Issue 004 Summer 2022 Profiles

Dindga McCannon and the Fabric of the Black Arts Movement

By Zoé Samudzi

Portraits by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.

Dindga McCannon in her studio, 2022. Photo by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.


A few minutes into my conversation with multimedia artist Dindga McCannon, I ask what I feared might be a touchy and impolite question.


Her first major solo show, In Plain Sight, ran during September and October 2021 at Fridman Gallery in New York City. She was seventy-four years old and she’d been working as an artist for over five decades. The multi-decade retrospective was characteristically varicolored, as McCannon is known for her multichromatic paintings, textiles, and mixed-media works. Her miniature mural-scaled painting “125th Street Revisited” (2020) felt like the thematic centerpiece of the show. With a satisfying smattering of oranges and purples, the five-foot-wide piece, named for Harlem’s main street, seems to fondly recall the colorful cast of Black women in the place she called home for many years.

I ask her, in light of many canonical Black artists only getting retrospectives of their work at a much older age, whether she thought her own recognition was belated. “Probably!” she says with a playful laugh. “I think it’s better than never.”

There was a stark and presumptuous (on my part) contrast between my demand for the correction of an overdue injustice and her own self-conception. While I was focusing on institutional scrambles to correct (but not fully recognize) their historical omissions of Black artists, McCannon was responding with the gratitude that she felt for finally being able to make a living creating the art that she wants to create. She’s met hundreds of talented artists over her lifetime who were just never able to make it, but fortunately—finally—she has made it.

 


Dindga McCannon, 125th Street Revisited Yesterday and Today, 2020, acrylic and mixed media on canvas (29” h x 64” w). Image courtesy of Dindga McCannon and Fridman Gallery, New York.

McCannon was born and raised in Harlem, and her first foray into visual arts was in the home. She initially learned needlework, sewing, and embroidery from her mother and grandmother. Although historically derided as mere “craft” or women’s work, these skills proved foundational for McCannon, and she would later hone them during her time at the High School of Fashion Industries in Manhattan. Soon after graduating from New York’s High School of Commerce, she got her first art job teaching students at a school in Harlem. In 1964, at age seventeen, she discovered a group of what she described as fifty or so artists who, just as she was beginning to gravitate toward Afrocentric themes and aesthetics, guided her through a kind of artistic self-discovery. A year later, however, the group splintered into smaller groups, one of which was called the Twentieth Century Art Creators; another, which she joined as a founding member, became the Weusi Collective (weusi is the Kiswahili word for blackness).

Inspired by the Black Arts Movement, the members of the Weusi Collective were part of the milieu of cultural vanguards in Harlem in the late 1960s and 1970s. In 1967, a number of the members created the Weusi Nyumba Ya Sanaa Gallery out of a local brownstone. The gallery eventually became the Weusi Nyumba Ya Sanaa Academy of Fine Arts and Studies, holding printmaking and other arts workshops and educational programs for the Black Harlem community. For over a decade, the academy also sponsored the Harlem Outdoor Art Festival: jazz music, drumming performances, and public dance performances were added to the outdoor painting program, making it a kind of predecessor to the present-day Harlem Week, an ongoing celebration of Black art still held in the borough.

As part of the collective, McCannon learned the coupled fundamentals of painting and Black-centered visual politics. Further embarking on her artistic journey with night classes at City College, she encountered tensions over the depictions of the subjects in her work, as it was not yet an institutional norm for student aesthetics to revolve around Blackness. She enrolled in the Art Students League and received mentorship from Jacob Lawrence, Al Hollingsworth, Richard Mayhew, and Charles Austin, the school’s first African American instructor. The kind of Black-focused training she was able to receive simply wasn’t happening in conventional art schools at the time, she tells me, and this only further shaped her aesthetic sensibility.


Dindga McCannon, Four Women, 1988, mixed media (24” h x 27” w). Image courtesy of Dindga McCannon and Fridman Gallery, New York.

McCannon describes her return to fiber arts after spending years painting as more of a functionality than anything else. In addition to the ongoing Black Arts Movement, her time with the Weusi Collective coincided with the Back to Africa movement. “Dashikis became a hot item,” she recalls of the ubiquitous patterned tunic, so making and selling them became both a part of income generation and “a basis of [her] fiber art immersions.” Her fellow collective member, Kay Brown, gave her a bag of fabric pieces from her mother, which McCannon fashioned into her first art quilt.

Although the Weusi Collective, like other Black art bodies, was engaging with the anti-Blackness within art institutions, the collective’s female members were predictably sidelined in their struggles against racialized misogyny from the art world and, in fact, were subjected to sexism by their male comrades. McCannon attributes the sexism, in part, to how some of her “beloved Weusi brothers decided that they were dealing with the Back to Africa movement and took a lot of things from what they thought of as African,” including, unfortunately, patriarchal gender roles such as women walking behind men.

