Below is an edited recording and transcript of a special conversation between artist Dindga McCannon and Seen’s Editor-in-Chief, Dessane Lopez Cassell, originally held on August 3, 2022, as part of the 11th annual BlackStar Film Festival.
Dessane Lopez Cassell: It’s a real pleasure to be with you all here tonight and to be hosting this conversation with Dindga McCannon, an artist whose decades long career is a testament to the power of artmaking as a means of lifelong living and learning. But before I introduce our special guest, I want to start with many thanks to the team that made today’s conversation possible. To our founder and BlackStar CEO, Maori Karmael Holmes, our festival director and former managing editor of Seen, Nehad Khader, and to our curatorial fellow and panels organizer, Farrah Rahaman. Thank you for creating this space. A special thanks as well to T’Shay Williams, Asha Haki-Tyler, all of our volunteers and festival staff, to our Seen intern, Fafa Nutor, and the whole editorial team that assembled our most recent issue of Seen, including our guest editor, Darol Olu Kae, and editors Yasmine Espert, Jasmine Weber, Kavita Rajanna and Shauna Swartz.
The springboard for today’s conversation is the deeply thoughtful profile of Dindga McCannon, penned by Zoé Samudzi for our latest issue of the journal. Dindga, as Zoe writes, is known for her multi-chromatic paintings, textiles and multimedia works. She is also a writer, an illustrator, a wearable art maker, a muralist, and an educator, and a mother.
Dindga is a founding member of Weusi Art Collective, a distinguished group of Afro-centric artists established in Harlem in 1965, against the backdrop of the Black arts movement. Additionally, she is a founding member of Where We At, Black Women Artists Inc, a working group of artists, mothers and educators founded in 1971. As Zoe writes, “Where We At sought to confront the uniquely race and gendered exclusions faced by Black women artists and to bring great sustainability and visibility to their work.” Among their many crucial interventions, which we’ll talk about today, were the numerous exhibitions they held, including organizing one of the first all Black women artists shows in 1971 and providing practical lifelines to their artists and members. Without further ado, please welcome Dindga McCannon.
Dindga McCannon: Thank you for having me.
DLC: We’re big fans, if you can’t tell already. I want to start our conversation off by going back in time. I read somewhere in Bomb Magazine, that you said that you made up your mind about becoming an artist when you were just 10 years old. That was in 1950, when the landscape for Black artists and especially Black women artists was very, very different. Could you talk about what steered you towards that path?
DM: I think the basic thing was that I began to draw and sketch, and a lot of artists from that era, we started drawing cartoons. They had these things in the paper: if you could draw this, you could go to art school and all that type of stuff. We did cartoons and life drawing. I simply fell in love with the process of creating. It took me out of the world that I lived in, which was not a bad world, but it just took me into another beautiful type of space, and I felt that I just wanted to keep that going. I had no idea that women weren’t supposed to be artists or anything about the art world, but it was the feeling—the art of creation—that got me interested.
DLC: Thank you for that. I know we’ve talked a little bit about some of your early experiences as an artist and some of the frustrations that you had in terms of your initial training. I know you studied art in school, and that you went to Fashion Industries High School, which actually is where I went as well for part of high school. But you’ve also talked about the fact that you really didn’t feel like you were getting useful guidance, that you were getting a lot of pushback around having Black figures in your work. Could you talk about those experiences and also the shift when you went to the Art Students League and started studying with folks like Richard Mayhew and so many others?
DM: I think what it was initially, first of all, when I went to fashion industries, was that, by default my parents did not support me being an artist. And I had wanted to go to Art and Design High School [in New York], but then I got my revenge years later because my son went there and then my granddaughter went. [My parents’] compromise was for me to go to Fashion Industries. At the time, I was in a course that steered me towards being a fashion designer. However, it was a very prejudiced world back then—not that things have changed all that much since then—but Black folks really weren’t encouraged to go into that arena either. I failed one class my second year, and instead of giving me guidance and support, they told me I had two alternatives: I could either leave, or I could go into a class where I wouldn’t have enough credits for college. Basically, they would prepare me to become a seamstress in a factory.
