Dindga McCannon on “Where We At” and the Women of the Blues

The music seemed to blend in with the color as Dindga McCannon showed me “In Plain Sight” at the Fridman Gallery. The songs of Ma Rainey and Gladys Bentley played behind a recent work, Queens of the blues, 2021, a quilt-covered column in the shape of a shrine commemorating the blueswomen of the early 20th century. Looping sequences of their performances in the background, the black and white of the videos contrasting with the shimmering blue tones of the textile. A key figure in the black arts movement, McCannon co-founded the revolutionary collective “Where We At” Black Women Artists, Inc., with Kay Brown and Faith Ringgold in 1971. Performed until October 17 and bringing together nearly fifty-five years of painting, sewing, sculpture and printmaking, “In Plain Sight” is the first solo exhibition of the artist born in Harlem and based in Philadelphia in a commercial gallery.

PEOPLE ALWAYS ASK me where I’ve been all this time. I have been here from the start. Whether through painting or weaving, I am interested in telling stories of black women who refuse to take no for an answer, who push the limits of what is possible. The extent of their stories is often abridged or overlooked. Queens of the blues is a memorial to the blues singers who were prolific between the 1890s and 1920s across America, to black women who dared to be artists and take control of their careers. They performed in jazz clubs and sang songs with outrageously daring lyrics that seemed impossible for the time. The work took four months to sew and build.

My life has always unfolded alongside music. I had a gallery and a store called Afrodesia Mod Shop on the Lower East Side; Jackie McLean had a candy store down the block. After I closed the store, I went to Sluggs, a jazz club on East Second Street, and Studio Rivbea, Sam Rivers ‘club on Great Jones Street, where I listened to music and musicians’ sketches.

Rather than photographic representation, I am interested in imaginative portraiture. My current series “Harlem Women” (2015-) is partly based on photographs, but I embellish them with pieces that I add to the sides of the canvases. Hattie McDaniel, famous for being the first black winner of an Oscar, but also a blues singer, was the first subject that I painted in the series. The idea of ​​decorating their surfaces with objects came later. After thirty or forty paintings, I lost count of their number. As I painted I realized that the edges also needed adornment, with tiny instruments, musical notes, microphones, black fists, beads. . . These objects found, bought, borrowed or offered add a sculptural quality to the work.

Dindga McCannon, Hattie McDaniel, 2021, mixed media on canvas, 14 x 11 x 2 ''.

The colors, especially the vivid tones, amaze me. Over the years, I have learned to embrace this fascination instead of holding it back. Western art tends to favor muted tones, but when I visited Africa I saw that women dressed early in the morning as if they were going out at night. The occasional circles on the characters’ cheeks add youth and liveliness but also play with the composition of the face, with depth and flatness. The paintings organically reveal to me what women should wear.

In my own life, I look forward rather than the past. In the painted quilt Four women, 1988, or the oil on canvas titled The sisters, 2020, this focus is evident in the way women’s hair flows backwards. The eyes are important because they are the doors to the soul, but also, they are on the lookout. I have always been very aware of my surroundings and of those who might be looking at me, and therefore these women pay attention to the spectators around them.

Dindga McCannon, Blue Queens, 2021, mixed media quilt, 52 x 48 ''.

I myself decided to be an artist when I was ten, despite my mother’s disapproval. She was a dressmaker and took me to Fashion Institute of Technology high school for clothing design so that I had a skill that I could live on. I was among the first black students to enter this department. I was neglected by the teachers and ended up enrolling in the Art Students League, where I was taught by Jacob Lawrence, Al Loving, and Richard Mayhew. I received my artistic education there and at the same time attending meetings of the Weusi Artist Collective in Harlem.

Many artists of “Where We At” have finally given up their artistic practices. To juggle art and motherhood was too painful. Some have passed away, but those who are still there are trying to keep in touch. I recently reunited with former members Faith Ringgold, Charlotte Richardson, Linda Hiwot and Ann Tanksley — Charlotte and chatted until 3 am. Part of the collective at the time was solidarity in motherhood. We used to take turns and babysit each other while we worked in the studio. Most of the time I would leave work around 6 p.m., pour myself a large cup of coffee, and paint or sew until 1 a.m. – sleep was scarce. Studio time and seclusion to create are essential, but for most women, domestic chores make it a privilege. Motherhood has never become my subject in art. There has been enough art that limits the role of women in society to this alone, so I made the decision to focus on other potentials for women.

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