Barbara Chase Riboud
Barbara Chase-Riboud (born June 26, 1939) is an American visual artist and sculptor, bestselling novelist, and award-winning poet. After becoming established as a sculptor and poet, Chase-Riboud gained widespread recognition as an author for her novel Sally Hemings (1979). It earned the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize in Fiction, and became an international success. Because she fully imagined Sally Hemings, the novel generated discussion about the likely relationship between the young enslaved woman and her master, Thomas Jefferson, who became president of the United States. Mainline historians rejected Chase-Riboud's portrayal and persuaded CBS not to produce a planned TV mini-series adapted from the novel. Following DNA analysis of descendants in 1998, the Jefferson-Hemings relationship is widely accepted by historians as fact, including those who had objected before.
Barbara Chase-Riboud was born on June 26, 1939, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Charles and Vivian Chase and is known for her controversial novel Sally Hemings, poetry, and sculptures, including the Malcolm X Steles. Her artistic talent in drawing and sculpting was discovered at any early age and as a result she attended the prestigious Philadelphia High School for Girls. In 1959, she earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art and, following her graduation, she received a prestigious fellowship to study at the American Academy in Rome, Italy. One year later, in 1960, she returned to the United States to receive her Master of Fine Arts from Yale University in Connecticut, where she studied design and architecture.
After college, Chase moved to Paris, France, where she established a studio and married photographer Marc Riboud on December 21, 1961. They had two sons, David and Alexsis, and traveled together across the world. In fact, in 1965 Chase-Riboud was the first American woman to visit China during the cultural revolution. In 1974, she published a book of poems called From Memphis to Peking, inspired by her travels to China and Egypt. Later, in 1979, she published her critically acclaimed work Sally Hemings, a historical novel about Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman, at his plantation, Monticello. The book became an international bestseller and Chase-Riboud won the Janet Heidinger Kafka price for the best novel written that year. Her suggestion, however, that Jefferson fathered several children by Hemings was very controversial.
Chase-Riboud divorced her husband and married Sergio T. Tosi, a scholar and art dealer on July 4, 1981. Her second book of poems, Portrait of a Nude Woman as Cleopatra, inspired by the painting of the same name, was published in 1987. Later, after winning the Carl Sandburg prize as best American poet in 1988, she published Echo of Lions, her most controversial work, about the Amistad slave revolt and its subsequent Supreme Court decision. The novel was based on a true story, and Chase-Riboud sued director Steven Spielberg for using her story without her permission in the 1997 film Amistad.
In 1994, Chase-Riboud published President’s Daughter, a sequel to Sally Hemings that followed the journey of Harriet Hemings, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings’ daughter. Two years later, in 1996, Chase-Riboud received a Knighthood in Arts and Letters by the French government, and in 1998 she was awarded the Design Award for best art in a federal building by the United States General Services. She created an 18-foot sculpture inside the U.S. Federal building at 290 Broadway in New York, which was commissioned after the discovery of an eighteenth-century African American burial site under the building.
In 1996, Chase-Riboud published Valide: A Novel of the Harem and, in 2003, released her novel Hottentot Venus. Both works shifted away from American black culture and towards African and French black culture, while keeping her central themes intact. She won the Black Caucus of the American Library Association for Best Fiction Award and Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in fiction in 2004. Later, in 2007, she also won the Alain Locke International Award for her writing. In 2013, the Philadelphia Museum of Art opened an exhibition that featured some of her abstract sculptures from her series on Malcolm X, the Malcolm X Steles. In 2014, she released her latest poetry book called Everytime a Knot is Undone, a God is Released.
February 17, 2010
author Barbara Chase-RiboudBarbara Chase-Riboud's novel Sally Hemings (see review) shattered stereotypes about Thomas Jefferson and the slave woman who bore his children. First published in 1979, it's now available in a new edition from Chicago Review Press with an afterword almost as interesting as the novel itself (though it could never be as beautiful or touching). It was great to have Barbara visit the blog on February 17, 2010, to talk about Sally Hemings.
Sally Hemings was originally published five years after Fawn Brodie's controversial 1974 biography of Thomas Jefferson, which proposed that all of the children of Sally Hemings were most likely fathered by Thomas Jefferson. How big a role did this biography play in the inspiration for your novel?
Contrary to popular legend, Brodie's 800-page psychological study had only a short chapter on Sally Hemings in which she merely raised the longstanding question of the Hemings relationship, posing the question but never asserting the relationship as fact. But the book was reviewed only on this aspect, and Brodie never recovered from the venom and accusations directed towards her. I believed the circumstantial and historical evidence in her book was sound and conducted my own investigations, convinced the relationship started in Paris where I reside. Brodie's review of my book said that I had taken the "big imaginative leap" that made the affair come to life.
