Solange’s Saint Heron dossier project releases interview with Barbara Chase-Riboud

In an excerpt shared with The Art Newspaper, the artist and writer describes how the letters her mother kept made her more ‘visible’ that ever

The artist and writer Barbara Chase-Riboud at the American Academy in Rome in 1958

The artist and writer Barbara Chase-Riboud at the American Academy in Rome in 1958

The artist and performer Solange recently announced that her creative organisation Saint Heron would be expanding its efforts to promote new voices in cultural, art, music and design. As part of that, the group has launched the first in a series of “dossier” exhibitions that explore “radical family and artist’ lineages” under the title Figure and Force. Each piece of the series takes the form of conversations between artists, writers and performers, presented along with images of their work, which will be presented on the project’s website for just 7 to 10 days.

The first part dropped today, with a discussion between the sculptor, novelist, and award-winning poet Barbara Chase-Riboud and the author and educator, Ilyasah Shabazz (the daughter of the activist Malcolm X) moderated by the curator Erin Jenoa Gilbert. Future interviews are planned with the writer Shala Monroque and artist Cassi Namoda, the multi-disciplinary artists Helga Davis and Okwui Okpokwasili, and the three daughters of the legendary songwriting couple Linda and Cecil Womack.

Saint Heron shared an excerpt from Chase-Riboud’s interview with us, in which she discusses her forthcoming memoir I Always Knew, based on correspondence with her mother, below. You can hear her and Shabazz discuss radical authenticity, femininity, spirituality and ancestral encounters in full at SAINTHERON.COM.

I'd like to talk about I Always Knew because in the end, maybe this is the sort of closing chapter of invisible women. Maybe this is the woman of woman, because I Always Knew… is 50 years of my writing letters to my mother from Europe, and I didn't keep any of her responses. And when she died in 1991, I found in her closet this metal case, dark blue metal case, I'll never forget it. And I opened it up and there were hundreds of my letters, all written on airmail paper—you know, that thing doesn't even exist anymore, a thin sort of pale blue paper that you'd fold over to make the envelope. And she had kept every single letter I wrote.

The first letter was from the boat that I was on for my first trip to France, and the last letter was from an island in the middle of the Pacific, where we had gone on vacation. And between them, there was 50, 60 years of letters. For me, there was also a history of a writer because I didn't know that I was writing a writer’s letters to my mother—I was just writing my mom. I was telling her everything that went through my head or through my heart or through my body, because that's the kind of relationship that we had.

[After] finding these letters, I did not read [them], I just sort of closed the box and thought, "not today." And it was almost eight years later that I finally opened the box. And through those letters, not only did she shine, her spirit was there in every single letter.

I could guess her answers, even though I didn't have one letter from her, as if she was sitting there like a goddess listening to the chatter of this little girl from Philadelphia through Rome, through France, all over the world, from Russia, from China. And she was listening to all this and she was answering me in her own way. So, her spirit sort of impregnated all these little scraps of paper until she became uninvisible, she became as visible as anybody could ever be.

And that was the amazing thing about discovering these letters and then transcribing them. There were 600 of them and we edited it down to 300, [so] I decided we would not edit inside the letter, that the letter would stand as it is or not at all. So, this will be one of my last books, or probably my last book, which is finally the epitome of invisibility in my mother as an invisible woman.