On a June afternoon John Yau interviewed Whitfield Lovell about his charcoal drawings on wood surfaces and other found objects. In his tableaux Lovell addresses the history of African-Americans between the Emancipation Proclamation and Civil Rights struggle, a period that is under-represented in the visual arts.
John Yau (Rail): I was thinking about “Pop/Pistol” (1990) in relation to both the work that you’re doing now, and the work you did before that piece, because it seems to be a turning point. It’s a drawing of your grandfather in profile, done in a straightforward style from a photograph. Around the drawing you’ve transcribed a small item from the newspaper; the viewer learns that he was murdered in the foyer of his Bronx apartment house over a Social Security check. Instead of saying how you feel about your grandfather, you transcribe the newspaper report. The feeling in that work comes from the distance, which is not what the viewer expects with a work about grief. It’s not expressionistic; it’s very restrained. Before “Pop/Pistol,” your work owed something to Mexican retablos, and had a more symbolic weight. It shared something with the work of Frida Kahlo. Then, in 1993, you make your first wall drawing. You go to Italy to stay in a villa, an artist’s retreat, and realize that the former owner was a slave trader. You say, “How do I deal with this? I can’t exactly make art that ignores the history of the particular place that I’m in,” which you felt was haunted. And you started drawing on the walls—is that correct?
Whitfield Lovell: That’s right. I made self-portraits and some other symbolic drawings. At a place where there was a hook to tie up a horse, I drew two hands. I drew Ibeji figures, those small ‘twin’ figurines carved in wood, from the Yoruba tradition of West Africa, on some trap doors in the servant’s quarters. There were stereotypical images of Africans in that villa—grotesque paintings of bare-breasted women holding hands that lined the ceilings. The coat of arms had an African man’s face on it with a bone through his nose. That was the slave trader’s livelihood. I wanted to leave some dignified images.
Rail: I didn’t think of slave traders as necessarily being Italians living in Milan.
Lovell: Apparently this Italian slave trader dealt in Blacks from Brazil well into the 20th century. That’s something we don’t hear about—the fact that slavery in some places is still going on. In Capriata d’Orba, Italy, which is where the Villa Val Lemme was, there were some elderly townspeople who remembered the Blacks who lived there and who worked at the villa. I felt the place was indeed quite haunted. It was very eerie to be a guest in this luxurious villa.
Rail: I understand that. Your work has to do with histories that get effaced and with the myth of America being a place of assimilation, where you are supposed to forget your past. There’s another time when you’re in Denton, Texas, where you learn that an African-American community existed until 1924, when you say it was dispersed. Though you don’t actually say what that meant, you make this body of work based on it. It’s really a sense that history, among the many things it is, is a covering over or erasing. I think it’s important that drawing is central to your work. It’s the most basic tool of art-making. You combine drawing with installations and tableaux. You draw in charcoal on wood—burnt wood on wood. There are all kinds of echoes. Right from the beginning, like “Pop/Pistol,” you never make a drawing that says, “This is art.” A group of small charcoal portrait drawings in the last show had playing cards on them. We keep trying to read what the relationship is between the card and the portrait. The sources of your drawings include photographs, tintypes, and cabinet cards. Yet you’re so attentive to the image that you don’t become stylistic.
Lovell: Yes. The way that I’ve been working certainly over the past several years is that I feel that I’m sort of dodging the history of painting in a lot of ways. I’m not particularly interested in making paintings. I’m not particularly interested in making drawings or that whole dialogue. But the fact that I’m doing this with my hand, and that it’s a hand-drawn image, is very important to me. I love the act of drawing. Of course I love drawings and paintings. But in my current work I’m mostly interested in the people and the imagery, so that my drawings are more in service to the imagery than being about ‘drawing.’ I do gain a lot personally from examining those old photos. A lot of that comes from my background, and my father having been a self-taught photographer. Most of the earliest imagery that I looked at was of his photographs. He did a lot of family portraits.
Rail: He developed photographs right in your house.
Lovell: That’s right. I assisted him in his darkroom when I was a child. I was seeing these images come to life in the developing trays. Somehow that’s really a part of who I am artistically. Looking through old photographs was always a part of my upbringing. That’s how I learned who I was in terms of heritage. I spent many hours going through old photos with my grandparents. I learned who my people were, where we came from, what they did, by looking through old photographs. I never tired of hearing stories about these people.
Rail: You said in one interview that you were ‘bi-cultural.’ Part of your family came from rural South Carolina, and part of your family came from the Caribbean. They had a very different understanding of what it meant to be Black. You had both these things in you. The Caribbean side was closer to the African aspect of their culture, and the people from South Carolina are more distant from it. It was in their tradition, like the salt dipper, but it was understood that that’s what the old folks did. That it was a tradition that seems to have originated in America, but it originated in Africa and had been brought over and hidden.