In 1971, along with Brown and Faith Ringgold, McCannon contacted and assembled all the Black women artists the three knew in the city. Very few were able to obtain mainstream artistic success at this time. So, in the vein of the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee (of which Ringgold was also a founding member) that protested the underrepresentation of women—and particularly nonwhite women—at the Whitney Museum’s 1970 Sculpture Annual, this newly formed Where We At collective duly sought to confront their members’ unique raced and gendered exclusions. The collective’s 1971 show, Where We At: Black Women Artists became one of the first shows curated by and entirely featuring Black women. McCannon’s contribution to the show was “Revolutionary Sister” (1971), an Afrocentric vision in reds, blacks, greens, and yellows of the critically underrepresented Black women in the revolutionary imagination. Her defiant hand-on-hip figure is evocative of Lady Liberty: while her familiar headpiece is composed of miniature flagpoles, a bandolier belt adorned with plastic bullets—McCannon’s own and a sartorial staple of the Black Power Movement of the 1970s—represents her fierceness as a warrior.


Dindga McCannon in her studio, 2022. Photo by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.

Much like other politically minded Black women during the 1970s, McCannon describes the pressures of having to choose between her womanhood being recognized by the feminist movement or her racial allegiances. “I think our political affiliations were more aligned with Black Panthers rather than feminism,” she tells me. The struggles of feminists of the time were often derisively expressed as ‘white, middle-class women who had husbands who didn’t want them to be artists,’ while their struggle as Black women artists concerned their material conditions like paying rent and feeding their children. (While it was not the genesis of Black feminism, the Combahee River Collective’s statement—which synthesized a Black feminist fight against racism and capitalist oppression as well as a solidarity with progressive Black men while still fighting against intracommunal sexism—would not be drafted until 1977.)

Where We At was as much a practical lifeline as it was a vehicle for broader advocacy: the women’s support of one another’s careers was as much a part of their artistic praxis as childcare and feeding one another, because central to their politic was the intimate understanding that art could and would not get made if their material conditions and familial obligations prevented them from working.

In 2021, the Brooklyn Museum announced that it had acquired McCannon’s painting “West Indian Day Parade” (1976), the very first painting of the borough’s iconic cultural celebration to enter the museum’s collection. A vibrant textile piece illustrating elongated and elaborately costumed dancing Black people, the work honors the Caribbean diaspora whose presence and cultural production has been a driving force in Brooklyn and whose annual parade has enlivened the Eastern Parkway (the thoroughfare on which the museum sits) since its move from Harlem in 1969. The museum holds four more of her works in their permanent collection, three of which—“Morning After” (1973), “Empress Akweke” (1975), and “Revolutionary Sister” (1971)—were shown in the museum’s 2017 exhibition We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1968-85, curated by Catherine Morris and Rujeko Hockley. “Empress Akweke,” a richly hued homage to her friend and fellow Where We At collective member Akweke Singho, illustrates the titular character regally seated and adorned in golds, from her imperial yellow dress to her coiled necklace and bracelets. The portrait’s saturated palette was described as “Cool-Ade,” an aesthetic principle ascribed to the AfriCOBRA collective and other Black artists of the time: it was an arrangement of complementary colors deliberately curated in order to appeal to Black audiences and named for the bright colors worn by Black Americans and Afro-diasporans in the 1960s. As a survey show, We Wanted a Revolution was particularly formative because it introduced a new generation to a more comprehensive aesthetic and political landscape within and beyond the Black Arts Movement, as well as a far larger cast of Black female artists than the narrowed canon typically permits.


Dindga McCannon, Blue Queens, 2021, mixed-media quilt (52” h x 48” w). Image courtesy of Dindga McCannon and Fridman Gallery, New York.

While gendered, raced, and classed divisions still endure in the art world, McCannon’s tone is notably optimistic as she speaks about the present. In considering political nostalgias and historical reckonings, she balances the fickle conception of Black art as a market trend with the fact that more and more collectors (including a growing contingent of Black collectors) and curators are “beginning to really understand that they have a valuable commodity in their hands.”

McCannon sees the artistic landscape becoming increasingly inclusive. She tells me she’s most inspired by the stories of elder women because they comprise “another group that gets kind of pushed to the side and another group that’s not often talked about.” Nevertheless, these women contain a wealth of information. They persist in their work, she says, “despite the odds, despite the society around them, and despite some of the really terrible stuff that they have gone through.” Her most resonant statement—one as present in her reflections of contemporary art as in her political praxis and collective work—is that we’re all in this together.