Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
Most artists will tell you, the pieces create themselves. You’re just the vehicle or the vessel that this creativity is going through.
Part of the The Oral History Project series.
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
As I write this, a global pandemic has forced us to take a collective hard look at the discrepancies between established perspectives and experienced realities, as the precarity of art-making and participating in critical cultural production has abruptly grown, as artists, writers, and curators are forced to reexamine their roles more urgently than ever—Dindga McCannon’s work provides a beacon of sustained engagement in the processes of social imagination. After all, “singing in dark times,” as Bertolt Brecht so eloquently put it, requires not only a keen eye for the truth and the courage to speak it, but a carefully considered choice of instrument with which to “cunningly spread the truth.” McCannon’s practice spans several decades and struggles—some more personal, others more public, all of them equally political—as well as a multiplicity of materials and methods, all born of specific forms of necessity and utility. Depending on the availability of resources and their adequacy regarding the needs of an image or story, its audience and site of engagement, its aesthetic and pedagogical function, the artist works in painting, drawing, and collage, in fibers and prints, writing and illustration, patterned abstraction and popular figuration, archival documentation and historical fiction. McCannon is the author of several books and a painter of murals as much as a studio artist and an artisan. She is a founding member of the artist collectives Weusi and “Where We At.” Her works frequently incorporate and juxtapose multiple styles and methods that poetically and generously reframe the canonical aesthetics of history and representation, bringing to the fore latent narratives, experiences, and appearances. By opening up the past and the present as sites of competing perspectives and possibilities, McCannon extends us an invitation to reimagine the future.
Philip Glahn, April 21, 2020
The Oral History Project is dedicated to collecting, developing, and preserving the stories of distinguished visual artists of the African Diaspora. The Oral History Project has organized interviews including: Wangechi Mutu by Deborah Willis, Kara Walker & Larry Walker, Edward Clark by Jack Whitten, Adger Cowans by Carrie Mae Weems, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe by Kalia Brooks, Melvin Edwards by Michael Brenson, Terry Adkins by Calvin Reid, Stanley Whitney by Alteronce Gumby, Gerald Jackson by Stanley Whitney, Eldzier Cortor by Terry Carbone, Peter Bradley by Steve Cannon, Quincy Troupe & Cannon Hersey, James Little by LeRonn P. Brooks, William T. Williams by Mona Hadler, Maren Hassinger by Lowery Stokes Sims, Linda Goode Bryant by Rujeko Hockley, Janet Olivia Henry & Sana Musasama, Willie Cole by Nancy Princenthal, Dindga McCannon by Philip Glahn, and Odili Donald Odita by Ugochukwu C. Smooth Nzewi. Donate now to support our future oral histories.
BOMB would like to thank Steve Cossman for contributing his time and talent in order to photograph Dindga for this oral history.
Philip Glahn October 29th, 2019. Dindga, why don’t we start at the beginning; tell us about where you were born, how you grew up, your family, and how things developed for you.
Dindga McCannon Well, I was supposed to have been born at Harlem Hospital, but they didn’t have room for me, so I ended up being born on what is now Roosevelt Island. The hospital there was an insane asylum. I don’t know if I was born at that hospital or next to it, but anyhow, I was born close to Harlem. (laughter) I was raised in Harlem by my mother Lottie Kilgo Porter, my grandmother, Hattie Kilgo, and later on I had a stepfather, Albert Porter. We moved out of Harlem when my grandmother died in 1960. I must have been about fourteen when we moved to the Bronx.
Around age ten, I decided that I was going to be an artist—this is 1950—everybody, including my family, thought that I had lost my mind.
PG (laughter) How did you decide that?
DM I loved drawing and making things. I started by copying the art in comic books. Then I started playing with paint. In the third or fourth grade there was a young lady named Lorraine Coleman who had huge Coca-Cola glasses—we were in the same class–she always sat in the back of the classroom. I went back there one day to talk to her, but she was painting. She spent the whole fourth grade in the back drawing and painting. She was using tempera. So I went home and somehow managed to get a hold of a tempera set and started painting and really loved the way it made me feel. So I said, “I’m going to be an artist!” That was my first step into insanity.
PG (laughter) Was your family artistic at all?
DM No. All the women did the needle arts, but nobody was really an artist. Crocheting, knitting, sewing—as a young woman back in those days, those were required skills, because you were being groomed to go to work and also to be a wife. A wife had to be able to cook and clean and do all the household stuff. Those things were passed down to me and it was not like I had an option, I just did them. I was closer to my grandmother because my mother had gotten married and moved over to the east side of Harlem and left me with my grandmother. My grandma had a business where we would make aprons and then she would take them to church on Sunday and sell them. That was my first business venture.
PG How old were you then?
DM Around ten, eleven, twelve.
PGSo you knew you were an artist from the start.
DMYeah. When I got to junior high school, I was really entrenched in this idea of being an artist. I wanted to go to Art and Design, but my mother refused to send me because she said that if I was an artist, then I would starve—which was not a lie. However, being young, you say, “I’m going to be different. That’s not going to happen to me.” I had also gotten into the High School of Fashion Industries. For my mother, if I wasn’t going to be a clerk—that’s what she wanted me to do—then I could at least sew and be a fashion designer. So I went to FIT because she refused to let me go to Art and Design. I was going to forge my papers and go anyhow, but I figured sooner or later I would get caught and my mother would literally kill me, so I reluctantly went to Fashion. That was high school. (The struggles within my family about me being an artist lead to me leaving home, the day of, a few hours into, my eighteenth birthday!)
PGFIT is now in Midtown, right? Was it then?
DMYeah, same place. It was on Twenty-Fourth Street. That was the high school, I assume that’s still there, and the college is on Twenty-Eighth Street. We were the first group of African Americans to attend FIT in the fashion design classes, 1961 or so. (These were the courses that groomed the students to be fashion designers, not factory workers.) Of course, there was a lot of prejudice at the time. I failed something, I think it was design, at midterm and rather than suggesting I get some help or a tutor, they said, “You have two choices, you can either go into the program where you sew for six periods a day, with no college prep courses, or you could leave.” At that time, I didn’t even know if I wanted to go to college, but I had enough sense not to cut my options. So I chose to leave. I went to the High School of Commerce, right on the block where they were building Lincoln Center. So we had to put up with all of that noise from construction. The school was terrible; it was a real ghetto school. I think my teachers were glad to see me simply because I didn’t say much. I just quietly drew in the back of the room while everybody else was causing total mayhem. That was the last year that Commerce existed. After that it was torn down to make room for Lincoln Center.
PGDid that school offer you any sort of art education?
DMNo. However, what happened was I got a teacher, Ms. Angelina, who was very sympathetic towards my artistic leanings. She was the English teacher and she allowed me to illustrate my book reports. I think my first illustration for her class was The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and she encouraged me. I even went to her house, on Eighty-Sixth Street in New York right off of Central Park West.
Then, I couldn’t find a job the summer I graduated, so I went to the American Red Cross and signed up as a volunteer. They sent me to work in a school down the block from where I had lived in Harlem. The director, Mr. James White, was glad to have me, and he allowed me to start teaching, so that was my first art job. One day he came in and said, “You know this weekend I saw all of these artists out in the street in the projects on 129th Street. You should go over there. They showed black art and perhaps they will be able to aid you in your artistic endeavors. The next weekend I was there.
The group was called The Twentieth Century Art Creators (a year later there was a BIG fight over what the philosophy was going to be and the group split. I went with the group that became the Weusi Artist Collective.
This was a large group of men and women who believed in black art for black people. Who believed in Black Power. Who believed that our work was just as valid as any other culture’s. Who believed we could grow our audiences and could find people who would buy our work. Many were from Harlem but there were also artists from New Jersey and Brooklyn.
PGThis was in 19—
DM—’65. Yeah, it may have been ’64. So, I met this group of black artists and it was perfect timing because the whole civil rights movement was going on and I believed very much in our struggle for equality in the then (and now) racist America. I went to City College at night for almost two years and quit because I was learning far more in my sessions with the Weusi artists. I was bored stiff in the art history class. The teacher was awful! (laughter) Everybody was bored! The textbook for that class was that Janson’s book that had no relation to me whatsoever and it was boring, too. I think I took a life drawing class there but I wasn’t feeling the white models so all my nudes were green or blue. The Weusi artists they kind of took me in. They showed me stuff like where to buy paint (on 125th Street, from a man whose name I have forgotten, who sold Winsor & Newton paints and more out a suitcase, at deeply discounted prices), how to stretch a canvas, etc. The basic stuff that most visual artists need to know. That is how my early days were.
PGSo you grew up in Harlem and then you moved to the Bronx. How do you remember the atmosphere? What types of things were going on? What were the influences other than your peers?
DMThey were the artists then known as the Twentieth Century Art Creators—forty to fifty men and women. There was lots of music, Harlem is known for its superb music, especially jazz. Later the New Lafayette Theatre opened. On 127th Street there was Michaux’s bookstore [the African National Memorial Bookstore] where you could hear Malcolm X and many others. In hindsight, I thought this was a time of the second Harlem Renaissance.
Okay, my peers really didn’t even count because I was an outcast. (laughter) I wanted to be an artist and nobody else wanted to do that. Everyone else was pretty much going the traditional route, trying to find a job. We moved to Bathgate Avenue in the Bronx? I still remember as a young person, everything was in Harlem. The clubs were there, the parties were there, the art was definitely there. I don’t remember the Bronx as being very artistic at all.
PG At that young age, were you able to participate in some of the activities in Harlem?
DM I remember sneaking into the Palm Café on 125th Street right off of Adam Clayton Powell and getting a drink. I was not eighteen, but I managed to get that drink. I really wasn’t a big club type of person. We didn’t really party like that. The Weusi artists were centered in Harlem, so I would always go back to hang with them.
PG You were involved with the civil rights movement, how did that manifest? I know it did in Weusi, but was it something that you talked about within your family?
DM Not that I remember. Later on in life, my mother became very aware and very involved. She even allowed her hair to be naturally nappy, but at that time it was, “You’re a rabble rouser. You’re stirring up trouble.” The fact that I stopped straightening my hair in my last year of high school was a major move. And when I went to graduation, my mother refused to go with me unless I had my hair straightened. So for the very last time, I reluctantly went to the beauty salon right across the street—we were still in Harlem at the time—and got my hair done for five dollars. The irony is, I go to graduation with this nice little ’do and all of that, but it didn’t even last through graduation because we didn’t have air conditioning back then. I started sweating and my hair went right back to being nappy and it’s been nappy ever since.
PG And this was the graduation from Commerce?
PG But you said that you were involved in the civil rights movement.
DM I became very aware of what was going in 1965. I joined CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) and went on protest marches with them. I also went to Washington for the first march against the Vietnam War. I think that was 1965. I was becoming an activist and learning about myself as an African American and trying to unlearn some of the negative things I had been taught about the roles of African Americans in America. It was an exciting time, you know? But then some of the older generation looked at us like we were crazy: “Why are you all doing all of that? You’re stirring up trouble. Things are just the way they are.”
PG Were there any figures, artists, or writers, that served as role models for you? What did Nina Simone mean to you as an artist and role model?
DM I saw Nina Simone as a gutsy beautiful spirit. I loved that her hair was natural. Having natural hair at that time was another battlefield, minefield, you have no idea. Some black folks weren’t having it, and in certain white environments I had to wear a wig.
Her songs spent many a day with me in the studio. I was so touched by her song “The Four Women.” When I wrote my autobiographical children’s book in 1972, I gave it the title of Peaches after the last woman she sang about in that song.
I remember James Baldwin, that’s for sure. I think I saw his play Go Tell It on The Mountain; I can’t remember who else I read at that time.
I was also inspired by Miriam Makeba and Billie Holiday.
I also remember being touched by the work of German artist Käthe Kollwitz because she drew powerful images of poverty, hunger, and war in Germany. Her work made me realize that art is a powerful tool, and I too wanted my work to say something, to make my audience feel something.
I decided to attend the Art Students League because in other venues there was too much fighting with instructors over why am I painting pictures of black people. I felt at the time, I was fighting too many battles. I was fighting for my rights as an African American in America; I was fighting for my right to make art as a woman artist; I was fighting to survive on a daily basis (I experienced a time where my infant daughter and I were homeless); I was fighting about my hair; and fighting to be a successful single parent.
At the league I could work under other black artists whose work I admired like Jacob Lawrence, Charles Alston, Richard Mayhew, and Alvin Hollingsworth. These were black artists and they understood what I was trying to say. They were very supportive! And my work thrived in that atmosphere. Later, it was fighting to find books for my daughter that had black images. I solved that by getting published—six books for our children from 1972-6. I was the illustrator of Children of Night, Sati the Rastafarian, Omar at Christmas, written by Edgar White, an incredible writer, playwright, and father to my son. Published by Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, young adult division of William Morrow. With the same publisher, Speak to the Winds: Proverbs From Africa by Kofi Asare Opoku (who I finally met last year at his home in Ghana); then Peaches, written and illustrated by me (basically autobiographical), same publisher; then with Dell Books, Peaches in paperback, and Wilhelmina Jones, Future Star (Peaches, older). These were among some of the first books published for African-American children—I was told “black people don’t read” which the publishers believed, and because of that they had no marketing or distribution plans for the books. I purchased most of my own books and had no problem selling them.
PG You mentioned conventional, traditional ideas of what it meant to be black. Were these transformed or replaced? Was an outdated idea of what identity could be or stand for or imagined to be, replaced by a completely new notion?
DM Sort of new, because we had always had civil rights issues and fighting for the rights of equality. Some of the older generation I think was afraid to make waves. We weren’t supposed to be very vocal or speak out against things; it could get you killed. We lived a parallel lifestyle, and eventually they merged because once it got started, it spread like wildfire. For the older people, it took them a little time to catch on and see what was actually before them. Us as younger people, we were ready to lay down our lives so that we could have more freedoms in this country.