Lovell: Right. Salt was used ritualistically to purify the home, to ward off negative spirits. It is a ritual that absolutely came from Africa, but anything connected to African spirituality was taboo on the plantation. You could be severely punished for practicing these things. So they did them in secret. Over the years there developed a certain amount of shame and guilt in connection to ‘hoodoo’ practices that actually came, along with the Caribbean ‘voodoo,’ directly from the ‘juju’ of West Africa. Even in the 1960s my mother and other relatives were rather clandestine about what they were doing. It was as if speaking of such things was blasphemous, but these measures were somehow regarded as necessary for our protection. On the other hand I would say that my father’s side of the family, which is from Barbados, had a very different way of viewing those things. They were Christian also, but a lot of aspects of their culture and customs seemed to be more African. There was less shame and disconnect from being African. African-Americans of my grandparents’ age did not particularly embrace being African. They were busy embracing, or claiming their Native American grandparents, or something.
Rail: Right. They were trying to assimilate in a culture that didn’t want them to assimilate. What’s interesting about the photographs that you’ve picked is that they’re based on images of how these individuals chose to be remembered. What comes across is self-containment and dignity. One of the obvious features left out of many of the descriptions of this particular body of work is that nobody seems to be a victim. This is another aspect of your work: here’s this tradition of dignity and self-identification and family. What is this cultural heritage that often gets overlooked? It seems to me that pride is essential to it. The African-American in his Civil War army uniform is proud. You said in another interview that you learned that 153,000 African-Americans were in the Union Army. That aspect of history seems to be one impetus for your project. You’re bringing to life that which is largely invisible to us. Everybody’s heroic, but there are no heroes in this work.
Lovell: Yes. That’s the cultural inheritance that I have. It’s something that I know within my bones. I’m always amazed at how many people are taken aback when they see the dignity of the individuals that I’m depicting. They’re so used to seeing Black people in tattered clothing, bare-footed, with torn-up hats, selling flowers or something on the street. I did a piece based on the photograph of a maid from around 1910. Very well tucked-in and groomed. I thought it was quite funny that in a review, she was referred to as a “well-dressed African-American.”
Rail: As if somehow this is unusual for a maid.
Lovell: Yeah. Like people were supposed to be wearing shabby clothes that were too big for them that they wore every day. Also, she was a maid. It was a maid’s outfit. It never occurred to me that she was well-dressed. You never, ever hear of a white person in a photograph described as being well dressed. There is never any mention of the quality of their clothing, either as an indication of social status or of their profession or the level of their education, etc. Yet it seems to be surprising when an African-American is well groomed and well put together.
Rail: That reveals something about the reviewer’s unawareness. You went to Richmond and did a group of work that came out of Jackson Ward, which was the home of the first African-American jeweler, woman banker, and woman doctor. It brings to life an essential contribution to the African-American community and culture and ultimately to the larger culture of America. It’s a history that is forgotten, except maybe during African-American month, when people mention it briefly and then it’s gone again. It’s not embedded in our consciousness that America was made up of all these different people that contributed to what America is now. You’re using charcoal on found objects, all of which have a history. In “Pop/Pistol,” you don’t speak for your grandfather; you let him speak, and you let the newspaper account speak. You step to the side and become the medium. Jackson Pollock said, ‘I am nature.’ And you’re saying, ‘I am culture. I’m going to let this culture come through me. I’m going to put it on these walls and foundry molds.’ One of the things that struck me about these drawings on wood is they seem so delicate and ephemeral, as if they could just vanish. There’s a vulnerability to them. There’s endurance, survival and vulnerability all at once. You’re drawing on walls, essentially as a kind of graffiti, but it’s different. I think all these things come to play in the viewer’s mind. The round pieces are foundry molds, but you’re doing portraits on them, which evoke lockets, things like that. The foundry mold reminds you of the anonymous worker. That’s what you’re after, isn’t it—people who are anonymous?
Lovell: Yes. I had a lot of male relatives of my grandparents’ age who moved to New Jersey. They were working in a factory out near New Brunswick. One by one they started getting this awful cancer that was obviously related to the factory where they worked. That whole generation of men just perished from those various diseases. These were people who moved up from South Carolina looking for a better life.
Rail: But they end up in factories where the conditions kill them. You don’t say that, but it’s in the work. It’s like the Lewis Hine photographs of children working in factories. If he hadn’t taken those photographs, a large part of America probably wouldn’t have been aware of how things were getting made. Through very different means, you are extending and redefining that understanding of American culture: for it to exist, there is a deliberate ignoring of human life.
