Barbara Chase - Riboud
L: Tantra #4, 2007, polished bronze and silk, 199.4 x 120.7 x 70.5 Size (cm)
R: Malcolm X #16, 2016. Red patina bronze and silk 92" x 32" x 30" / 233.7 x 81.3 x 76.2 cm
Barbara Chase-Riboud is a poet, writer, sculptor, and fiber artist. Her work is often metal, sometimes embraced, draped, swaddled or trimmed in fiber, and frequently drawn or written. Her perspective reminds us that “Memory is Everything,” as she was quoted to say in regard to the historical and personal stories expressed within her award winning poetry, books, drawings, and sculptures. As she enters her 80s with over six decades of artistic study and work through crucial moments of world history, she has become a powerful figure in her own right. Her striking, elegant visual works feel familiar yet informative, like a transcendent message from ancestors, just as her written works quite literally convey the experiences of ancestors. In her work “materials, forms, and cultural references unite in a continuous interplay of bold physicality and metaphoric associations," stated the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Chase-Riboud's modern abstract sculptures often combine the durable and rigid metals of bronze and aluminum with softer elements made from silk or other textile material.
There are few fiber artists more cosmopolitan, accomplished and groundbreaking than Barbara Chase Riboud yet she is an artist who has not been adequately celebrated in measure to her vast accomplishments. Born in 1939 during a time of deep American segregation and Jim Crow, her education and professional experience eventually spanned Philadelphia, Rome, Cairo, Dakar, Paris, and London. She is the first African American woman with an MFA from Yale University (attended at the same time as Eva Hesse although they never crossed paths), the youngest woman to enter the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (at age sixteen), the third women in American history to have a solo show at a museum, winner of the Carl Sandburg Poetry prize, the only visual artist featured on the cover of Ebony magazine (in 1958), and knighted by the French government. Her connections to landmark events in history is remarkable… A friendship with Man Ray, writer James Baldwin and architect Kenneth Frampton, a chance meeting with Rene Burri, a life-changing tip from classmate and close friend Sheila Hicks, a lucky run-in with the president of Coca-Cola in Egypt that led her to safety as a lone teenager who had sailed to Alexandria on a dare during the Suez Canal War. She was even a contract extra for the Italian studio Cinecittà to work as a background actor in films such as Ben-Hur, which at an American union rate, afforded her enough cash to support her art practice. In the decades to follow, her prolific novels and poetry books kept her work afloat. She had a celebrated literary career writing poetry (her editor was Toni Morrison) and historical fiction novels centered upon the stories of black women such as Sally Hemmings and Sarah Baartman. She was widely mentioned in the news when she won a large settlement from Dreamworks after presenting a case that her book Echo of Lions was used as the basis for the 1998 film Amistad without credit.
“People think that I get up in the morning, run to the studio, make a sketch, write a chapter, then after lunch write a poem, then with my feet I’m doing something else…. But the fact is that these different disciplines come at different times in my life and they come in different waves.”
The common thread between her historical fiction, poetry, drawing, and sculpture is the importance of memory and maybe a more abstract notion of the grand architecture of things. It all started when she graduated from Temple University with a BFA in 1956 at age 16. She won a Mademoiselle magazine contest guest-editorship award and moved to New York to take a job with Charm magazine. The following year, on the recommendation of noted art director Leo Lionni, she won a John Hay Whitney Fellowship to study at the American Academy in Rome. The Baroque influence was one that integrated through the rest of her sculptural works. On a dare at 19, she packed her bags for Egypt and wandered the streets without direction until she had some helpful chance encounters that kept her safe during the Suez Canal War tensions. She described the trip as the life-changing awareness of the historical legacy of non-European art. Speaking of her Egypt trip she says, “I grew up that year. It was the first time I realized there was such a thing as non-European art. For someone exposed only to the Greco-Roman tradition, it was a revelation. I suddenly saw how insular the western world was vis-a-vis the non-white, non-Christian world. The blast of egyptian culture was irresistible. The sheer magnificence of it the elegance and perfetion, the timelessness, the depth. After that, Greek and Roman art looked like pastry to me. From an artistic point of view that trip was historic for me."