PG When you say that there was a rejection of an old idea of what it meant to be African American, what did the new way embody?
DM First, the new way involved being aware of Africa as the center of the black universe. Being aware that we are descendants of Africans, Africa was not a place where people lived in the jungle but an advanced country with an incredible history. We could take pride in this.
We could also be proud of the real history of the things we accomplished here in America despite the many obstacles.
Black Power was about economics also. Buying and supporting the many black businesses that existed and were developing. If you had a job, okay, but other options included encouraging people to go into business for themselves.
Changing how we identified—no longer Negroes and colored, but African Americans and black.
Changing the many negative stereotypes that existed.
PG When did you go to Africa?
DM I went to Africa in 1980—I won the trip. Yeah, that was amazing.
PG How did you win the trip?
DM By this time, 1980, I had two children and lived at 800 Riverside Drive, where I lived until I moved here to Philadelphia . In the late ’60s I had moved down to the Lower East Side, and then in the ’70s, myself and many other artists moved back up to Harlem because we wanted to live in an African-American neighborhood and because the size of the spaces that we could get was much better than what was on the Lower East Side. So, winning the trip, yeah! My life as an artist has been very consistent in that there’s always a struggle to get the bills paid. This particular weekend, I went upstairs to Pat Davis and Ademola Olugebefola’s place—they lived two floors above me on Riverside and they were having a rent party. I was going to sell food at the party to help pay my rent. It was a failure. I made maybe ten dollars, but with that ten dollars, I went to go see Ballet Senegalese. They had a raffle. And my family, oh my God, the gift of gambling ran through my family. Everyone could play the numbers and hit, but no, not me. I didn’t get that gift. I guess God said, “It’s enough of a gamble being an artist.” So anyhow, I hadn’t made any money at the rent party, and the raffle was five dollars, which was a lot of money back then, but I said, “I ain’t made no money, and I can’t pay no bills anyhow, so I may as well try to win a trip to Africa.” That was the raffle prize.
PG Going to Senegal?
DM Yeah, and my son, Harmarkhis, who at the time must have been three—they put everybody’s ticket in a big jar, and my son went in there and picked out my name. I said, “Oh my, God. God has found a way. I’ve been talking about Africa for so long, I’m finally going to get my opportunity.” He confessed, forty something years later, that he had first picked somebody else’s name and went back in there and got my name. He got away with it because at three, he’s not supposed to read, but he could read my name. He was a student at Mwanko Wa Siasa, a private, African-centered independent school in Harlem and they taught him well!
PG (laughter) It’s good that you have such a smart child.
DM I’m still in shock because all these years I’ve been saying, “Oh I’ve been to Africa; it was an act of God. I was supposed to go.” It was an act of God, but not quite the way I thought. Also, I remember Peter Tosh being in the audience. That was mind-blowing because he actually walked up to me and hugged me and said, “You really deserve this.” And I said, “Thank you, Peter.”
PG Did he know you as an artist?
DM No, you know, all of us had [dread] locs. Back then, when you had locs, it was like another club. If I walked down the street and I saw a person with locs during my travels throughout the United States, it was, “Hi, how are you? How can I help you?” It was like a family, another tribe. I thought wearing my hair natural caused problems in the ’60s, it caused problems in the ’70s, having locs. I was inspired by the first group of Rastafarians I ever saw, musicians at CARIFESTA [Caribbean Festival of Arts] in Guyana, then when Bob Marley hit the States at Georgetown University in DC. Right after I saw his performance, I committed my hair to that style—forty-four years and counting.
PG How did your experience in Senegal compare with what you had learned and come to cherish about Africa that you’d discovered through books or talking to people or through artworks? How did that compare to actually being there? Were there contradictions?
DMBefore I went to Africa, I went to Haiti, but that’s another story. When I went to Africa, it was like being home. I found that there was so many similarities in the culture. There was also an issue about women because here not only did we fight the fight to get our rights as black people, but as women we also fought to have our rights. I found in Senegal, women were once again tied to their husbands and even though they may have had their own individual businesses, it was still a patriarchal society. It was also different because I had locs and Bob Marley had just gone through Senegal, and he turned the whole town out because by the time I got there, there were a lot of—mostly young men, that had baby locs. So, I knew that they were very much influenced by his presence. My old man at the time, Amin Rasheed, artist and jewelry-maker, when we would walk through the village, the village would turn out and say, “Welcome! Rita and Bob Marley!” and we said, “No, we’re not Rita and Bob Marley!” (laughter) I guess it was sort of like a dream come true, but I just couldn’t imagine living or being in Africa because the lifestyle was so different. They were basically rural and agricultural whereas I was brought up in a city. There was a group that welcomed me like I’m their sister, but another group said, “You’re still a foreigner because you’re not from here.” I found that interesting. When I won the trip, I stayed for like three weeks, but I went back again about two years after that and I stayed for almost six months. I had never been in a place that was so peaceful. People did not scream, holler, and fight. Senegal was just a peaceful, loving, and honest type of environment. When I was coming home, I looked at a newspaper in the Senegal airport. It must have been the Daily News and I saw all the stuff going on. I said, “Why am I leaving Senegal and going back to this?” But I had left my kids here, so I had to come back.
PGWhen were your children born? What was home life like for you? You had to make a living and make art, raise two kids. Did you have a partner?
DMMy daughter, Dr. Afrodesia E. McCannon, born 1967, father Percival E. McCannon, fellow Weusi member; and son, Harmarkhis Dayo McCannon, born 1977—his father, writer Edgar White. Sometimes I had a partner, most times not. (I claim it is hard serving two masters— husbands and art.)
My house was always filled with children. Since I rarely had a five-day-a-week job, I was always home and seemingly babysitting for other artists and friends. I made my living from traveling throughout the country on weekends to African-American festivals and fairs selling my art, wearable art, and other things I made. Amazing, considering I still don’t drive! The kids went with me. During the week I was a freelance art teacher in numerous shelters, after-school centers, jails, and occasionally schools.
PGHow much, or did your work change because of your trip? How were you thinking about history?
DMMy work has always been Afrocentric. Actually, it just confirmed that, even though by that time it was the ’80s, and I had been a professional artist for over ten years! However, I found that we did live in two different worlds—I spent time educating people about how it REALLY is to live in America, because a lot of people literally thought that the streets were paved with gold. That everybody here has everything, that we all have money. To this day, a lot of Africans do not know that often, that’s not true. We’re just very clever (frequent flyer miles, credit cards, and fundraising) in being able to get from one place to the other. I had to constantly explain that we don’t live like what you see on the little bit of TV they were getting. We don’t have all of that, and we are an oppressed people. I told them, “Here, when your child is born, you have a big party, and everybody’s there, and you’re all happy.” I said, “I had a party when my child was born, too. But with my son, the first thing that I could think of was that I wanted him to be healthy, and may he never come into contact with the police in a negative manner.” It’s different when you go to a place where everybody is black. The bank people are black, the people who sweep the streets are black, all the store owners are black, the president is black. It’s almost paradise, it’s just so different. You read about it and all of that, but until you’ve been surrounded by that, you don’t quite understand.
One also gets a vacation from racism!
PG Did difference manifest itself more in terms of gender?
DMGender was an issue.
DMIt seems like wherever you go in the world there’s this class thing. (laughter) We were taught that African women are very independent and liberated … In many ways that’s true, but I remember a woman who got divorced from her husband and she had nothing. He ran off with a younger woman and because of the economic structure, she was just left hanging. Had she been here in America, even with all the mess that we do have going on, she would have been able to go, “I’ll just get a job and support myself and my family.”
PGThinking back to the ’60s, you said you looked towards Afrocentrism. Did class come into your discussions with friends and peers?
DMYes and no. The only time class really affected us was when we were dealing with the middle class. We called them bourgeois because—
PGWe still call them bourgeois. (laughter)
DMWe still do, but then it was more of a strict divide. The bourgeois were the intellectuals, the people who were educated, the people who had really good jobs, probably went to college. They were making very good money and they looked down on us, and of course we looked to them like they were traitors. In hindsight they were simply making a living.
PG Were there bourgeois artists? People who had made it?
DMI knew no one, personally, who was making a living solely with their art.
PGHaving been someone who grew up in a household that was more familiar with needle and craft work as it’s traditionally called and then going to FIT, did that influence how you thought about artmaking and more specifically women in the arts?
DMI had no idea that there was a great divide between “women’s work”—textiles—and fine art at that time. I was, in the ’60s, a “fine art artist.” I had no idea about the prejudice against women artists until I became a single mother and had to begin to juggle being a mom and an artist.
PGAnd what about SoHo? You mentioned you had a space there. When was that?
DMThe late ’60s. At that time, it was a fabulous space for artists because you could rent a floor-through loft. You had to put everything in there—kitchen, bathroom—or else you had to live without them somehow, but the space was phenomenal.
PGAt the time, SoHo was an art community within a warehouse district, where some artists could actually afford to live and work. Did you feel there was a collaborative or at least amicable relationship among all the different artists?
DMYeah, but it wasn’t collaborative. Everybody existed in their own universe. And at the time that I had the loft, which was very brief, maybe three or four months, I don’t remember socializing with anybody down there. Furthermore the loft myself and Percival had was not for art, it was for manufacturing jewelry. Percival had teamed up with some man who managed to get a grant for us to go into business. However, as we began fixing the space up, the man disappeared with the money and soon after, we lost the loft.
Later on, I met Ornette Coleman. He had a loft on the same street that I did. Other artists were Miles Davis’s son and Camille Billops and her husband James. They have the Hatch-Billops Collection that is now at Emory. Camille just passed, but James still has the space. Ornette moved to the Garment District. I don’t know where Miles’s son went.
PGBut it seems, when I lived in New York briefly, that as a city there were neighborhoods that were defined by people’s ethnicity. It sounds that, for a while at least, there were artists coming from all walks of life. Is that true?
DMYeah. We lived on the Lower East Side, which was basically another artistic community. A lot of people don’t know this, but let’s say from ’67 to about ’70, there were a lot of black businesses on the Lower East Side. I had a store which was called Afrodesia Mod Shop, which was a gallery, and a boutique where I sold clothes I made and jewelry. Jackie McKean had a candy store down the block. Anderson J. Pigatt was a wood sculptor; he had a studio space down there. Slugs’ Saloon was a renowned jazz club on Second Street between Avenue B and C and in its last days, it was owned by a black man. Across the street was a jeweler named Manuel. Around the corner was Juliet, fashion designer. On St. Mark’s, a designer name Khadijah had a huge space where the Electric Circus came to be. Did you ever see that place?
DM Yeah, it’s right in the middle between St. Mark’s Place and Second Avenue and Third Avenue. It was called Electric Circus because it was a psychedelic club and they took acid and all that kind of stuff. Right downstairs, Khadijah had this huge store. She was the first artist that I ever knew who sold a garment made with African cloth to Macy’s. So we had quite a community down there. What happened is that the rents started rising and the spaces in the Lower East Side are very, very small. My last apartment was a fifth-floor walkup. The tub was in the kitchen. From there I moved up to Harlem.
PG Looking at your work, it seems that you didn’t care so much about the distinction between crafts and art.
DM It was really about survival. When the art wasn’t selling, the wearables and jewelry did.
PG You mean quilts?
DM No, at the time I was a painter, printmaker mostly. The quilts came about in the ’70s. What I do now is a kind of collaboration of all of those things, including what was called “women’s work.” As I got older as an artist, I noticed that the first hill to get over was the fact that I’m a black woman in the arts. My early days, people didn’t take it seriously. They felt that you were just going to do this for a while. Then you would go get married and no longer be an artist that you really didn’t want to do this for the rest of your life. But I did and several other people did, but we weren’t taken seriously, which is how “Where We At” [Black Women Artists, Inc. (WWA)] came to be, because in numbers there’s strength. I don’t think I felt the problem of being a woman in the arts until I had a child because back then women did 90 percent of childcare. Men carrying babies and pushing carriages—that was very, very rare back then. Everything was put on the woman. So now I’m stuck; this was 1971. I have a child and I’m an artist living as a single mom. How am I going to be an artist and take care of this child? All my men friends had girlfriends, partners, or wives who did all the domestic stuff so they were freed up to do their artistic work. I didn’t have that, so I had to figure out how to juggle being a good parent and also being a good artist.
PG In terms of the feminist art movement, a lot of the women at the time, Mierle Laderman Ukeles or Mary Kelly were saying, “Men seem to be doing all this personal stuff and calling it artwork, and so what I do at home, the different materials, different topics, that is my artwork.” Did you feel the same way?
DM At that point, I was doing more traditional painting and printmaking, and murals. I hadn’t gotten into doing fabric art. I was doing paintings sort of in a “Matisse” type of style, using bright colors (I had discovered acrylics; cheaper, they dried faster and the colors were bright, which I liked more than the colors in oil paint.) Abdullah Aziz insisted Weusi get a printing press, so that we could make multiples and sell them a lot cheaper than originals, and our clientele (working-class African Americans) could afford to buy art.
PG It seems that there were many moments converging, different understandings or different looks at history. A lot of things have been missing from the textbooks of art history, not only in terms of who is represented, but what kind of work is considered, what kind of labor, not only who tells the stories or whose story is being told, but the materials used and how we work with and through those materials, with what kind of techniques. Teaching at an art school, the conversations with regard to what is traditionally considered crafts has changed from asking whether or not craft is art, to reconsidering artistic production through the lens of craft—hence, to ask pertinent questions such as, “What kinds of tools do we use?” “How does the thing we make function; what is it good for and for whom?” “Who makes it?” and “How do we make it?” That seems to me to be an important part of a critically revised and expanded art history.
Let’s talk a little bit about Weusi. When you became a part of this collective, 1965, it seems that it had a strong pedagogical component as well. There was a gallery being formed—
DM —Nyumba ya Sanaa.
PG It was a cooperative. And there was also the Academy of Fine Arts and Studies [Weusi Nyumba Ya Sanaa Academy of Fine Arts and Studies].