In Sally Hemings, you write about a spiral staircase leading up from Jefferson's bedroom in Monticello to a narrow passageway above the room. Is that staircase fact or fiction?
Fact. This tiny staircase first came to my attention in the early 1970s when I discovered it in a National Geographic photograph from the 1930s. In the photo, it was built into the alcove behind a narrow door at the foot of Jefferson's bed. An accompanying caption wondered if the "mysterious" staircase led to a bodyguard's room overhead. Wanting to see it for myself, I took the public tour at Monticello, waited until the guide had left the room, and ran up the narrow steps to discover a brick passageway that led nowhere and looked down on the room below. I incorporated the staircase in my novel. In September 1979, after Sally Hemings was published in April, I returned to Monticello with a reporter and a photographer from People magazine. To my great surprise, the staircase was gone and in its place was a gaping hole. The stairway had been torn out the night of July third. The vandalism shocked me. I've written more about this staircase in the afterword to the new Chicago Review Press edition of Sally Hemings.
How did you feel when the DNA evidence emerged in 1998 showing that at least one of Sally Hemings's children was fathered by a man in the Jefferson family?
I felt, of course, vindicated after all the howls of denial and especially for Fawn Brodie, who had died in the meanwhile, in part because of the chagrin she experienced (we both did) around the attacks on the veracity of the story.
As a white woman, I would hesitate to write a novel in which a black character was a central figure. Yet you write very effectively about Thomas Jefferson, a white character who is one of the more complex and interesting figures in your novel, or any novel. What's your secret?
I don't write as a white or black woman; neither do I write about "white" or "black" characters. I write about human beings and the human condition, which is universal. Only the social details change. Human emotions and entanglements remain the same throughout history. I did hesitate to put words in the mouth of Jefferson that I didn't find in history books - anyone would. It took me four-fifths of the writing of the book to be able to do it with confidence.
Jefferson's political enemies vilified him for having sexual relations with his black slave. In our own time, numerous politicians have been accused of sexual misdeeds. Do you think these are legitimate issues in political campaigns?
I have always considered this relationship tragic - almost a Greek tragedy. Others have vulgarised it but it stands now, I believe, above this crassness. I believe a thirty-eight-year, seven-children relationship to be more than a sex scandal. As for sex and politics in the U.S., I believe sex, if it does not influence the working job of a politician, is his own business. Power is an extraordinary drug which goes to the head of both the great and the mediocre. You cannot punish one and leave the other free, and in our hypocritical and pseudo-puritanical society, historians do not dare to make a choice between the truly important and the trivial. Now that the DNA has resolved the question, historians are busy trying to make the tragedy into the trivial and once again push it into the secret unknown, but I doubt if the public will allow it.
Barbara Chase-Riboud talks about her “Malcolm X” series
In addition to her work as an artist, Barbara Chase-Riboud is an acclaimed poet and novelist, recognized for her historical novel Sally Hemings (1979), which challenged official American history. In 1969, Chase-Riboud began her series of twenty “Malcolm X” stelae, monumental sculptures made up of metal and fibers such as silk, rayon, and cotton. She completed the series in 2016. Fourteen of those works are currently on view in her solo show at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York through November 4, 2017.
BY THE TIME I began the first four “Malcolm X” stelae in 1969, I was already past my Giacometti stage. I was living in Paris and looking for a way to get rid of a sculpture’s legs and anything that had to do with naturalism. I remember telling my friend and fellow artist Sheila Hicks, “I’m trying to get the legs off of these sculptures and the sculptures off the base.” Finally, we came up with the idea of covering up the legs so that the sculptures seemed to be hovering. She said, “OK Barbara, I’ll show you one knot, and then you’re on your own.” So that’s what she did: she showed me one knot, and I found the material that seemed to work.
I began using silk like you would use clay, sculpting it, which is exactly the opposite of what Sheila does. From that, the other skirts of the works evolved. Sometimes they’re more baroque than others. I had decided that the first ones would be silk because silk is such a strong material and it’s practically indestructible, like bronze is indestructible.