Lovell: Exactly. One of the questions that I always find myself dealing with is, ‘What were people doing, and who were they, between the Emancipation Proclamation to the Civil Rights Movement?’ Were they walking around barefooted and scrubbing clothes for white people? Or were they going about the business and the necessities of living their lives? When they got together in groups and as a community, were they obsessing about what the white man was doing to them? Were they sitting around talking about how oppressed they were? No. They were living their lives. They were eating, breathing, cooking, having sex, reading, writing, and occasionally going to get their photos taken.
Rail: There was this community that was self-sustaining and self-contained because of segregation. But that community didn’t model themselves after the community that held them back. It lived a certain kind of life and achieved, attained and accomplished many things. That shouldn’t be forgotten.
Lovell: It’s survival. That’s what it is. When people like us view the royal family or the billionaires of the United States, we’re not defining ourselves based on how we fit in under their caste system. We’re defined by the things that we do and achieve in our lives. Sometimes the limitations that we have are spelled out for us and based on what our advantages are, but we live our lives all the same. It’s not always about what the elite class is allowing us to do.
Rail: Yes, there are these television shows where someone of modest talent wins an award. There’s this myth of America being completely open to upward mobility. If you’re able to do this one thing—sing well, be an entertainer—suddenly you’ll be successful. There’s something crass about that. Maybe we want to live a different way. Not all of us watch that show and wish we were that person. Not all Americans believe that wealth is the only goal. Maybe the goal is a certain kind of dignity. How do you achieve that despite a system that doesn’t really want to grant it to you? That’s quite a poignant statement that you’re making. These people did achieve this dignity, despite the circumstances. And you never really spell the circumstances out. You do to some degree, but it’s not heavy. It’s the circumstances that you show, the tools that someone would use. Like in “Shine” (2000), the three men and the shoeshine kit in the front. But the three men are dressed in suits, they’re standing. They could be the people going to get their shoes shined, as much as the person who ‘runs’ the shoeshine box. You remind us that there are two sides to the situation. That’s the subtle aspect of your work. You don’t announce it, you just let us experience it. We could be the person they’re coming to for a shoeshine. You play with that. In a way, you give the whole profession a certain dignity the minute you reverse it.
Lovell: It’s about recognizing the humanity. It’s not just a faceless person who you throw a quarter at. They have lives, hopes and dreams, they have families. Those are some of the issues that I was dealing with in the card series. In one example there was an image of a hardened older African-American woman, and the playing card was the Queen of Hearts. Somehow the image of the heart, the valentine, seemed to soften everything. And the fact that it was a queen made the woman seem so regal. It becomes romantic. You think of the romance within the heart of that hardened African-American woman.
Rail: We have to deal with whatever stereotype we may have lingering in our heads, that we may not be completely conscious of. You short-circuit our ability to pigeonhole that individual with the juxtaposition of the Queen of Hearts. Suddenly we can’t say, ‘Oh, hardened African-American woman…’ We have to pull back. Then there’s the amount of attention that you pay to each individual. You draw the hair very carefully. There’s a real love and a commitment to give each person all the dignity that they deserve. You don’t do any shorthand just to get the visual information across. We know it comes from a photograph, and yet it’s not photographic. That’s one of the striking things about your drawings. They come from an accepted documentary style of the period, in the way portrait photography was taken. You focus on the figure with a lot of attention paid. There’s modeling, all the specific features. Drawing is almost like caressing the person into existence. It’s art as an act of honoring. Honoring something that most of us aren’t aware of. As much as it’s autobiographical, and it comes out of your bones, I feel that it’s open and gives us an entrance. Autobiographical is about ‘me,’ but you’re saying it’s about us, without even naming the ‘us.’ It’s about an anonymous ‘us.’ In some sense, we are all anonymous, no matter how well known we are as individuals. You individualize that anonymity to a degree; you don’t feel that any of these people are ‘types.’ Whether they’re a maid, a soldier, a factory worker or a hardened African-American woman, they all transcend their type and category due to your attention to the image. These people, in getting their photographs taken, wanted to be remembered as individuals, even if it’s to be remembered only by the initial audience for these photographs.
Lovell: Who knows if they were aware of the power of the act they were engaged in when they went to get their photos taken? My grandmother, who lived to be 97, is the one I learned the most from, in terms of looking through her photos, and talking about the South, segregation, and the migration. Time was somehow marked by visits to some photographer. Sometimes it had to do with a particular event, like moving North and having your photo taken when you arrive in Harlem. I asked her what they were thinking about when they were getting their photos taken: whether it was simple vanity, so they could see and have an image of themselves, or whether it was done to document those moments for posterity, so that people could see that African-Americans were multi-dimensional, even during the years between the Emancipation and the Civil Rights Movement. And she said, ‘We weren’t thinking about that. We just did it.’ I think that’s the gift of it: that it’s just something that they did. Now we have this wonderful evidence.
