|The Mona Lisa Interview: With Faith Ringgold|
by Michele Wallace
Order this illustrated interview on CD rom for $25 from the Requests page.
Any attempt to describe the contemporary scene among Afro-American artists is doomed from the outset in that there is so much variety and productivity, at the same time that there is so little commensurate recognition in the market place and in critical circles. Afro-American artists, such as Romare Bearden, Richard Mayhew, Vincent Smith, Norman Lewis, Archibald Motley, Rose Piper, Louis Mailou Jones, Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglass, Charles White and Jacob Lawrence have been highly productive throughout this century. Since the 60s, there has been an even greater proliferation of black artists working in a variety of media. In her history of African American Artists, Sharon Patton does an excellent job of documenting the range of artists earlier in the century as well as those still working today. 1
The question for me, however, is how one can get beyond the inventory stage to the identification of some paradigmatic qualities in Afro-American artists. Is there such a thing as Afro-American art? Probably not. It would be too much of a coincidence that the phenotype of racial blackness would always, or even often coincide with a certain series of aesthetic moves and gestures. As for ethnicity and culture, the debate as to whether Afro-American artists have made some outstanding contribution to the field stemming from their distinct cultural and ethnic legacy has never been adequately settled. One of the reasons this question continues to be so hard to respond to is because I believe that African American visual artists have perhaps their own culture of sorts, a culture in which they remain marginal to the mainstreams of black culture but nevertheless solidly within a parrellel or off-shoot of black traditions. That tradition I would designate as a kind of black bohemia, frequently situated in close proximity to the black community, or even more often in association with other kinds of black artists and intellectuals, musicians, academics, crafts people of one kind of another, depending upon whether the central community is highly educated or not. Everywhere you look thoroughly in African American life, you will find visual artists of some sort--people who work in wood or stone, or who paint, or perhaps do wonderful gardens and cook wonderful meals. They don't necessarily stand out or seek glory, and there aren't vast numbers of them for it isn't usually a profitable undertaking which engages them. They must be sought but they are there.
Even as we need to put aside the notion of an intrinsically black art that we can clearly differentiate from the art of other ethnicities and races, we can still acknowledge the fact that people who happen to be Afro-Americans who are also artists have to contend with more than their fair share of anonymity and neglect in the art world. Afro-Americans, with few exceptions, do not recognize visual art as an important component in their lives and their budgets. Moreover, the international field of art collectors and museums do not feel particularly compelled to collect black artists, apart from a few exceptions.
With good reason, a short list of names are better known and more widely collected than others--Jean Michel Basquiat, Martin Puryear, David Hammons, Carrie Mae Weems, Lyle Ashton Harris, Robert Colescott, and Kara Walker. We hear these names often in the public domain. Whether their financial success is commensurate with their notoriety I do not know. There is the much longer list of noteworthy black artists who are less widely known at the moment: Barbara Chase Riboud, Helen Ramsaran, Betty Blayton, Howardina Pindell, Richard Mayhew, Ernest Chrichlow, David Driskell, Hale Woodruff, Arthur Coppedge, William T. Williams, Beverly McIver, Renee Stout and so on. One thing is for sure. The list of collectors known for the acquisition of Afro-American artists is much shorter. The ones I know are Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Bill and Camille Cosby, George Wein, Peter and Eileen Norton, and Judith Leiber.
In many ways, the art world seems to be all about money because nothing can happen in the art world without money. People who have money control values and flows, and have to be made to understand the terms upon which opinions in art evolve and develop, at least sufficiently to assure them that the investment of their wealth in such emphemeral activities as creative artists may pursue will not result in significant loss and may, indeed, lead to substantial financial profit. Art is perhaps one of the riskiest investments but it is also one of the most lucrative in both long and short run.
Nonetheless, even though from one perspective it may seem as though money is all and everything in the art world--because the values of works of art are so identified with their associations with the material wealth of its owners and the institutions (museums) that house them--the fact is that art from the standpoint of production and inspiration has little to do with, and even less in common with the pursuit of wealth. People who are determined to be rich, don't usually become artists. And people who are determined to make art, don't usually become rich. In the end, even if they do amass some wealth, it is comparatively little in relation to the great fortunes that subsequent generations may amass off the sale and resale of works of art. Eventually, the work of art becomes priceless, which simply means that it can no longer afford to be exchanged. It's like a supernova--too hot to function as a unit of exchange in our solar system.
Although the story of Vincent Van Gogh is perhaps a kind of hunger-artist fantasy of the dominant culture, there is a sense in which the artist exists in tension with his or her own ability to produce valuable product. This may, indeed, be why the maverick impulse in the art world has tended since the 60s to move away from the production of material objects, such as paintings and sculpture, and more in the direction of the conceptual event--installations and found objects that have no instrinsic value but whose value resides in their arrangement and temporality. But the thing that must be understood by those who worry over the outrageous economic values of the work of art is that the spiritual and the emphemeral, the energy of creativity is always the most important component of a work of art. It is why artists create and it is why those of us who cannot afford to own art visit it in museums, write about it and study it.
What this book is all about is acknowledging the extraordinary contribution Afro-American culture has made to American modernisms via a series of circumstances peculiar to the socio-economic and cultural situation of Afro-Americans in the African diaspora. One can get some idea of the complexity of such a formulation through reading Ira Berlin's Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Harvard UP, 1998). Some of the work on the archaeology of plantation slavery, such as Laurie A. Wilkie's Creating Freedom: Material Culture and African American Identity at Oakley Plantation, Louisiana, 1840-1950 (LSU 2000), John Michael Vlach's Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Univ. of NC Press, 1993) and the impressive exhibition catalogue Before Freedom: African-American Life in the Antebellum South (Richmond and Charlottesville, NC: The Museum of the Confederacy and the Univ of Virginia, 1991) are bringing historical interpretation of the slave community together with an analysis of material culture in the plantation environment in both the antebellum and postbellum period. As Manthia Diawara points out, the harsh conditions of segregation and apartheid that marked Afro-American cultural development may have given rise to an extraordinary modernist initiative and inventiveness. The subsequent accomplishments are recognized and acknowledged in the fields of music, dance, fashion, religion, oral traditions, cuisine, folk culture, humor, performance but generally not in material and visual culture. This essay is all about adding material and visual culture to the list of Afro-American contributions to Euro-American modernism.
A volume would be required to document the range of such accomplishments in detail, especially since WWII. Instead, I am choosing to focus upon the work of Faith Ringgold, an exemplary Afro-American artist who is also my mother, and from time to time draw upon the works of other African American artists who have either influenced her or made similar, comparable or subsequent aesthetic and formal contributions to her own. By so doing, I hope to suggest a process that might be used to construct an analysis of Afro-American modernisms in relationship in turn to both European Modernism and Afro-American culture. The point would be to finally recognize how crucial this knowledge could be to our transition from our present condition, in which we are haunted in so many ways by the vestiges of psychological slavery, to a condition of spiritual freedom and full psychic citizenship. The ability to reinvent oneself, to reinvent the space around you to reflect your status in the world, to project images of a new world and new generations is the thing we continue to lack. But it isn't because the material isn't available. It is right at hand. All we need do is to exploit a heritage that already exists.
(Figure 112--Alfred H. Barr, "The Development of Abstract Art," 1936)
In 1936, Alfred H. Barr Junior prepared a chart for the catalogue of his exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art at the Museum of Modern Art. The chart was entitled "The Development of Abstract Art," and it shows the flow of various world traditions of art into the development of an international Modernism, or "abstract art." Right in the middle of it is a little box called "Negro Sculpture" which is connected by a single arrow to "Cubism." The only two other non-European influences that are mentioned are "Japanese Prints," and "Near Eastern Art," both of which have two arrows. Japanese Prints have arrows to "Synthesism," with which Gauguin's name is associated, and Fauvism. Near Eastern Art has arrows to "Expressionism" and Fauvism. With these three terms: Negro Sculpture, Japanese Prints and Near Eastern Art, influences from beyond Europe are disposed of.
Of course, this is no more than wishful thinking and selective amnesia from which even the Museum of Modern Art had somewhat recovered by 1984 and "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern organized by the curator William Rubin.2 The category of "Negro Sculpture" has graduated to "The Arrival of Tribal Objects in the West" with chapters devoted to "From North America," "From Oceania," and "From Africa." But what has not changed is the special status of non-white artists in Europe and the U.S., who are equally invisible and inconsequential in both formulations. Through the dichotomizing of the so-called "primitive world," (with which artists of color are associated by ethnic origin) and European modernism, which is considered to be organically the province of racially white, and usually male, artists, a kind of cultural shell game results in the disappearance of artists of color, regardless of the nature or quality of their work. The dominant paradigm renders their existence and their work inconceivable and irrelevant. Besides the point, you might say. In the rare cases in which such superlative Diasporic Modernists such as Wilfredo Lam, Martin Puryear and Jean Michel Basquiat appear to challenge the dominant paradigm, they are automatically declared the exceptions which prove the rule: black contribution to visual modernism don't matter. Various African American artists have dealt with this bumpy terrain differently.