When I finished those first skirts I realized something extraordinary had happened between the metal and the fiber. I hadn’t planned it that way. The fiber became the heavy, strong element, and the bronze became the liquid, flowing, moving material. It was a miracle, and then it began to happen over and over again. I thought, “This is an accident. This is never going to happen again,” but it did. You have motion with the bronze, and you have stability with the silk, but it’s really the silk that’s moving—the threads move all the time no matter what you do. They’re powerful. Yet, it’s the combination of the two textures that makes works even more imposing than if they had been all bronze. The light also transforms the metal. There is a metamorphosis that takes place; this is the magic of these objects.
I was going in my own direction toward abstraction, and I decided to dedicate these stelae to Malcolm X because he was dead. It was a matter of memory, of doing a monument—not to his philosophy, but in the Latin sense of memoria. The work is pure abstraction, pure beauty—that’s the only thing I’m really interested in. Most activism sacrifices the aesthetic part of making art for the message. I never do that. For me, the message is the message.
Maybe people have caught up with me. I think that’s the case. I don’t use the word expatriate—I think it’s absolutely insane to use expatriate in the twenty-first century. I’ve never used it, and I don’t answer to that label. That’s just one more label added onto all the other labels that are slapped on me. I reject labels; creative artists don’t deserve them. It’s the last thing that we need, and since art has absolutely nothing to do with most labels it’s insane to talk about us in terms of movements, politics, aesthetics, race, age, beauty, or whatever. But I’ve been out here for a long time. This isn’t something I discovered the day before yesterday. It’s only because of the suppression of our history of America that we have arrived at a boiling point. It’s like an ulcer; it just exploded. We have to deal with something that should have been dealt with in 1865.
Memory Is Everything: Barbara Chase-Riboud in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist
Barbara Chase-Riboud is an outstanding figure in contemporary art, narrative, and poetry. In this conversation, she gives us an overview of a career spanning five decades: from her early adventures in sculpture as a seven-year-old girl in Philadelphia to her iconic series of work dedicated to Malcolm X, through a formative period spent in Italy.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST: How did you come to art? Was there an initial epiphany? Tell me how it all started.
BARBARA CHASE-RIBOUD: When I was seven years old I went to the Fletcher Academy in Philadelphia. I won a sculpture prize in the adult evening classes—a beautiful small Greek vase—and I figured that was terrific. I also attended classes at the Philadelphia Museum when I was seven. When I was sixteen, I was one of the first, if not the first, woman to enter the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Certainly the youngest ever.
BCR: One of my woodcuts had won a Seventeen magazine art contest, and the prize was an exhibition at ACA Gallery in New York. Bill Lieberman came in and bought the woodcut. He didn’t know who I was or how old I was.
HUO: Very often an artist does student work, and then transitions into a more or less mature stage. Where would you say your catalogue raisonné begins? Very early, like sixteen? Or even earlier? What was your first work that you consider valid—not a student work?
BCR: I’ll show you. Then you can decide whether you consider it valid or not. For me it is valid.
HUO: No, what matters is your view, what you felt in the beginning.
BCR: But I didn’t really think of it as being valid until a few years ago.
HUO: It’s beautiful. Reba.
BCR: Thank you. It’s very nice.
HUO: Who were your heroes and heroines in the 1950s?
BCR: Well, in 1957, at the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds, one of my heroes, Ben Shahn, bought my first bronze sculpture, which was on exhibit there at an Italian gallery. It didn’t really impact what I did until I got out of high school and went to the Tyler School of Fine Arts, and then got the Whitney fellowship to Rome to attend the American Academy. That’s when everything began, really. It began with Egypt, as a matter of fact.
HUO: With Egypt?
BCR: Yes, because when I was in Rome on New Year’s Eve, I joined a famous couple who were at the Academy but leaving for Alexandria. They said to me, “Why are you stuck in the American Academy when there is the whole world out there? There is Egypt, and there is this, and there is that.” I ran up the stairs and packed a bag in fifteen minutes and got on the boat with them. And then at the end of the trip, which took five days, they suddenly abandoned me on the dock in Alexandria.
BCR: All alone with my little stipend. I wasn’t broke, but I had no idea what to do. So I went up to the nearest policeman and he asked, “Where are you going?” and I said, “I don’t know.” He took one look at me and said: “the Hilton hotel.” So, I went to the Hilton hotel. In the lobby there was a very handsome and distinguished gentleman, all in white with a white Panama, who wanted to know what I was doing wandering around Egypt without a chaperone. When I told him that my friends had abandoned me, he said, “Look, I’m giving you a ticket to Cairo. You go straight to the embassy. I’m going to call them and tell them you’re on your way. And don’t do anything, don’t talk to anybody. Go straight there.” He turned out to be the president of Coca-Cola in Egypt.
HUO: What prompted you to go to Egypt at such a young age?
