For Decades, Artist and Writer Barbara Chase-Riboud Has Used Abstraction to Confront Racism

For Decades, Artist and Writer Barbara Chase-Riboud Has Used Abstraction to Confront Racism

For decades, the artist and writer Barbara Chase-Riboud has focused on assembling what she calls her “pantheon of invisibles,” people whose values and lives she renders present and permanent.

She dedicated a whole series of sculptures to Malcolm X, to whom she paid homage by way of clusters of bronze, along with tassel-like knots of fiber spilling out beneath them. She wrote a novelized account of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman owned by Thomas Jefferson whose psychology Chase-Riboud reconstructs with piercing detail. She made a monument to Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who became a popular attraction as Hottentot Venus at so-called freak shows for gawking Europeans during the 19th century.

All of these figures, Chase-Riboud said in a recent interview, are “people who have been rejected by mainstream history because of their race, because of their gender, because of their politics, or because of war. I think that as a group of people, they are some of the most fascinating ones that ever existed.”

This fall, her pantheon of invisibles will receiver greater visibility than it ever has before. In September, a Chase-Riboud retrospective opened at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis. This week, across the pond in London, at the Serpentine Galleries, a smaller survey will explore Chase-Riboud’s sculptures and their relationship to monuments.

Meanwhile, Princeton University Press just put out Chase-Riboud’s memoir, an unconventional collection of letters to her mother interspersed with essays on the development her own career. The book, Chase-Riboud’s sixth, is titled I Always Knew. Its name emblematizes Chase-Riboud’s surefootedness—and her prescience.

Brick-walled gallery featuring tall sculptures formed from bronze and fiber elements.
Installation view of “Barbara Chase-Riboud: Infinite Folds,” 2022, at Serpentine Galleries, London.

Over the course of six-decade career, Chase-Riboud has been creating abstract sculptures that have proven difficult for historians to classify. They are maximal and deliciously baroque, so when she arrived at her signature style during the ’60s, these works stood in sharp contrast to the froideur and the sparseness of Minimalism. Add to this the sense that sculpture has at times taken a backseat to writing for the 83-year-old artist, and the fact that she hasn’t had a gallery for the majority of her career.

“Perhaps because her work is not representational, it’s a little bit harder for people to access in some ways, or it’s more misunderstood,” Stephanie Weissberg, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation curator who organized Chase-Riboud’s show there, said in an interview. “It doesn’t easily fit into narratives that curators of earlier generations were willing to tell about what artists from that period, and in particular Black artists from that period, were contributing.”

Chase-Riboud herself seems totally unfazed by her moment, however. “People come up to me and say: How does it feel to be famous?” she said, speaking by Zoom from her home in Paris. She scrunched up her face a little and smiled, as she often does when she wants to correct the record. Then she added: “Nothing surprises me anymore. I’ve been around a long time.”

Strictly defined by her work’s appearances in institutions, Chase-Riboud has been around 68 years, to be exact. When she was 15, a print of hers was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Now, the museum owns several other pieces by her, including the 1972 sculpture The Albino, a hulking, 15-foot-tall piece composed of a lumpy mass of bronze with knots of black wool extending from its sides like arms. (It’s currently on view near pieces by Jackie Winsor, Melvin Edwards, Lynda Benglis, and Louise Bourgeois.) She said her first experience with sculpture dates to even before that, however.

Book cover for 'I Always Knew: A Memoir' by Barbara Chase-Riboud featuring an image of a Black woman's face.
The cover for I Always Knew: A Memoir.

As a child growing up in Philadelphia, where she was born in 1939, Chase-Riboud sat atop a sculpture of a goat sited in Rittenhouse Square, as many kids often do. The small, unassuming thing showed her the power of statues like it. The goat also got her thinking about bronze, a durable material that she described as “one of the most indestructible materials that exists.”

Chase-Riboud attended art school locally, at Temple University’s Tyler School, but it quickly became apparent that she had grander ambitions. In 1956, she was awarded a John Hay Whitney fellowship to work at the American Academy in Rome for a year. Although she would later return to the U.S. to study in Yale University’s M.F.A. program, becoming the first African American woman to receive a degree from the program, her sights seemed permanently set abroad.

I Always Knew quickly makes apparent that Chase-Riboud craved the ability to travel constantly. Her marriage to the photographer Marc Riboud took her to Paris permanently, and she spent periods of time in Egypt, China, India, North Africa, and elsewhere. The time abroad was in some ways alienating—she describes an Italian publication having given her the queasy, fraught label of the “Ebony Venus,” a half-baked allusion to her appearance on the cover of Ebony magazine. But it was also deeply thrilling, and Chase-Riboud said all this globetrotting had informed her work, in particular her turn toward abstraction.

“Half the world makes non-figurative art,” she said. “Nothing is new. The Abstract Expressionists did not invent anything. They have simply regressed back into the infinity of Africa, the abstraction of spiritualism.”

