Robin Holder

Lisa E. Farrington, Ph.D.

Especially ubiquitous in the "Warrior Women" prints are images of birds, which epitomize spirituality and elation as well as freedom from the myopic worldview to which most humans are condemned. According to Holder:

Birds... walk on the ground, swim in the water, and they fly. Their vision is broader than mine. I always feel that if I can become airborne I'll gain a more balanced view, a better perspective of my reality. I can see from here to the end of the road. A bird can see the road, around the bend, and two miles away all at once.15

Bird images are also interchangeable with Holder's "wizards"—the specters of teachers and mentors that populate the series and function as guides for young women as they develop intellectually and ethically. The artist laments the fact that, in much of contemporary society, the principled rearing of young people has been neglected. No longer are there built-in social mechanisms for raising children; for passing on elders' wisdom; or for shaping youths into earnest, moral, responsible, and caring adults. Says Holder, "The procedures for birth, naming, choosing a livelihood, becoming a woman, a warrior, a nurturer, a wife, a mother, an elder, are lost. The rules are no longer clear...."16

In 1988, while working on "Warrior Women", after visiting Egypt and the ancient temple complex near Luxor, Holder completed a related collection of linoleum and stencil prints which she christened "Karnak". Commingling abstract fragments evocative of glass shards with soaring human figures, the "Karnak" series suggests passage—the passage of the soul from life to death; the passing on of history, experience, and knowledge from generation to generation; and the passing from one stage of life to another. By juxtaposing silhouettes of powerful beings such as the Egyptian falcon god Horus (protector of kings) and Anubis (sacred embalmer and guardian of the dead) with human figures, Holder metaphorically restores the influence of ancient wisdom to contemporary society. As already affirmed in "Warrior Women", Holder places great store in the precepts of long past theocratic cultures—"I've found more support in the structures of ancient civilizations. In the past we had priestesses, wise men, medicine women, seers...to guide us."17

Holder's stenciled and collaged monoprints, "What's Black and White and Red All Over? An African-American Russian Jewish Red Diaper Baby" (1997-98), analyzed in depth by scholar Dorit Yaron18 constitute another journey into the past. This time, however, the journey is into the artist's personal past—specifically, her 1960s childhood. The Sixties was a time of intense political activism in New York and across the country, and the era had a profound effect on the artist's development as a socially-engaged human being. Comprising more than two dozen prints, "What's Black and White" reveals the palimpsest nature of the artist's persona as well as her art. Using black Arches cover weight paper as a ground, overlaid with strata of gossamer images, the artist discloses her childhood to the viewer like a Freudian screen memory.

Collaged like so many old photographs and newsreels are renderings of the artist as an adolescent, visual narratives of her home life, and images of the tumult of racial conflict that revolved like a tornado around her young world. The portrayals in "What's Black and White" are, in some cases, carefully modeled and detailed and, in others, rendered as anonymous silhouettes. This dual technique personalizes the series while, at the same time, facilitating a more collective viewer experience. The works in the series are peppered with emblems of childhood innocence—roller and ice skates, bicycles, hula hoops, jacks, marbles, pick-up sticks, and hop scotch squares chalked onto city sidewalks. Within this vernacular are symbols that offer double meanings, such as a jump rope rendered in the shape of a noose; children encircled by chains; and a white mother braiding a black child's hair.

Thematically sparked by very personal and specific adolescent experiences, the series consists largely of narratives about the artist, her siblings and childhood friends and addresses the reality of Holder's dual identity as both black and white. Her racially ambiguous physical appearance, for example, was often cause for xenophobic confusion and animosity among her childhood playmates, which instigated in the artist a sense of alienation from them.19 One such case involved a German schoolmate named Elsbeth, who told the young Holder that "niggers" were not allowed in her house. Despite the prohibition, Elsbeth decided to invite Holder in anyway, after concluding that Holder was not a "nigger" after all, but rather "half and half."20

Another such experience, which inspired the series, occurred immediately following the divorce of Holder's parents. For a year before joining her mother in New York City (following Mrs. Holder's relocation from Chicago), Holder lived with her Aunt Doris, Uncle Charles and cousin Cheryl. Holder remembers observing her first hair-straightening session during this interval. Every Saturday, Aunt Doris would heat a metal comb on the stove and comb it through Cheryl's curly hair until it was straight. This erstwhile ubiquitous African American ritual (which waned with the advent of chemical hair straighteners) was accompanied by a cacophony of unique sights, smells, and sounds—the sizzle and pungent smell of hair grease burning; rising smoke; and the occasional yelp due to a scorched ear or brow. Fascinated, Holder asked if she, too, could have her hair straightened; but Aunt Doris quickly pointed out that Holder already had "good hair" and didn't need to straighten it. This observation seemed, to Holder's young mind, to rankle cousin Cheryl, who terrorized Holder with cruel pranks for the duration of her stay. Holder remembers the year as an especially isolating time, during which Holder pined for the company of brothers and parents and flunked an unsettling class in doctrinaire religious instruction because she had dared to contradict her Christian teacher.21 The iconographic lexicon of "What's Black and White" reveals that Holder had to learn early how to contend with a variety of misperceptions about her cultural identity; and likewise how to deal with the distasteful biases that mark our society, such as anti-Semitism and racism.