BCR: It was a challenge. The couple dared me to do it. That’s all. When I got to the embassy, the cultural attaché was a black guy. And he said, “What are you doing, wandering around Egypt by yourself? You’re going to end up in a harem.” He took me home to his wife and daughters. I stayed in Egypt for more than a month, during which time I traveled up the Nile by train and boat to the Valley of the Kings and as far as Khartoum. When I left Egypt, I went to Athens, Delphi, and finally Istanbul.
HUO: So, it was a proper grand tour.
BCR: I didn’t know what I was doing, but everybody sort of took care of me, so I managed to get back to the Academy in one piece. No harems, no kidnapping.
HUO: The first person who told me about you was my friend, the late photographer René Burri. I worked with him on a book just before he passed away. He had great photos of you. How did you meet?
BCR: I met him in the Valley of the Kings. We and another German photographer who was also there had this big argument about who should take the last boat across the Nile. Finally we just burst out laughing, thinking that here we are, these three stupid people arguing in the middle of nowhere, with the pyramids looking down on us thinking, “Who are these people and what are they doing?” So, we became friends. I saw him again in Cairo and again in New York, and then in Paris, where he introduced me to Marc Riboud, my first husband.
HUO: So that’s how you connected!
BCR: And we stayed very, very close friends. I was also close friends with his wife and children.
HUO: Let’s talk about the beginnings of your sculpture.
BCR: I started when I was seven years old. I never really drew or painted. It was always sculpture from the very beginning. Naturalistic, of course. People thought that I was some kind of prodigy, so I got all these prizes. Then I went to the American Academy, which is where the photograph for the Ebony magazine cover was taken. I am the only artist who has ever been on the cover of Ebony. Nobody else, not even Romare Bearden.
HUO: It was an incredible moment in Rome in the late 1950s. Robert Rauschenberg went there, Cy Twombly went there. There was a whole circle around Mimmo Rotella and Domenico Gnoli.
BCR: I knew Domenico Gnoli very well. He was an old boyfriend of mine. I met him in that magical year, 1957 to 1958, during the first Spoleto Festival.
HUO: What was so special about that year?
BCR: It was the first Spoleto Festival, and my first solo show in Spoleto. So it was a big deal for me. I was this little girl from Philadelphia who was suddenly in the center of it all in Europe, meeting people I never dreamed I would meet.
HUO: You also worked in Cinecittà, I read.
BCR: That’s how I got the money to make the trips! Because I was an American, the movie studios had to pay me union rates—something like ten times more that whatever they paid Italians. I had to have a contract and an agent. I was an extra in Ben Hur, of all things. And then other Italian historical films. I made a lot of money, which paid for my sculptures and the foundry. How else was I going to pay for the foundry? Throughout my entire career, one way or another, I always managed financially, although usually through literature, not through sculpture. In the 1970s, when I wasn’t selling much and things were tough, my books brought in money so I could still make sculptures and cast.
HUO: When did you start writing? You’re a very accomplished novelist and poet.
BCR: It started in 1978, when I discovered the story of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, and I begged every writer I knew to write their story, but everybody was too busy with their own projects. Finally, Toni Morrison, who was my poetry editor at Random House, said, “You have been talking about this woman for a year. Why don’t you just write it yourself? How long could it take you? Three months?” It took me three years. Of course we had no idea that it was going to be so controversial, or so successful. It was translated into eleven or twelve languages, and it won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize as the best novel by an American woman in 1979. It sold more than three million copies worldwide.
HUO: How did you come across the extraordinary story of Hemings and Jefferson?
BCR: I read a biography of Jefferson in which there was one chapter on the possibility of this woman’s relationship with him, and the historian said that it was still speculation, even though it was very well known in the black community. I went back, looked at all the documents, and decided it was true, and that it was a story that I wanted to write. I wanted to write it as a kind of epic poem of a young slave girl in Paris during the Revolution and Toni said, “Look, Barbara, they don’t want it unless it’s a big historical novel.”
HUO: You unearthed a buried history. I mean, in a way, it’s a protest against forgetting.
BCR: That’s what I do with my sculpture, as a matter of fact.
HUO: So, memory is important?
BCR: Memory is everything. If the Jeffersonians had just simply not said anything, not started screaming, calling me names, and all kinds of things, nothing would have happened. It was my first novel—it would have come and gone, probably. But they attacked memory, denied, covered up the facts, tried to destroy me writing books and articles. If they hadn’t attacked me and memory, they might have succeeded in suppressing the truth. As it turned out, Monticello has just announced that “they have found the room of Sally Hemings” after insisting that she never existed and having battled until Dr. Foster’s DNA evidence was published. And everybody scrambled to get on the bandwagon, forgetting that I was still standing. None of my attackers have ever apologized to me with the exception of the late great Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
HUO: So, what was the next book?