DM Same thing. When Weusi rented the house on 137th Street, it served as a gallery, workshop, teaching space, and meeting place for black artists.
PG Was education going on between the artists and the community or just amongst the artists?
DM Actually, it was both. This is what happened: Nyumba ya Sanaa came about in 1970. By this time I had not left Weusi, but I spent more of my time down on the Lower East Side because I had a store at that time and that took up a great deal of my time. Up at Weusi, it was a cooperative. When I did go there, I used the press. Remember, at this time, we were building a black audience to support our work. You need a really big audience to sustain yourself. So the printmaking was perfect. Younger artists who came in and the older artists, they all shared information. I definitely attribute Weusi for giving me a strong foundation in the fine arts.
PG In terms of skills or art history, or both?
DM In terms of practicality and in terms of skills. They taught me to frame, they taught me printmaking, they taught me where to buy paint and how to use paint. In turn, we would teach the community. We had classes; children and adults would come in. Sometimes artists would take on an apprentice. It was both learning from other artists and teaching the community. Everybody was learning. It was an exciting time.
PGWere people bringing in different examples of art and art history? I’m sure there was already a gallery scene.
DMYeah there was a gallery scene, but we weren’t invited. That’s all.
PGAnd the things that were shown in the galleries?
DMIt’s like there was one vision of American art and then there were all the other people who lived in America. We did not count when it came to being a participant in those galleries. We really didn’t. That’s why we had to grow our own audience. I didn’t even think about where I was supposed to be exhibiting in terms of the big galleries. My thing was community-based because of the lack of being able to get into these places. People would open up galleries in their homes. That’s basically how I survived the first fifteen years of my life as an artist—through people having shows in their homes. There were a couple of community spaces where we could exhibit, but the outer art world, I think they just discovered us five years ago. (laughter)
PGWhat kind of classes at Weusi were being taught in painting, in drawing, printmaking, or crafts such as quilting?
DMNo crafts, however the plastic arts were.
PGYour own practice comes from painting, but you have always said you used other, different materials and techniques. Were those not taught there because at the time that was not yet considered artmaking?
DMPainting, sculpting, printmaking, drawing: those were the basic artforms. The quilting didn’t come into my life until maybe ’71 or ’72 and how it evolved is that—let’s see if I have a picture of that painting. The one that the Brooklyn Museum owns. It’s a portrait of a fellow “Where We At” artist, Akweke Singho, called Empress Akweke (1975) and it’s an acrylic painting of her just sitting down. That was another issue I had: my colors were too bright! I was using oils, which I really like, however oils took forever to dry and a lot of times I would be touching up a piece on the way to where I was going to exhibit it. Acrylics came along in the ’60s and I fell in love because they dry quickly, but they were bright loud colors which I also loved. I didn’t find a problem with that. I remember people having problems with me. “Your colors are too bright! You have to tone them down.” I said, “That’s not what I want to do.” I guess my style was sort of Matisse-like and I had a friend Januwa Moja, who was an awesome wearable art designer in Washington, and I would go sit in her studio where she’d have all these beautiful pieces of fabric on the floor and I started picking them up. One day, when I was painting, I started putting them in the painting and that’s how I began to use fabric in the actual artwork. You see that up here? That was probably one of my first pieces using all fabric (around 1977), and I did it as a backdrop for reggae singers and for reggae performances. Between that and Kay Brown giving me a bag of stuff to make a memorial piece for her mother, that was one of the first actual quilts that I can remember making. From then on, the fabric just took over. Then I discovered there was a big problem in the art world because that’s considered craft, not art. Also that it was “women’s work.” Women weren’t supposed to be artists and that whole mess. It’s only been in the last fifteen years where quilts are finally taking on their proper place in art, but there’s still a lot of prejudice because sometimes I’ll look at places where I could possibly exhibit and they say, “Paintings, print, sculpture, drawings, nothing about fiber art.”
PGIt seems that whether or not you think about the printing press as a way to get different types of materials out to a broader audience, the backdrop of this fabric wall piece that you made was also expanding the place where art could exist and how it could be useful.
DMThe key phrase with the printing press was “making affordable art.”
As I created this wall piece and those that followed, it didn’t occur to me at that time that these works would not be accepted in the broader art world. Remember, the broader art world was like a foreign country to me. I wanted to make art for African-American people. In the world I exhibited in, fiber art was an accepted art medium.
PG What was the dynamic like amongst the Weusi artists? Were people helping one another out, or were they working on one project, or helping individual artists?
DM Weusi was a collective of visual artists who supported one another, exhibited together, created an annual outdoor art show in Harlem, created the Annual Black Ball (a party and cultural activity that supported the early days of Kwanzaa). People came from all over the world to communicate, to exchange ideas about how to get our work into the African-American communities throughout America and to purchase artwork. We were a major player in the Black Arts Movement.
PG Weusi still exists?
DM Yeah. I was the baby of the group and I’m seventy-two, so you can imagine how old everyone else who is still alive is. My first husband, Percival E. McCannon, he’s ninety-seven.
PG Has it been a group that has stayed the same in terms of membership? Have younger people signed up?
DM Yeah. It’s basically stayed the same even though a lot of our members have passed. At this point in time we do need younger artists and we are currently starting that process in order for us to continue because we’re dying out. We want to be able to pass all of this experience on to the next generation.
PG You’ve said you were not only someone identifying as an African-American artist in ’65, but as a feminist artist.
DM No. I wasn’t identifying as a feminist artist because in those days, to be a feminist meant that you were a white woman who more than likely had a husband you were bitching about because of the fact that you could not paint. It seemed that they wanted to separate themselves from the men. That was not what we wanted at all. We wanted to keep our families intact and nobody I knew was able to stay home and paint while the husband went to work. Everyone I knew went to work because that was the economics then and probably still is now. We just don’t have that kind of money, so that’s why.
Myself, Kay Brown, and Faith Ringgold formed “Where We At” Black Women Artists, in order to build a support system. We exhibited together, we watched each other’s children so that we could have more time in the studio. We were very concerned about what was happening in our communities. We gave workshops in art and also workshops in things like eating right, making healthy baby food, surviving in a shelter, et cetera.
When the Brooklyn Museum invited some of the women from We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85 to enter into the conversation about what the exhibition should be, they were talking about feminism and I said, “No, no, no, no, because everybody in “Where We At” would turn over in their graves if we put that in the title.” We were not feminists. There were issues for us as a black race and then right underneath that were issues for us as women. We didn’t separate ourselves because as a race, we were fighting for our very survival. That was the difference. Many times we partnered with Weusi for exhibitions and more.
PG So those two struggles were combined. Although you were certainly fighting for your right as a woman to be an artist.
DM Right, there you go.
PG Was that a discussion in Weusi? Were people talking about one another’s work? Did you have joint critiques?
DM They may have had critiques, but I don’t remember them. There were a lot of artists that did traditional fine art, but there were also a lot of artists that did collages and other different types of media.
PG You referred to Matisse earlier in terms of your colors, but what was your art historical canon? What artists and works were you looking to that informed your practice and did that change over time?
DM No, I think I was driven by something in my head. After I came out of City College, I realized, Why am I paying to go to school here when I was learning way more in Weusi? I ended up going to the Art Students League. One of the problems back then as a student of art, when you went into a classroom situation, there would be a lot of argument about, “Why are your figures black?” “What do you mean why are my people black? What color are they supposed to be?” The artwork of most cultures reflects the people in that culture. I didn’t want to be in a situation and have to fight for the right to portray myself. So I decided not to go further in the college and went to the Art Students League because there you could pick your teachers. I chose Jacob Lawrence, Charles Alston, Al Hollingsworth, and Richard Mayhew. With them, along with Weusi, I had reaffirmations of what was already going on in my head.
PG When did you study at the Art Students League?
DMThat was maybe ’70-’72.
PGDo you recall conversations with those teachers? What was it like to study with them? Somebody like Jacob Lawrence must have been—
DMHe was phenomenal and all of them got what I was doing. I didn’t have to fight them on that level. The technical stuff was why I was there, to get help on how to draw, how to do this, how to do that. It wasn’t a problem that my figures were black. When I was doing nudes, I would never paint them white; they would be green, they would be blue, they would be every color but white because I was in this mindset of, Why does it have to be white all the time? There’s other colors in the rainbow. I probably also took those teachers’ classes because I loved the work that they did and in their work I could see me.
PGLooking through the books and all the work that you’ve done, there’s a lot of collage work. Whose work was influential in that regard?
DMI think that was just me, I don’t remember being outwardly inspired. You find a teacher and you love a teacher and their work so much that you emulate their work: I never did that. I just worked the way that I worked. The collage began with Januwa’s fabric scraps jumping into my paintings and it grew outward from there. I began to use any other items that helped me express what I was trying to say.
PGI meant less as an emulation than as a strategy people were talking about at the time. Rather than presenting totality, thinking about fragments, and bringing in a different surface or a different way to tell a story, not necessarily linear, but through various angles and elements that may not appear to go together at first glance. Looking at this piece The Amazing Life of Althea Gibson #2 for example. It seems that you are using collage so that you can trace and forge connections that would otherwise remain invisible.
DMTrue, but that’s my uniqueness as an artist because I like to use anything that will tell my story. That piece—first of all that’s number two, I’ll tell you about number one in a minute. The background of this work is the overdyed batting. In most quilts, you have a backing piece of fabric, the batting in the middle, and a top upon which your image goes. I dyed the batting and liked it as a surface, so why not? Then, a lot of this is brown paper [from Trader Joe’s shopping bags] because I love paper and I know that paper has more than one purpose. I turn it around to use it as an art tool. These little squares are made of one of the new-age fibers called Lutradur. I just tend to use whatever is at hand that I like, to tell the story the way that I want to tell it.
PGYou choose your materials or forms depending on what’s necessary for the piece.
DMMost artists will tell you, the pieces create themselves. You’re just the vehicle or the vessel that this creativity is going through. Then all this stuff starts happening. You start with one thing and you say, “Oh let me try that,” and you try that and you say, “This will be kind of interesting if I used this or that,” and it goes on from there.
PG On the one hand, it may not fit a category of plastic arts but it is quite liberating or expansive to do it this way rather than adhere to a style or particular tradition: I’m doing what’s necessary for the piece, for the story that I have to tell. What is this piece called?
DM That piece, when you come in the door, is Harlem Memories #5. The story behind that is, living in Harlem, I found that a lot of people moving into Harlem, some of them were not very kind. They were also not very respectful, as though they created Harlem.
PG When is this?
DM We’re talking about around 2008 until now.
PG Are you talking about gentrification?
DM Yes, definitely. When the whole gentrification mess started. When my Mom passed in 2000, I became the eldest member in the family. We don’t seem to live very long in my family. I’m hoping to beat the odds. She left me with a huge bag of stuff: letters, photographs, and memorabilia. The stuff stayed in that bag. I knew it was too precious to throw out, but I really didn’t know what to do, so I just held onto it.
Around 2009 the artist Laura Gadson mounted an exhibition titled Harlem Sewn Up at the Dwyer Cultural Center in Harlem. I decided it was time to show these newcomers that we had been here for generations and used the letters, bill notices, rent receipts, et cetera. dating from the 1920’s to make this series. It’s probably five pieces all together. I didn’t sell any of them. I gave one to my cousin, one to her sister, and I gave one to my granddaughter.
DMThat was maybe ’70-’72.
PGDo you recall conversations with those teachers? What was it like to study with them? Somebody like Jacob Lawrence must have been—
DMHe was phenomenal and all of them got what I was doing. I didn’t have to fight them on that level. The technical stuff was why I was there, to get help on how to draw, how to do this, how to do that. It wasn’t a problem that my figures were black. When I was doing nudes, I would never paint them white; they would be green, they would be blue, they would be every color but white because I was in this mindset of, Why does it have to be white all the time? There’s other colors in the rainbow. I probably also took those teachers’ classes because I loved the work that they did and in their work I could see me.
PG I mean, this is a spectacular piece. (Harlem Memories #4)
DM These are actual letters that my grandmother wrote. I have preserved them so they won’t deteriorate. Those are the actual letters, actual photographs from that bag of stuff. The letters are dated like 1930, 1920 something and I’ve proven that, Hey, I’ve got my history right here. I can prove we’ve been here. That was the reason behind that particular series called Harlem Memories.
PG This is in many ways an attempt to create a memory. Sorry, not create—
PG Yes, using an archive and rearranging the things that are in it. Are there other elements? These sorts of adornments—
DM Those are parts and things that I’ve collected over the years because I love old jewelry and vintage anything.
PG Who is that an image of right there in the center? (Harlem Memories #4)
DM That’s one of my aunts.
PG So all of the images really are personal photographs.
DM Yeah, some of the people I don’t even know, but they were in my mother’s bag of photographs, so I know that they meant something to her. Some of the photographs have names written on the back, others have no name. They’re just family.
PGWhat is stitched in here? Are those also from the letters?
DMYeah. Where are my glasses? I’m very into words. “From factory to civil service. We have been here since the 1920s.” I was really raised to go into the work slog and then come home to take care of the kids. My mother wanted me to be a factory worker. She thought that was a big-time job. That’s a picture in Harlem Memories of my mother and grandmother.
PGSo, it is more than a personal history, it’s also about expectations at the time of what people were supposed to do, the kind of vocation they were supposed to choose. This is what I mean by collage as a way of bringing things together; the work is personal and historical and creates an interesting context. The personal is not somebody else’s history, but is part of a larger history—social, economic, and so forth. You were also part of another collective. “Where We At” Black Women Artists, with Faith Ringgold and Kay Brown and that developed—
DMI never left Weusi, I always considered myself an honorary member, but number one, I had moved to the Bronx and commuted down to Harlem and I eventually moved down to the Lower East Side. I would go back and forth. The store was like a child. I spent all my time there, so I got very involved in the goings-on in the Lower East Side. The store was open twelve hours a day. Everything was fine until I had my daughter and then suddenly there were issues. I had to figure out how I was going to be a parent. Then I found out that it was different for women artists than it was for me. Weusi was and ‘til this day, I’m the only woman. In the new membership that’s coming, there will be more women, but I was the only woman. I found myself to be lonely. I was in a position that no one could really help me with because nobody else had my situation. Kay Brown had filled my position in Weusi as the only REALLY ACTIVE Weusi woman.