Faith Ringgold lays out tantalizing features of her program in her series of paintings called the French Collection, which narrates the highpoints of the life of a fictional character named Willia Marie, based upon an amalgamation of the artist and her mother Willi Posey, the fashion designer, as a young girl, as well as dashes of Josephine Baker and other courageous and flamboyant young women of color of the early twentieth century. Willa Marie, whose ambition is to be an important artist, goes from "dancing at the Louvre" with her friend and her children, relieved that her own children are in the U.S. being raised by her sister, to throwing her bridal bouquet into the Seine in a fit of ambivalence over her marriage to a rich French man, to painting Faith's friends and sponsors (including myself) at Giverny, to a quilting bee in a sunflower field with the likes of Ella Baker and Sojourner Truth.
Figure 113--Faith Ringgold, "Dancing at the Louvre."
Figure 114--Faith Ringgold, "Wedding on the Seine"
Figure 115--Faith Ringgold, "Picnic at Giverny"
Figure 116--Faith Ringgold, "Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles"
In her endeavor to be taken seriously on the art scene in Paris, she poses nude for both Henri Matisse and Picasso.
Figure 117--"Matisse's Model"
Figure 118--"Picasso's Studio"
While posing for Picasso, she communes with the spirits of his African masks and with the women in "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon." Both insist that she has as much right to be an artist as does Picasso because she is a woman, because she is black. She hob nobs with James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Ernest Hemingway at the home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
Figure 119--"Dinner at Gertrude Stein's"
Figure 120--"Cafe des Artistes"
At a meeting at Cafe des Artistes, which includes an array of important black artists of the twentieth century, she joins other women in issuing "the Colored Woman's Manifesto of Art and Politics." The male artists who provide her audience are William H. Johnson, Arcihbald Motley, Sargent Johnson, Romare Bearden, Aaron Douglass, Henry O. Tanner, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Ed Clark, Raymond Saunders, Jacob Lawrence, Toulouse-Lautrec and Maurice Utrillo. They are dismissive but she shouts them down with the help of her female comrades: Elizabeth Catlett, Meta Warwick Fuller, Edmonia Lewis, Faith Ringgold and Lois Mailou Jones. She says:
I am an international colored woman. My African ancestry dates back to the beginnings of human origins, 9 million years ago in Ethiopia. The art and culture of Africa has been stolen by western Europeans and my people have been colonized, enslaved and forgotten. What is very old has become new. And what was black has become white. "We Wear the Mask" but it has a new use as cubist art. . . . Modern art is not yours, or mine. It is ours.
Ringgold's "American Collection," which immediately follows the "French Collection," continues the story of Willia Marie with a particular focus on her daugher Marlena, who is also an artist.
Figure 121--"We Came to America"
The first work in the series, "We Came to America," illustrates a stunning dream image in the harbor of New York. A slaveship, echoing the ship in Turner's "Slave ship," is burning in the background while the naked slaves are ecstatic and dispersed walking on water. In the middle is a black statue of liberty holding a baby with one hand and a torch to light the way of the slaves in the other. This image stems in part from the latest research on the origins of the statue of liberty. Apparently it was originally intended by the French to be black and to memorialize the emancipation of the slaves. But the declining fortunes of the former slaves in the U.S. after the failure of Reconstruction and the reconciliation of the North and the South, militated against this approach and the decision was made to render a more classical and anonymous image with greater reference to the first American revolution, not the second--the Civil War.
One of the most stunning works of the American Collection is the image devoted to Bessie Smith.
Figure 122--"Bessie's Blues"
Influenced by the photographic repetitions of Andy Warhol, Ringgold designed an iconic representation of Bessie Smith, and repeats in it in a grid.
Figure 123-- "The Two Jemimas"
The "Two Jemimas," which harks back to her first story quilt, "Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima?" in 1983, crosses Aunt Jemima with De Koonings "Two Women in the Country" to explore and explode the notion of female ugliness.
Figure 124--Willem de Kooning, "Two Women in the Country"
Figure 125-- "Listen to the Trees"
Figure 126--"Picnic on the Grass"
"Listen to the Trees" and "Picnic on the Grass" both interrogate the problematics of solitude for the black female artist, the necessity for autonomy, integrity and self-esteem in order to accomplish one's work. An interview with the artist Faith Ringgold follows, further exploring the minutiae of the French Collection and the American Collection.
M: I just wanted to ask you some very specific details with both of us looking at the works of the French Collection and the American Collection. As you see, we are now both looking at "Dancing at the Louvre." I have the book open before us. I wanted to ask you some questions about this image. If we look at it as a painting, Willia Marie is in the Louvre with her friend who is there with her three children. They are in the room with the Mona Lisa and two other paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, and people who have written about it, including myself, have pointed out the subjects of the paintings in the background and of the people you can see in the foreground are both mothers and daughters. Now you have said elsewhere that the model for Willia Marie is you, the model for the friend is my sister Barbara, and the model for the three children are Barbara's three children.--Martha, Teddy and Faith.
F: Well, I don't know that the model for Willia Marie is me. I thought that the model for Willia Marie was actually my mother, whose name is Willi.
M: So as time goes on, you think that the model for Willia Marie is Momma Jones.
F: I never thought it was me.
M: Because there is a sense in which you fit into the scenario as well.
F: Well, yeah, because I admired her.
M: As you were saying. The model for Willa Marie is Momma Jones. This scenario raises memories, at least for me, of 1961 when we went to Paris with Momma Jones and you and me and Barbara were there. Barbara and I were children, and therefore did not act perhaps completely appropriately in the museum and wanted to go outside and get ice cream and so forth. I don't know that we were exactly dancing in the museum but we were running around . . .
F: I think that's where I got the idea of dancing because you were breaking the rules and acting outside of the French culture in the Louvre. People were following us . . .
M: They were . . .
M: Why were they following us?
F: Because I was running behind you.
M: We were running?
F: We were running through the Louvre because we couldn't find the "Mona Lisa." We were looking for the "Mona Lisa." We couldn't find it. They really wanted you to go all over the museum before you found it. Whereas today it is very easy to find it because the museum is all split up, its centralized, it's just really different. But in those days it wasn't and you all wanted to be outside getting glace.
M: And the ice cream was right outside.
F: And the ice cream people were right outside. You just couldn't figure why you couldn't just go do that. As I would move through the museum, I would see other paintings that I wanted to talk to you all about
M: So you were talking to us about other paintings.
F: Uh-huh. So these French people were . . .
F: Blown away. You know, here's these two little black girls and their mother and the mother is giving them some sort of lecture about the paintings in the museum and the little children are not at all interested. I mean you were very young, what eight and nine, and all this is going on, and she's making them go through--we don't know what she is looking for--so they just followed us.
M: Because I guess they couldn't understand what you were saying.
F: They didn't.
M: So how much of a crowd did we have behind us?
F: We had a nice little crowd.
M: We always had a crowd in Europe.
F: We had a nice little crowd. People followed us everywhere we went. We're talking 1961, and if you know what is going on in America at the time you realize that black people were very much the central focus of what was happening in the world, and there were all these newspaper headlines of black people in Birmingham, and Martin Luther King, and the dogs and the hoses. All of this stuff. And they just sort of looked at us like, how did you get here?
M: How did you get through the dogs?
F: How did you get past the dogs and the fire hoses and all of it? And then you are over here looking at art of all things.
M: Leonardo da Vinci, of all things!
F: Uh-huh. And it just doesn't fit. So I was determined that you two were going to see this "Mona Lisa."
M: So we had become another sight in the museum.
F: I didn't have the idea, like somebody said to me, because you may never get there again. I never thought that. Not for one second.
M: Why were you particularly determined that we should see the "Mona Lisa?" As I recall, this was before the world tour.
F: Just before.
M: I don't remember anything about why it was such a great painting.
F: Because it has lived for 400 years. Everybody loves it. I mean it is a wonderful, wonderful painting.
M: So it was really famous even then. Even though they didn't have it centrally located.
F: They didn't know how to do that then. Museums were not that modern then.
M: Museums were not places where a lot of people went?
F: Well, they didn't have tours like they do today.
M: They didn't?
F: They had tours. But not like now.
M: So people came to see what we were doing?
