A CONVERSATION WITH FRED WILSON
This conversation between Fred Wilson and art- historian Leslie King-Hammond establishes Wilson at the perimeter of the burgeoning con ceptual movement in the New York scene dur ing the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1981, Wilson was hired by Linda Goode-Bryant to work at her Just Above Midtown gallery. Goode-Biyant was one of the few aggressive, innovative visionaries who provided a space for emerging African-American artists to exhibit their work. As an administrative assistant in her gallery, Fred Wilson witnessed the first blossoming of the careers of David Hammons, Senga Nengudi, Maren Hassenger, Randy Williams, and Houston Conwill. This experi ence, coupled with Wilson’s travels to Africa, Egypt, Europe, and Peru, and his activities as an educator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, and the American Craft Museum, gave rise to an artist whose work challenges, tests, and creates new venues for interpreting culture in an arena tra ditionally thought to be sacrosanct.
The interview also reveals much about the social and historical moment in which Wilson developed. Growing up a child of mixed ances try in the midst of the movement toward racial integration gave him a perspective on Ameri
can culture and the American museum that is crucial to our understanding of his work. The impulse for Mining the Museum, he states, came from his own life, from a desire to heal himself and to heal the rifts between the museum and people of color in this country.
Leslie King-Hammond: Fred, I think that we should start from the beginning.
Fred Wilson: I was born in the Bronx in 1954, but my family moved around a lot. We moved roughly every five years, in the New York area. We moved to Brooklyn, and then we moved to Westchester, and we moved back to the Bronx, and then back to Westchester.
LKH: Was there any particular reason for these moves?
FW: Each move had a reason. My father bought some brownstone properties in Bedford- Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, so we moved there. Then we moved to Westchester because the American dream was sort of in someone’s mind. After Westchester we moved back to the Bronx. By then, my parents had gotten divorced and my mother wanted me to go to a music and art high school in New York City.
LKH: What were you like as a child?
FW: I was interested in art and my mother wanted me to do the best that I could do, and this wasn’t going to happen up there in West chester, so we moved back to the Bronx. But all those experiences, all that moving around, really was a factor [in my development]. I always see it as a factor in how I set myself apart from the world around me, or how I look at things outside of myself because I was always sort of outside, no matter where I went.
LKH: Tell me about your parents. What do they do and where were they born?
FW: I think my father was born in St. Louis, but he grew up in New York, in Harlem. My mother grew up in Brooklyn. My father is African- American and my mother is West Indian. Her family is from St. Vincent.
LKH: So her background is African-American?
FW: Her background is island culture. What we know is that my maternal grandparents were Island Carib (Indian), French, and Eng lish. West Indian families are so hard to track. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was African or East Indian ancestry in my family. Both par ents grew up in New York. My mother is a retired school teacher. She went to Hunter Col lege. My father’s an international consulting civil engineer. He lives in Pakistan right now. His main interest is in the relationship between science, spirituality, mind, and matter. He’s written a book called Mind is Time and is work ing on another. My paternal grandmother is ninety-six. She’s totally lucid and active and she’s still very big in her sorority. She was the person who really knew about and took great pride in African-American achievement. She’s an important person in my life.
LKH: What was the nature of your religious or spiritual upbringing?
FW: My father was not interested in organized religion. My mother’s side of the family from the West Indies were Anglican, and in America, Episcopal. So I basically grew up Episcopal. It wasn’t a high Episcopal church that we went to in Westchester, but we were the only black fam ily in the church.
LKH: While you were growing up, you said you always had artistic inclinations. Can you remember some of your first experiences?
FW: Now I can see that both my parents played a strong role in my development. My mother really woke me up to the visual world of color and texture. She was certainly the backbone of my family, and though we moved a lot, my mother was the stabilizing influence in my life throughout those years. She is a self-taught architect and has three houses to her credit. Living in those spaces made a deep impression on me. I got my father’s analytical side, and his questioning and looking beneath the surface. I now feel that those things have come together in my work. My mother would certainly say I was always interested in social issues.
LKH: What kind of social issues?
FW: When I was in elementary school in Westchester, the Vietnam War was on every body’s mind. In one class, everybody else did these little shoebox dioramas about Cinderella, and when I did one it was about the Vietnam War with all these graphic bloody details of war scenes. Where I grew up, I was the only African-American child in the entire school— in the entire town. And here I was doing this thing about the Vietnam War.
LKH: How did that make you feel, being socially aware and racially different at such a young age?
