In Her Own Words:

A Conversation with Artist Robin Holder and Curator Dorit Yaron

DY: Some of your images are of people working. It reminds me of some of the subject matter of works by Jacob Lawrence.9 Your style of layering has been compared to that of Aaron Douglas.10 What is the influence of some of those major African American artists on your art?

RH: I started doing art when I was like thirteen, and I didn't know anything about other artists. When I was in high school, and I was projecting those silhouette shapes on the floor and tracing around, I can't say that was an influence from other artists because I was doing it before I was aware that other artists really developed a way to express themselves with that approach. I think that I spent many years doing art before I spent any time studying art. The artist that I loved the most in high school was Roberto Matta Echaurren.11 I also liked Arshile Gorky.12 There were artists that I really appreciated like Cezanne and Van Gough and Rembrandt; I could understand the importance of the way they worked, the way they created the quality of light, or the way they would depict form in three-dimension. I understood the importance of the subject matter that they used in the culture of the times, but I didn't have any personal affinity with it.

DY: Do you recall if at that time there were any African American artists who were included in that narrative of American art?

RH: When I was seventeen years old and I went to The Art Students League, Norman Lewis, Al Hollingsworth, and Ricky Mayhew were teaching there.13 When I was eight or nine years old, I met this sculptor, Inge Hardison.14 I went to camp with her daughter, Yolanda. I would go to see Yolanda over on Central Park West, and it was the first time that I visited an artist's studio. And I remember seeing her mother who did very realistic metal heads of very important African American figures. She was a very small, petite woman, and I remember thinking that it was really quite remarkable that this small woman was making these heavy, powerful sculptures. So that was actually the first "real" contemporary African American artist that I knew. Then when I got to The Art Students League, it was Ricky Mayhew who told me about the Cinque Gallery and Ernest Crichlow.15

DY: We discussed social content and storytelling, as well as figurative imagery in art. Do you have any special expectations from African American artists, or artists in general?

RH: I think that the first thing that anybody has to do is to be genuine. Whatever artwork a person does, it has to be genuine for them. And they have to be able personally to defend their work, or it's just not sincere, to be meaningful. Every person and every African American artist is a distinct person with distinct sensibilities, and interests, and background.

DY: One of your most recent series started in a very specific moment, soon after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. I am talking about the series "My Beautiful Red Dress".

RH: I was with a bunch of artists at the opening reception of our group exhibition about the Twin Towers which were destroyed by the terrorist attacks. There was a young, Caucasian, female artist standing among the five of us—three black men besides me, and her—and at one point she said, "I don't understand. Why do they hate us so much?" I asked her to take off her very nice, very well-made, good-quality leather jacket. She took off her jacket, and I said, "Look on the label." The jacket was made in China. I asked, "How much did you pay for that jacket?" She said something like $35. And I said, "So what do you think about that?" And she said, "Well I thought it was incredibly cheap." And I said, "Yeah, so from the moment that cow got killed to the moment that you are standing here, what do you think about that sequence of manufacturing and transportation? Who's involved in creating that jacket?" When you follow the money trail, you'll see why they hate us so much. So that was the moment that I decided to do that series. I decided to pick every aspect of my life—food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, and transportation—and track whose blood, sweat, and degradation was I living. What was the cost of my, very modest, lifestyle. I said, "Let me just track who is suffering so that I could live how I live." And I started doing research and it was so horrific and so overwhelming that it took me a year and a half to get the information together.