F: Well, they were the people who were just at the museum. And then they saw this, what we were doing and it looked interesting so they just ran behind us, and I didn't pay them any mind because I had caught on that we were going to be interesting to look at.
M: Wherever we went.
F: Uh-huh. They didn't seem to be hostile so.
M: Did the staring start on the boat?3
F: I don't think so. When we started going around. Then it started. But it wasn't as bad in France as it was in Italy.
M: To me I experienced the trip as very enjoyable because of this staring. I mean it was like a constant party. People were buying us things and feeding us.
F: But it wasn't an unpleasant staring. They had smiles on their faces, and when they find out you want glace, then that's exactly what they are going to get you. And then they are going to appear with the ice cream because they don't speak the language, and then the kids are going to look at you like can we have it, and all the crowd is going to do this (nodding head), and that's it.
M: And of course, there were no punishments or unpleasant moments because everybody was looking at us.
F: There was nothing to punish about. First of all, you all were well behaved children. You just were making it a point that you wanted glace.
M: How did we make that point?
F: You said, I want glace. I want to go outside with the man.
M: I want ice cream and I don't want to look at these pictures.
F: We don't have to see that today.
M: We could see it tomorrow, because every day that we were in Europe, we went to a museum.
F: The code when you're traveling is never put off till tomorrow something you can do today.
M: That's your code Faith. We were children on our first trip to Europe. We didn't have a code.
F: You don't want one day to pass without doing something memorable. As it turned out, you know what happened. We were going to come back to Paris but we couldn't because Uncle Andrew died. 4
M: So was Momma Jones with us in the Louvre?
F: She was but she was acting like she wasn't with us.
M: Oh, she was embarrassed.
F: She was embarrassed.
M: Was she embarrassed a lot by the way we behaved?
F: No, but she was very embarrassed by the Louvre.
F: Because you were being followed.
M: Well, was it a good or a bad thing in her view that we were being followed?
F: It was not a good thing.
M: Why was it not a good thing.
F: She didn't like the idea that we were being followed.
M: By these white people.
F: Yeah, by these white people!
M: That was a bad sign.
F: That was not a good sign. She had no idea what they thought. Did they think that the children were ill-mannered or misbehaved or what did they think? Why did we have to have a group of people following us? She did not like it at all. She said, "you all just go ahead. It's okay. You just keep going. Don't mind me." She didn't like a whole bunch of attention.
M: But you had a goal and it was to get to the "Mona Lisa."
F: I had a goal to find the "Mona Lisa." And as I said it was not easy to find it. But finally I did find it. And then when we found it, we didn't dance but that's what gave me the idea for "Dancing at the Louvre."
M: To celebrate having found the "Mona Lisa." Figure 127--Leonardo da Vinci, "Mona Lisa."
F: Right. Because part of the problem that we had was that when people go to Europe right away they start to try to establish some form of European culture because European culture was superior, or was thought of as being superior to American culture. Now that's tricky if you are black because we are not Europeans. So therefore it occured to me that we shouldn't do that. We shouldn't get confused about the superiority of European culture. That is not a good idea to implant in your mind, and I've seen so many black people who go abroad and do that.
M: How do they do that?
F: Well, because they have to have the wine.
M: They get totally French or totally European.
F: Yes, and then they have--like that guy Ted Joans (Afro-American artist) said to me before we went in the restaurant in Paris, "okay now don't get in here and start yelling and screaming." That's a perfect example of somebody who has a warped notion of the superiority of western culture and the inferiority of black american culture. How dare him. And you know it took me a little while to figure out what he was talking about. Oh, I see. All these years he's been in Europe. He's not use to it yet. He still has to try to pretend that he belongs here. I don't need to belong here. I just need to be able to come here, see what I want to see, and go home.
M: I just recently re-read The Fire Next Time, which was written at the same time by James Baldwin who lived a lot in France and it seems to me one of the things he is suffering from is a kind of assumption that black people have been so incredibly devastated and disenfranchised, particularly in comparison to Europeans, we are in a sense the bastards of the West in the sense that Europe has all the beautiful wonderful culture, and the beautiful and wonderful accomplishments and we are like brutes.
F: What did he mean by we?
M: He means black Americans. White Americans are brutes as well. But we are particularly brutalized because of the way we've been treated by slavery. Remember the black cultural arts movement has not occured yet. And Baldwin in particular is very unfamiliar with the cultural accomplishments of black people under slavery and throughout the black diaspora. He's been living in France a long time and he is a victim of a lot of the scholarship that blacks were doing at the time, like E. Franklin Frazier in The Black Bourgeoisie.
F: So there was no acceptance of African culture?
M: Or how about African American culture? It is not that he was ignorant Faith. Afterall, he lived in France so he knew Africans. He probably knew, for instance, Mariam Mekeba or Hugh Masekela but he's not putting it together in his head. I don't think he really in his heart believed that we were the same people with the Africans. And remember, it was African Americans who thought of themselves as Africans. Africans didn't think of themselves as African but Ghanian or Ibo. So this concept of being African is a relatively recent concept and it does not date from 1961 when this scenario in the Louvre is taking place. "Dancing" is the only scenario like this in the French Collection. It is very important I think for a number of reasons. It is going on in France. It is going on in the MusČe du Louvre, which is I think, a former palace of some kind. It is a great world historical collection of art. And the painter you focused upon, Leonardo da Vinci is one of the first master's of the Italian Renaissance. And so you've gone beyond the glory of France to the glory of Italy, which stems from the glory of the Roman Empire back to the Greeks and so forth. This is in some ways encapsulating the greatest heritage in Western culture. I think it is interesting that you picked this painting, and you picked this painter and you picked this room in the Louvre. Why not the Uffizi? Why not -- were there other paintings that you saw on the way in the Louvre to this painting that particularly struck you?
F: Well, you mentioned the children. I hadn't thought about it but I always loved paintings that had children in them. And all three of these do typify women and children. In fact, there are no male images here.
M: And that is itself kind of unusual in that da Vinci only did a pretty small number of paintings, right?
F: Is that true?
M: He only has very few paintings. That's the thing that is so great about him. Only a few of his works survived and they are all considered masterpieces.
F: As far as the French Collection is concerned, the whole idea that black people don't have the cultural authority of the West. I just wanted to play with that. Because I think it is all just a big joke. And I don't want to play that game. Because I think people should do what they do. That's not what's wrong with us. That we would dance at the Louvre. That is not it. It's a whole other thing. That these people would not dance at the Louvre has nothing to do with it. They are not dancing at the Louvre because they can't dance. That's the reason they don't dance at the Louvre.
M: Hello. That's a good point.
F: They can't dance. If they could dance, they too would be dancing at the Louvre.
M: That's why we dance everywhere because we can dance.
F: People do what they can do. That's why they painted. Because they could paint.
M: And that's why we dance.
F: And that's why we dance because we can. And one's not better than the other. Culture is what you did to get over. What did you do in your life? What did you eat? What did you wear? Where did you live? how did you live? What was your music, your singing, your food, your cuisine? All of these things are expressive of what you needed to live. And that's why your culture is so important. And it is not right and it is not wrong. Nobody's culture is right and nobody's culture is wrong. All of it has to do with the things you put together to make your people grow, and live and flourish. I just wanted to do a painting that would show the difference in those two things, and its okay for these kids to dance. Of course Willia Marie is upset.
M: She's a little embarrassed . . .
F: She's a lot.
M: So she's in Momma Jones's role of being embarrassed.
F: That's right. She really doesn't think it is appropriate to do this. The kids could care less.
M: So in a way in this painting, even though this is Momma Jones, the relationship of the first scene of "Dancing in the Louvre" to our family would be more one in which Willia Maria would be Momma Jones and the other woman would be you, and these three children would be Barbara and I.
F: Yes, it is very complex but it is that kind of thing. The roles move around. They don't stay static. I am just using their imagery. But I never could get these particular children, my grandchildren to pose for me.
M: You couldn't?
F: Could not.
M: Did you try?
F: They didn't understand what I was doing.
M: So tell me because you know Barbara and I did pose for you. Right?
F: Well, I am sure you did. But I had control over that situation. I didn't have control over this.
M: But you use to ask them to pose? I didn't know that.
F: I said, you know, I am doing this painting of you all. It was on the wall in the studio.
M: It was this particular painting?
F: Yeah, it was on the wall in the studio. I had started it in Paris. I started it in Paris without them and I worked on it in the South of France in La Napoule and then I brought it home to that studio I had on 38th Street. And I was finishing it and I wanted to get better likenesses of them but I could never get all three of them, or even one or two. Finally, I did get Faith kind of.
M: What did she do? Did she sit still and pose for you?