FW: I wouldn’t say that I was consciously aware. I would say that part of the problem was
that I was not aware of what being the only African-American child was doing to me at the time. It was completely destructive and I didn’t realize it. I’d go from house to house to see who would play with me. Generally, they’d prefer to play with someone else. The way I feel about it now, the local kids probably acted out the race bias that their parents were talking about at home. It wasn’t like I was constantly fighting or anything. I just didn’t have any friends, and I was always alone or I had fair-weather friends.
LKH: So you were alone a lot of the time?
FW: Yes. I remember feeling at the end of ele mentary school that I represented “the Race” and that I had done a lousy job of it. That’s kind of a heavy burden. I don’t really under stand it, but in my recollections that’s the way I remember it…. As I graduated, another black child came into the school, and I remember— it’s interesting what you remember—I remem ber feeling sorry for this kid and also thinking that I hoped he would do a better job than I did representing the race, because I was under extreme pressure…being misunderstood…and not really understanding…I didn’t totally understand that it was a racial thing. I took it personally. At that age, imagine the magnitude of the effect once you personalize it.
LKH: This is an awesome revelation in light of other articles written about you.
FW: In a way, I feel it’s important because in some other publications I’m characterized as having a very cosmopolitan background, which to a degree I have. My parents and grandparents did instill a sense of the world in me. They are educated and in their very essence not limited to the boundaries of American culture and ide ology. This gave me a broader worldview. But, to say I have a cosmopolitan background, it seems to me, flattens out my childhood expe riences. I mean, the Bronx and Westchester—
that’s not exactly cosmopolitan. This kind of language sometimes has a tendency to homoge nize one’s race and class identity.
LKII: Does this also have something to do with the liabilities of integration?
FW: I think the problem is not so much integra tion as the way integration was implemented. Everybody was in denial about what was going on or what wasn’t going on. When we moved up here it was the typical “Raisin in the Sun” story in the way we were treated by the neighbors. I mean they damaged the foundation of our house, I heard they sent around a petition and offered to buy the house, the whole deal. Once we got up there it was quiet. Everybody was being just fine on the surface. My parents divorced, so my father, the African-American side of the family, was gone, and my mother, not being African-American, was not com pletely aware of what I was going through. She’s this Carib-European mix.
LKII: Is she brown skinned?
FW: She’s a brown-skinned woman. At some point she told me, “You know, two-thirds of the world are brown-skinned people and we’re in the majority, so don’t you worry about it.” That was certainly an empowering statement.
LKH: That’s very important, Fred.
FW: And it’s important also in that I think everyone’s work has a lot to do with what they are, and in many ways the work that I do is describing my experiences over and over again.
LKII: What other experiences from your child hood do you recall?
FW: My mother was an art teacher, so she taught me a great deal of what she knew about materials. Halloween, for example, was always a big deal. The other kids had typical Hal loween costumes. My sister and I were dressed
in clothes of various world cultures. So, her interest in materials and other cultures really influenced me. She was always taking me and my sister to museums and cultural events— museums largely being the cultural venue that I know most about.
LKH: What role did your father play in your intellectual and creative development?
FW: I saw him every two weeks. He lived in Manhattan, and he always represented for me a kind of counterculture because the American dream was no longer a goal for him.
LKH: When did he move to Europe?
FW: That was later. He lived in Manhattan for many years. When he moved to Europe I was in college. I had the benefit of his being in New York while I was growing up. It was really great for me to have this other kind of person who was looking for new things, who was not afraid to disagree with whatever the status quo was.
LKH: Sounds like he is an adventurer.
FW: He has an adventurous spirit. He’s extremely intelligent, so he opened me up to a lot of things. We were more like friends than father and son, and so I got to experience New York City the way that you might with a friend.
LKII: What were your experiences going to school in the Bronx and Manhattan?
FW: Junior high school was the exact opposite of my experience in suburbia. I was put in a com pletely black and Hispanic environment in the Bronx. But here I was, this kid from Westchester. So while I fit in more than I did before, there were these definite gaps in my cultural understanding. I was very different and I felt very alone in that environment. I just tried to hold my own because it was a much more aggressive environment.
LKH: Do you remember the name of the junior high school?
FW: McCoombs Junior High School #82. For someone who is not prepared for it, that envi ronment was difficult. Still, I was relieved to be out of suburbia, and the all-white environment. Physically it was more difficult, but psychologi cally…I had gotten away from that horror. I was really glad to be in New York. So while junior high was difficult, high school was really where I flowered.
LKH: What high school did you go to?
FW: The High School of Music and Art. That really saved my life because a lot of kids like me went there. But I was always interested in art. It was always the thing that I could do best, always the thing that I could do alone.