At that time, I didn’t even want to go to college, but I was smart enough not to cut my options, so I decided to leave. I ended up going to a high school that was right where Lincoln Center is now. (It was being built then.) It was probably the world’s worst high school, but because it was so bad, the teachers spent most of their time trying to control the kids, and they pretty much left me alone, which meant I had even more time to scribble and draw in the back. Fast forward, I went to City College for a little while, but I was very bored. And then, I would take workshops and whatnot, but I was not encouraged to use Black figures. They wanted me to paint white figures, but I didn’t want to paint white figures.
I wanted to paint Black people because that was natural to me. I’m a Black person. I paint myself, but no, that was not encouraged.
When I met [the folks from] Weusi, I think it was a couple of days after my 17th birthday. They were the catalyst that got me started because they were all about the Black arts movement—doing Black art for Black people and creating an audience as we went along. I was still in search of other knowledge, so I found out that at the Art Students League you could choose your teachers, so I chose Jacob Lawrence, Charles Austin, Richard Mayhew and Al Hollingsworth. They gave me more support. As Black artists, they understood exactly what I was doing. After I left then, then I had enough to continue going on.
DLC: Thank you. I think part of what you’re saying really shows that, one: how education, if done in a way that’s not actually connected with the student, can really sabotage folks early on, and how that can play a huge role in someone’s life and career. But I also feel like part of the undercurrent here is the importance of creating our own spaces, which obviously is something that we feel very strongly about here at BlackStar. This festival is really designed to support a community of Black filmmakers, artists, and folks really working in a variety of media. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about Weusi and why the space that you were creating together with them as a founding member and what you all were offering the community at the time.
DM: Okay. I’ll start with what we were offering the community was art by, about people of color, African Americans, and more importantly positive images. When we started this journey, if you went to Woolworth, there was nothing Black that you could buy on the walls. Art at that time—it just did not include us.
I think the Weusi began as a way of getting a group of artists together and collaboratively pushing our own aesthetics and saying basically that our culture is centuries old, and it’s just as valid as any other culture and we deserve to be heard, seen, and I guess purchased, for people who actually purchased Black art that looked like them and celebrated our lives.
Also, when Weusi started, it started on the projects on 129th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. There must have been about 100 artists out there, at least in my mind. By the next year, the group had gotten down to maybe 30, and the whole premise, we were right in the midst of the Black arts movement, of the Civil Rights movement, and that reflected itself in our artwork.
DLC: I think that’s also a testament to the fact that it’s also important to think about the sustainable side of artmaking, which is something that a lot of folks don’t get taught in school. There is also in some ways a business to being an artist, in terms of being able to support yourself with your work and knowing how to navigate that space. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about your work as an educator and what you feel like it’s important to impart to your students.
You’ve taught in such a variety of contexts: in shelters, prisons, summer programs—really interfacing with people in different ways that aren’t just necessarily a traditional formal classroom.
DM: Actually, I found it more fascinating than my life imagined as a professor because art to me is a universal tool. It also has a healing factor. One of the reasons I love working in—I called it the alternative spaces of shelters, jails, day camps, and occasionally schools—was that everybody has a talent. Most people just don’t know what that talent is. Sometimes, art can be, or the way that art is presented to the ordinary person, is you have to draw, and you have to draw so perfectly in this and that. They don’t understand that art is a huge field. Being able to photographically draw somebody is not the only way to go in art. But that’s what you learn. That’s what you can learn if you choose to go to school in the traditional manner.
There’s other arts. There’s needle arts, there’s drawing, there’s cartooning, there’s crafts—all of these art forms. Because I was an artist who was able to use all those different art forms, I was able to create dialogues between the people who I was serving. As any teacher, you have this exchange—you give, but you also receive knowledge and thoughts. The people I taught, their lives were extremely traumatized, but in my space they found a place where they could be themselves, where they could create anything in any media. That made a difference from the rest of their lives because these were institutional settings. My room presented a free open space.
DLC: Absolutely. That way it’s a space where you don’t have to be thinking about the pressures of the everyday, and art can actually be a space for freedom and creation.
DM: And also to encourage people to, whatever talent that you have, to actually use it and to play with it and to let it bring joy into your life.
DLC: I appreciate that. Speaking of multiple talents and also the wearable, can you talk briefly about what you’re wearing right now, which I know is also partly your own creation?