F: Well, for a little bit. But basically there was not an understanding of what it was I was trying to do. They had no idea this picture was going to be around forever. They'll be dead. I'll be dead. This painting, I hope, will still be there. And I know they have encountered it many times since 1991 when it was finished, and have been surprised to see it. It's been reproduced in different places. So they didn't know that.
M: They never got to go to the Louvre with the family.
M: But Barbara and I we had a concept of what a painting was.
F: But you didn't want to see the "Mona Lisa" either. Not until the next year when the "Mona Lisa" came to America. We never discussed it anymore after that. And Barbara did a talk for her class. In fact, Barbara did the lecture when they went to the Metropolitan to see the "Mona Lisa." Barbara is the one who told them, it is really quite smaller than you are going to imagine, and at the Louvre, it wasn't behind velvet ropes and so forth. I think someone had tried to desecrate it. But anyway this painting was separated from the public here. And now when you go there (to the Louvre), it is in a big glass box.
M: I think this may have been the beginning of the big blockbuster shows in the museums with people lined up down the block to get in.
F: Yeah, because when we got to the "Mona Lisa" in 1961 it was just sitting there like hey, so what.
M: But in regard to this painting, it is also a painting and a scene in which it is women and children, which is kind of interesting maybe? Is that important? Particularly given that the Western master whose work is being held up as a pinnacle of Western Civilization is a male, Leonardo da Vinci from the 16th century. But it is all women and children. Is this saying something about the relationship of women and children, or mothers and daughters to Western culture?
F: It is saying something about my determination to have the freedom to express the people I want.
M: As a woman and as a mother.
F: To not suddenly feel like if I want to show the power of Western culture, or African-American culture, I have to revert right away to male images and white people. I don't have to do any of that. I can use my family. I can use children who are on the bottom of the scale. I can use black women. I can do what I want. And I can also paint Leonardo da Vinci's pictures. Why not?
M: Part of how you got to do the French Collection was that the National Endowment of the Arts gave you some money to paint in La Napoule in the South of France. As an art student you had learned to copy the masters. And that process was a theme in your composition of "Dancing at the Louvre."
F: I was talking about copying the European masters. That's the way they taught us back then. When I was a little girl we use to copy etchings out of our history books. There was a lot of copying going on.
M: Copying and reciting. I guess they both go together.
F: Oh right. I don't recall ever being encouraged to write poetry. But to remember it and recite it, yes. Then when I got to college, the general feeling was that you couldn't be creative and interesting as an artist. The only thing you could really do is copy somebody else's ideas. Furthermore, these masters' paintings were considered so great that you could never ever do anything great enough to call it art, actually.
M: Did they grade you on the copies?
F: Yeah, it was how well you could. That was very important. They taught us composition. They taught us a lot of technical skills that we don't teach art students today. So we understood how these people composed pictures. We understood composition very well. I think this business of copying has its good and bad side.
M: I was going to ask you if you thought there were any advantages or disadvantages to it.
F: I think that I wouldn't teach that way today. I think that it is very bad in that you don't know who you are. So that when I graduated, it took me a long time to find my own style.
M: And when you graduated, it was close to the time that you went to Europe with the family to tour the old masters.
F: That's why I went there because I thought of them as being the essence of art. They are the ones you look at if you are going to be a painter. If you want to be a sculptor, you look at African sculpture. If you are going to be a painter, you look at European painting. So anyway I just wanted to go there and walk down the streets and go to those museums and see the different works that I had copied to see if I really wanted to become an artist. Which I don't know how that experience could help.
M: Oh you don't? Now you think it was rediculous.
F: Walking down the street had nothing to do with it.
M: It didn't?
F: How? That Picasso lived in Paris and I had seen his work in its original form has nothing to do with me coming back to America and becoming an artist.
M: So was it a frivolous notion to go to Paris and think that this would infuse you with a clarity about what kind of artist you would be. On the other hand, you did give Willia Marie that scenario. And she is successful with it.
F: Yes, but I give her more of an understanding of who she is to go with it. So she has a better shot than I did. I had no idea what I was doing. And if I had known, I probably would not have been an artist.
M: Why does she have a better understanding?
F: Because I bring all of her culture over there to her. And I give her the knowledge through the different texts I write for her. She's a composite. She has a lot of success with the French. And she is going to stay in France. She is not going to come back to America where she can't possibly get anywhere. She does not have to struggle. Struggle is a problem she does not have to deal with. She has a much better situation than any African American woman ever had actually.
M: Okay, "Wedding on the Seine." This is a very interesting painting because obviously one of the things you wanted to show was composition. You wanted to emphasize the materiality of Paris, the Seine River, the architecture of Paris, the way it is constructed. Although the theme of the story is focused on Willia Marie who is a little bit anxious about getting married since it is so much in conflict with being an artist, she is very small in the picture and her bouquet is going over the side. I am just curious about the proportions of the figure in relationship to the setting.
F: When you put a person out against a bridge, which earlier I had done during the bridge series in 1988, so I know something about putting people on bridges. I didn't want her flying. Because the "Women on a Bridge" Series in 88 were flying. This is 90. I had just completed the book Tar Beach in which I had really gotten into bridges so I knew what I was doing when I made her. She is about as big as she should be. In fact, she is bigger than she should be.
M: In proportion to the city?
F: Right, I mean if you want to look at it photographically. I mean none of this is photographic. This is compositional work really based on my understanding of composition drawn from all those years of copying the masters. I do what I want to do with the elements in my composition.
M: Why so much of the water? Why so much of the city? Why so much of Paris and so little of her?
F: Because I am trying to show you the bigness and beauty of Paris against this little black girl throwing her bouquet in the water. I want you to see her but I want you to understand how small she is compared to everything else.
M: She is dwarfed by the city. Is it the largeness of the city? The beauty of the city?
F: The history.
M: The history of the city.
F: Everything about that city that is going to go right on.
M: But is it good or bad? Is it a villian or?
F: It can be very good. It all depends on how well she uses it. I wanted to kind of make all the people from the wedding running behind her trying to bring her back but then I said, no, don't do that. That will confuse the image. . .
M: Also, it is understood anybody who is all dressed up in their wedding gown running and throwing their bouquet is obviously being followed by some other people in the distance.
F: I went to the Seine.
M: To Pont Neuf. (Figure 128--Pont Neuf, Paris).
F: I went to the bridge that is next to Pont Neuf and looked over at it and I don't know how many times I did that trying to get my composition right.
M: Is this supposed to be the right bank or the left bank?
F: This is the Left Bank because Notre Dame cathedral is right there. So I worked very hard trying to get the feeling of having to deal with this dilemma of all this French tradition.
M: So she was in conflict about marrying him from the very beginning?
F: Yes, but women do that just when they are about to achieve success or find themselves, they get married. And then of course that holds things back in most cases.
M: But in her case?
F: He dies.
M: Which is completely copasetic.
F: Yeah, it worked out alright. Plus he was going to take over the story. He was going to become too much involved. I needed him to not be around. He left and the children came to be raised by Aunt Melissa in America. And she was just there, dealing with some of the issues women have in achieving their goals. If young girls don't see any possibility of any kind of future or career, they can only find hope in being mothers. That is potentially a very difficult situation. I think it works maybe for some women. I think it works maybe for a lot of women. But I think it also doesn't work for another large group of women who can dream.
M: Do you like to paint cities?
F: Yes, I do.
M: Because the only cities you paint are Paris and New York.
F: Well you don't want to paint just any old city. You know its like who wants to paint San Diego.
F: No you don't want to paint that. That's like one of my students said, oh it's so beautiful, the landscape is so beautiful. Yeah, but you don't want to paint it. He never thought of it. He hasn't painted it. Some landscapes are gorgeous and you want to paint them but some landscapes are gorgeous but you don't want to paint them.
M: Like maybe Russell Simmons' garden is beautiful but you don't want to paint it.5
F: Well, I think there are patches of that that you can paint. In fact, there was a young woman who was drawing some parts of the garden. I think you could get something out of that. But I think it is also very what did Teddy call it, very fake?6 But there are parts of it that are magnificent. Small patches of leaves and plants and things that were just wonderful. A garden is a funny kind of thing. You have to look at it in pieces and then you have to look at it as a whole.
M: In the "Picnic at Giverny."
F: You see I am not aware that I am making gardens here.
M: First, of all you better tell me about Giverny. I know it is where Monet painted. But it must have been a garden, right?
F: It's Monet's garden. He created that garden.
M: He lived there and there's Monet's house. Is it historically reconstructed?
F: No it is not reconstructed. It is the way it was.
M: But is it the way it was when he was alive?
F: Well, they are trying to keep it as faithful as possible. It's European. It's magnificent.
