Dindga McCannon is anything but invisible

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At 74, Dindga McCannon believes her best job is yet to come. The mixed-media artist’s first major solo exhibition in his five-decade career, In Plain Sight, runs through October 16 at the Fridman Gallery. Between feathers, shells, sparkles, photographs, rich colors, and brushes on various canvases and quilts, art is a bold commitment to black feminist storytelling, and the show highlights a long timeline, including its pieces that date back to the 1980s. Some of them will also be on display at Art Basel this December.

McCannon herself is iconic – a walking piece of art wrapped in royal purple (her favorite color). As she shuffled into our interview with fluffy slippers and a quilted ensemble, her presence mimicked her work. Her stories and her physical society show that she has always shown herself to be herself, even given the Eurocentric, racist boundaries of the art world she grew up in as a black Harlem woman in the midst of her work, she told me about making that decision, being an artist is based on the remarkable resilience of women and guides me through living stories that take us from a South African restaurant to a Haitian beach.

Dindga McCannon. Photography courtesy Dindga McCannon and Fridman Gallery, NY.

Abigail Glasgow: Let’s start with your background – how did you get this piece of art in the first place?

Dindga McCannon: I grew up in Harlem; about 17 years [old] We moved to the Bronx. I first made the decision to become an artist when I was 10 or 11 and I can’t remember what made me do something so unusual. Because for women, for blacks, careers as artists were obviously not an option. But because I enjoyed the art making process so much, I decided that this is the one for me.

I drew comics like the one in that New York daily news. In about fifth grade there was a young lady in my class named Lorraine – she had thick Coca-Cola glasses and was in the back of the class. One day I went back there to see what she was up to because she was not paying attention. You painted! When I saw her using tempera, I said, “I have to get something.” I did and one thing led to another. Then, in the summer when I was 17, I couldn’t get a job, so I volunteered for the American Red Cross. They sent me to a school where I told the headmaster that I like doing art. That was my first teaching experience. He told me about this great group of artists who had their work on 127th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. I said, “Artists in Harlem?” At the time they were called the Twenty Century Art Creators. A year later they separated and became the Weusi Artist Collective. From them I learned the basics of all things. In fact, when I was 18, I had my first solo show in Harlem on 135th Street. They taught me things like how to stretch a canvas, where to get your paint from – there was a guy who came to Harlem with a suitcase full of Winsor Newton oil paint, which was probably the most expensive oil paint at the time that you might have got. He sold us at a discount. Those were my first, formative years.

AG: And you made a living doing murals, right?

DM: I did 10 things at the same time. I was a mother; I’ve made murals; I also painted and drew and sold my work at various exhibitions. I packed my things (and my kids) and we went to various cultural festivals across the United States. It was almost like the group Sweet Honey in the Rock; they were out on the weekend and back to work on Monday. I had a very similar lifestyle. I also taught part time. Jobs came – a couple of months to teach that, a couple of months to do a project with it. That’s basically how you survive. I never really had a real job, really boring. You know, a lot of people will prefer solvency to this fairytale life as an artist, which I fully understand. But those of us who choose to be artists may have a bit of madness on our mind, but we’re engaged. And I think it’s a lifelong love relationship. You do crazy things for love that you think you would never do. That is the relationship with art.

Dindga McCannon, A woman’s work is never done, paying homage to the Ringgold Faith on her 80th birthday, 2011. Photograph courtesy of Dindga McCannon and Fridman Gallery, NY.

AG: Did you go to school for art?

DM: At the same time as I met Weusi, I was going to City College at night, which didn’t work because the art class was very boring. Back then it was a problem as a black man doing art because everyone wanted you to get into the European tradition. And I didn’t feel it. A teacher would ask, “Why are all of your people black?” and I said, “Well what color do you want them to be? Your people are all white and I have no problem with that, so why can’t mine be black? ”They didn’t see it that way. But then I found the Art Students League. There were courses that you could pay for on a weekly or monthly basis, which was affordable, and you could choose your teacher. Jacob Lawrence, Charles Austin, Richard Mayhew, and Al Loving were all teachers there.

AG: You have such a distinctive style. How did you come up with it?