"Though I didn’t know it at the time, my own transformation was part of the historical transformation of blackness that began in the 60s."
Later at Yale, she studied in the school of design and architecture. One of her greatest mentors was a professor of Russian background, classically trained in the European tradition that expected his students to follow the process of drawing, painting, and drafting prior to sculpting, “He had a sense of history and belonging to a tradition that went back to the Roman Empire so my whole training was extremely classical. I learned how to sculpt in stone, terra cotta, and lost wax casting.” She developed her signature process as a result of that time. She begins making meticulous charcoal pencil drawings of the form that take up to five days. Then the sculptural phase she works more quickly to uncover form, bending and melting large 1/4 inch sheets of wax with tools, slowly building and subtracting pieces as if they were fabric. She brings a plaster casting made from her wax model to the bronze/aluminum factory she began working with early on in Paris. After the workers cast the metal, she sews either wool or silk threads to the sculpture. When Chase-Riboud began study, women sculptors were expected to work small and classically, on the contrary, Barbara began exploring non-European art forms, black historical figures, and combining binary elements in an elegant, harmonizing way, incorporating hard and soft, heavy and light, masculine and feminine, abstraction and figurative, high art and domestic craft.
"Taking a hard material and a soft material and making them work together is my way of trying to relate African sculpture to my way of working. I am not African…. but I think on the other hand…. I have a certain obligation to learn and explore a culture that is related to me racially.”
She moved to Paris in 1961, calling herself a “runway bride”, intending to live in London but met her husband in Paris and never returned. She was enamored with abundance of high skilled foundries in Paris that could produce any design under the sun. The city had a longer legacy of women artists that made her feel more accepted and free to work. Her foundry has a profound influence on her more recent works as well. In the case of her 2008 piece “All that is rising must converge” the unique red colored metal results from her foundry contacting her to let her know they had found a red patina for gold bronze. “Once they showed me that color, it was natural: Oh, thats [going to be] a red Malcolm.”
The fiber element of her work was discovered as a way to problem solve a base to her metal figures. “Since I was moving to abstraction, my goal was to get the form up off the form, free from its base and get rid of the legs. It was anchoring not only the sculpture but also intellectually and poetically anchoring the art. I had gotten to this point and didnt know how to hide the armature. [Sheila Hicks] said why don’t you hide it with fiber? I’ll show you ONE knot, and you can take it from there…. Fiber had never occured to me before then... And I still only make one knot, I also braid and wind but I only make one knot." She intertwined cast bronze with braided, wound silk or wool she refers to as a ‘skirt’. She said in 2014: “There’s a reason for this. Up until the Steles [her Malcolm X Stele series] it [her sculptures] always had a reference to the human body. When I realized these sculptures were going in another direction, I had to cut off the legs and get rid of the base because the legs - I thought- were keeping the imagery naturalistic and humanistic, which is what I didn’t want. One of the ways I decided it was possible, was to lift the whole abstract composition up onto an armature and in order to hide the armature, I had to have something, and it seemed as fabric, or wool was gonna do it. And it couldnt be just a curtain, it had to in itself be a sculpture, and it had to have a moviment that was graphic.”