M: I mean the house. You didn't show the house. You show the garden.
F: The house is non-descript, like a lot of European houses.
M: Very plain?
M: Is it sort of a shack or a cabin?
F: I can't remember the architecture of it. It's rustic. And inside, there are carpets and all of that. They didn't want the artists who were there with fellowships.
M: Oh, really, they have a fellowship? So this is to some degree where you got the idea for your own garden, garden parties and the Anyone Can Fly Foundation giving fellowships.7
F: Yes, but way in the back of my head. If you had asked me do I love gardens, I would have said yeah but. It was not something that I really knew I loved and wanted. You never heard me say I wanted a garden because maybe I never thought I would have one so why want one.
M: But in any case, at Giverny, there is Monet's house. The house has fellowships for artists to come and work there.
F: There's a program. When I was on the board at the CAA (the College Art Association), the Monet foundation managed to get the CAA to be the committee that voted for the artists who got the grants. I was on that committee. That's how I got to go there.
M: You mean you were chosen.
F: No, I was one of the people who chose other people.
M: And with the people who were chosen, is it like the McDowell Colony? You live there and work there.
M: But inside the house or outside the house?
F: See that was what I was asking. Do you want these people to be inside the house or people who paint outdoors? They assured us that the answer was no. That they wanted people who do whatever they do.
M: But could they stay in the house?
F: They were not very comfortable in that house.
M: That house was uncomfortable.
F: That house was made to be uncomfortable by the people who were doing it.
M: They couldn't care less whether anybody was going to be comfortable in that house.
F: See I don't know. The French have a different sensibility. They don't want you in there because you are going to be messing with the decor. It's like if somebody was upstairs in my studio long after I am dead trying to paint up there. They are not going to take care of those floors like I do. They are going to mess up stuff. And so, what some of the artists told me is if they put up something on the wall, when they came back the next day, it was taken down.
M: You mean to tell me they invite the artists to come and work in the space and then they try to take their stuff off the wall?
F: They don't try to. They do. Because artists have different styles of working. Because I think Monet had those oriental rugs leading up to the studio. Some of them had very lavish studios and people are not going to take care of that so why not just say the art has to be created outside? You may not affix anything to the walls. You may not paint indoors. You may not do x, y and z. Say it and get it over with.
M: But they let them live there.
F: Yeah, but they gave them a car and encouraged them to go to Paris.
M: Did they have beds to sleep in?
F: Yes, but you don't sleep where you work.
M: Did they have any place for these people to sleep?
F: You sleep one place and you work someplace else.
M: Where was the sleeping place?
F: Well, I don't know where the sleeping place was. I know in La Napoule, we slept in the Maid's Quarters.
M: You had a castle there. Monet's house is not a castle.
F: Yeah but it was pretty big. There were a lot of accomodations.
M: Was he rich?
F: Monet? Of course. How was he going to have this great big garden like this and not be rich.
M: How big was the garden?
F: It was huge. He had a lake that was about as big as my whole garden.
M: I've seen some of it and I've seen photographs.
F: It is the kind of garden you stroll.
M: It is like Russell's place, ten acres? So the house is commensurately large? Figure 129--Russell Simmons' Garden, East Hampton.
F: I wouldn't say that the house is as big but the garden is. I would say that the difference is that Monet had rows and rows and rows of flowers, just gorgeous flowers. Seas of florals. Why they wouldn't encourage people who paint flowers to be there, I don't know . . .
M: So they are very mixed up and confused as to how they want to honor Monet's legacy at Giverny.
F: Well, They don't want to cripple the artist. They don't want to say you have to x, y and z.
M: But on the other hand, you do have to do x, y and z.
F: You certainly do. Because first of all, you may not be comfortable if you go there, and you try to paint up in Monet's studio. Now he had one big studio that nobody was in. The upstairs studio was where they crowded everybody in. All the people had to be in that one spot.
M: They were not nice to them.
F: You know, the French have that way. They are not being not nice. They are just being French. They are just being who they are. But actually I think the foundation is owned by Americans, and so is La Napoule. It's Americans that owned it but the French are managing it, taking care of it and manipulating it to some extent in both cases. And they also have to deal with the French community around these places.
M: This is fascinating because this is a case of an estate and a foundation handling the material legacy of a very famous artist. You wouldn't find this in the U.S.
M: I don't know. But you can't go up to Winslow Homer's studio on Rhode Island where it was and do anything.
F: But you can go to Pollock's studio.
M: That's Pollock. Winslow Homer was Monet's contemporary. He had a studio. He was a very successful artist. I bet you cannot go to his studio or his house and do anything there. You would be lucky if you could go look at it. It's very interesting, and there were a lot of artists in the U.S. who were rich and successful but I think that this concept you have of a foundation and continuing the legacy is probably more European than American. You can probably go to their houses and look and leave.
F: Why don't you research this more. It is an interesting subject. Jake (Jacob Lawrence) has no house. He gave up his house and moved into an appartment. How about Andy Warhol?
M: There's a museum.
F: Yeah, but that's not the foundation. That's some other people. The foundation's goal is to get rid of the work. They are going to sell it and make programs. And some other people have the Andy Warhol museum. Also, Monet has a museum that is dedicated just to him. L'Orangerie. It's a round museum and it shows those paintings of his garden. He devoted a lot of the latter part of his life to painting his gorgeous garden.
M: We are looking at Giverny in "Picnic at Giverny." You did not choose to devote this panel to the garden or to the house but rather to showing Willa Marie in the process of painting a group portrait of a group of people who had played a pivotal role in your career. This is also a tribute to the Manet painting "Picnic on the Grass" with nude women and the dressed men. So its a picnic, it is Giverny which is Monet's place, and it is Picasso with no clothes on and a hat.
F: And it also shows Willa painting in her white dress.
M: Why did you combine so many different elements? Why didn't you paint Monet in the nude?
F: I just didn't think he would be as interesting.
M: Or as recognizable.
F: Yeah, Picasso is such a womanizer. He would be the perfect one to take off his clothes with all my feminist friends sitting there because I wanted Willia to know about women's role in art. Because that would be something that if she didn't know about it, her art would be negatively effected.
M: So this is Ofelia Garcia and Johnetta Cole. Why are these two women placed among your feminist friends?
F: When my mother died, Ofelia was the president of WCA (Women's Caucus on Art as part of the CAA) and she appointed me vice-president at a time when I really needed to get involved and have supportive people around me. And she helped me in my project, which was to get more diversity in the WCA. She is the Dean of the School of Art at William Patterson. She is also Cuban.
M: I know Johnetta Cole but I don't know why she is in this painting.
F: I met Johnetta when I went to Spelman. I was in Atlanta at the High Museum and spoke to Johnetta and I was telling her about my plans for the French Collection. She is the one who suggested the name Willia. She was extremely supportive and I really liked her. Then you have Moira. As you know, Moira and I have been comrades since I met her in the late 70s. She got me my professorship at UCSD. She's written about me extensively as an art critic, and we've travelled extensively together. We are great friends. I have so many best friends.
M: Is Ellie one of your best friends?
F: Ellie curated my first travelling show and I didn't even know who she was. She had researched me thoroughly and just appeared at Bernice's gallery with the idea of doing this travelling show.8 I was very impressed and it was so well done. And then she whipped around and bought one of the paintings.
M: Now we come to Lowery and I wanted to hear from you why she was included in this picture.
F: I met Lowery in 1973 when I had my first retrospective at the Zimmerly Museum at Rutgers and she came to the opening. We had a bus that met us downtown somewhere and they took us out to Rutgers. She was I think working for the Metropolitan in the education department. She later became curator. She was just so warm and so sweet. She bought a painting.
M: But has Lowery done anything for you since she bought that painting in 1973.
F: She got the Metropolitan to buy the "Street Story Quilt." There was a lot I could have said about Lowery yesterday (had given her a Rush foundation Award at Simmons' house in East Hampton) but I wasn't talking to an audience of people who cared. They didn't even know who she was. Plus they only gave me a minute. If they had given me more time, I could make them know who she is. Furthermore Queen Latifah introduced her and gave her credentials as a man, and then had to be corrected that she was a woman. Then she said, Faith Ringgold will present her with the award. But they never said anything about who I was. I knew that wasn't going to happen because how can you do that. You understand what I am saying?
M: Queen Latifah should have introduced you and you should have introduced Lowery.
F: Right. But somehow or other they didn't want me to introduce Lowery.
M: And they didn't want to introduce you.
F. They didn't introduce me. But I didn't get involved. I just went with it.
M: They should not have picked Latifah as the mc.
F: They made the right choice. Those people are hip hop and they saved the honorees for the last. It was 10 o'clock. It was absolutely the last thing that happened.