DM: Yeah! First, a couple of things. I made these pants. My top is made by another awesome designer who I’ve known probably for 40-something years, Denise Goring, out in New York. She made the top. [Points to its overlaid design] This is sort of like my signature. I made the pants and I had a wearable art career that probably spanned at least 40, 45 years, and the original reason why I started doing wearable art was because I needed to make money and I found that you can sell art, but there’s only certain people who buy the art, but as a wearable, then you have a bigger audience, which means you have a better way of making a living.
DLC: Yeah, which goes back to the fact it’s important for folks to be able to think about sustainability. I want to continue in that vein and about some of the practical considerations of being an artist. Let’s talk a bit about Where We At, which was a collective that you formed with Kay Brown and Faith Ringgold in 1971.
As I mentioned a little bit in the introduction, it was really important for the “lifelines,” as Zoe calls them, that you all provided to artists, specifically Black women artists. Can you talk a bit about some of the conversations that you and Kay and Faith were having that led you to the act of reaching out to all these folks and creating this group?
DM: The story goes …
DLC: [laughs] We’re ready.
DM: I think basically what it was, I belonged to Weusi artists, which at this point had become a group of all males, and I had a child and that made me unique in the group. Not only that I was a woman, but now I have a child, because the family dynamics back then were different. Women were the caregivers, men occasionally might, but it wasn’t as it is today where men are taking more of an active role in the raising of children. It was the women’s job.
I found that it was hard for me to negotiate that new role. I called … I don’t know who I called first, but it could have been Kay or it could have been Faith. Anyway, the three of us got together and we said, “Well, there must be other women out there who are having a problem. Let’s call around and see if we could come to a meeting.” So we called everybody we knew. A lot of times, I would call somebody and say, “Do you know any other Black artists, Black women artists?” They’d say, “No. You’re the only one.” But somehow, we managed to find maybe ten, at least ten women. Even better than that, the first meeting was in my studio on the lower East side. It was a five floor walk up.
We had had a leak in the building, so there was water dripping down. The hallways were dark, and those ten brave women came up and we had our first Where We At meeting. During that meeting, we talked about what we needed. One of the things we needed was an exhibition space. I had been very lucky in that Nigel Jackson had a gallery on the West side called Acts of Art. One of my friends, Ellsworth Ausby, went and spoke to Nigel and told him that I was an artist, that this was a real artist. “She wasn’t going to run off into the sunset,” et cetera, because that’s what they would tell me why they wouldn’t accept me because w’omen, you’re only transit. You’re not in this for the long haul.” Nigel was the first person who said, “Yeah. I’ll host a show here.” And then, the rest is history. We had our first show.
DLC: There’s a lot more to the history. Could you talk a little bit about some of the things that were y’all’s priorities, beyond just organizing the exhibitions? What felt important to you to do with other artists in this collective mode?
DM: A couple things: we supported one another sometimes financially because money is traditionally—still is and still will be—an issue for artists. Sometimes, we would chip in and pay somebody’s rent. We would babysit each other’s kids, which was very, very important because as an artist, you need a personal space that’s quiet, where you can function and you can create and you can continue to grow. This is hours and hours and hours and hours. As a woman, it was very, very hard to get that kind of time. My kids would go to somebody’s house. Then, they would all come to my house, and they came to my house a lot because I was one of the few who never had a real job so I had a lot of extra time and the other women’s kids would come to my house and the kids would entertain each other. While they entertained each other, I could keep an ear and an eye peeked out to make sure it was okay, and then I could be creating. Very, very useful and functional. We did that between all of us.
Other concerns were the community that we lived in, and the issues that we were facing. We would do things like we would have workshops, and we always tried to have a retreat, but the retreats never really worked out, but we’d have workshops on things like how to make your own baby food. This is back in the seventies when people really didn’t do that. Where We At was unique in that number one, we had enough women who were in business so that we ended up with our own 501(c)(3 ). Yes—all the way back then. Also, it wasn’t just artists. We had business women, we had writers, we had photographers, we had dancers, we had poets, we had a full spectrum of the arts in the group.
DLC: That’s incredible. It shows the power of what we can do when we’re actually working together, rather than splintered. I know you’ve mentioned other folks that played a really big role in that, like Priscilla Taylor.