L: Close up of unknown piece
R: La Musica Red #4, 2003, bronze with red patina and silk, 30 by 15 by 32 inches
Her most renowned sculptural works are refered to as her Malcolm Steles, which are a series of 20 sculptures. A stele is a tall stone or wooden slab commonly used in ancient times as a monument to great figures. Found globally in such countries as Egypt, Ethiopia, China, and Greece, she describes them as “practically every civilization has used this kind of sculpture to memorialize their own history or their own hereos.” Her steles memorialized Malcolm X shortly after his assassination, including piece "Confessions for Myself" (which has recently been on tour with the Soul of A Nation show)
The series combines towering swirling, rooted cast bronze forms with gracefully draped and embracing knotted and braided fiber elements. “Named in memory of the assassinated civil rights leader, set material and thematic opposites into dynamic interaction- bronze and silk; fixed and flowing; hard and soft; brash and hushed; monumental and intimate” wrote BAMPF. “He was a major world figure, a humanist, someone who changed history. When I was beginning in 1969, the Malcolms started on the floor, then they went up to tabletop [height], then all of the sudden they became vertical and they began to rise. And it was only with Malcolm 3 that this kind of combustion took place with the skirt and the bronze. And they continued to rise,” Chase-Riboud said. The quality of levitating or rising in space and concept is an enduring theme in her work. Janet Koplos wrote, "A favorite of mine is the 10-foot-tall Confessions for Myself (1972), which might be a figure in a cape. Vertical elements of black bronze at the top turn to multiple horizontals — the angularity suggesting shoulders or elbows — and then back to verticals. Wool emerges at center just below a rectangular “heart” box. Wrapped cords sweep downward elegantly, while the lower fiber elements are arranged in multiple knots, in passages of thin braids resembling cornrows, and two distinctly brown and nappy loosened braids. Scattered clips of dark metal crimp the wool. It is a strikingly powerful sculpture, and especially impressive that a woman would use such a dominant form to refer to herself in those days. Hard and soft, contained and flowing, unified yet complex, massive and brazenly frontal, Chase-Riboud’s sculptures have lost none of their meaning or memorability."
In regards to Malcolm #3: “Everything came together, surprisingly. It was the color of the silk, the polish of the bronze. All of the sudden the silk took on the appearance of the bronze, and the bronze took the fluidity of the silk and you had this interaction of the two, which was magic…. I didn’t know what would happen when I combined them, that the skirt was gonna imitate the bronze or the bronze was gonna imatate the skirt. The first time I put them together was the black Malcolm 2 but it wasn’t until Malcolm 3 that I found my signature sculpture. It was not until the last thread was stitched to the last piece of bronze that the transformation took place…. The moment that the bronze becomes liquid and the fiber becomes solid is a moment which I can not anticipate… This metaphoric transformation is something that makes the object and is something I have no control over.
"There is an aura that remains, I dont know how or why, even these personagems are abstract (I named the Malcolms after the fact, as a matter of fact) — you do have a feeling that these are spirits. You are looking at them, but they are looking at you"
L : Malcolm X #3, 1969; polished bronze, cotton, and rayon; 118 x 47 1/4 x 9 7/8 in.;
R: Malcolm #3 Confessions for Myself (1972); bronze, paint, and wool; 120 x 40 x 12 in.; base (semicircle): 44.5 x 23 in.;
Yet, her works represented a perspective that was derided by some in the art establishment. The Malcolm Steles were met with patronizing reception from conservative NYT art critic Hilton Kramer when they debuted. Curator Henri Ghent noted that his review stemmed the pervasive stereotypes surrounding what Black art should look like that leaves very little actual space for black artists, closing doors upon voices that speak outside of the white gaze. Work that celebrates blackness rather than speaking exclusively to the strife, poverty, and pain that white critics seem to want from black subjects was often reviewed negatively or completely ignored. The groundbreaking space that Riboud-Chase occupied centered and celebrated blackness, which wasn't of interest to everyone within the art establishment.
As a trailblazer, Barbara Chase-Riboud's work is entwined with significant historical moments that broke glass ceilings not only individually, but collectively in tandem with community efforts. For example, when she and Betye Saar were the first African-American women to exhibit in Whitney Museum of American Art as a result of protests organized by Faith Ringgold in 1970. Now Barbara Chase-Riboud's work is in major corporate collections and museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, New York City; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Geigy Foundation, New York.
The Albino 1972 (reinstalled in 1994 by the artist as All That Rises Must Converge/Black), 457.2 × 320 × 76.2 cm