M: Now, Judith Leiber.
F: Judith Leiber bought "Tar Beach" and got me in the Guggenheim Collection. Judith is the one who did the following: a) she donated that painting to the Guggenheim Museum, and b) raised sufficient amounts of money so that the Street Story Quilt could be bought by the Metropolitan.
M: Was she on the Board of the Metropolitan.
F: Yes. Part of the reason why Lowery got involved was because Judith Leiber made a limited edition of a pocketbook with the Street Story image on it and sold it to a lot of women. I know for one thing Oprah bought two and several other women did. This was done to raise money. She charged $7000 for each. And that money was used with other money to purchase Street Story for the Metropolitan.
M: When did this happen?
M: Okay, Faith, let's go on to Thalia Gouma Peterson.
F: Thalia gave me a beautiful show at the Wooster Museum, a really beautiful show and she also gave me a catalogue. She also writes about me.
M: How about Emma?
F: Emma, I can't think of anything Emma did. She is just an artist. And I always try to include some black artists.
M: Were you still with Bernice at this time?
F: Yes, Bernice played a pivotal role in my career.
M: How about Michele Wallace.
F: Oh, well, she's my daughter.
M: Why was it important that you paint portraits of your supporters?
F: It is nice to pay back. I think a lot of people don't do that. And it turns me off. I really like to do it. And a lot of people have told me how much they appreciate being recognized.
M: Is there anything else you would like to say about this picture?
F: I went there of course, needless to say. Did a lot of drawing. I got the composition. You see, the composition is always very important. I knew it was going to be Monet but how will you express it? How will you show Monet's garden? And being there on the scene I put it together, and then I went back to my house in La Napoule and created this composition and began painting and really liked what I did. I was trying to put the women in a garden.
M: The "Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles."
F: I am making compositions. You can't get away from that.
M: From looking at the Louvre Collection book you had, you can see that the arrangements of figures is very important in your work as well. As a matter fact, Da Vinci, one of the things he is famous for is the "Last Supper." It is a group, yet it is composed in such a way that there are various competing circuits of interest with Christ in the center alone, and he is just at that moment when he is saying, one of you will betray me and everybody goes back to that painting. One of the contributions of the Renaissance is this notion of geometrical space in compositions. Figure 130--Leonardo da Vinci, "The Last Supper"
"The Last Supper" is even more famous because it was not made in such a way that it could survive without difficulty, so they are constantly trying to save it, and repair it, and reconstruct it and so on. Now that they've repaired it, people say well that's not the way it was. And then of course a million people have gone back and reprised that composition. Everything from the "Dinner Party" of Judy Chicago, Marisol, Warhol, everybody has done more of those compositions. So having said that, we look at your quilting bee. This is not of living supporters but of the dead ancestors-- except the only person living in this picture is Rosa Parks. But everybody else is an ancestor gathered quilting the sunflower quilt in a field of sunflowers. They are quilting sunflowers on a quilt. On the right is Van Gogh standing there with a bushel of sunflowers?
F: No he is holding his vase of sunflowers, his famous vase of sunflowers. Don't you know that? What's wrong with you?
M: I know what the painting looks like but I don't know what he's doing here. Figure 131--Vincent Van Gogh, Sunflowers.
F: He's holding a vase of sunflowers. Doesn't it look like it?
M: So, is this your "Last Supper?"
F: No, I think that . . .
M: They were all betrayed?
F: Well sort of quasi in a sense. Needless to say I went to Arles and I sat in the square.
M: There isn't a house.
F: Yes there is. I sat in the square. The houses are over there. Part of composition is having the courage to do it and to see it and to change what you see so that you can do it. So I went there and sat in a cafe and put that composition together. But part of the reason for putting those women in this composition has to do with the discussion I had with Oprah Winfrey in which she was talking about her role models. She mentioned all of these women as role models and I had proposed to do this painting for her. The commission broke down at some point. It never happened but I liked the idea. And you know, I like ideas. So I put this painting together. Of course I added Van Gogh.
M: You added Van Gogh, and Arles and sunflowers.
F: So it wasn't just straight role models. It was on the cover of the opening invitation for the show at Bernice's gallery and Oprah bought it from the invitation so she owns this. She bought it and hadn't even seen it.
M: Too bad she is so stubborn about not lending it out.
M: One of the thing that makes this painting so powerful is the combinations of these black women with the sunflowers and Van Gogh. Part of it is the legend of the kind of artist Van Gogh was, as an artist who was consumed by his own talent, who was never recognized in his own time but who today is considered very successful and whose work is sold for exorbitant amounts at auctions. In fact, in a way Van Gogh is like the bad conscience of the art world because they celebrated him but not during his own lifetime when he might have benefited from the attention. And then of course there are these sunflowers, which this painting has contributed to making them iconographic. This painting is part of the reason why there is so much sunflower stuff all over the place, don't you think? People are very, very insane about these sunflowers.
F: They look like little black people.
M: See, I don't know why but I always think of sunflowers as being very African and tropical. Are they?
F: They are like people. If you see a field of sunflowers it just looks like a whole lot of people with brown faces standing there. And they are very big and tall. They have these big heads. And then they have big green leaves. But they are just like people and they will turn their heads, you know. Yeah, they can turn their heads according to the way the sun is.
F: Sun flowers! Sun flowers! There is some confusion about what they do, whether they turn to face the sun or turn away from the sun.
M: So they are like little brown people.
F: I was trying to figure out why did Van Gogh love sunflowers. He was strange in many ways. And they were as strange. You see I wanted to say that the whole idea of blackness, Europe, France, painting is not exclusive from being able to understand people from other places. There is one story and it can be told at the same time and together. And I think a lot of people may not be aware of that and I would like to make them aware of that.
M: Okay, now in regard to these sunflowers at Arles. Are there sunflowers all over the South of France or do you just have to go to Arles to see these sunflowers?
F: No, they have them in other places. And I was running all over trying to find them. I never saw them in Arles. I finally saw them near Giverny.
M: And it was a field.
F: Yes. See you have to watch out. It has to be a certain time of the year, and you've got to find them in certain places. So you can go by them and they can all be dead.
M: But also it is a crop.
F: Yes, sunflower seeds and sunflower oil.
M: So when you saw large numbers of them, someone was raising them as a crop. So it is like a crop, like cotton.
F: I have this wonderful book of sunflowers. I bought it in France.9
M: Well I would like to see it.
F: So you know that's the first thing I do when I am painting a picture. I just try to get as many books as possible.
M: Do you think that Van Gogh's madness contributed to his painting?
F: Madness contributed to his painting. Hum. I don't think you have to be mad to be great. I think he was mad and he was great. I don't know that they contribute to each other. I think that he was great and that he was ignored, which could make him mad.
M: Do you think any of these women were mad?
F: I think they were all driven, not necessarily driven mad but they were very much into their goals. In other words, they all had the greatness of him. They were great people.
M: Well, you certainly picked them well.
F: Now if you wanted to do a group of white women like that, who would you pick?
M: I would have to think about it. But I could find some.
F: It is amazing that you would have so many black ones and there's more.
M: Cady Stanton, Mother Jones, Simone de Beauvoir, Eleanor Roosevelt. I think that Emily Dickinson, Virginia Wolfe and Flannery O'Connor were all kind of wonderful. But it's great that your women are quilting.
F: Yes, because it is our one visual art that we manage to continue without interruption.
M: Now "Matisse's Model." Willa Marie is reclining on a chaise. Matisse looks really black and white.
F: No, he is not in color.
M: He's not. Because.
F: I wanted to set him apart from the design that I was using and the people and her. I don't know. It's just a technique I used to make him stand out.
M: Matisse and Picasso are the two artists who you continually refer to in the French Collection.
F: And you know they were very close to each other, also competitive with each other.
M: But very different.
F: Isn't that funny? They are alike but they are very very different.
M: I bet Matisse was not as much of a lady's man as Picasso.
F: No. I don't think so.
M: He also lived a really long time. They both lived into their 90s. So they are great role models as artists. So how does she feel laying up there naked.
F: I think it is really all about the image of blackness. It has to do with image.
M: I have written that the paintings in the French Collection fall into three categories: the first is group portraits, reclining figures, and family scenes. "Matisse's Model," "Picasso's Studio" and "Jo Baker's birthday" are all reclining nudes.
F: (In a little girl voice) That's what the children say. All your pictures are naked. I want to take them to school to show to the other children but they don't got no clothes on.
M: But they are not naked in a very ostentatious way.
F: No, they're nice.
M: Alright. Here we are at "Matisse's Chapel." How many Matisse paintings do we have? Just two? "Moroccan Holiday" doesn't have anything to do with Matisse?