BCR: Valide, which is about slavery in the harem in the Turkish sultanate. It’s very complicated: a kidnapped American creole’s dramatic rise from harem slave to the pinnacle of power as Validé, empress of the Ottoman empire, mother of the sultan. There is a whole story about the rivalry of Catherine the Great and the Validé’s son, Mahmud II. It’s an epic about the Muslim world, but also a story about slavery.
HUO: And the third book?
BCR: Then came Portrait of a Nude Woman as Cleopatra, which won the Carl Sandburg Poetry Prize in 1988. Then Echo of Lions, my Amistad book.
HUO: Why is Echo of Lions so important for you?
BCR: It’s not so important for me, but it was important for the world because Steven Spielberg’s screenwriter plagiarized it in his film on the Amistad slave ship. It’s very long, but you can’t put it down if you start to read it.
HUO: What prompted you to write it?
BCR: It’s the story of the first successful slave revolt in America. I felt that it was urgent to write, and then who did I take it to? Steven Spielberg.
HUO: To get it further out into the world?
BCR: I wanted somebody to make it into a fantastic big blockbuster movie. And who better than Steven Spielberg? He said, “Oh, it’s a terrific book, but it’s too long and too complicated for a movie. It should be a television series.” And left it at that. Three years later, I sold the rights to Dustin Hoffman, who wanted to play John Quincy Adams. Three years later, Spielberg announced that he was doing a movie on the Amistad. When we finally got hold of the script we realized that there were 142 striking similarities. Anyway, it ended in an undisclosed settlement. But it took more than a year.
HUO: And the fifth book?
BCR: The President’s Daughter, which is the prequel to Sally Hemings, the story of Jefferson and Hemings through the eyes of their daughter, Harriet Hemings. It goes from the American Revolution through the French Revolution to the Civil War in Gettysburg, where we find Harriet in the middle of the battle with Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address juxtaposed, running through her head. Then I wrote a book about the so-called Hottentot Venus, a South African woman who was exhibited in Paris in the nineteenth century as a kind of phenomenon, and whom I had seen. She was actually in the Musée de l’homme in a kind of glass cage. Finally in 2002 they took her down and returned her skeleton to South Africa at the request of Nelson Mandela, at which point I decided to write the book.
HUO: Let’s talk about your poetry. I’m interested that you began by illustrating Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. Who are your heroes or heroines in poetry?
BCR: Anna Akhmatova.
HUO: Of the Russian avant-garde?
BCR: Yes, I love all of the Russian avant-garde, but particularly her. I will send you a poem that I recently wrote that’s really for a movie. It’s about Anna Akhmatova and Amedeo Modigliani. I am certain that the Modigliani at MoMA is a portrait of Anna. All you have to do is look at it and then look at photographs of her to know that when she had just gotten married and returned to Paris briefly, they had a brief affair. She always denied it, but it’s in her poetry. You can find it if you know where to look.
HUO: I feel like that story connects to Sally Hemings—meaning, the unacknowledged affair—though from a very different angle.
BCR: I’ve never thought of it like that. As a matter of fact, I still don’t know why, up until the end of her life, Akhmatova said that she and Modigliani were just friends.
HUO: What about James Baldwin? When did he become important for you?
BCR: I met James through my first husband. We went to Formentor, Spain, for their literary prize ceremony that Marc had to photograph. Everybody was there, including Henry Miller and James Baldwin. We had this crazy drunken lunch at the Hotel Pont Royal. It was the same year that the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein received the same honors. There were jokes about “a Jew and a Negro” being in the Élysée without being the waiters.
HUO: What inspired you about Baldwin?
BCR: He was an adorable man. A very sweet man. Unhappy in his skin, both as a gay person and a black man. There was something very touching, very moving, about him. You always wanted to hug him and say, “It is not as bad as all this. You’ll get through.”
HUO: When you were at Yale, a lot of architects were also there: my friend Norman Foster spent time at Yale, and Richard Rogers. Did you meet them?
BCR: Yes, I met them. I was also close to Kenneth Frampton, and I met James Stirling.
HUO: You almost married him!
BCR: Yes, but I was a runaway bride at the end. He was the one who convinced me that I would never be an architect because I didn’t have a mathematical mind, which is true.