DM: It’s a development. The figure has always attracted me. First it was the characters, then there were characters with stories. Then I did a whole Monet garden landscape series – what I love almost as much as people is nature. I made landscapes to expand my audience because for many years the people who bought black art that contained blacks were limited. A lot of people didn’t want us to be hung on the walls. Summaries, no problem. But a straight black man sitting there didn’t want that.

AG: And tell me about some of the stories in this exhibition that are presented.

DM: Personally, I believe that you don’t make art just to make art. It must have a purpose. One of my earliest influences was Käthe Kollwitz, whom nobody knows. She was a German artist who drew these pens, lithographs, etchings of the horrors of war. When I saw their work as a young person, I realized that I can tell some really serious stories, meaty things. I’ve always known that when I portray women, I wanted to do more than just make a pretty portrait. I didn’t want a woman who had kids because everyone does. I just started looking at different women’s lives and their stories and I found them fascinating.

There is a long stretch [on display called] Sarah. I met Sarah in South Africa. She had a restaurant. One day Sarah gets up before dinner and tells us how she got there. She used to be a maid and one day her employer had a guest visiting and the guest dropped a piece of paper on the floor, which Sarah picked up. When she looked at it, it was a receipt for a croissant and probably a latte. The prize was the same amount of money that she made that day. So she started collecting clothes, washing them, ironing them and then reselling them for a reasonable price. She did so until she could go to Taiwan to buy new clothes and come back and sell them. Over time, she bought a house, a car, and a second house that she opened as a restaurant. People who didn’t take no for an answer, who made up their minds to do something else, and overcame insane obstacles to do meaningful things – that’s the story.

Lavinia Williams over here, that play with the blue ballerina, was an African American dancer. She was equal to Katherine Dunham; but everyone knows Katherine Dunham and few know Lavinia. I went to her house once when Papa Doc was still alive – she taught his kids ballet. He died the week I was there and we thought there was going to be a revolution in Haiti overnight. So we made this plan to escape to Ebo Beach and hide until it subsided. We had a driver parked in the back with food and all. But nothing happened. Nothing. And that’s the story I tell on this quilt: the revolution is imminent and it is not happening.

Dindga McCannon, Blue queens, 2021. Photography courtesy of Dindga McCannon and Fridman Gallery, NY.

AG: Does it feel like a responsibility to tell these stories?

DM: I don’t see it as a responsibility; I see it as what interests me. I believe that every artist has a choice and you should be allowed to pursue whatever it is. My mind is interested in these incredible stories of these incredible women who did incredible things with a lot less than what I had to work. Remember that they achieved all of this with so much less and so much more of horrific, racial circumstances surrounding everything they did; and they persevered anyway.

AG: How do you choose who you will portray?

DM: I think they choose me. Like the blues [piece], that started when I rebelled against a class I was in somewhere in London where I, the teacher, told us to “fight back to shine.” And I said, “Wait, shine is good!” So I thought, ‘Who is the best person you can imagine?’ It was Ma Rainey because of her clothes. I did a piece about her life and it sold straight away.

AG: What or who inspires your work, which is super curious and varied in your media?

DM: Anyone or every artist I see is doing something different, breaking barriers and trying to be experimental. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve worked so long, but I want to keep my interest. So I have to keep adding media and other things to my work. This allows me to stretch. Personally, I think the best art of my life is coming.

AG: At 74-

DM: And proud.

AG: Our society tends to mentally throw away women who have reached a certain age.

DM: Yes, I can say that we become invisible. But age has nothing to do with who you are. You have to value yourself and then hopefully the rest of the world will follow suit. If not, what a shame. The world tends to stick you in the closet. However, sometimes it’s good because you can get things by pretending to be old. [laughs]

Lots of people said I was an eccentric dresser. It just meant that I was wearing what I wanted to wear and I didn’t care what anyone said about it. But when you get older, nobody looks at you. You can really wear what you want and do what you want. Surround yourself with other women and men who lead vibrant lives, who do what they really, really love to do. If you don’t now, when are you going to do it? The clock is ticking. I’ve seen more days than I’ll see So for any older woman, if you’ve ever wanted to do something, get up and start doing it because tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone.

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