F: Yes it does.
F: It is a place where he went.
M: Okay, so that's three.
F: But I don't know that I used any of his imagery there.
M: But this is Matisse's chapel.
F: Yeah, well I went there too. I went to Matisse's chapel in Vence. I was trying to get there and they wouldn't open the doors. And so I figured it out that I would just have to go to mass. It was the only way I could get in there. And I was able then to be there. I heard the singing.
M: So you got to see it during mass. Has that got something to do with the resulting image?
F: Of course. I wanted to be in the space. I had seen lots of pictures of Matisse's chapel but that's not like being there in the place.
M: But did that contribute to your putting a lot of people in the chapel?
F: It contributed to my understanding that it was a funerary chapel.
M: It's a funerary chapel?
F: That's what I call it because it doesn't have any red in it.
M: Was there a funeral going on?
M: Mass is kind of funereal.
F: It was funerary in that it was one of the last things that Matisse did just before he died. It is kind of a tribute to his death. It was one of the things he did at the very end of his life, kind of a dedication to life in death just before he died.
M: And so, in other words, you set a funereal tone in this painting?
F: Uh-hum. By bringing all my people back.
M: So you knew that this seems like a funeral.
M: No red. Is that why?
F: As far as I'm concerned.
M: But when you talk about in the story what happens is that Willa Marie dreams that her great grandmother comes back.
F: All of them are back.
M: They are all back to talk about slavery.
F: The story they never heard.
M: But there is nothing about that situation that suggests that anybody is having a funeral.
M: So why is it funereal?
F: The funerary part is the fact that these are people all dead.
M: Yes but even people who look at this painting . . . I would want to argue that if people looked at the painting and didn't know anything about these people, whether they were alive or dead, they would still know that this is a funeral.
F: Well, look at the way they are dressed.
M: These people were dressed for a wedding. Are you saying that weddings and funerals are similar?
F: Yes. There's something that is very close about them. Some people cry at weddings just like they are funerals. In a painting, you have to look for clues of composition, not only placement composition but color composition. What colors will be evident here. There was no red in the chapel so I wasn't going to make any red on my people, and that was making a hell of a statement. No red meant to me funerary. And then I found these photographs of Ralph sitting in my mother's lap very much like baby Jesus sitting on Mary's lap.10 So all these things came together.
M: Actually the Christian church is one big funeral because it is about Christ's death on the cross so regardless whether it is a wedding a birth or a funeral, anything in the church is funereal in our Christian tradition.
F: If it's death, if it's a ceremony and its a family then its death. It's not a church service. It's a funeral.
M: The most upbeat thing in Christianity is Easter when Christ was reborn and resurrected. And then the birth of Christ, and he had to get born in a stable with the animals.
F: He couldn't even find a place to get born.
M: The reason why he was born in a stable is because the people lived in houses in which there were stables. The animals were on the first floor and the people lived upstairs. They got the heat from the animals. What happened in Christ's case is that upstairs where people stayed they didn't have any room so they put them down in the manger with the animals. They were use to living in the same structure with the animals.
F: I wanted that slave story because we never knew what happened because they wouldn't share that.
M: What do you think about the fact that they wouldn't share.
F: Because if you don't tell anybody about what happened, it didn't happen and that's what they wanted.
M: And everybody does that after a genocide.
F: Let's don't keep this going. Let's don't talk about it.
M: These are all of Momma Jones' siblings.
F: And I put my father's mother and father in there too. I made them up.
M: Baby Doll Hurd and Rev. Jones. They are separate from Momma Jone's siblings.
M: I wonder where all the Jones people are. Baby Doll was not your father's mother? She was a second wife.
F: No. But in reality his mother divorced his father and married another woman. Baby Doll had another husband.
M: So you knew Baby Doll.
F: Oh yes.
M: She use to come to visit.
F: Yes, she came twice.
M: She had another husband. I guess his name was Hurd.
M: So what happened to him. Reverend Jones.
F: He was gone on somewhere else. Preaching.
M: He was a preacher? Did he get married again?
M: He didn't stay in touch.
F: No. I never saw him. One of his nephew's came to town and we treated him so badly that he never came back. We were not . . .
M: Welcoming of the Jones clan.
M: Why? Maybe because your father's father had left your family. So you preferred her to this other man. What can you tell me about her?
F: She came to visit and she would get up early in the morning at the crack of dawn and try to get us up to go out and get fresh eggs and stuff. We were like, what? Do what, grandma?
F: We need to get some milk and eggs for breakfast. It was wild.
M: What did you say? Do what grandma? (Laughing)
F: She wanted us to get up!
M: So you did have a grandma you remember. I guess you needed to go out in the barn and collect those eggs.
F: We'd say the stores aren't open yet grandma.
M: (Laugh) What she say?
F: She didn't like it. I don't know what's wrong with you people. This New York is no good.
M: Is that what she said?
F: You sleeping all hours of the day.
M: She visited twice.
F: I think she came twice. But she didn't keep in touch with us.
M: She didn't?
M: So she came and stayed with you. And you think she might not have been entirely welcome by Momma Jones.
F: Well, Momma Jones took her. But why would she?
M: But from what you say, Momma Jones would take anybody.
F: Yes, she would.
M: With any connection at all.
F: She would. She was a family woman. So Baby Doll really had no relationship with your mother. She was there because she was in town with her Jehovah Witnesses and we were convenient to stay with. She could not stay with her son because there was too much going on over there.
M: So he wasn't saying, Mother, you can't stay.
F: No, he was just saying, we're playing cards. We'll be through soon. That type of thing.
M: So she was too disgusted.
F: My father was very gregarious. He had a lot of friends. People liked him. And he liked them. He loved people. He kept something going.
M: Do you remember when he lived with you?
F: Not really. I don't know. Maybe I do. It was hard to say because Daddy was there all the time.
M: He was? Was he there when Baby Doll was there?
F: Probably. It wasn't rare for him to be there. Men had to go and look after their families. Whether they lived there or not was another matter. They had to take care of their families. He paid our rent. He took care of us. So he came. He had to come. Sometimes he had to get Andrew straightened out about something. So he was there. Once a week he came and took me out.
M: But your mother must have gotten very annoyed about always having him around.
F: No, not completely. But she wasn't working, you know. So she had to take care of her children. She had to do what she had to do. At least she didn't have him there all the time.
M: What do you think her feeling was about this.
F: She didn't have him there all the time. I think it would have been insufferable because he was an alcoholic. Now I think that's the reason why she didn't want him there. She didn't want her children brought up in a house with an alcoholic. And I appreciated that.
M: Okay, "Picasso's Studio." It is a central piece in this work because you've opened up all the elements of "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon" to further interrogation. With lots of paintings preparatory to it, and the African masks. And they are all talking to Willia Marie, and telling her that as a woman and as a black woman, she can be an artist. So that's what it is all about. You don't need to go through him.
F: No, go straight. Also that this work is coming out of that African mask because Picasso tells lies every now and then.
M: He lies a lot. Like most artists.
F: Yes. In some references, he gives credit and some he doesn't.
M: An artist can rarely be trusted to be honest about all his influences.
F: Right. Some of them want to tell you they didn't get them from anybody. It just came out of their own head. And they are all lying. I hate that.
M: You know what the commentators talk about constantly is that the masks he had were not the really good ones and they were just jumping off points for his own genius. He had cheap, not very good masks so it isn't possible that they were an actual influence. And then people want to argue and calculate that on such and such a date, the work that seems to have inspired him was not available for him to see in Paris, or wherever. And it just goes on and on and on. On the "Beach at St. Tropez." This man here is Birdie.11
F: I wanted very much to do a beach scene. A European beach scene. And so I went to Marseille. That was the closest I could get to St. Tropez. And I went on my birthday.
M: Why was it on the beach at St. Tropez? Why couldn't it be on the beach at Marseille?
F: Because St. Tropez is just so much more romantic.
M: It is? What is the legend of St. Tropez?
F: That's where that French movie star use to be all the time.
M: Brigitte Bardot?
F: Brigitte Bardot. That's right. So you know, I just had to follow in that tradition.
M: "Dinner at Gertrude Stein's." It is very interesting the people you put in here. Particularly Willa Marie, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin. And Richard Wright and Langston Hughes with Gertrude Stein since they may not have ever gone there.
M: The black people.
F: I know that Richard Wright did. I am not sure about Langston Hughes. Langston Hughes had a very short presence in Paris and left there rather despondent. I don't think it was particularly good for him. James Baldwin I believe might have known her and was definitely a presence in Paris. As a matter of fact, when I went there in 61 I was looking for him. I was trying to sit around in cafes hoping he would walk by.