HUO: But at the same time, you do connect to architecture through your public works.
BCR: Yes, definitely. Africa Rising is the biggest one. That’s eighteen feet, at 290 Broadway, the FBI and the IRS building. In order to see the sculpture you have to get through security. There is somebody standing there with guns while you walk around it. The only hope is that they take it out of the lobby of the building and put it on the street on the Reade side.
HUO: That is, of course, part of your bigger Africa Rising story, no? There is a poem that goes with it.
BCR: The poem was written before the sculpture was made, as a matter of fact. The poem was in my first collection.
HUO: There are lots smaller sculptures also related to Africa Rising, I understand?
BCR: Yes, and lot of the sculptures are also, as far as I’m concerned, related to architecture. If you look carefully at them, they are big buildings in one way or another.
HUO: It’s like a hybrid reality, because you also added ropes and textile elements to the bronze. When did you begin the hybridization using organic materials?
BCR: When the sculptures themselves became abstracted. They still had legs, and the ropes would cover the legs to eliminate the base and the legs, which made them naturalistic, even surrealistic, but nevertheless—I needed to get rid of the legs. I either had to do that or change my style. I wanted to go completely into abstraction, so I did a whole series of sculptures with bones, which turned out to be totally abstract, but they still had the legs.
HUO: In the mid-1960s you asked Sheila Hicks, whom you went to school with, how to hide the legs and move beyond the tyranny of the base. Hicks told you about this card-like wool, and you began to use black wool and a knot that she taught you to do.
BCR: She said, “Barbara, I’m going to show you one knot, okay? You take it from there, but this is enough for you to make a skirt to hide the bottom of the sculpture.”
HUO: In Malcolm X of 1969 you incorporated fiber and black bronze.
BCR: It’s an amazing sculpture. The other black bronze that suddenly took on a life of its own is Confessions for Myself. It is even bigger, with the same looming black wool that sort of covers everything up.
HUO: Did you meet Malcolm X?
BCR: No, never. It was only after he was assassinated that it suddenly dawned on me that he was an important man and that this epic event should be commemorated in some way, so that’s what I decided to do.
HUO: So, you made the decision in the late 1960s to make a whole series of steles about Malcolm X?
BCR: Dedicated to Malcolm X—they were not about Malcolm X, because there was a big argument about the fact that they were too sophisticated to have anything to do with Malcolm X. They were too well crafted, but that was my style. That had nothing to do with the title of the steles, which were dedicated to his memory, to what happened to him, to his influence as a world figure. That’s how I got the title of being radical.
HUO: The first one, Artist Walking on the Via Appia, is the product of a specific technique: wax modeling. You made these sheets of thin wax and then used them for the casting process. Can you tell me a little about this? They all have these sheets. The sheets are very present.
BCR: I’m very present in everything because, of course, all of these sculptures are unique. There is only one, and it cannot be reproduced. The delicacy and the thinness of the wax allowed me to make huge undercuts that I would never have been able to achieve in plaster or clay or anything else, and that’s how my style evolved. If it hadn’t been for those wax sheets, I wouldn’t have a style.
HUO: So, that was the invention of your language?
HUO: Do you have sculptures outdoors? Steles for public spaces?
BCR: They are all indoors at the moment. They can be outdoors if the steles are made out of something that is waterproof, as in the case of the Africa Rising, or Black Dream Column in the New York State Office Building, where what would normally be the ropes and the fibers are cast in bronze, which is very easy to do. I also did a project for the Yale campus called Woman’s Monument, for the courtyard of what is now Grace Murray Hopper College, and one for the Philadelphia Parkway. That last has no cords, as I hadn’t yet come to the issue of cords and fiber. It was water and bronze, or water and aluminum, used in the same way.
HUO: You’ve done so many works and have so much experience in literature and the arts. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a book of advice to a young poet. What would be your advice to a young poet in 2017?
BCR: To travel, to open your eyes and see as much as you possibly can. That’s getting harder and harder to do. Imagine, I was in Egypt and there was a war going on, the Suez Canal crisis. The English had left Egypt. I was on planes and trains with nobody on them except me because everybody had left. Now, you can’t go to the Middle East without thinking about the fact that somebody may blow you up at any moment.
HUO: You have a lot of amazing drawings here in your book about unrealized monuments. I wanted to ask you about all these unrealized monuments. There is Man Ray’s The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse. There is Peter Paul Rubens’s Mother’s Monument in Antwerp, a Cardinal Ricci monument in Rome, Chevalier de Saint Georges in Paris, a Foley Square monument.