This was around 1970. In 1971, I got on the phone and called Kay and she called Faith, it could have been vice versa, and we said, “There are other women out there. Why don’t we all get together and see what happens?” We decided to call every black woman artist that we knew in New York. I got on the phone to friends and associates and I would say, “Hi, do you know any other black women artists?” They would answer, “No, you’re the only one.” Then I would hang up and I kept calling. I found a couple and Kay found some and Faith found some. I called the meeting in my studio which was on the fifth floor in a walk-up on the Lower East Side. Not only was that the situation, but I remember issues like water dripping from the roof down into the hallway, the lights were out, but maybe ten women showed up. They walked up to the fifth floor and I thought, “Wow these women are really interested in doing something about the lack of black women in the arts. By this time, I began looking for different places outside of Weusi to exhibit and through one of my other artists friends, I found Acts of Art Gallery in Greenwich Village. Ellsworth Ausby went to bat for me and told Nigel L. Jackson, one of the owners of Acts of Art, “Dindga is not going to be a fly by night. She’s a committed artist and you should show her work.” Nigel exhibited my work and it sold. Then, “Where We At” had the first meeting and discussed forming a group. We had another meeting or two and then thought we needed a place to exhibit. I said, “Why don’t we try Nigel? He let me in, maybe he’ll let all of us in.” We talked to him and he was for it. We had the first show at the Acts of Art Gallery.
PGThat was the early ’70s?
DMYeah, that was ’71 or ’72.
PGDid the group continue?
DMWe went on twenty-five years. We had our 501(c)(3) and all of that. We did really well. Once again, what had happened is that members died. The woman who basically held the group together, especially as a business, passed.
PG Who was that?
DM That was Priscilla Taylor. She was an awesome collage artist. She did all kinds of out-of-the-box stuff which is why mixed media was not new to me. Some of the “Where We At” women and some of Weusi did the regular plastic arts and the rest of us did combinations. It was nothing new and we didn’t even question was this a valid art form because we had our own thing and our own audience. They bought it, so therefore it was valid. It’s only later as I began to go out and stretch out and suddenly you find that doors are closing because your work is not on canvas or it’s not on paper.
PG Did you find that not being concerned with traditional media or formats that people were relating differently to the work? Was it accessible in a different way because it wasn’t painting that was hanging on the wall or lit in a certain way?
DM That’s a good question.
PG When you had exhibitions, did the work lend itself more readily to conversations or discussions?
DM No, because remember, I didn’t know anything else. This was our world. People purchased the work that we did and that gave it validity in itself. The main thing was that this was work by black people, for black people, promoting black people, and that was the emphasis then.
PG You also, in the early ’70s, were part of—
DM —CITYarts, a group that did huge murals, especially on the Lower East Side. I’ve done five or six murals in my life. That was the first one. Second was with Charles Abramson, now deceased, inside some institution on Lexington Ave, entitled Haitian Memories based on the landscapes I saw on my two trips to Haiti. And then with six other male artists, two murals in Harlem in 1971, one of which was called Women’s Wall-Dedicated to Faith Ringgold.
“Where We At” got funded for a mural, 60 by 6 stories high, which I designed at 24 Furman Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn in the ’80s.
PG And the third and fourth came about through the Studio Museum? In 1971, the director at the time—
DM —that was Ed Spriggs.
PG He got a grant and was interested in thinking about mural traditions.
DM No, what happened was he—
PG That’s what it says in the book (On the Wall: Four Decades of Community Murals in New York City).
DMWell the book’s a lie. That’s why I love to tell my story because oh, my God, the stuff that they get mixed up and wrong!
PGSo, what was his intention?
DMI don’t know what his intention was, but the next time I see him I’m going to ask him if he still remembers. However, he wanted to have Studio in the Streets. There were six artists; Joseph Delaney, Curtis Bryan, Babatunde Folayemi (who went to Ghana shortly after and never came back), Vincent Wilson, and Ted Pontiflet. I was the only woman artist once again. It was basically artists-in-residence at the old Studio Museum that was on Fifth Avenue between 125th and 126th Street. It was the artists who decided to move Studio in the Streets into the streets. I have a picture of me in the Studio Museum with my paintings; I was doing my artwork. I think what Ed wanted to do was draw the public in and actually let them see artists working in a studio situation. We did two murals [for the Studio Museum’s artist-in-residence program, Saturday on the Stoop]. One was on 126th Street right off of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and the other one was on 128th between Madison and Fifth Avenue. Mine was called Women’s Wall, Tribute to Faith Ringgold. At each site the wall was divided equally amongst us and each artist did their style on the space allotted. That stayed up until five years ago. The other one came down as the Harlem State Office building was built, sometime in the late ’70s.
PGCan you talk about the mural for Saturday on the Stoop?
DMI remember Joseph Delaney with the big butt women, a scene out of Harlem; (laughter) Curtis’s concrete piece using African symbols; Vincent’s depiction of an Egyptian ritual; Ted’s used traditional African shapes and symbols; Babatunde’s work suggested the possible link between Egyptians and the Maasai people of Kenya.
DMJoseph, his brother was Beauford Delaney who went to Europe and did very well for himself. Joseph didn’t do too badly and he’s kind of renowned, and he lived here. I don’t remember why I created this piece, but I do tend to paint what’s around me and I did in those times especially. This is probably a scene that I had seen of people sitting on the stoop and I decided to make it.
PGYou also did CITYarts workshop murals that were directed by Tomie Arai? What was that like?
DMThat was fun! Oh my God, however, the mural that I did with her happened to be right around the corner from where I lived. It was on Second Avenue and Houston Street. We built the scaffolding. That was the amazing thing about it: It was an all-women group, CITYarts. It was a very diverse group of artists and then to make it even more interesting, we had about ten teenagers for the summer—they probably were paid helpers for CITYarts as part of a summer job program for young people. There was a big space between the wall and the scaffolding and how nobody died that year, I don’t know. It was a miracle. Plus, I remember going up to the sixth floor and my legs dangling over. I didn’t look down. I just looked at the wall.
PGSo, it was a big mural?
DMYeah, it was six stories.
DMBelieve it or not, that mural was destroyed by Irreplaceable Artifacts, the store. They painted right over it.
PGWhat did the mural depict?
DMIt was about landlords and the conditions that some of us had to live with, the rats, the roaches, and all of that kind of stuff.
PGAre there any images of the mural?
DMYeah, but you know with “Where We At,” most of our members lived in Brooklyn. We were a group known as Brooklyn artists.
PGThis maquette seems to be different from the stoop scene. Was it a Hispanic and black neighborhood?
DMYes, and Hasidic. This was about a united community. All of us acting like human beings, interacting peacefully and enjoying a day in the park.
PGThis is amazing. Is this a sketch for the mural? (We are looking at a small painting, the maquette for the mural.)
DMThat’s the maquette for it. It was there for many years. I could never get anyone to go over there and photograph it for me. When I finally got somebody, it was gone.
PGSo again, everyday life scenes.
DM Showing that the neighborhoods could be diverse and we could all live in peace. That was probably my assumption for it.
PG How did you think of the murals in relation to your other work?
DM I thought of the murals as public art. A lot people who will never go into a gallery will look at a mural, or they have to because it’s in their neighborhood. For me it provided a salary at the time from CITYarts, which was very important. For most of my artistic life, the summers were a lot easier economically because murals and teaching jobs would come up. It was the fall and winter when opportunities began to dry up.
PG Now you live in Philadelphia which has the Mural Arts program.
DM Which I love. Not only do they have the Mural Arts program, but they have money so that they can take care of their murals and they don’t paint them over like they do in New York. This one too, The United Community, was a six-story building. By then, they had the unions and they would not allow me to go up on the scaffolding. Somebody did a lovely mural right next to The United Community. Then one day I came, and everything was white. They don’t notify you. They don’t call you; they don’t do nothing, and they don’t care. Somebody else just buys the building and the art doesn’t mean anything.
PGYou clearly think of ways to make things that are not traditionally considered art.
DMNo, because I don’t look at it like that. I never made the rules deciding what is and what isn’t art. Or what you could use to make art.
PGIt’s better if I say that you think about the work as art in a more expansive way.
DMOr in a more inclusive way. Art to me is a word that has no boundaries and set formulas. Artists all over the world have been working forever and not necessarily in the Eurocentric form. That’s where the problem comes in because I can go to the Louvre—don’t tell nobody this, but I find the Louvre boring because everything in there is so perfect and so white—
PGWell, It’s a very particular, narrow art history.
DMIt fails to reach into all the other spaces other than European history from this year to that year. It leaves the entire world out. Not just black people, but other people who do other types of work. It just leaves all of that out, but I guess that’s why it’s there. It’s a monument to the work that was done in that time in that part of the world.
PGBut again, it writes a very particular type of history. What you get after World War II in the US and in Europe is the continuation of that in many ways. There is a way to think of art as an aesthetic question, but then there is also one in which you have a very expansive way of thinking about materials, where things can live—whether as subject matter, the stoop and everyday life, or where it lives on what surface. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a big gallery wall. It could be in a community center; it can be a wall in the city. Do you also think about it in an expansive sense, as an educational device?
DMYeah, because I personally like to do work that has something to say about something. For example, this piece is called Elder Harlem Diva. I’m telling a story. Not only is she a devastating elder Harlem diva, but I like to be clear about why and what this all means. I want to expand the idea of just looking at art, to looking at art and learning something from it. I don’t have to do that all the time, but I like to be clear and I want other people to learn about things other than what they would regularly know. As an older person, I find that we get ignored and you kind of become invisible, and this is me telling that story.
PGMaybe this goes back to the collage idea. You say it’s clear, but it’s not easy to read. Meaning you can’t just consume it. All these different materials used, layers of images being combined. So it might be clear, but it’s also complex. You have to spend time looking at these, as in reading; they are very engaging. That in and of itself is a very interesting way to think about education, not telling, but asking someone to see along and think along.
DMAnd to put themselves in my shoes so that you will understand my story. A picture is worth 1,000 words, but a bunch of words also helps.
PG(laughter) I like that, that’s perfect. The beads that have the letters on them in Elder Harlem Diva Speaks, make statements about how this older person sees the world.
Tell me more about the memorabilia pieces. (Harlem Memories #4 and #5)
DMI started doing a series of workshops on memorabilia, preserving your memorabilia and how valuable old things can be. Most of the time when someone dies, they throw out everything in the garbage. I had maybe about twenty students.
PGWhere was this?
DMThis was in Harlem at the Interchurch Center at 121st and Riverside Drive. I’ve taught for probably fifty years, at all kinds of venues from shelters to jails to parks, occasionally a school, and in community buildings. Currently occasionally I teach mixed media out of my studio in Philadelphia.
PGAnd this is throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90’s?
DMYeah. Starting with probably the ’80s when they first started with the shelter system. Let me see. Since I didn’t go to school and didn’t get a degree, I always just taught freelance. One day I had friend, can’t remember his name, he was Jewish. He worked for a New York nonprofit. Before that he did odd jobs and had acted as a salesperson for me for some hand-crocheted sweaters I made, down Madison Avenue. I couldn’t go down there because they wouldn’t even let me in the door, but I sent him with the sweaters and he got plenty of orders. Later on, he got a job at one of the nonprofits and then he says, “They’re looking for artists, why don’t you come over and apply for a job there? You know they don’t like hiring black people because y’all don’t come to work on time.” So I said, “No, I’m good. I can come to work on time.” So I started teaching in shelters, which led to teaching in jails, and I found that to be a really great experience, because there is a very thin line between the life I lead and the homeless person on the street. It’s the fact that I’m able to maintain a household and that person is not. I found that the vehicle of art could be used as a healing and a discovery tool. When I had an art class, I didn’t have a set rule like, you have to sit down here and paint. You do whatever talks to you. I would get any medium, like coloring books and jewelrymaking, to make artmaking less daunting to these folks who were already having a hard time in life. So I would get things that were interesting and that people would color. You also had people who were really great artists. They just never had the time or didn’t think that they could do it, for whatever reason.
PGMaybe they get to tell a story that is very different from how people read in the papers about homelessness or the prison system.
DMThat world is so close to ours, but because we close the door when we see a homeless person, we don’t think, Who is this person, what is this person going through, really? You think, Go away. From being at ground zero, I understand that these people are just like me. It’s only a little bit of circumstance that separates their life from my life.
PGSo they get to tell a different story. Do you think your work is also telling stories in that sense?
DMYeah, everything in this studio. Mostly I’m telling women’s stories because back in the ’60s I felt that showing images of black women holding babies was too narrow a definition. I always thought that there is so much more to our stories, and so I’m still telling that story to this day.
PGOn the one hand, you cherish a lot of those traditions, but of course there are many others that do not necessarily need to be challenged, but there needs to be something beyond that.
DMYeah, well they need to be challenged. The idea of what a woman can do definitely needed to be challenged because we can do anything. But back then, no, you had a little box that you had to fit in and if you didn’t fit into that box then society made trouble for you.
PGI’m thinking about two things, intersectionality—do you know the Combahee River Collective?
DMYeah, they’re a part of the exhibit, We Wanted A Revolution, but I never knew about them until We Wanted a Revolution came up.
PGThere is a scholar at Princeton, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who recently republished some of their writings and the River Collective manifesto. In the late ’60s they were talking about precisely what you are mentioning, that there’s the possibility to not understand one’s self as a single entity—
DM—as a world citizen.