DM: Yeah, Priscilla Taylor was a quilt artist. Her work was incredible. Not only that, she was a businesswoman and she was the one who made sure that we ended up with our nonprofit status. She was also the one who went after grants because we were able to get grants to do community programs, which meant we could teach in the park, we could teach in community centers. We actually did a mural that we had gotten funding for.
DLC: Can you talk a little bit about that mural? I know you’ve done a few actually.
DM: Yeah, that was probably the third mural I did. The first series of murals I did was on the Lower East Side with a group called CITYarts. We did a mural on 2nd Avenue and Houston street. The mural was six stories by about 100 feet. The crew was five other women artists and myself, and we built the scaffolding. We actually went out there and we built the scaffolding, and we took on a team of young people for the summer. Because, for example, the wall was at the edge there and the scaffolding began here, I remember praying every day that everybody would live because children are very active and they like to swing and do all kinds of wild stuff, but amazingly, we got through the summer with nobody getting injured, and we ended up with a huge mural that stayed up for 20 years.
DM: Then, I think maybe right after that, I did a mural for The Studio Museum in Harlem, which hired myself and six other men artists to do this Studio in the Streets program. Together we had decided to do murals, so that was probably my first one. Yeah.
DLC: [laughs] Casual. I want to keep talking about New York. We’re both New Yorkers, and I know you also spent a lot of your life in Harlem before you moved to Philly. You’ve been here [in Philadelphia] for eight years. Your studio is here, and you work here, but you also go back and forth to Harlem.
Could you talk about this one particular series of yours? It’s one of my favorites actually. It’s your Harlem Memories series. What was your process in creating that work?
DM: The process was… Harlem as so many of our communities across the state had begun to be gentrified. Some of the people who came into our neighborhood were not nice people. They were assuming that Harlem was theirs and that Harlem was their own piece of land. My mother had passed in 2000, and she left me with a huge bag of memorabilia. The memorabilia sat in my studio for 10 years because it was a bag of papers, letters, bills, and it was too precious to go out.
Laura Gadson, another Harlem quilt artist, she decided to do this show called Harlem Sewn Up. I said, “This is the perfect time to pull out all this memorabilia and prove myself personally—I’m a third-generation Harlemite—so that’s what I did. And then once I did that, I started thinking. I said, “A lot of stuff, when your elders pass, usually people come in and they throw everything out.” I said, “There must be a whole lot of other people with stuff.” I was able to partner with an organization and I started giving classes on what to do with your memorabilia. We ended up doing books, artist books, dolls, quilts, paintings, all kinds of things, and we had two exhibitions. I think over the time span of maybe four years, maybe there were 50, 60 artists who came through and we all did that project.
DLC: I think one of the things I love about that project is that it affirms that we have a history, that you have a history, specifically in Harlem. I think so much of the project of gentrification is erasing that history and creating this ground zero where we can put shiny coffee shops and yoga studios as if there hasn’t been a community that’s been here for a very long time. I think that’s something that really shines through in a very direct and also very poetic way with that work. Thank you for telling me a little more about it.
I want to just remind folks that we are going to open up to the audience shortly but I have a few more questions for you, if you’ll indulge me?
Continuing to talk about New York, when you were in Where We At, one of the things that you all did was to protest at the Brooklyn Museum of Art about the lack of inclusion of Black women artists. There is something very full circle about the fact that one of the ways that a lot of people have learned about your work more recently is through a big exhibition that happened at that institution, which was We Wanted a Revolution.
Could you talk a little bit about what you have been experiencing with this newfound moment of visibility and what you’ve really been prioritizing with your work? I know we were talking earlier about how you’re not interested in just showing your older works. You’re also still making continuously, every day in your studio.
DM: Well, I think for one of the fewest times in my life, I am financially stable.
DLC: We love that.
DM: Yeah, that took a while, through the arts, because over the years I’ve had God knows how many odds and ends jobs. I also used to travel from one city to the other doing festivals, particularly in the summer and the spring all across the country. That’s how I made a living and sold my work. Let me think now. Can you repeat the question again?
DLC: Yeah. I guess maybe I gave you a very long question. I’ll say it in a shorter way. I’d love to know if anything has shifted for you, or how your priorities have responded, if at all.
DM: My priorities, other than family and whatnot, are to stay in the studio, because with all of the new attention and whatnot, you can get very busy. At the end of the day, I said, “Well, we don’t do this and we won’t do that, and we won’t do this, and we won’t do that,” because now that I’m at this point, I’m not going to dilly dally. The whole goal of my entire life is just to be able to be an artist and to sustain myself. That’s exactly what I’m doing.