BCR: Anybody that strikes my fancy. A lot of them have poems connected to them, or some other connection to something I’ve written or am going to write. Or something I’ve read.
HUO: Is there an unrealized project that you haven’t been able to do, but would like to?
BCR: I just thought of one this morning. It’s called Meta-Mondrian, with steles of polished aluminum and between the steles—well, the scale model has silk, but my idea was to do it outside, so it would use water, as in Wheaton Plaza, where it went between the two screens. On top of everything else, it makes music
BCR: It’s fantastic. It makes beautiful music. As if at last I would become an architect and make a big building instead of a sculpture.
HUO: I must ask you about handwriting. I started a movement to save handwriting because it is endangered in our digital age. And I know you likewise have a handwriting obsession. I’ve seen your amazing pieces of the 1970s in which the handwriting is in silk and paper.
BCR: They are parts of drawings. I mean, they are handwriting and they are drawings done with fiber, but also as a kind of repetition of the kind of handwriting I used as embellishment for the charcoal drawings. The drawings and the poetry are one. They are almost inseparable. I never know where one begins and where one ends.
HUO: Do you draw every day? Is drawing a daily practice?
BCR: No, I do binge drawings. I did twenty-five drawings in three weeks in Milan.
HUO: In Paris, you don’t really draw?
BCR: I can draw anywhere.
At the Art Museum, a dream fulfilled
Barbara Chase-Riboud vividly remembers traveling from her home in South Philadelphia to the great temple on a hill, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she first took art classes as a little girl.
by By Stephan Salisbury, Inquirer Culture Writer
Published Sep 12, 2013
Barbara Chase-Riboud vividly remembers traveling from her home in South Philadelphia to the great temple on a hill, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she first took art classes as a little girl.
"One of my dreams I can remember, going to classes at the museum, was that one day I was going to have an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum and I was going to have a banner across the facade," said Chase-Riboud, now 74. "I remember very well. It's been a long road. I'm a very old lady!"
Long road indeed.
From Philadelphia to Paris, China, Africa, and now back to her hometown, at least briefly, for something achingly close to that first great childhood ambition and dream. (Paris has been her home for half a century.)
On Saturday, a show of Chase-Riboud's work, "The Malcolm X Steles," will open in the museum's Alter Gallery for a run through Jan. 20. The show consists of about 40 works, including five of the great bronze and fabric sculptures - the "steles" - dedicated to Malcolm, five related sculptures, a dozen or so drawings made during the 1960s and '70s, at the time the Malcolm works were conceived and developed, and about 20 of her Monument Drawings from the mid-1990s. Curated by Carlos Basualdo, the museum's curator of contemporary art, the show will travel to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in the spring.
"I'm seeing sculpture I haven't seen for 30 years," Chase-Riboud said the other day, as she chatted before beginning the installation of the show. She had just spruced up a bronze sculpture dedicated to the late museum director Anne d'Harnoncourt, carefully repositioning what appeared to be immobile bronze cords but were in fact braided and painted silk, easily manipulated. ("They seem to be bronze," she said, "but in fact they are only thread.")
This exhibition of her monumental sculpture and works on paper barely hints at Chase-Riboud's multiple achievements. She is a not only an innovative and deeply thoughtful sculptor and visual artist, she is a distinguished poet and writer of fiction with multiple novels to her credit, including the best-selling Sally Hemmings (1979), which was savagely attacked at the time of its publication for what many scholars viewed as a fanciful portrayal of Thomas Jefferson's long-running love affair with his enslaved maidservant.
That affair has since been solidly confirmed through DNA analysis, and Chase-Riboud's novel and the mountains of research she put into it have been thoroughly vindicated.
Her multifaceted, award-winning work as artist, poet, and novelist was also noted in Congress this week, when Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) proclaimed her "a truly renaissance woman" whose achievement is recognized around the world."
"What I've been trying to do, certainly with the books, has been to include the black presence in American history," she said. "I hit the jackpot [with Sally Hemmings]. All of my books have something to with excavating these invisibles in history that should have biographies, that should have monuments, that should have all these things but don't - for political reasons, for gender reasons, for racial reasons, for whatever.
"This was my mission, and I think it began when I went to Europe for the first time and realized I was not the center of the world - that there were continents to explore and civilizations which had nothing to do with my upbringing or my education. They were important. Not only important, they were essential, and finally they turned out as essential for me. I don't think I would have developed my style, my mature sculptures, without having the experience of traveling around the world, brushing against all these other cultures and all these other civilizations, both ancient and modern."
