In Her Own Words:

A Conversation with Artist Robin Holder and Curator Dorit Yaron

Black American Identity

DY: It looks as if working in a circular way helps you to focus, and to explore, in really meaningful ways every aspect of your life.

RH: Yes, and also to experiment with one printmaking technique over a period of years so that I can expand on it; you know, to see what shifts are happening. But the "Warrior Women Wizards" theme was because somebody said to me, "You can only be genuine if your art is about what you know." I was in my early 30s when I started the "Warrior Women Wizards," and I had just come back to the United States after living abroad for five years. I had my son with me, and my husband at the time was traveling back and forth; so I was sort of re-acclimatizing myself to my own culture of New York. I was just sort of redefining myself. I had gone through kind of an eye-opening experience when I was living abroad, because I was completely convinced when I was living in Holland and in Mexico that people would think that I was Latino, not that I was American.

DY: You didn't want them to identify you as an American.

RH: No! I didn't! So I was walking around speaking Spanish just thinking that everybody will be sure that I was Latino. Until several times, people approached me on the street, and they approached me in English. I started asking people, "Well, how is it that you think I speak English?" And they would say, "Well, it's because you're obviously an American." And I would say, "I'm not an American, I'm an African American; I'm Black American." And they would say, "Ha, you think you're African American but you're an American woman. It's obvious that you are an American woman."

DY: It's because of the way you walk; the way you talk.

RH: That's exactly what they said. And, in Paris, the first guy I asked, "Why are you approaching me in English?" said, "It's obvious you're an American woman. You walk like you own the world."8 Hearing that was very painful to me. It just really opened up a whole comprehension about the way people in different countries see Americans, and about what being an African American is. If you have this complete conviction and understanding that you're an African American, and you are the underdog historically in your society, and that you are part of the victimization of imperialism, and racism, and fascism; and then people are telling you, "Forget that, you're just an American," it really teaches you that people see you differently than you see yourself. And you really have to listen and pay attention and understand how that insight/outsight of identities works.

DY: This comment about you owning the world as an American is interesting because, in many ways, the women in "Warrior Women Wizards" seem, physically and powerfully, to control their space. They might be in distress, or emotionally captured; they look for freedom, e.g. towards birds flying outside of their space; and yet, they control the composition.

RH: You create whatever you draw on this piece of paper; you're in charge. I'm making the whole universe of this space; I'm making these women take up all this space because I put them in charge. I believe that I'm doing it with a lot of humility. I'm trying the very best that I can but I know that I have a lot of ignorance, inexperience, and conflicts. But I'm also fascinated with power in the sense of how energy works, how energy affects energy, and how forces interact; for example how people interact, how men and women interact, and how, chemically, things interact.

DY: You worked on the series "Karnak" after you visited Egypt. What are the reasons that you did this series of work and how do you express your identity in this specific work?

RH: It was about movement and traveling through time, culture, history. Egypt is a very unique place, because of the history. In school we were taught that Western civilization started in Greece. Then you find out that a lot of the Greek culture was really culled from elements of the Egyptian culture and you realize that here in the States everything that was African-based was just denied. So this wonderful Greek culture, that was the beginning of our modern Western civilization, actually came from people of color. That had a lot of meaning for me. Another aspect of it was that when I was moving around in Egypt, I saw a lot of people that looked like me, physically, and I felt very comfortable there, just moving around.

I was just very fascinated with the beliefs about the afterlife, the belief of the Ancient or Pharonic Egyptians that when you die, your soul is weighed on the Scales of Truth to see how clean your heart was, or if your intentions were good, or were you just a greedy, vicious self-serving person. That whole belief is something that makes a lot of sense to me. It's like the concept of the Christians, the Judgment Day; that was very interesting to me, as well as the aspect of the Ancient Egyptians having many gods which would take care of different activities in life. Then having gods, of course, that were female gods; I've always had a problem with Judaic and Christian doctrines, the little that I know about them, in which there seems to be this male figure as God, and that doesn't make any sense to me. So here was a culture that respected the feminine principle and the feminine energy, so that was another dimension of that trip that meant a lot to me.