PGBut with overlapping concerns. It doesn’t mean that you get rid of difference, but that you’re not totally confined by it. It is scary to see that we lack some collective memory that these things and subjects exist. When you have contemporary discussions, people seem to have forgotten that there was already an attempt to think about intersectionality and solidarity. Do you know the Rainbow Coalition? This was new to me, but something I learned since moving to Philadelphia. Daniel Tucker, who works at the Moore College of Art & Design, organized a screening of a film called American Revolution 2 that featured the Rainbow Coalition—the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and the Young Patriots, a young white working-class group in Chicago in the late ’60s who worked together. Looking at your quilt, it wasn’t just looking at this idea that we are all one people, there was a real way to work across differences in a politically active way without appealing to a myth of depoliticized universalism. That reminds me of this piece and the way in which you’re talking about it. All right, I’ve taken up enough of your time for today. Thank you so much.
DMPart one done.
PGPart one done.
Philip Glahn It’s the 24th of January 2020. Dindga, last session you mentioned Haiti in passing. Tell us that story.
Dindga McCannon Well, there is a piece up there that discusses it. Lavinia Williams. You see that art quilt straight ahead with the dancing figure?
DM That art quilt tells exactly what happened on my second and last trip to Haiti in 1971. Lavinia Williams, Legendary Dancer, Choreographer, and Teacher. I made it three or four years ago.
PG Okay, so 2016?
DM Yeah, that’s good.
And over there, there’s another piece, because I went to Haiti two times. She’s called Patti [spelling] Bown, Haiti 1970. [Created for a one-woman show at the Interchurch Center Gallery in New York called Global Explorations.] It’s a memory from my first trip overseas. Patti Bown was an awesome woman, pianist, and arranger. People said that she didn’t achieve her greatness because she was a woman musician in a man’s world, that she came ahead of her time, that she had a big mouth and wouldn’t settle or compromise her music.
PG Is Patti Bown Haitian?
DM No, she’s African American. She lived in Westbeth—the artists’ residence in New York that I would have loved to live in—in New York City. I went to Haiti because Irene Gandy (who is the first African-American theater publicist), had gone to Haiti and brought back these postcards. [Note: I don’t have any. I could get some from the Menu gallery in NY when it reopens.] Some of the artwork on the postcards looked like my work, in that there were lots of Black people and the bright colors. (At the time, many were telling me my use of color was too bright and too much!) And I got very curious: What’s the link? Why is my work looking like theirs and why is theirs looking like mine? I always wanted to travel so when I got paid for one of the children’s book illustrations (lump sum!) I got the money and I put myself and my daughter—who was two at the time, on a plane to Haiti on a tour. This was ’70.
The tour included Muhammad Ali’s assistant trainer, Drew Bundini Brown, his son, Patti Bown, myself, and several other people whose names I can’t remember.
PG They were all on the tour?
DM Yeah, we were all on the tour together, so it was perfect for my first international trip. Patti and I became close because we’re both Leos and we both were artists and we would stay up all night talking.
PG That linoleum block printed on fabric running down the right side of the Patti Bown quilt—is that image your view out the window?
DM Yes. That was the view we would see looking out the window during our late-night talks. I created that linoleum cut in 1970 and thought it was a perfect addition to that quilt, made in 2016. Haiti looks like piles of hills on top of each other with little roads going through. It’s really, really lovely. This particular landscape was up in the hills. I was trying to portray that type of atmosphere. (We swore we saw zombies roaming down the hills one night!)
The second time I went to Haiti [in 1971], I stayed with Lavinia Williams. Now, a lot of people don’t know of her—although there is a group called “The Lavinia Williams Memorial Project” that meets once a year in New York that celebrates her life. Lavinia taught Papa Doc’s girls ballet. She was a dance artist on par with Katherine Dunham, who everybody knows. But anyway, I went to stay with Lavinia and during the course of my stay, Papa Doc died (François Duvalier). Her house was a mile from the palace where he lived, and we were terrified of the Tonton Macoutes [undercover police who made Duvalier’s “enemies” disappear], that there would be an uprising and people were going to destroy everything and everyone associated with Papa Doc. So we made this plan. We had a car waiting in the back of the house and we filled it with food and what not, and we were going to go to the beach. However, as the days came and went, absolutely nothing happened except that I ran out of money—another travel problem. But the next week, I got money and we came back home. I haven’t been back to Haiti since then. It’s a beautiful, beautiful country, the art is fantastic, the people are wonderful, the food is phenomenal, but there is always so much ongoing turmoil that I’m scared of getting caught up in something.
PG Were there more similarities between your work and the art you saw in Haiti? Did you get an answer to why the work looked similar to yours?
DM I never found an answer. Perhaps it was the figures. The simple basic way they were painted. I’m still very much a figurative painter and the postcards were lots of scenes of Black people going about their business. I think that despite the transatlantic slave trade dropping us off in different locations, we still have unconscious links that surface from time to time, particularly in artists. We are more sensitive to environments, people, energies, and spirits.
During my first visit to Haiti, I was approached about being a studio artist by a man who owned a gallery there. He had an artist’s studio in the back of the gallery. I could paint all day and at the end of the week I would get paid (which was barely enough to live on), and the man sold your work (of which you got nothing). That did not seem right to me, so I came back to New York.
PGWas there any conversation in Haiti about shared pasts or experiences?
DMNone whatsoever. And then there was the language barrier. My French has always been two steps up from terrible.
PGIt’s very interesting to think about histories and the connections that can become visible—
DM —without it being tangible.
PGYes. Tell me more about the Lavinia Williams art quilt. Lavinia Williams, Legendary Dancer, Choreographer, and Teacher. It contains writing.
DMYes, I embroidered text. Lavinia is a visual storytelling work and the text tells you—in case you wondered—the actual story of the day Papa Doc died and how we were going to run off to the beach.
PGSo, it has a multiplicity of things. Are these found figures? These dancers?
DM Those dancers are collaged from African fabric I purchased at the International African Arts Festival two years ago—the festival is held in Brooklyn every July 4th weekend.
Up there, it says “Haiti Dance.” You know, when I do pieces on people, I try to do as much research as possible. I found online and bought a copy of Haiti Dances, written by Ms. Williams in the ’80s. That’s a copy of the cover.
PGAnd the shape of the piece of quilt? It’s a sort of rectangle with curves.
DMI like going outside rectangles and squares. It’s just organic and more interesting to me.
PGBut is it more an intuitive shape, than it is of an outline of anything in particular?
DMIt’s an intuitive shape. I don’t plan much of anything unless it’s a commission and I am working with a client. Basically, when I work on a piece, I have an idea of what I want to say and I just start working on it. You know, artists always say this and people say we’re crazy, but the piece evolves by itself and it tells you what to do. I may have started with the figure and then one thing led to another and then another, and then I had all these beautiful pieces of fabric laying around. I said, “Dancers? That will go well in there. Beads and crystals and charms? Yes, please!”
PGIt’s a very interesting approach or methodology that there’s both a lot of research and found materials, and then at the same time the work created, as you said, comes through the work itself. It’s intuition, spirit, and allowing the work to manifest what it wants to be.
DMYeah, it’s mostly intuitive. I always tell people that if I sat down and planned out a piece, I probably wouldn’t do it because if I already know what it looks like, that kills all the fun. The challenge, and the fun for me is to have an idea and then somehow magically, with time, make it come into fruition.
PGAnother thing we didn’t speak about last time are your books.
DMLet me pull them out.
PG You wrote two children’s books, right?
DM Yup—this one, Wilhelmina Jones, Future Star published in 1980. This one in 1974, that’s Peaches.
PG Peaches was reissued in 1977.
DM It was reissued, but as a paperback. Some of these books were published by Lothrop, Lee & Shepherd aka William Morrow; Peaches in paperback and Wilhelmina were published by Dell Books. I also illustrated Children of Night, Omar at Christmas, and Sati, the Rastafarian—all written by playwright Edgar White, my son’s father. Speak to the Winds is [a collection of] African proverbs compiled by Ghanaian scholar Kofi Asare Opoku in the ’70s. The publishers felt that Black people couldn’t read, and that therefore, they would not buy the books. The publishers didn’t bother to research or put distribution in place. If you publish a bunch of books and you have no distribution, you’re not going to make any money, and that’s exactly what happened. I bought more of these books than anybody, and as I was still traveling from one end of the country to the other, I never had a problem selling them. I just had a problem raising the money to keep buying them.
PG So you wrote and illustrated Peaches?
PG And you wrote Wilhelmina Jones?
DM Wrote, but no illustrations. The age range for this book was thirteen to sixteen years and that age group was considered too old for illustrations. Why do they take pictures out of the books? I think you always need visual images.
PG This third book, Speak to the Winds: Proverbs From Africa, [published in 1975] contains black-and-white drawings. The others are illustrated with linoleum prints and color. Why did you change mediums?
DM I went through a metamorphosis here. I finally felt comfortable using pen and ink and I think visually this is my most successful children’s book. I finally met the man who compiled those proverbs last year (in 2018), almost fifty years after the book was published. I had to go to Ghana to meet Kofi Asare Opoku. I had allowed myself to be bumped on a flight and got an 800 dollar travel voucher, so I put down 300 dollars more and was on my way to Ghana. I stayed with Professor Reginald Jackson (awesome photographer) and his wife Crystal (amazing quilter), who have a house on the beach right outside of Accra in a town called Salt Pond in the village of Kormantse. I knew Mr. Opoku, I didn’t have to pay for meals, housing, or transportation, which made the trip affordable. Ghana was and is a beautiful country; the art is amazing, the fabrics, the crafts and food, outstanding. I was happy to see that the Ghanaian Adinkra symbols that I use a lot in my wearable art were still being widely used on buildings, in fabric, and in home decor. I was able to go to the slave dungeons, which is an experience that filled me with overbearing sorrow, to see the places in which my ancestors were held like animals (actually, animals were treated better) before coming to America. To see an English church perched at the top of the dungeons really broke my heart.
Mr. Opoku (affectionately known as “Prof”) is ninety and I am seventy-two, and fifty years have passed. His house was beautiful, with a plaque honoring W.E.B. Du Bois on the entry wall. Du Bois (1868-1963) was the first African American to get a PhD from Harvard; he helped found the NAACP and was a civil rights activist, author of The Souls of Black Folk and other books. I didn’t know that Dr. Du Bois died in Ghana. The walls of “Prof’s” house were made of beautiful stones; there were Ghanaian carved wood panels throughout the house, and he had an outdoor fully outfitted kitchen to die for. Palm trees and a garden filled with flowers and organic herbs surrounded the property. He is still teaching and writing and traveling to the States to teach in different universities. We spent a wonderful afternoon and decided to try and do Speak to the Winds: Proverbs from Africa volume two at some point in time.
PGWhat moved you to pursue books?
DMI had a daughter and I used to get books for her any way I could.
PGWhat is her name?
DMAfrodesia McCannon. Dr. Afrodesia McCannon now.
PGWhat kind of a doctor?
DMShe’s a PhD in Medieval Art. She’s a teacher in NYU’s Women’s Literature Department.
PGShe was the reason you started to make these books?
DMYes, and my son, Harmarkhis McCannon, who is also an artist. Edgar White, renowned playwright and my son’s father, and I saw that there were few books where the people looked like us and told our stories. He, being a published and renowned writer, approached his publisher, William Morrow, about doing books with African Americans in them. So he wrote the stories and I did the illustrations. By the time we got to Children of the Night, he went back to playwriting because that’s what he was and he didn’t want to do any more children’s books. So they asked me if I could write anything. As a young person, I wrote quite a bit, but at some point, I had to choose between writing and being a visual artist. I felt I couldn’t do both so I chose to be a visual artist, but because this was an income-earning opportunity, I pulled out my writing skills again and I wrote Peaches. It’s named after Nina Simone’s song “Four Women.” Peaches, the last woman in the song, is the revolutionary. I had a lot of help. And then I wrote the sequel, Wilhelmina—
PGYou just said that most of the books stayed in the warehouse, but what moved this publisher to ask you for more books? I mean, three collaborations with Edgar in two years, and then right after that, Peaches, and then later Wilhelmina Jones.
DMIt was political. The publishers wanted to be able to say to the Black community, “We’re publishing books for you.” But they didn’t tell the whole story. I never said that I was a writer, but I went in one day and the editor said, “Have you ever written anything?” Then it grew from there, but after I wrote those two I stopped writing and went back to visual arts.
PGDid you enjoy writing the books?
DMYeah, and I recently reread Wilhelmina because I couldn’t remember what kinds of civil rights things I had done. When I reread the book—yes I had been involved in CORE—it all came back to me.
I enjoyed the writing process, but I also realized that writing takes a humongous amount of alone time. I couldn’t divide myself like that. It’s like serving two masters and I was having a hard time getting the visual arts thing in motion. I didn’t want to take time off from the visual arts to write, and that’s why I stopped.
PGWhen you reread Wilhelmina, you remembered—
DM—CORE, Congress of Racial Equality. That’s what I had forgotten. [The Congress of Racial Equality is an African-American civil rights movement founded in Chicago that played a pivotal role for African Americans in the movement.] This was ’64, ’65. I went to demonstrations. I remember going to meetings somewhere in the South Bronx.
I don’t remember much of those days; it was fifty-five years ago! I do remember feeling empowered, being surrounded by like-minded people, a lot of us gathered in a small space, probably an office or a small loft type space, and marching in some forgotten protest. I remember I felt good being able to make a contribution to the civil rights movement.
PGWhat was it like to write these books? Did you feel there was a give and take between the writing and the illustrations?
DMThe illustration was probably the easiest part of it. The hardest part was trying to write when my son was little and not fond of sleep. I started writing the year after he was born. It was very difficult juggling because I had to put him to sleep and then I had to be by myself and write. Whereas as a visual artist, there are moments and times when you can actually be doing some artwork and the child is there. Writing requires all of your attention so you cannot do that. I always say that I never slept that year because I had to write and rewrite and rewrite, and I would do it after he went to sleep. He was a more difficult child than my daughter. My daughter was the “perfect” child; she went to sleep on time, et cetera. This one did none of that; he was up all night. It was quite a challenge.