Chase-Riboud speaks quietly and fluently, her black hair hanging straight, her slender hands occasionally rising for emphasis, her voice clear and faintly melodic. Her sense of American history and of her own past comes effortlessly to illustrate one point or another, but there is humor too, and a strong sense of irony.
She began the Malcolm X series in the 1960s, after Malcolm's assassination. But the pieces were not inspired by that horrific event. In fact, it was only when she was well along with the first four in the series that, still feeling the sting, she decided to dedicate the series to the slain leader.
The project actually began as an effort to work through formal problems, and the steles' characteristic fabric "skirts" are the result of Chase-Riboud's decision to stabilize the large sculptures without revealing armature or creating "legs."
In this formal answer to aesthetic and technical questions, a distinctly abstract but anthropomorphic form emerged, sculptures that suggest figures, but are, in fact, something else. In the baroque manipulation of forms, these pieces become suggestive emblems of black American pain and transcendence.
"I wanted something that was purely abstract because that was the way I was going, and I wanted something that would also be a kind of personage, but a personage not recognized as such," she said. "Something incredible happened when I put the fiber and the bronze together and suddenly I had these steles."
The pieces, which owe much to the intricacies and flamboyance of Bernini, were attacked at the time they were first shown by several eminent white art critics who suggested that Chase-Riboud was presenting something inauthentic, as though "black" art should only reflect non-European tribalism. That was a surprise to Chase-Riboud at the time. She says she didn't have "a clue that this would create a kind of furor."
The Art Museum, she says, "is not about race" nor is it about "black art." What the museum is exhibiting is the work "of an American artist and her discoveries as an artist and as a poet."
"I don't want to talk about expatriatism," she said. "I don't want to talk about negritude. This is strictly about art and literature."
- Barbara Chase-Riboud bio
- Interview with Barbara Chase-Riboud
- Barbara Chase-Riboud talks about her “Malcolm X” series
- Barbara Chase-Riboud in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist
- At the Art Museum, a dream fulfilled
About Pickens Museum
Location and Hours of Operation
Artists at Pickens Museum
- J. Chester Armstrong
- Bryant Baker
- Jolene Bird
- Robin Bray
- Barbara Chase Riboud
- Sergey Chernomorets
- Charles Cordier
- Jo Davidson
- Andrew Scott DeJesse
- Donald De Lue
- Roger Disney
- Yatika Starr Fields
- Espi Frazier
- John Dale Free
- John Free, Jr.
- Mitch Gyson
- Jeff Ham
- Robert Hardee
- Hugh Harrell Jr.
- K. Henderson
- Bri Hermanson
- Malvina Hoffman
- Allan Houser
- Patrick Dean Hubbell
- Malvin Gray Johnson
- William Kilpatrick
- Tom Lea
- Becky Mannschreck
- Raoul Middleman
- Woodrow Nash
- Ed Natiya
- Clyde Otipoby
- Gene Pearson
- Daniel Pickens
- Erika Pochybova
- Charles Pratt
- Bill Rabbit
- Traci Rabbit
- Tanya Rafael
- Richard Recchia
- Faith Ringgold
- Josué Sánchez
- Fritz Scholder
- Stephen Schwark
- Isaac Shari
- Scott Storm
- C J Wells
Articles about Pickens Museum
- Pickens Museum/NOC Mural Dedication Set for June 16th
- Yatika Starr Fields Completes Mural for Pickens Museum May 12, 2021
- Pickens Museum and NOC Announce Mural by Osage Artist Yatika Starr Fields May 5, 2021
- Osage Warrior in the Enemy Camp (Counting Coup) by John Free March 29, 2021
- Pickens Museum Displays Route 66 Murals by Robert Hardee March 29, 2021
- Pickens Museum Opens Exhibit of Sculpture by Donald De Lue at NOC March 24, 2021
- Pickens Museum partners with NOC February 23, 2021
- Three Faces of the Pioneer Woman February 21, 2020
- Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Faith Ringgold February 21, 2020
- Exhibition: "Winter in New York" January 22, 2020
- The Turquoise Guitar by Jolene Bird November 26, 2018
- World's Largest Naja August 29, 2018
- A 1949 Hudson Limousine August 29, 2018
- Meet the Museum Design Team May 21, 2018
- A Ponca City Mystery April 5, 2018
- Tonya Rafael Visits Ponca City February 2018
2015 and before
- Sculptor Bryant Baker's Lost Masterpiece November 3, 2015
- Pioneer Woman Models Come Home February 26, 2010
- Pioneer Woman Models Should Return to Ponca City July 13, 2007