Rail: “Pop/Pistol” is evidence that you’ve gathered without commenting on it, and we have to think about what it’s evidence of. That’s ongoing in your work. We see these charcoal figures on these wooden walls, and think, ‘What are they evidence of? And what does it mean not to know this?’ What does it say about where this culture is now that we don’t know this? I think you’re right that the image of the African-American is one of caricature. Even if it’s well-meaning. There’s caricature even in Harriet Beecher Stowe. That’s the legacy that most people in the mainstream America inherit. It’s a history of caricature, not a history of dignity or individuality. How do you see your way through that caricature, particularly if you’re not offered any alternatives? These photographs that you’ve found are from a world that is unknown.
Lovell: And there are no names attached to the images. I have about 600 or 700 photographs that I’ve been collecting over the years of people whose names I don’t know. Some of those are the most resonant for me. I can find myself getting so caught up in imagining who this person was. So much of that comes through in the photographs. This was a living, breathing human being that did the same things that you and I are doing now. That deserves to be acknowledged. Now the “Pop/Pistol” piece: My grandfather passed away in 1984. “Pop/Pistol” occurred in 1990. In between his murder and the time that I did that piece, my work shifted dramatically, to where I was making these allegorical works of family and relatives. At times I found myself grappling with storytelling and narrative. The question was always, ‘How much of this story do I want to tell?’ Is this really the way that I want to be making my art, by telling people’s stories? I do think that “Pop/Pistol” was a pivotal piece for many reasons, particularly because, as you said, I put the information out there not so much because I was heartbroken, which I was, not so much because this is Black-on-Black crime which occurs in the Bronx. Not because of all those specific reasons, but more because it is. Because this just is. This happened, and we live in a world where this sort of thing happens. I feel that I’m presenting these people, and perhaps some of the found objects. The arrangements of the drawings, and how they relate to the objects, are not so much attempting to tell specific stories, but they are just saying that we live in a world where this exists. There are references to slavery, to lynching, to alcoholism, to boxing, like in this particular piece, “Strive” (2000). I have people who approach it with a very simplistic attitude. “Oh, this woman is married to a boxer.”
Rail: Right. That way of looking is very reductive.
Lovell: Or, ‘Oh, this woman is having guests over because she’s got a decanter of booze.’ But it’s much farther reaching.
Rail: These pieces, for all the sense of narrative that you bring to the surface, are never anecdotal. The problem of narrative is to go beyond anecdote, but not necessarily ignore the small things that make up an anecdote. Anecdote has a kind of closure to it. It’s done and it’s over with. You don’t want your narrative to be done and over with. You want to leave it open.
Lovell: Right. Because people will say, ‘Oh, yeah, I get it. That’s that story. Next.’ In this piece I did called “Bliss,” there’s a woman dressed in a turn-of-the-20th-century outfit. There are pedestals with whisky decanters and shot glasses. You stand in front of the piece and this aroma of the alcohol fills your nose. I had someone say to me, ‘Oh, she doesn’t look like an alcoholic.’ But you have to think a little deeper into this. What is the power of alcohol? It has medicinal uses, and aside from the social uses of alcohol, it can be viewed as destructive. But certainly potent, within both the African-American community and society at large. That’s how I view the objects that I would include. What the piece is saying is that we live in a world where alcohol is part of our daily lives. We are affected by it; we use it, enjoy it, or over-abuse it. It’s a powerful substance in our world. Perhaps juxtaposing the image of a black woman with the aroma of whiskey can speak volumes about the lives we are living and the roles we expect people to play.
Rail: Alcohol goes back to the beginning of culture. It’s not like it came into existence in the 19th Century.
Lovell: The same thing with salt. Salt has been used all over the planet for spiritual purposes: getting rid of the negative spirits…
Rail: …Sweeping the house with it after you put it on the floor. I read about the phrase, ‘Bite the bullet.’ When they had to amputate somebody’s limb because of a wound, one of the things they did was bite on a bullet. This phrase has persisted and changed, but it still has this history. You remind us that everything has a history. Consumer culture is about erasing history. Get the new car or refrigerator. There’s no history attached. We want things that don’t have a history, and don’t accumulate one, so we can move on to the next thing.
Lovell: It’s amazing how rich we are when we acknowledge history and we learn from it. It’s frightening to think of leaving everything behind and acting as if it never happened.