Yesomi Umolu, the curator of the Serpentine Galleries show, said, “I think there’s a sort of transnationality and cosmopolitan politics that’s very directly influenced by the fact that she is a member of the African diaspora. She took that journey to leave the West at a very critical moment, if you think about it, with the civil rights movement in the U.S. There must have been a lot of people who were like, ‘Do I stay or do I leave?’ She chose to leave, and to open us—and herself—to the world over.”

Tall sculpture in which abstract bronze elements appear above bright red fiber, which is knotted in some areas and allowed to spill onto a gallery floor.
Barbara Chase-Riboud, Malcolm X #16, 2016.

As Chase-Riboud was liberating her art from Western values, she was also working to free it from the shackles of sculptural conceits that date back centuries. At the dawn of the ’60s, Chase-Riboud was still working in what she calls her “Surrealist” mode, half-visible bodies that emerge from abstractions, and she was troubled by the base of sculptures. She chose to part with it entirely through the use of fiber.

The commonly told story is one involving the artist Sheila Hicks, who makes remarkably hued sculptures from heaps of fiber. Hicks, in this oft-repeated bit of lore, showed Chase-Riboud how to knot fiber and Chase-Riboud then absorbed this into her practice.

“Not true, really,” said Chase-Riboud. “I was looking for pure, total abstraction. And here I had these sculptures made out of bone and cast bone. Somehow, they retained their illusion because of the legs.” She came up with the idea to give these legs a skirt of sorts that would hide them.

Her greatest sculptures of the era are her “Malcolm X” stelae, tall arrangements of clustered bronze elements paired with braids and knots of fiber in matching colors. The contrasts between hard and soft, slack and taut are often gorgeous. They are stately sculptures that befit a person who has long stood resolute in the face of racism and class oppression.

Crucially, however, the stelae are not monuments of Malcolm X. They are monuments to him, Chase-Riboud said. “What they do is embody the spirituality of Malcolm, without having to depict him as a person,” she said.

Sculpture resembling a chair formed from bronze plaques.
Barbara Chase-Riboud, Cleopatra’s Chair, 1994.

The “Malcolm X” works evince Chase-Riboud’s interest in Baroque art, with its wildly flowing drapery, its monumentality, and its inclination toward maximalism. She said that interest also started to influence her poetry, in which meditations on longstanding legacies of racist violence spill across verses. The prose is lush, but the material is frequently ugly.

A portion of her poem “Africa Rising” reads:

Out of Omega we came
Out of the womb of the world we came
All pleasure in feast and love forgotten
All rancor in feud and war forgotten
All joy in birth and circumcision forgotten
We came, Blackbodies: the negative of the light
The only merchandise that carries itself.

Chase-Riboud was never trained as a writer, but poetry and literature became two of her primary outlets. She never intended for this, however, and she never even meant to write Sally Hemings, her 1979 novel about the enslaved woman who likely bore several of Thomas Jefferson’s children, according to many historians. “I thought the world should know,” Chase-Riboud said of this history, which has been vigorously disputed by Jefferson’s descendants. Pushed by Jacqueline Onassis, whom Chase-Riboud knew, and by Toni Morrison, then an editor at Random House, Chase-Riboud sought publication for the book and ultimately succeeded. It went on to sell millions of copies, although it is now out of print in the U.S.

Since then, Chase-Riboud has continued writing, sculpting, and drawing. She has worked at smaller scales, crafting series such as “La Musica,” from the 2000s, in which musical instruments stand in for the practices of figures like Josephine Baker and Mao Zedong, and she has worked on epic ones, too.

Sculpture featuring a harp-like form that holds a coil of richly hued red fiber.
Barbara Chase-Riboud, La Musica Red Parkway, Josephine, 2007.

She seemed most proud, however, of her 1998 sculpture Africa Rising, which may just be one of New York’s best-kept secrets. It’s located in the lobby of Lower Manhattan’s Ted Weiss Federal Office Building, which stands on the site where the bodies of enslaved people were once buried. When those corpses were exhumed, Chase-Riboud was commissioned to create the work, which ended up being 18 feet tall.

Africa Rising suggests Chase-Riboud’s take on the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the iconic Hellenistic sculpture of the Greek goddess Nike that is now missing its head and permanently resides in the Louvre in Paris. Chase-Riboud’s sculpture, however, has a large concave black platform, atop which stands a winged figure with a round rear end. That figure is an allusion to Sarah Baartman. The sculpture is viewable to the public, though one must pass through a metal detector to see the work, which is sometimes flanked by guards.

“No one even knows this exists,” she said. “But for me, it was the sort of ultimate expression of an abstract monument, although you can see a figure.”

Since 2020, monuments have become a household topic in the U.S., and Chase-Riboud, who’s been thinking about the topic longer than most, has ideas of her own for the site where one recently deinstalled statue once stood.

Chase-Riboud said one of her dream projects is to replace the Theodore Roosevelt monument that guarded the entrance of the American Natural History Museum in New York until this past January. She wants to put in its place one of her own bronze creations. “What I would like to do before I leave this planet is to use this abstraction of racism—historic racism—and put it on a pedestal,” she said. “That would be cool.”

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