PGDo you remember the story of Peaches?
DMBoth are autobiographical. Peaches tells the story of me as a young girl growing up in Harlem at ten to twelve years of age who wanted to be an artist. Wilhelmina Jones is Peaches from thirteen to seventeen years of age.
PGWho made the cover for Wilhelmina Jones?
DMI never met the person. They told me I couldn’t do it.
PGJacket painting and cover by Gary Watson.
DMOkay, whoever he is, I never met the guy.
PGIt’s a very different cover.
DMIt’s different because somebody else interpreted the story.
PGBut Peaches, that cover is yours?
DMThe cover and the illustrations on the inside, I did them all. But once I went to Dell Books, I was solely the writer.
These books are antiques now. And like I said, I finally met Mr. Opoku, the author of Speak to the Winds just last year. I couldn’t believe it after all these years.
PGAnd how was it working with Edgar on these books?
DMIt was easy because he did the writing and the rest was up to me, so I didn’t have any restraints.
PG How did you feel about the relationship between the image and the text? Was it your interpretation of the text?
DMYeah, definitely mine. I was given free reign. I laid the book out. I decided what scenes I wanted to illustrate. It was kind of easy.
PGAre they woodcuts?
DMActually, linoleum and collage. This one—
PGThat’s Omar at Christmas?
DMYeah, this is all linoleum block prints with a lot of collage. Basically, back then, you cut and pasted.
PGThey’re beautiful prints.
DMThanks. And then this one is Sati the Rastafarian.
PGThey all have at least two color prints.
DM Yeah. Back then you were limited. The artist had to do the illustrations and the color separations, and exact color separation is not my forte. I can look at the book now and see where the registration was off, but they didn’t care! It got printed. (laughter)
PG Were any of the books challenging to illustrate for one reason or another depending on the story?
DM Speak to the Winds because it was not a story but proverbs, and I had to make the proverbs come to life. Plus, I had started using pen and ink, a challenging medium because you have to white mistakes out. I tried hard not to make mistakes.
PG Children of the Night is pen and ink and so is Speak to the Winds.
DM Right, but with Children of the Night, I was able to also combine the pen and ink with collage, and the same thing with Peaches. Speak to the Winds was all pen and ink; that was the challenge. Plus, the challenge of how do you interpret a proverb? But I feel they ended up being some of the most amazing drawings I have ever done in my life.
PG You just said it was about making the proverbs come to life. Is that how you felt about the role the illustrations would take in the books? Do they make the story come to life?
DM Yes. You’re taking somebody’s words and traditions and breathing life into them, giving something on a page a tangible form. You’re interpreting it from your eye and spirit. Another artist might take this and do something else.
PG Did you feel it was also a political act? You mentioned that the publishers had the impression that illiteracy was prevalent. Was this a way to make the story accessible?
DM This was a children’s book, it was supposed to have pictures. But it was political, because the images are of beautiful African people.
PG You also did a cookbook in 2018 called Celebrations.
DM My partner is a chef, and everyone kept bugging us to do a cookbook.
PGSo Leon Raymond Mitchell is your partner?
DMYes, he’s a filmmaker and writer, but he is also an awesome chef. Whenever we have people over for dinner, he makes all this amazing food. So our guests said, “You need to do a cookbook.” I thought, Okay this is it. If I don’t do it this year, I ain’t going to do it. So I self-published an art quilt illustrated cookbook, a limited edition of fifty. I think I’ve got three left.
PGCelebrations: Quilts and Cuisine by Dindga McCannon and Leon Raymond Mitchell. Can you talk about the relationship between the quilts to the actual recipes?
DMFirst of all, the quilts that I made to illustrate the recipes are very small. They’re fourteen by fourteen inches—they were made that size so I would actually be able to do the illustrations in a shorter period of time. Remember I did the drawings and then had to sew them to make the quilts. Once again, I had free range, so I chose to illustrate whatever I felt the section wanted.
PGFor twin-buttered Cornish hens?
DMRight, I had a good time looking for and finding food-themed fabrics that I used throughout the book along with pen and ink drawings.
DMYeah, they’re little quilts.
PGAnd they’re made specifically—
DM—for the book—they hang downstairs, on the stairway to the studio. They haven’t been seen, much as few people get to see my “Sanctuary” and I haven’t put them on exhibit yet. One day, I’ll probably sell them.
PG“Supreme Greens Dish.” It’s an unusual but very beautiful collaboration between food and art. Yeah, it looks amazing.
DMThe recipes are pretty simple and they’re all tasty.
PG We have yet to talk about the “Where We At” exhibition Cooking and Smoking in 1972. I’ve seen the flyer or the poster for it. Tell me about that exhibit.
DM Yeah, me and my daughter are in one of the photos on that poster. She must have been three at the time. The thing that made “Where We At” [the collective, “Where We At” Black Women Artists, affiliated with the Black Arts Movement] different from other groups was that when you came to our openings, we had food. Real food, not a little cheese and crackers. We had an expression back then, “The food was so great it was smoking.” It was fabulous food, made by the artists and that’s where we took the title from.
PGWhy the decision to have food at the gallery? Was it a matter of hospitality or creating a certain atmosphere?
DMIn our upbringing, when you go to somebody’s house, you get food. It’s a Southern and also an African tradition. In Africa, they put the best of what they have on the table and you are expected to eat. It’s the same thing in our culture. When somebody comes over, I’m not going to offer them a sandwich but a full meal. That’s what we started to do at openings. The food was a great incentive. If people are really happy with the food, nine times out of ten, they will be back.
PGAnd gallery food usually is—
DM—crackers, cheese—which I survived on many a day. I’m not going to beat them down because them crackers and cheese went a long way. That first show we had at Nigel Jackson’s gallery on Charles Street in the West Village, I don’t really remember if we had food, I’m not sure, but I know by the time the group was centralized in Brooklyn and we were having events and what not, there was always a lot of food made by “Where We At.”
PGA colleague of mine who was working in New York in the ’60s and ’70s told me that young artists would go to openings to see the artwork and because there was food.
DMYeah, because many of us were struggling artists with little money. I remember the chicken joint, a hole in the wall on Second Street in the East Village, down the block from musician Jackie McClean’s candy store and Slugs’ Saloon, a jazz club; the meal was forty-five cents. The chicken joint only opened after 6:00 PM because the owner didn’t have none of the papers he was supposed to have for the restaurant inspections. He would sell you a little box with the chicken wings. He would chop the wings into two parts. If you got the fat part, it was fifty cents. If you got the other part (both included a whole bunch of French fries), that was forty-five cents. Basically, that’s how we survived. We would eat there every night if we had to. In between that, it was openings because as in all times, most artists are on a severe budget and you become creative in how you’re going to eat. One of them was to go to openings.
PGAnd Cooking and Smoking was a group show?
DMYes, the flyer tells you everybody who was in that show.
PGWas all the work according to the theme?
DMYes, through each artist’s eyes.
PGWhat show was done in collaboration with Weusi and “Where We At”?
DMThat show was called Joining Forces. Each member in “Where We At” Black Women Artists was paired with a male artist. There weren’t any Weusi men included—Charles Abramson was the curator and chose the male artists. It was an interesting show because each pair came up with an installation type work and worked together to make it happen.
PGJoining Forces 1 + 1 = 3 was at the New Muse Community Museum?
DMThe New Muse no longer exists. It used to be on Eastern Parkway and Bedford Avenue. It stayed there for a long time, but as a lot of community organizations, they’re in business for a while, do great things, and for whatever reason, usually the funding runs out, and they are not there anymore.
PGCan you talk about that show? You said the premise was a female artist paired with a male artist in order to create a piece. Was it about family? Was the pairing the concept?
DMIt was a fact: 1 + 1 = 3. Me, the male artist, and together we created something else, another physical entity which was the artwork. I did a big art quilt called The Last Supper with all Black people as the subjects instead of with all white men. (laughter)
PGBut who did you work with?
DMThat’s in the catalogue. George Mingo was a photographer and he found and decorated the mannequin. The Last Supper was a huge oval piece draped over the mannequin.
PGDo you remember any other collaboration from that show that stood out?
DMCharlotte Ka, who currently does encaustic; her installation was outstanding. She is another artist who can exist outside the box really well. The one other person I remember was The Widow because her man didn’t show up. She did a black widow theme. (laughter)
PG That exhibit was in ’86. This goes back to what you talked about before in regard to feminism and equal rights: “We wanted to be on the same level. It wasn’t an anti-masculine endeavor.” Was this an amicable relationship? Did people collaborate well?
DM Charles Abramson, this was his idea. Maybe there were some issues, but I didn’t realize any of them because each pair worked separately, in different spaces. People had studios in the Bronx, Harlem, and Brooklyn. And as Black women artists we did not want to separate ourselves from our men, which is what we thought was part of feminism at that time. We were all friends on some level so the collaborations worked out well, as could be seen in the resulting artworks.
PG Charles Abramson paired up with Senga Nengudi, right?
DM Yes, who happens to be very renowned right now. She was also in We Wanted A Revolution.
PG Alright! You just found the catalogue for Joining Forces.
DM Curated by Charles Abramson. See, I knew Dr. Myrah Brown Green [renowned quilter, musician at that time, and author of Brooklyn on My Mind: Black Visual Artists from the WPA to the Present, released in 2018] had something to do with it! She was the designer of the catalogue along with Priscilla Taylor, who was our business manager. Priscilla was awesome, but she died, unfortunately, way too early. (glancing at the catalogue together)
PG Oh, there is a curatorial statement, too.
DM “1 + 1 = 3 is an erratic equation. Male and female come together to create something that goes beyond their normal vocabulary to make an entity of itself; a third thing … ”
PG It’s more than just the sum of its parts.
DM Right. It was a fabulous show.
PG Lorenzo Pace and Charlotte Richardson.
DM They created some kind of awesome installation. This was the Lonely Widow.
PG Sharon Britten. Since her collaborator never showed up, she made a piece of herself as the Lonely Widow. That’s pretty great.
DM Oh, it was Tyrone who didn’t show up. Ooohhh.
PG Tyrone Mitchell. Uh-oh.
PG Carol Blank and Walter Jackson.
DM She’s passed on. I don’t know what happened to him. Okay, see, remember I told you that they had some sort of installation thing? We were into doing installations way before it was a recognized art form.
PG Jennifer Bowden and Terry Adkins.
DM I don’t know what happened to those two.
PG There you are. George Mingo and Dindga McCannon.
DM There’s no picture of the piece.
PGBut it seems in the photo, like you’re having a great time.
DM Oh we had fun!
PG You’re laughing.
DM He lived right across the street from me. We had a lot of fun, but I still think I did most of the work because it took forever to make the quilt. Here’s Rafala Green, the president of “Where We At,” and Ellsworth Ausby who’s an awesome painter, but he died, too. None of these men belonged to Weusi, now that I’m seeing the catalog again. Kerry Marshall, look at that.
PG Claudia Gibson-Hunter and Kerry Marshall.
DM I wonder if that’s Kerry James Marshall? [Born 1955, would have been twenty-one in ’76.]
PG So that’s also a rare catalogue, no?
DM Yeah. And stashed in it is my resume from back in the day. Four pages! (Finally, someone told me, “One page will do, thank you. Nobody was going to read all of that.” I had put everything I ever did in the resume). And look, this is a note from Kay Brown. In “Where We At,” we would try and do these retreats and whatnot because not only did we do exhibitions, we were interested in improving our communities.
PGYou did a lot of workshops and educational programs. I saw an interview with you online about prison initiatives.
DMWe worked in prisons. I worked at Bedford Hills. Myself and Empress Akweke. When Priscilla died, Empress Akweke became our business manager. She wasn’t a really good business manager, that’s a whole ’nother story.
“Where We At” Black Women Artists dissolved about 1999. Priscilla Taylor was the glue that held everything together, but after she died eventually the group disbanded.
PG What is this beautiful poster for?
DMIt was for a retreat that we were going to do.
PG Rejuvenate to Nature with “Where We At” Black Women Artists.
DMWe never got enough people to go on that, but we would try.
PGSenga Nengudi is also an artist who works with fabric, with stockings. She was working in New York and then in Los Angeles.
DMShe moved to LA in 1977. I had taken a trip on the Grey Rabbit Express. At the time, to fly to California cost something like 700 dollars. The hippies had come up with this other way, it probably predated Megabus, to get from one end of the country to another. They would go from New York to San Francisco in an old school bus. It cost sixty-nine dollars. They took out all the seats and put mattresses in. You would get on the bus and three days later, you would end up in San Francisco. Senga was in LA and I went to San Francisco to see an old boyfriend of mine, that’s what happened. (I had decided that I wanted to raise my children in another city, which was why I went to Cali in the first place.) After I was encouraged to find another residence, I got on a bus and went to see another friend of mine, Tonnie Jones, a sculptor. Tonnie lived with his family in San Jose. He picked me up at the bus stop. Tonnie had been an alcoholic and he hadn’t been drinking in years, but somehow when I showed up, he bought a gallon of wine. Then he took me to somebody’s house and they commenced to drink. I’m sitting there thinking, I can’t take this. I don’t have to do this. I’m going home. I go outside and there’s nothing out there but the big sky, the moon, lots of cars going by, but no way for me to get out of there, so I was stuck with him. Then, I finally convinced him to leave and by this time, Tonnie is tore down drunk! We get on the highway and he’s flying; then the police start chasing us. Tonnie tells me to get into the driver’s seat. I don’t drive and this is not the time for me to be trying that. (laughter) And it’s 2:00 AM! So Tonnie is trying to outrun the police, I’m screaming and hollering, and finally he pulled over. I just know that we’re going to die; I thought the police would be angry because he had tried to outrun them and they would shoot us … but it just so happened that Tonnie’s father used to fix all the policemen’s cars and they knew who he was, so they didn’t shoot up the car. They just took him away and they took me and my thrift-store mink coat, too many bags for them to search, and left me on a bench under the Sunnyvale bus depot in the middle of the night. They said, “Well, you ain’t going to jail. Make do the best you can.”
