In Her Own Words:

A Conversation with Artist Robin Holder and Curator Dorit Yaron

DY: I would like to further discuss those issues of complex identities. As a Jew who moved to this country from Israel about twenty-five years ago, I was very interested in your multicultural background, especially you having a mother who is a Russian American Jew and a father who is African American. It seems that there are a lot of images in your work that are dealing with your identity as an African American; one specific example is Hair, It Was Always About Hair, 1998, from "What's Black and White and Red All Over?" However, you have only few works with references to your Jewish background or to Jewish history; the one in which you depicted Jewish inmates during the Holocaust comes to mind, No Striped Pajamas, 1998. Yet, through our conversations in the last ten years, I know that your mother had a huge influence on you, especially teaching you to be an independent thinker. In your own words, how has she and her Jewish background influenced you?

RH: My mother was an agnostic, so she didn't practice Judaism. When I lived in the Upper West Side and then in Washington Heights, many of my classmates were Jewish. So I socialized when I was very young with a large percentage of Jewish middle-class Manhattanites; I don't know if the sensibility that I have or the identity that I have of being Jewish is just specifically to that location of Manhattan in a certain place, in a certain era. I can tell you that I lived in Holland, I visited Belgium and France, but I was absolutely unable to bring myself to go to Germany. Because I just had this embedded horror of Nazi Germany sort of in my psyche, and I just could not bear it. It was the same reason for that for many years I would not travel to the South in the United States. I think there is an interior dialogue about victimization that is kind of natural to me, and part of it is from the consciousness of what Jews worldwide have experienced throughout history as well as what Africans have experienced in the Diaspora. They mirror each other in American history, and very much so in the Northeast part of the United States and in New York.

DY: So you might say that your consciousness is rooted in that collective consciousness.

RH: Yes, but I couldn't tell you, for example, of too many Judaic rituals, even though I've been sporadically to Passover Seders, Bat or Bar Mitzvahs. I wasn't raised regularly with those rituals, but I'm aware of them.

DY: Your mother exposed you to many cultures and asked of you to be an independent thinker. Since we are speaking about mothers, and you have a son, what does it mean for you to be a mother and how has it influenced your art?

RH: I decided that I would be an artist when I was a teenager; I think that was the first most important conscious decision I made about my identity and about my destiny. And then probably the second most important decision I made was to be a mother. When you're creating artworks, you have this feeling that the work is an issue from you; it's something that's coming through you; it's something that's being channeled through you; so you just have to parent this artwork, and you hope that the artwork has enough passion and life in it to be energized. But when you become a parent, it's such an overwhelming experience of bringing forth life; and hopefully, it becomes independent of your own life. So it really impacts greatly everything that you conceive of, plan for, and orient yourself about in human life, because now there's this human being that is the main priority of your whole existence. It impacted me early on in my life because I became a mother at the age of twenty-two and impacted everything I've done in the sense of maturing—maturing as a woman, as an artist, as a professional. For me, becoming a mother was a very considered reality; I thought and reflected and considered everything because that is what my mother taught me to be and do. You know, basically that was my mother's concept; to have the responsibility and the freedom to make an impact on this world; to think about what you're doing, and why you're doing it, and who you're doing it for, and try to be as genuine and honest as you can. So it really wasn't about trying to raise a child so that child can be happy—I never had that concept. It was more of an approach to let me try to raise my child to have integrity, to have honesty, to have humanity, to have dignity.