It’s every journalist’s nightmare, yet sadly the way it often goes: you want to ask an interviewee about her fascinating life, but she will only reply in PR-terms, stating the lines she was told to tell in order to sell whatever she is meant to promote. The opposite is true for Barbara Chase-Riboud: I ask her one question about her art and she embarks on a vivid journey down her own memories, taking me from pre-tourist Egypt to beach afternoons with Jackie Kennedy-Onassis and almost-plane crashes in China. There is no stopping it and a conversation with the famed sculptor, writer and poet ends up feeling like I’ve just been listening to a fascinating, heartwarming podcast about the world’s forgotten (hi)stories.
For those in need of an introduction: Barbara-Chase Riboud (1939) has made a habit of stirring things up and breaking boundaries. She started off as somewhat of a child prodigy, making her first sculpture at the tender age of seven and nearly getting kicked out of school as an eleven-year-old for supposedly plagiarizing a poem she’d written. Entitled Autumn Leaves, it spoke of death and fallen leaves and, as she matter-of-factly states, “could never have been written by a little black girl, right?” She spent her entire youth in art school and was actually the first black American woman ever to graduate at Yale University School of Design and Architecture. In her early years, she was known mainly for her sculptures and drawings, abstract artworks that often addressed the issues of colonialism, slavery and the loss of identity that came with it. A well-appreciated cocktail, one of her sculptures even adorns Beyoncé’s living room these days.
She’s always had this thing with digging up long-lost histories and has over time dedicated her art to a range of individuals that were in here opinion undervalued or forgotten. The marquis de Sade, anonymous courtesans of the Han dynasty, black rights activist Malcolm X and Saartjie Baartman, a South-African slave that was exhibited in Europe like some sort of circus animal in the 19th century, to name but a few. There’s also Naksj-i-dil, a white slave that was locked away in the Topkapi harem and ended up as empress-dowager of the Ottoman empire in the 1700s. Where does she find all these stories? Turns out you pick up a thing or two when travelling the globe. Which is what she did endlessly since she studied in Rome for a year in 1958 and embarked on a naïve and spontaneous trip to Egypt, all by herself. “At that time, there were only the pyramids, my dear. I was there for the real thing. That was the beginning of growing up, of realizing there was a whole world out there, more than just my academic universe. The impact of Egyptian art on my eighteen-year-old mind was huge.” Upon graduating she moved to Paris, where she married photographer Marc Riboud. The union technically made her a felon in her homeland, where interracial marriage was still forbidden in 1961, but who cares about such details when you are young and talented and having a blast trailing along an adventurous husband? It’s doesn’t seem to be in her nature to be bitter, she relates the most frustrating parts of her life in a laughing voice, but she never really returned to the States after that.
Chanel in China
Back to the Autumn Leaves debacle: the whole unpleasant experience made her shy away from writing for years and she only started publishing novels in her late thirties, although that isn’t entirely true. “I was not writing, but actually I wàs writing without even realizing it. Since I went to Europe I wrote to my mother almost every single day, thousands of letters scribbled on flimsy airmail paper. She saved each and every single one and I found them after her death, only I decided not to read them. My life between 1957 and 1991. Untouched. I did ask a graduate student of mine to transcribe them, after which she let me know she had laughed, cried and went through all possible emotions while at it. ‘What an extraordinary journey’, she said. And still I didn’t read them.”
A bunch of those letters take you back to the sixties, when the journey was extraordinary indeed and there wasn’t a dull day in Barbara’s life. One day her husband phoned home and stated they were to travel to the People’s Republic of China. Just like that. It was the eve of the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong had invited some international press at a state banquet. Barbara was actually the first western woman ever to set foot in said republic and did stood out in her white Chanel suit during the feast in the Forbidden City -never mind the fact she was asked not to wear a skirt. “It was like going to Mars at that time, the country was completely closed to the outside world. It was incredibly impoverished and there was great beauty and great suffering at the same time. When I went back in 2007 and saw Shanghai for the first time after all those years… this futuristic city… I remember there were no pavements, only dirt roads and wooden structures, but I felt so at home there.”
