At 74, Dindga McCannon believes that her best work is yet to come. The mixed media artist’s first major solo exhibition in a five-decade career, In Plain Sight, is on view at Fridman Gallery through October 21. Between feathers, shells, sparkles, photographs, rich colors and paintbrushes affixed to various canvases and quilts, McCannon’s art is a bold declaration of Black feminist storytelling, and the show highlights a long timeline, including pieces of hers that date back to the 1980s. Some will also be featured at Art Basel this December.
McCannon herself is iconic—a walking art piece enveloped in regal purple (her favorite color). Shuffling into our interview with fluffy slippers and a quilted ensemble, her presence mimicked her work. It is evident through her stories and her physical company that she has always shown up as herself, even faced with the Eurocentric, racist confines of the art world she grew up in as a Harlem-based, Black woman making her way When we sat down surrounded by her work, she shared with me how this choice to be an artist finds grounding in the remarkability of women’s resilience and walks me through vivid stories that take us from a South African restaurant to a Haitian beach.
Abigail Glasgow: Let's start with your background—how did you come to this artwork in the first place?
Dindga McCannon: I grew up in Harlem; around 17 years [old] we moved to the Bronx. I first decided I was going to become an artist somewhere around the age of 10 or 11 and I can't remember what it was that made me want to do something so unusual. Because obviously for women, for Black people, careers as artists weren’t an option. But because the process of doing art gave me so much joy, I decided this was it for me.
I drew comic books, like the ones in the New York Daily News. Around fifth grade, there was a young lady in my class named Lorraine—she had thick Coca Cola glasses and sat in the back of the class. One day, I went back there to see what she was up to because she wasn't paying attention. She was painting! When I saw her using tempera, I said, “I have to get some.” I did and one thing led to another. Then, the summer I was 17, I couldn't get a job so I went to volunteer for the American Red Cross. They sent me to a school where I told the director that I like to do art. That ended up being my first teaching experience. He told me about this awesome group of artists displaying their work on 127th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. I said, “Artists in Harlem?” At that time, they were called the Twenty Century Art Creators. A year later, they split up and became the Weusi Artist Collective. It was from them that I learned the basics of all things art. In fact, I had my first one-woman show around 18 in Harlem on 135th Street. They taught me stuff like how you stretch a canvas, where you get your paint from—there used to be a guy who came to Harlem with a suitcase full of Winsor Newton oil paint, which at the time was probably the most expensive oil paint you could get. He was selling to us at a discount. Those were my beginning, formative years.
AG: And you were making a living painting murals, right?
DM: I was doing 10 things at one time. I was a mom; I was doing murals; I was also painting and drawing and selling my work at different shows. I would pack up my stuff (and my children) and we’d go to different cultural festivals throughout the United States. It was almost like the group Sweet Honey in the Rock; they’d be on the road for the weekend and Monday be back at work. I had a very similar lifestyle. I was also teaching part time. Jobs would come up—a couple of months to teach this, a couple of months to do a project with that. That's basically how to survive. I've never really had a real job, real boring. You know, a lot of people will choose financial solvency over this fairytale life of being an artist, which I totally understand. But those of us who choose to be artists, we may have a little madness in mind, but we are dedicated. And I think it's a lifelong love affair. You do insane things for love that you think you would never do. That's the relationship with art.
AG: Did you go to school for art?
DM: At the same time that I met Weusi I was going to City College at night, which didn’t work out because the art classes were very boring. Back then it was a problem as a Black person pursuing art, because everybody wanted you to go into the European tradition. And I wasn't feeling it. A teacher would ask, “Why are all your people Black?” and I said, “Well, what color are they supposed to be? Your people are all white and I don’t have a 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. They had classes that you could pay for on a weekly or monthly basis, which was affordable, and you could also choose your teacher. Jacob Lawrence, Charles Austin, Richard Mayhew and Al Loving were all teachers there.
AG: You have such a distinct style. How'd you come to that?
DM: It's an evolution. I've always been drawn to the figure. First it was the figures, then it was figures with stories. Then I did a whole Monet garden landscape series—the thing I love almost as much as people is nature. I did landscapes to try to broaden my audience, because for many years, the people who were purchasing Black art that had Black people in it were limited. A lot of people didn't want us hanging out on the walls. Abstracts, no problem. But a direct Black person sitting there, they didn't want that.
AG: And tell me about some of the stories in this exhibit that are being portrayed.
DM: I personally believe you don't do art just to do art. It has to have some purpose. One of my earliest influences was Käthe Kollwitz, who nobody knows. She was a German artist who drew these pen and inks, lithographs, etchings of the horrors of war. As a young person, when I saw her work, it made me realize that I can tell some really serious stories, meaty type of stuff. I always knew that when it came to portraying women, I wanted to do more than just a pretty portrait. I didn't want a woman holding children because everybody does that. I just started looking at different women's lives and their stories, and I found them fascinating.
There's a long piece [on display called] Sarah. I met Sarah in South Africa. She had a restaurant. One day, Sarah gets up before we eat and she tells us the story of how she got there. She used to be a maid, and one day her employer had a guest over 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 croissant and probably a latte. The price was the same amount of money she made that day. So she started going out and collecting clothes, washing them, ironing them, then reselling them at a decent price. She did that until she was able to go to Taiwan to buy new clothes and come back and sell those. Over a period of time, she bought one house, a car anda second house, which she opened as a restaurant. People who didn't take no for an answer, who decided to do something different and overcame insane obstacles to do things that were meaningful—that's the story.
Lavinia Williams over here, the piece with the blue ballerina, was an African American dancer. She was on par with Katherine Dunham; but everybody knows Katherine Dunham and very few people know Lavinia. One year I went to her house, when Papa Doc was alive— she taught his children 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 died down. We had a driver parked out in the back with food and everything. But nothing happened. Nothing. And that's the story I tell on that quilt: the revolution is about to take place and it doesn't.
AG: Does it feel like a responsibility to tell these stories?
DM: I don't look at it as a responsibility; I look at it as what I'm interested in. I believe that every artist has choices, 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 I had to work with. Consider that they accomplished all of this with so much less and so much more of a horrible, racist set of circumstances surrounding everything they did; and they still persevered.
AG: How do you select who you’re going to portray?
DM: I think they select me. Like with the blues [piece], that started out as me rebelling against a class I took somewhere in London where I the teacher told us to “knock back to shine.” And I was saying “wait, shine is good!” So I thought, ‘Who's the most out there person you could think of?’ It was Ma Rainey, because of her clothing. I did a piece about her life, and that sold immediately.
AG: What, or who, inspires your work, which is super curious and varied in its media?
DM: Anybody or any artists that I see doing something different, breaking barriers, trying to be experimental. I don't know if it's because I've worked so long, but I want to keep myself interested. So I have to continuously add mediums and other stuff to what I'm doing. That enables me to stretch myself. I personally think that the best art of my life is coming.
AG: At 74—
DM: And proud.
AG: Our society tends to, after a woman is of a certain age, mentally throw them away.
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. If they don't, too bad. The world does tend to want to put you in the closet. Sometimes it's good, though, because you can get things when you pretend to be old. [laughs]
A lot of people used to say I was an eccentric dresser. All that meant is that I wore what I wanted to wear and I didn't really care what anybody said about it. But as you get older, nobody's looking at you. You can really wear what you want and do what you want. Surround yourself with other women and men who are living vibrant lives, who are doing something that they really, really love doing. If you don't do it now, when are you going to do it? The clock is ticking. I've seen more days than what I'm going to see. So for any older woman, if you ever wanted to do anything, get up off your butt and start doing it because tomorrow's not promised to anybody.
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