PGThey just left you there?
DMYup! I called Tonnie’s wife, this was the days before cell phones, so I probably went up to the bus station and called her. She came and got me the next morning. Tonnie got out of jail about noon and swore he would never drink again. I don’t know if he did or didn’t, but he didn’t at that point. Then I went on to LA to see Senga. I was pregnant at the time. I knew I was having a boy. I didn’t want to raise him in New York, I wanted something different, but when I got to LA, the artists were into something completely off the chain. I could not relate to it at all. They were installation and performance artists.
PGWas Senga working with David Hammons then?
DMOh yeah, because David had been in New York, too. The type of art they were doing in LA though had nothing to do with the type of art I was doing. I said, “Well, I guess I’m screwed and may as well go back to Harlem because I’m not going to be able to thrive out here.” So I left.
PGDo you remember what they were doing?
DMThere was a lot of performance and installation and creations in public spaces. Things got repurposed as art. Like David’s wine bottles and Senga’s stockings. On the East Coast we were doing mostly fine art. I remember it was completely alien to what I was doing and there was no way that I could fit in.
PGDid you meet Ulysses Jenkins while you were out there?
DM No, not that I remember.
PG He’s one of the collaborators in Senga’s work. He’s coming to Philly to have a retrospective at the ICA.
DM Awesome! When is he coming?
PG Meg Onli is the curator; I think it’s planned for 2021. I’ll let you know. He’s a great guy. He’s still out in Los Angeles. The show is long overdue; you know how those things go.
DM Yes I do. Thank God, we’re still breathing.
PG Senga was using fabric in a very different way than you, but it reminds me of your fabric work. Not in the way it looks, but the idea of putting art into a different space, for instance what you wear is not meant to be hanging on the wall.
DM She repurposed, what I now consider fabulously.
PG You did a talk on the occasion of We Wanted a Revolution, an interview in front of an audience and you were wearing this coat—
DM My “Where We At” coat, it’s right up there on my wearable art rack.
PG Is that a memorial coat?
DMYeah, most definitely. As this whole We Wanted a Revolution began to evolve, I felt sad that I was still living and so many in “Where We At” had passed on. I was trying to say, Okay, I’ve made it to this point, but what about everybody else? The way that I worked it out in my mind was that I made this duster, embroidered everybody’s name on it, plus sewed reproductions of catalogs and flyers on it too. I wore it to all the venues of We Wanted a Revolution, and when I show up I feel we are all there.
PG The front has all the names of the members.
DM Yeah, I embroidered everybody’s name (that I knew, and what further research revealed—we had so many members in “Where We At,” many only active for a little while, I couldn’t remember everyone so the research filled in the blanks), on the front of the duster and on the sleeves. And the back has photos of members and reproductions of flyers.
PG Flyers, exhibition posters. I love that image right there, (pointing) the poster that says “the tribe of Black women artists” was also an exhibition.
DM The Dorsey Art Gallery in Brooklyn had a tribute to the “Where We At” artists last year. They called and asked me who I could find that was still breathing and hopefully still working. I found a couple of members. A couple of women had stopped being artists. I found that to be very sad, but on the other hand I totally understood it. This particular woman, Jerrolyn Crooks, a fashion illustrator who was ahead of her time back in those days, I found her somewhere in Miami. She hadn’t touched a paintbrush or a drawing in about twenty years. I told her about the show and she produced four pieces and they sold—each and every last one of them.
PG This is a really interesting image. She’s holding—
DM —a gun.
PG What kind of hat is she wearing?
DM A big straw hat, because she was one of the first women I knew who wore her head bald. This is going back to 1973 when women simply didn’t do that.
PG It looks very radical, very Vietnam era with the gun. What was this, a sign of allegiance—
DM —in tune with the Black Panthers and that whole movement.
PG So in many ways it was an art and activist group?
DM Yeah, but our activism dealt with the Black community.
PG You waited a long time for these exhibitions to happen and for people to be able to show their work. That’s part of the conversation that you had with Howardena Pindell at a Brooklyn Museum symposium during We Wanted a Revolution, this idea of catching up with the history that had been omitted. This coat brings everybody along with you.
DM There you go.
PG It’s the spirit of the collective.
DM It was nice being a “star,” however there were other women involved and I didn’t want them to be forgotten. So many of our members are not here anymore. We were a sisterhood. That’s why I went to the Soul of a Nation opening at the Tate in London because Kay Brown (who had a work in that exhibition) is gone, and it would have changed her life had she known that finally the larger art world knows her work. So I went for her.
I’ll tell you one thing that I did and I asked myself, Is this why God sent me over here? At the opening of the show at the Tate, some reporter, for example—Kay’s work is right here, he leaned all of his cameras and stuff right under her work! I said, “You wouldn’t do that to Picasso, so why are you doing that to her?” I grabbed the curator and complained, but ten minutes went by and nobody had done anything about it so I thought, Okay, I guess it’s me. I took his or her stuff and moved it to the other side of the room. That has shown me how art is so connected with politics. Even amongst the Black art world, it’s about cliques and who you know. If you’re not part of the clique then you have to struggle by yourself or find your own niche or make your own clique. It’s a very set clique out there because it seems that the same artists are always getting awards or exhibitions. It seems like they pick out maybe five or ten and they get everything, and then everybody else gets nothing.
PG Do you remember that conversation at the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s symposium? Linda Goode Bryant said she went to a dinner where there were lots of artists, most of them were men, but nobody was talking about art. Everyone was talking about who do you know, the cliques, who made it, how much it’s worth, and so on and so forth. At some point, she stood up and said, “I’m leaving, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” Was there a shift in the ’80s, in New York and elsewhere, as to how people talked about art?
DM No. We existed outside of the normal realm. We really lived in our own world. I guess we were aware, but our focus was selling Black art to Black people, and how you reach them. Our exhibiting world consisted of places like the New Muse, colleges, office buildings, the Weusi gallery, and the maybe hundreds of little galleries mostly run by women from their homes.
PG That’s why it’s so important to acknowledge and study those histories, because they present a different story than the dominant art world story about commodification. A different way to think about artmaking, and audiences already existed in the groups you were a part of.
DM I didn’t realize I was missing out on something because it was simply that as an artist, it never occurred to me to go down to some of the big galleries and apply for a show. It didn’t occur perhaps because we had so much going on in our own community. We would get grants and what not through Priscilla Taylor, and her being business-minded enough to research and apply for them. As an individual artist, I don’t remember myself applying for too many grants back then.
PG Has the availability of grants changed? What is your experience?
DM The NEA used to give out a lot of grants and it seemed that a lot more organizations back then gave out grants, but still, there are artists who I’ve heard existed from grant to grant, mainly because they have friends and connections on the committees. I didn’t realize this until the last couple of years. It’s not just you applying for the grant, it’s who’s sitting on the panel that will make all the difference in who gets the grant and who doesn’t, because you have somebody going to bat for you. It’s like trying to break through the old boys’ club. Next week, I’m going to another grant writing workshop because I want to get better at it. Most of the grants I’ve written, I have not received. It might possibly be in the way that I’m approaching it, so I’m going to get help; it’s a whole ’nother language. And for every grant, hundreds and sometimes thousands of artists are applying.
PG Should art school students learn about the ins and outs of the business of art?
DM I told some students at Hunter after I finished a lecture, I said, “Do they have any business courses here to help you recoup the thousands of dollars that you and your family are paying?” They said, “No.” I said, “You need to advocate for that because art is a quadrillion dollar business. When you graduate, do you want to practice your art? How do you think you’re going to do that? You have to think about how you’re actually going to pull this off.” In these days and times, it’s more possible to exist solely on your art than it was when I started.
PGYou think so?
DMOh yeah, in the ’60s, our top artists: Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis … everybody was working for somebody, mostly universities. They were not making it only from sales of work. Currently I know a lot of artists who are able to pay the bills from the sale of their work. And live comfortably.
PGWe’re talking a lot about the ’60s and ’70s organizations. The Art Workers’ Coalition was advocating precisely for these ideas—how to get artists a fair share when their work is resold, when they rent or loan a work of art and so on.
DMI’m in a situation right now; it’s funny how things come to you. One of my artist friends, doll artist Tanya Montegut, sent me the cover of a Swann Galleries upcoming auction. Johnson Publications bought a lot of artwork in the ’70s. They bought a piece of mine that I used to go visit in the lounge of the ladies’ room in their building whenever I was in Chicago.
PGTheir offices were there?
DMYup, fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, my artist friends email that the Swann is auctioning off my work as part of the Johnson collection. The asking bid is 30,000 to 40,000 dollars. As I sat in the audience at the auction, with Tanya there as my cheering section, and Shelley Innis and Otto Neals, I almost fainted as the work sold for 161,000 dollars. I don’t get a dime of that. And that was one of the things that the Artists’ Coalition wanted to do—to make a law so that artists would get a piece of resale prices. I’m not even dead yet and they’re making money off of me! Big time! They ran out of catalogs and if it hadn’t been for Tanya who grabbed a bunch, I wouldn’t even have a copy, even though I was promised one by the auction house. Lord have mercy!
PGIt’s a strange irony. The work was bought in support of artists and now these same artists don’t see any of that.
DMAwful! But I am a firm believer in turning negatives into positives. I hope that people who didn’t know my work will “discover” me and come buy some of my current work, and show my collectors proof that the work they have been buying is going to appreciate over time, if they didn’t know it already.
PGI want to talk about some of the questions that came up during the exhibitions We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-85 which opened at the Brooklyn Museum in 2017, and Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980 that originated at the Hammer Museum. It was interesting to think about these shows in relation to WAC and the feminist revolution from the ’70s. Looking back, whether it’s with “Where We At” or the Art Workers’ Coalition, do you feel that there’s a certain nostalgia for the ’60s and ’70s?
PGWhy do you think that is?
DMI don’t know. The way I see it, the people who support museums are getting older and museums need to get new people into their spaces. One way of doing that is to mount exhibitions that actually have something to do with the community. Now, all of a sudden, many of the artists who are still alive and who were working then have found wonderful financial freedom because of this focus on that particular era. I don’t know if it’s because it also parallels the great civil rights movement, but for some reason, afriCOBRA is doing well, other women artists groups are suddenly coming back into public attention and doing exhibitions, and so forth and so on. I think the curatorial staff in some of the museums is also changing, becoming more diverse—that makes a big difference in what comes out on the floor. The staffs are realizing they have to be more diverse. Somebody discovered that there was this huge art thing from the ’60s out of the Black community and it’s just taken on a life of its own. Everybody wants work from that period.
PGYeah, it’s telling to see what times we are looking at and how we are looking at them. It may seem like nostalgia for political activism and group efforts. These are trying political times.
DMIt’s true, however I think it has always been trying, it’s just more in your face now.
PGAt that round table at the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art during the We Wanted a Revolution exhibit—“Where We At” actually went to the Brooklyn Museum in 1972 and demanded that there be an exhibition of women’s art. Is that right?
DMYup. The proof is in the photo from that day. I am the one reading the demands. We were also advocating for more opportunities for school programs and babysitting. The problem with being a woman artist, particularly at that time, was that you had the job of dealing with the children; shared childcare was not a regular thing then. As an artist, you need a lot of alone time and it’s hard to juggle that when you have children. If you have no money, you can’t pay a babysitter to give you hours more time in the studio. The nice thing about “Where We At,” since many of us had children, is that we would take the kids to the homes of different members and go back to our studios and work. I was home a lot of the time, I taught freelance, and members sent the kids over to my house, which worked out well because while the kids were entertaining each other, I’m in the studio.
PG So a sharing of labor.
DM Yeah. That was one of the reasons to have a women’s organization; we were sensitive to that. Nowadays, when I see men carrying babies and pushing strollers, I say, “Oh my, God. This is not the way it was when I had my kids.” Now there are some changes in the world that are actually working. Yes, men are doing that. That’s good!
PG Absolutely. But it took the Brooklyn Museum fifty years to finally have that show. It’s slow.
DM It seems change is overnight or next to forever. The Elizabeth Sackler Center, when that came into fruition, opened the doors for other kinds of artists, especially women, to be able to get in.
PG The ’80s are often known in the US and also in Germany and Britain, as a time of conservative backlash—Ronald Reagan and Margret Thatcher. NEA endowments were slashed. Do you remember your experience in the ’80s as being different than the time prior?
DM No. Look. This is something from the ’80s.
PG The Daily News from 1987.
DM The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem realized, “We need to have a collection.” See this—
PG —an article called “Let Me Off Uptown: Harlem Throws a Party.”
DM The Schomburg realized that they did not have a collection, so they called artists in Harlem and artists associated with Harlem and asked them to donate a piece or two. That’s how we ended up getting in the paper. There were over one hundred artists. They couldn’t pay for the work, but at least they honored us for our donations and gave us a great party; that was cool because we all came together, many had not seen each other in years. For me and for others, this was a way of giving back to our community.
PG Do you remember what the exhibition was called?
DM Yeah. Who’s Uptown: Harlem ’87. That’s what it’s called.
DM Deirdre Bibby was the arts collection manager at the Schomburg. It was probably her idea.
PG And you’re featured there as one of Jacob Lawrence’s heirs—
DM Yeah, I was one of his students. Because I wasn’t comfortable learning art in a Eurocentric world, I chose to go to the Art Students League where I worked with Jacob Lawrence, Charles Alston, Richard Mayhew, and Al Hollingsworth. Best move ever! I was blessed to work with some of our masters! They understood what I was trying to say and encouraged me as a young artist.
PG When was the United Community [a six-story mural at 24 Furman Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn that Dindga designed and “Where We At” got funding for]?
DM Oh, that’s in the ’80s, around 1985 if memory serves me right.
PG The Joining Forces exhibition was in ’86. What do you remember about that time? And the ’90s?