“I detached myself from the press bunch and travelled China up and down all the way to Mongolia -journalists weren’t supposed to leave the big cities, but what harm could some accompanying wife like me do…? On the way back, my plane -an ancient propeller thing- nearly crashed. We made an emergency landing and three little guys came rushing over with utensils that were supposed to ‘fix’ the plane in less than an hour. I made a scene, refusing to step back on it. The ‘translators’ that had been trailing me during the whole trip got mad and I feared I was going to end up in jail, but then I took out Mao’s little red book and quoted him: ‘In extraordinary circumstances you must rise to the occasion, so you need to get me back to Bejing in one piece, without my getting on that plane!’ They did, I was put on a train and spent five days on a completely empty train. It was the most gorgeous and wonderful trip I’ve ever taken, all by myself in this little Chinese compartment. I was in first class: soft seats, windows with little lace curtains, tea was served, I got to wear little slippers, lots of pillows. It made the round of all the correspondents, and when I arrived there was an entire delegation greeting me, even an orchestra, people holding little bouquets of flowers, my husband bewildered amidst it all. It was so absurd, I had done what no man could do: I had crossed China all by myself with no translator, no guide, just me on a train.” That roaring laughter again.
Jackie, Sally and the big fuss
Another decade, another trip: the year is 1978 and Barbara, by then a world-famous artist, and Jacqueline Onassis spend a lazy day on the former’s private island Skorpios. Two women on a beach discussing sex, politics and secrets. Sounds like the premises of a modern-day Netflix drama, yet it is the way Sally Hemings was born. Barbara told Jackie about the secret relationship of president Jefferson with one of his slaves and she started fervently encouraging her friend to turn it into a novel. Which she did and a year later, when Jackie got a job as a publisher at Viking Press, they made it happen for real. Not sure why the former first lady was so keen on dragging the tale out of the White House’s shadows, maybe she was fed up with powerful people portraying lies? In any case, she found a kindred spirit in Barbara when it came to battling blatant lies, no matter who told them.
Sally Hemings turned out to be one of the most controversial novels in recent history because of the mere fact that it gave said history the finger. The true love story between president Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally, spanning multiple decades and resulting in a family of six children, wasn’t one to be told. At least, that’s what the general consensus sounded like back in 1979. The idea of a black slave having acted as America’s unofficial first lady for almost forty years was inconvenient to say the least, its writer dismissed as an angry black woman on a power trip. Barbara doesn’t mind. Not anymore. She recalls it all with a fond smile: “My relationship with history has always been controversial since I choose to portray people that are in a strange way contre l’histoire. Anonymous individuals who were of great importance, who changed lives, and yet were suppressed for some reason and eventually overlooked by history books. I call them the Invisibles, and have tried in my small way to bring some of them to life through my art. I consider my drawings, sculptures, poems and novels to be monuments to forgotten people. The story of Sally Hemmings is also the story of how history is made and unmade by those in power. For twenty years, up until 1997 I had to stand up to each and every single Jeffersonian in the world. They all said I was lying, while my factual research proved me right. A DNA-test on Jefferson’s descendants eventually agreed on the latter, so they had to look for an out -which they found by jumping on the bandwagon and completely eliminating me from the story. They constructed a new reality in which twenty years of denial had never happened and appropriated the story by hiring someone else to write it down, while I was left in limbo. I was the one who walked Sally Hemmings to the front door of history, yet in the end I was also the one who had to be forgotten.”
Ironically enough, the latter proves quite difficult as the witty artist is about to publish a bulky memoir called I Always Knew, based on the aforementioned correspondence with her mom. Because she did end up reading those letters, all in one night. “On the night Obama was elected president of the USA, to be precise, I was so stressed and didn’t know what to do. And so, after almost five decades, I dove back into my own past. It did change my mind for a few hours.” And there she goes, bursting in laughter again.