M: In regard to the paintings on the wall.
F: These are her collection.
M: This is Picasso's portrait of her.
M: This must be Matisse right?
F: Yeah, I guess so.
M: Why did you want to have a dinner at Gertrude Stein.
F: Because everybody went to Gertrude Stein. You had to go there because Gertrude Stein was the center of expatriot and intellectual exchange and also because of the way she wrote. Her writings. And I wanted Willia Marie to know all these people because I never got a chance to meet any of these people.
M: Well, they are associated with Paris and they are all dead. She wasn't all that good on race. Although she wrote about black people and it is obvious that she was influenced by black culture in her writing. She was taking black rhythmic speech and using it in her work.
F: Did you feel that? Because that is what I came up with.
M: Some scholars have now said that.
F: Do you think they got it from me?
M: I don't know. It is hard to say because that's what is coming out. She was very interested in popular culture. Ann Douglass wrote a book about the 20s and black people and white people. Gertrude Stein is somebody she particularly focuses upon. Okay now. "Joe Baker's birthday." This is influenced by two Matisse compositions--so this is another Matisse reference. This is the only painting in the group that is painted by Willa Marie. This is her painting. She painted this.
F: Oh, I think they are all hers.
M: But she is in all of them.
F: No she is not. She's not in Matisse's Chapel.
M: No but this is a dream. It is not a painting.
F: Okay. She's not in the Arles painting.
M: Does she say she painted at Arles. No, this is a dream too.
F: It is not a dream. She was there. And I talk about how she is not in it because of something in the story.
M: This is her painting. She painted this. This is another reclining nude but this time she is the painter. Of course, it has got the switch on Olympia with the black woman reclining and the white woman as the maid. I say in my piece that Jo Baker is an inspirational figure for Willa Marie and Momma Jones because she was actually a historical black woman who came to Paris to realize her dreams and ambitions. Although she was not in the field of art. So I love this painting. But I think your story makes reference to Baker having made a mistake in adopting so many children. Okay in "Les Cafes des Artistes," the story is very well spelled out as a dialogue between male and female artists. Is there anything else you want to say about this?
F: No. It is my favorite cafe.
M: You put the black artists together with the white artists.
F: I don't remember what it is called.
M: It's called Cafes des Artistes.
F: It is.
F: It is right across the street from . . .
M: This is a famous cafe.
F: I love it.
M: This is where they all issued their manifestos.
F: It is right across the street from that famous church.
M: Notre Dame.
M: St. Chapelle?
F: St. Germain des Pres. I put myself in there. (The only image she is actually in!)
M: And in "Moroccan Holiday," Willa is having a talk with her daughter with the male historical figures in the background. And these paintings in the background are Willia Marie's?
M: And Willia Marie in her later career is painting Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
F: Because she feels an affinity with these men. You don't know this story.
M: Well, this one I don't know as well. You know it was written much later than the others.
F: Seven years later.
M: As a matter of fact, you faxed me a couple of times with different versions. Oh, yeah, Marlena is saying you didn't raise me. And then Willia Marie says it is so boring to be criticized for things that you can no longer do anything about. Moving on to the American Collection and "We Came to America." This is a dream.
M: The slaves are walking on the water in the dream. And the statue of liberty is holding a black baby.
F: The story is in there.
M: This story I know.
F: I am going to produce this book.
M: What do you mean?
F: I am still working on the stories. Would you like to help me?
M: Yes, I think I would. How about "Bessie's Blues?" What inspired this?
F: Well, Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe.
M: Alright let's go back. Andy Warhol was inspired to do this woman in this way because she is one of the most beautiful women in the world. And the way he portrayed her is in full regalia. But Bessie Smith is not considered one of the most beautiful women in the world.
F: No, but she was just considered the mother of the blues.
M: But then why is her face important enough to repeat over and over again?
F: Because that is why we know people. From their faces. And just because one has a black face, it doesn't mean it shouldn't be memorialized.
M: Don't you think she also has a classic face?
M: For a black woman.
F: She has a classic face period. I try to find beauty in everything. Not because it is beautiful but because it is the truth.
M: Okay, how about the "Two Jemimas?" Are they beautiful also?
F: Oh, yeah. Because they are strong. They are bold.
M: But you do seem to be expressing some ambivalence about whether they are beautiful or not.
F: Like what is it.
M: In the way you've done the faces and the hands. And the teeth in particular. I know that De Kooning did the "Two Women" but De Kooning didn't like his women but you are supposed to be liking yours.
F: You see, the minute you close their mouths and give them a silly smile, right away you are trying to atone for them not having all these things that pretty women are supposed to have so let their teeth show and just make everything as bold and wonderful and sexy as they can be. Look how sexy they are. They've got on short dresses. They've got big titties hanging. They are wearing jewelry. They are wearing high heel shoes. They are all turned over but so what.
M: But as you know, people get very upset about this painting because they don't know how to respond to it. As a matter of fact, I suspect that a lot of people think of this as being a variation on the same theme as stereotypical images such as those of Kara Walker or Beverly McGiver, which is making a black woman look like a damn fool. Figure 135-- Kara Walker, "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Figure 136--Beverly McIver, Figure 137--Willem de Kooning, "Two Women."
F: No white person would ever paint a black person like this.
M: That's true. But no white person would do what Walker or McGiver are doing.
F: That's coming from the white view of uglying up black people. This is not uglying up. This is just giving you the truth of the situation. This is not ugly.
M: But some of the things that white people think of as ugly are the truth. If you give somebody big red lips and big eyes.
F: But I am not giving anybody big red lips.
M: (pointing to the Jemimas) This is big red lips and big eyes.
F: She's got big eyes and big lips and she's got lipstick on them, Michele!
M: Faith, I do not accept that this is what white people do. Forget this. This is Beverly McGiver. I've never seen any white artist do anything like this. From the past or the present. You think that is a stereotype and this is not. But I am here to tell you that people who think this (McGiver) a stereotype are in danger of thinking of that (the 2 Jemimas) as a stereotype as well.
F: You know why? Because they get frightened when they look at something black.
M: That's what I am saying.
F: But everything that's black is not ugly.
M: Hello! That's what my book is about!
F: Just because it is big and its black, it is not ugly. I say that in my lecture, and everybody gets very quiet.
M: They do?
F: Damn right.
M: Because we are still in very great tension about how we look.
F: That's why I did this. Because I don't want to be backed up in a corner.
M: Duane Hanson does the white version of Jemima.
F: You know, what this shows. It shows complete freedom to deal with blackness in all its manifestations.
M: It kind of goes back to your black light series. I love this painting. This is absolutely my favorite: the 2 Jemimas. This comes full circle from "Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima," because I am 49, menopausal and getting ready to look like this, along with the rest of the baby boomers.
F: When I did "Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima," I couldn't have done this.
F: I didn't have the confidence to paint huge images of black women like this. The entire American Collection is about Marlena and her beautiful life. Except that she is not getting married and not having any kids.
1 Sharon Patton, African-American Art (New York: Oxford UP, 1998).
2 William Rubin, ed. "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern 2 Volumes (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1984).
3 Faith, my grandmother Momma Jones, or Willi Posey, travelled via economy class with my sister Barbara, 8, and I at 9 to France on the S.S. Liberte in June of 1961.
4 While we were in Rome, Aunt Barbara, Faith's sister, called to tell us that Uncle Andrew, their oldest and only brother, the great love of the family, had died of a drug overdose. He had had drug problems for a long time but for whatever reason, it seems his death was entirely unanticipated by Momma Jones, Aunt Barbara or, finally, Faith who had perhaps had prior thoughts of being prepared.
5 Faith had just recently attended a garden party benefit for the Rush Foundation at the house of Russell Simmons the hiphop music mogul in East Hampton.
6 When Faith's garden in Englewood was first completed by the landscape architect, she invited her grandchildren to see it. The middle child, Teddy, remarked, "But Grandma, it is so fake." Faith has continued to repeat this remark ever since as a joke.
7 Faith has recently begun the Anyone Can Fly Foundation in order to provide grants to scholars to pursue the study of the visual culture of the African Diaspora. Faith is currently president of the foundation and I am vice-president.
8 Faith used to belong to the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in Soho.
9 According to the book, sunflowers were not raised as large crops during Van Gogh's time but rather seen occasionally in gardens or floral arrangements.
10 Ralph was Faith's brother who died at 2 about a year before Faith, herself was born. Indeed, she was conceived as a replacement baby for Ralph. Under the weight of her mother's depression she couldn't name her. The name Faith was provided by the nurse instead.
11 Birdie is Burdette Ringgold, my stepfather, my spiritual father and Faith's husband for 40 years. He raised Barbara and I along with Faiith.