I find it interesting that I’m more famous these days [laughs], and I always have to clarify to the broader art world that I was famous way before you all even knew who I was. [Audience claps] I was famous in my own community. So now, I’m famous on a wider level. It’s interesting, but I don’t think it really affects me that much because like I said, the whole goal was to maintain myself in the studio. And then, for all the years that I’ve lived and up until this point, that’s my priority—just to be able to do my work, whatever, and then not to be limited because a lot of times they want to pigeonhole you: you are a painter, you’re this, you’re that. I don’t want that. I want the artistic freedom to do any combination of mediums that I can imagine.
DLC: That reminds me actually of something I was talking about yesterday with a very brilliant friend of mine who’s here in the audience, Isa Saldaña. They were saying something about how lineage and legacy are often thought of as completely linear, from one point to another. I think part of what you’re saying here is a reminder that they aren’t, that these are things that we’re actively building and can change over time. I’m wondering if you’ve given any thought to what legacy you feel like you’re building, that you might want to leave [behind] or that you want to continue creating.
DM: I think the legacy that I want to leave is that if you love something and if you pursue something and if you don’t mind working insane hours indefinitely and forever [audience laughs], you can be successful, but art is a business. People don’t realize it. It is a gazillion dollar business in America. Yet, the artists get treated like S-H-I-T.
It’s weird, but the legacy I want to leave is…I’ve done the books for the children and I initially did children’s books because as my children were growing, we had nothing to give them. I had Dick and Jane. I didn’t want to give them Dick and Jane. Myself and Edgar White, who wrote the first books that I did, we decided to make books for our kids, and we were told at that time that Black people didn’t read.
You could translate that into “that’s a market that we don’t think exists and we don’t think it’s worth investing in” because the books that I did—there were five at that time—they basically sat in the warehouse. And then, as I went from one end of America to the other, I would sell them. I think I sold more books than the publishers did. They ended up in the warehouse because in my mind, they only published the book. If somebody came and said, “You don’t have any Black books,” they said, “We got one,” and they didn’t tell the whole story. We put the books in the warehouse because we didn’t have the vehicles. We wouldn’t create the vehicles because we felt that children did not want to read and wouldn’t spend the money. Many years later, it’s a very lucrative market.
DLC: Which I think, again, speaks to the importance of creating and also nurturing our own spaces. Clearly, this was not something that they wanted to invest in, as you mentioned, but they’ve now realized works differently.
DM: Yeah. Now everybody wants in.
DLC: Oh, yeah. Now everyone loves Black art. [Dindga laughs] That’s interesting. I want to ask you one more question before we open things up to the audience. You’ve got a lot going on and some exciting things coming up. Can you tell folks about where they can see your art in the near future?
DM: Well, London, but I don’t think you’re going to go there. Not everybody. No. I’m having a one-woman show at the Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London. Before, that I’m having a show at a gallery I can’t remember on the Lower East Side, and that show involves myself and maybe about 10 other women of different cultures, but they’re all 65, 75 and older, and they’ve had careers all these years]. I have one piece in that show and the piece is Hattie McDaniel (2021).
DLC: Do you want to tell folks about that work very briefly?
DM: Yeah. I did a series. Well, first of all, a lot of my work has been dealing with the history of Black women. The main reason for that is because in the sixties when I saw images of Black women, they were always kind of one-sided, and as you know we are 360-degree human beings and I wanted to show some of the things that we have done and that we’re capable of doing and some of the miraculous things that artists, athletes, musicians have done under the most hardest circumstances. They’ve managed to become artists and to have sustainable careers, and I celebrate that. I want everybody to know Althea Gibson, not only was she an awesome tennis player, but she was also a master golfer. When I research each woman’s life, I always find out that they’re known for one thing, but they also adapted several other things.
Hattie McDaniel was one of those persons. When I saw the photo of her when she got the Academy Award and read the story of how she was still in the back at the ceremony, it gave me an irony that I really liked because it’s sort of ironic. You’re a master, but you still got to go to the back because you’re Black? That’s that particular conversation around that particular piece.
Dindga McCannon: Dinga! opens October 11 at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London.