DM The main thing with the ’80s and the ’90s was being a member of “Where We At,” but also I began to travel with my work. I was making part of my living teaching people who I called “the forgotten people”—homeless people, prisoners, and mentally challenged folks—making art and arts and crafts and doing all kinds of odd jobs. But on the weekends, all across the states in our African American communities, they would have different fairs. Like during Black History Month, everybody had some event or fair. I would travel to these places. I found that just selling art isn’t always going to bring in money, so I began to create wearable art and sell that as well. I would travel from one end of America to the other selling my work. That was like a portable gallery. That’s what we did in the ’80s. We went from New York City to Philly, to Washington DC, to Chicago, to Atlanta, Miami, and LA, and many other cities.
PG There is a lot of attention on certain eras and much less on others. Maybe because it’s relatively recent.
DM The same things that were going on in the ’60s and ’70s continued on through the ’80s and the ’90s. It’s just that the emphasis on the civil rights part was so much greater in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s the same issues today. It’s just that the ’60s seemed to have the events that lit the fire to keep things going for all of these years.
PG Weusi continued?
DM Yes. Weusi still exhibits to this day.
PG And “Where We At,” at some point you said it ended—
DM –1999, I think, was it.
PG Then the 2000s changed some things for you with these big exhibitions.
DM In the latter 2000s! We Wanted a Revolution changed things for me personally, because my work was introduced to a larger audience than what it had been. In the ’60s and ’70s, I was basically a painter and printmaker. I studied at the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop in Chelsea in the ’80s through the late ’90s. There I did linocuts, etchings, and lithography. I am currently in the process of printing some of my plates made fifty years ago. Then, in the ’80s I started working more in textiles (because it was more portable and I felt I could combine all my different media interests into one); that presented another level of discrimination. It was another reason I didn’t seek out galleries, because they simply had no interest in fiber work. It was “women’s work.” It wasn’t as valuable as the so-called fine arts. That’s the kind of battle I fought throughout the ’90s. As 2000 came, the whole quilt-making movement began to get more attention and became more acceptable as an art form. Every year at the George R. Brown in Houston, they have the biggest quilt conference in the world. When you go there, you really understand how fiber art is a major business. There are thousands of mostly women who do this and because of them, the galleries have begun to open the doors and let those definitions of what art is and what art ain’t become a lot broader than what it had been. The ’90s and the 2000s, I spent just trying to push my way into where my quilt work has just as much viability as my fine art work. Like I recently started printmaking again. I actually did an etching, one of the more complicated processes. It takes me from the time of creation to fruition maybe two or three weeks to create an etching. A quilt can take a month, or two months, or three months or more, and it’s a lot more labor intensive. I can sell that print and if I print ten of them, I will have made more money than if I sold the quilt. So to this day, it’s not quite balanced. I’m seeing more and more quilt artists getting 20,000 to 30,000 dollars for their work, which is encouraging because it means if they did it, then I can do it.
PG On the one hand, the sale of wearable art is a means to support your other art mediums. On the other hand, is there gratification in that people who could not afford to pay for a painting can afford to buy a piece of wearable art? As it’s worn, it’s something that’s much more intimate in some ways.
DM I do care about it because the wearable art is just an extension of my other art forms. If I do a show, like when I am at a fair, I know I’m going to sell some clothes—that’s a given. I’m able to take the art into a form that is commercially viable, and that does help to support my other art mediums. If I were given a choice, I would probably never make clothes again because the clothes-making—and this has been an ongoing battle all my life—takes time away from the studio practice. I am painting, dyeing, and embellishing cloth—very time-consuming. Whatever time is left over, I can work on my other media.
PG People have a different relationship to wearable art. It becomes a part of everyday life. It’s an intimacy that is very exciting.
DMIt’s true. When I see people wearing my clothes, I think, It ain’t on the wall but it’s still art. It makes me happy when a body inhabits my clothing, creating an exciting visual. I think every person is an individual and clothing should reflect who you are on the inside, and everyone should look different because we’re all different.
I’ve told everyone that when I die, I want them to come to my memorial in something I made. (laughter)
PGThese bigger exhibitions, We Wanted a Revolution in particular, what kind of impact do you think this exhibition has had on how the younger generation thinks about art, art history, artmaking, and art institutions?
DMI traveled with the exhibition from where it opened at the Brooklyn Museum, to CAAM in LA, to the Albright-Knox gallery and the ICA in Boston. I found that people were really excited to see an exhibition like this. It was like something they had always wanted but never thought would materialize. It was art that told a story that related to them. It was inspiring to a lot of young artists who are still floundering. They asked me, “How did you manage to get to this point?” They wanted information about how “Where We At” operated. I encouraged them to start their own groups because there’s strength in numbers. Even in today’s times, artists finding other artists with similar issues, and then y’all find another artist, and then the collaboration and the communication might solve some of the problems because you have a group versus one person fighting a battle. Everywhere I went, people were just happy. The audiences were packed and that meant somebody is paying attention and somebody wants to know. It also let me see that my life’s work has not only the purpose I intended (which was to do art that related to my culture), but it has an even bigger purpose because it’s still talking to the people of today. All these movements can still open somebody’s mind, to encourage somebody who’s always thought they wanted to be an artist. To let people know that art not only hangs on a wall, but it can educate and inform and inspire other parts of life. It’s a very powerful tool, and it’s gratifying because as you know, some artists work all their life and nobody pays much attention. When they die, sometimes their family or caretakers throws the artwork out in the garbage. Hopefully, that’s happening less and less because people are beginning to understand that art has a value and it’s something to be embraced and not tossed in the garbage like yesterday’s news.
PGDuring the ’70s, you were influenced by Africa, and African art and culture. Is that still a viable influence today? Could the type of visibility of Black culture in the US function similarly as Africa did for you? People are now attending these symposiums and conferences. Does that serve as an inspiration that is similar to the inspiration that you found in Africa?
DMWe were so affected by Africa then because we had been denied the connection. Many of us are still inspired by our African connection. I have many friends who visit African countries regularly. Some have property there. Some have left the USA, put down roots there and have vowed never to come back. I find it interesting and exciting that many African artists are exhibiting here now.
PGIs the T-shirt you have on imprinted with symbols?
DMYes—Adinkra signs used in Ghana. I made this. It was important to us at that time because we were searching for knowledge of our history. My audience for these wearables is mostly people in my age group who have, since the ’60s, dressed Afrocentrically and/or worn African garb. For the brief time that I went to City College, nobody knew I was an American because I always wore African fabric garments, head wraps. I don’t think today’s artists—well some of them are—are really influenced. We are descendants from Africa. You’re not a Black artist because you deal with Black subject matter; you’re a Black artist because you are a Black person who is doing artwork. You don’t have to deal with your stories or history in your artwork. You can do abstraction, photography … you can do all kinds of things. So Africa as the focus of today’s artists—I don’t think that exists anymore.
PGMaybe the image of Africa has changed.
DMWell, the image of Africa has changed and then it hasn’t changed. According to your president, there are still poor savages running around in the bush in Africa. He doesn’t bother to mention they’re poor because the Europeans have taken everything out of there, and now there are other cultures taking their natural resources out of there. Some African countries have a lot of poverty but it’s because of the continual rape and robbing of resources.
Anyhow, this is just another phase. I refuse to be beat down by this. We have survived slavery. Donald Trump is nothing. He’ll be gone sooner or later. A lot of the shenanigans he’s been pulling off, these things have been in place for generations; it’s just that he’s out there with it.
PGI think you’re right. He’s more of a symptom than anything else.
DM Yeah, he’s just showing us how things have always been. Things are so clandestine sometimes; people don’t realize that this has been going on since Native Americans were done in by early Americans and since slavery. It’s nothing different. Same song, just a different tune.
PGThere is an increasing visibility of a multiplicity of interrelated cultures, of artworks, of artists, of artmaking. These histories open up new narratives, new ways of perceiving the past as well as the future. There are movements where people are very vocal about the need to reimagine how we have been perceived, and how we will perceive ourselves and shape the world we live in accordingly, as you do in an exhibition like We Wanted a Revolution. I’m counting on the evolution of political counterculture.
DMTrue, and the way that the world is going, another fifty years, three-quarters of the population is going to consist of mixed-race people. Then I wonder who they’re going to put their foot down on. It’s going to be a cultural mix, so that’s going to be interesting.
PGThe question is then, Who’s going to be the oppressor and who is going to be the oppressed? Is the problem that our system/culture (capitalism) needs an oppressor and an oppressed?
DMRemember the Star Trek segment with the guy who was Black on the left side and white on the other side? And the other guy was Black on the right side and white on the left side, and they were fighting. It seems somebody’s always got to be on the bottom.
PGBut there have been struggles and there have been advances, albeit slow and certainly not nearly enough. If some progress is possible, then maybe, systemic change is possible as well. As Fredric Jameson remarked, it is astounding that we can imagine the end of the world (in books and disaster movies et cetera), but for some reason we can’t imagine a different sociopolitical system to succeed ours.
Lorraine O’Grady, in that conversation with you at the Brooklyn Museum about We Wanted A Revolution, said, “We didn’t just want recognition; we wanted to be meaningful.” It’s not only about putting another image into the Janson book of art history. Meaning is being created. Do you think that’s happening?
DMI think it’s a slow process, but slowly but surely some things do change. It seems that the world is opening just a bit and every time it opens a little bit, it can open a little more and a little more and a little more and a little more. I don’t know if we’ll ever get to be full circle; realistically it ain’t going to happen in my lifetime, but I definitely see a move in the right direction. I am an optimist!
PGIt is a challenge to how the story has been told so far.
DM It’s including other art forms than those we consider to be the fine arts as a European tradition. Work from different cultures is distinct. Europeans are one of the few groups who sit and paint on a canvas and then hang that up. For everybody else, the art is part of life. It’s usually through textiles or through things that are functional. You’ve got artists who make incredible images out of sand. More and more it seems these other art forms are being accepted as art, and that’s good because fifty years ago you didn’t have that. You wouldn’t have had art that includes a lot of cultures and women in museums. And I wouldn’t know anybody that sold a quilt for 20,000 dollars. (laughter)
PG Since we’ve made our way through the decades, let’s end on what your plans are from here on out.
DM My plans are to make a really decent living solely off of my artwork before I die! The other plan is to continue to do my artwork as I have for the past fifty-five years. When I can, I reach out and help other artists and I love to inspire everyday people to be creative. That’s my plan. But the money aspect is the most important because it’s always been a struggle. I feel that at this point in time there’s no reason why I can’t say, “Oh, I got money in the bank. I can pay my bills. I can just sit here and do my art.” My goal, as all the publicity and the other things come, is that I’ll be able to get more grants, sell more of my work with better price points, and survive without economic stress. They have a commercial on the TV where you see people in their ’80s saying, “I’m getting too old for this (having a day job).” My whole life has been art. That’s been the focus, that’s always been the concentration. The downside of that is that I never figured I’d live this long. When you’re young, you just don’t think about, One day I’ll be seventy or eighty. I never really donated to the Social Security system. I didn’t realize what a problem that was going to be until I hit sixty-five. One of the things I do pass on to younger artists is to put something in the Social Security system or have some kind of retirement plan, because you’re living longer now and there’s going to be a day where you may not want to go out and work. I had always assumed that because I love what I’m doing, I’d just keep doing it. This is going to be the year (I’m making that prophecy) that if everything clicks for me, I’ll be able to glide through the year just doing my artwork.
PG Your experiences and work with different groups, you’re working in all these materials, and your travels, are such a crucial narrative. Have you thought about writing another book? The earlier books are autobiographical; are you planning to tell the rest of your story?
DM I think about it almost every other day. However, it’s one thing to think about, and it’s another thing to write it down. Even yesterday, I envisioned this book in my mind, like what was going to go into it. A lot of my other artist friends have a book so how come I don’t have a book? So that’s another goal, to do a book that has a lot of my experiences, stories, and illustrated with my many art media.
PG Yeah, the visual materials alone, whether it’s your own work or your archive of flyers and letters. I mean part of it is in your work already as in Harlem Memories—an art quilt you created made from your family’s Harlem memorabilia.
DM Yeah, for sure, however I know that the story I have to tell is very interesting to say the least, and I really need to get to it—at least the beginning of trying to write things down because as you age, your memory goes. I don’t remember this, I don’t remember that, but I can remember where I got all of my art stuff, my collections, the year I bought it, where it is, and all of that. That I can remember. But events tend to become more fluid and sometimes they go away. So this will definitely be the time to take the ideas and actually sit down and figure out how to do the book.
PG I think that would be a great project. We’re trying to make a contribution here with your oral history, but then also to have a book with all the visual materials that you have assembled, whether you made it yourself or collected, would be a treasure trove.
DM Yeah all the stories, how I got there, and why I did them.
PG That’s great. Thank you.
BOMB’s Oral History Advisory Panel includes Sanford Biggers, Thelma Golden, Kellie Jones, Odili Donald Odita, Lowery Stokes Sims, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Stanley Whitney, and Jack Whitten (in memoriam).
The Oral History Project is supported by the Seth Sprague Educational and Charitable Foundation, the Dedalus Foundation, Humanities New York with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.
Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this digital publication do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The Oral History Project Fellowship is made possible by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Cary Brown and Steven Epstein, Beatrice Caracciolo, John Coumantaros, Sally Ann Page, and Toni Ross.
Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this digital publication do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Philip Glahn is the Associate Professor of Critical Studies and Aesthetics and Program Head of Painting at Tyler School of Art and Architecture, Temple University, Philadelphia. His work focuses on the histories, theories, and practices of art as technology, labor, and activism. His writings have appeared in publications including Art Journal, Afterimage, The Brooklyn Rail, Parallax, Panorama, and PUBLIC, as well as several anthologies and exhibition catalogs. Glahn’s book addressing questions of socialism and technology, pedagogy and the utility in the work of Bertolt Brecht was published in 2014 by Reaktion Books. His current research and book project focus on the relationship between art, communication technologies, and concepts of utopia.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.