we are very wedded to an idea of a universal “Black experience.” Based on your time abroad, would you say that there is universality? In your mind, what differs/separates the communities of Black America from those of France?
BCR: Well, first of all, about 50 years. The autre mers, as they’re called in France, or the ex- colonials are just now coming to grips with their identity as Frenchmen and subsequent civil rights. They must first catch up on issues of national identity and racial history.
EBONY: Are you currently working on new literary or sculpture projects?
BCR: Besides a retrospective exhibition in China, my latest project is movie deal with actor Sam Jackson to bring my books Sally Hemings and The President’s Daughter to the screen as one epic. I also plan on publishing my book of collected poems, Every Time a Knot Is Undone a God Is Released, and 300 of the 600 letters I wrote to my mother from Europe between 1957 (when she first put me on the boat to France) and 1991, which she saved and I found after her death. I read them for the first time in Paris on the night Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. It was quite an emotional experience, discovering that little girl on the cover of EBONY.