LKH: Were you as lonely at the High School of Music and Art?
FW: No. At Music and Art I wasn’t lonely at all. I had lots of friends.
LKII: What kind of college options did you contemplate as you approached high school graduation?
FW: I looked at several different colleges and considered the usual art school options. SUNY Purchase was just about to launch an art pro gram and it sounded very exciting, so I decided to go there. Because I’m really geared toward trying new things, that was the ultimate for me.
LKH: So, what was Purchase like? Who did you study with?
FW: There were many professors there, but three in particular greatly influenced me. Abe Ajay had a certain confidence with making art, and with himself. He was older and was a formalist. That part of me was interested in him. Tal Streeter was a conceptual artist, making ob jects that dealt with light and air and move ment. I really liked his use of ideas as the basis
for what he did. Antonio Frasconi, from Uruguay, was a renowned printmaker. He was from the Third World—which I related to, con sidering I was the only African-American stu dent at the college in the art school.
LKH: Again, you were the only African- American student. What was it like for you to experience that role at Purchase?
FW: I was used to it by that time. We could have a longer discussion on what it was like. It was different, let’s just say. But Frasconi was good tor me—not that we had all these discussions about race or anything—but because we had a certain understanding about otherness. He was also committed to social issues in his work, which I related to very much. So those were important experiences for me.
LKH: What kind of work were you doing?
FW: I was an undergrad trying everything, doing whatever the program had in mind. As it went along, I wanted to experiment more and more. I wanted to collaborate. For my senior thesis I did performances in which I collabo rated with dancers in various buildings around campus. That was in about 1975-76. I was also making sculptures, or models of sculptures that you could perform on. I studied stage make-up one semester. I studied lighting and used light in my work. I got out of studying painting by studying light and color theory.
LKH: Why didn’t you like painting?
FW: I was not interested in painting. I was always trying to push a form.
LKH: Did you go to grad school?
FW: No, I didn’t go to grad school. I moved to New York and was working in a social service agency running art programs in East Harlem. I went to Hunter College and asked Robert Morris if I could sit in on his class. Actually, I
was sitting in on his class already. I had friends who went to Hunter. I showed him my work and he really liked it, so he agreed. I sat in on Morris’s class for a year, and that was really inspiring.
LKH: What moved you to sit in on Morris’s class?
FW: You know, sometimes it’s very easy for a younger artist to be inspired by an older artist who you respect. They can just say, “I really love your work. Do you want me to write you a recommendation? I’ll do whatever you want because I really like your work.” I mean, that kind of thing, that’s enough to just keep you moving in the right direction. There was a con nection between my work and his work at that time. He was saying interesting things all along, but just his acknowledgment of me and his understanding of what I was doing was enough.
LKH: At this point were you beginning to establish yourself as an exhibiting artist? What were some of your first shows?
FW: Well, actually I still wasn’t involved with the art community. I had a loft downtown, but I neither knew many artists nor was I acquainted with many African-American artists.
LKH: Why not?
FW: I didn’t know anybody. I was just working in East Harlem running these art programs for kids, and I got involved in the art community through working at museums. When I was in college I worked in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
LKII: Doing what?
FW: Teaching. It was during the time of CETA [Comprehensive Employment Training Act, NYC Dept. of Cultural Affairs, 1978-80]. After college I was also hiring artists to work in
museums in East Harlem for the program I administered.
LKH: And what kind of subjects were you teaching?
FW: Sculpture, drawing, toy making, and Afri can life. I’d already been to Africa by then. I was working at the Metropolitan and the Mu seum of Natural History. I met Lowery Sims and later, Randy Williams, when she was into community service. She was my friend, my one connection to the African-American art world. I also started teaching at the American Craft Museum. By then I had started to connect with other artists through the Studio Museum in Harlem and was going to openings there. I met David Hammons through Florence Hardy when David first came to New York. Florence worked with Lowery Sims in the community affairs department at the Metropolitan.
LKH: Florence Hardy brought you into the fold?
FW: Florence always wanted to make sure everyone was having the right experience, to make sure all the brothers and sisters were very well connected. She was a community activist. Florence was really the reason I got the job in East Harlem with the CETA project.
LKH: Had you, at that time, perceived your self as an artist?
FW: I perceived myself as an artist, but my view was that after being at art school I wanted a real-life experience. I wasn’t looking at grad uate school. I really wanted to work in the com munity and do something that was valuable, because I was beginning to feel that art train ing set you apart—and that’s not what I wanted from my life. Being an artist was always some thing central to my life. It just seemed the other aspects of my life were important, too.
LKH: Where did you travel? How did your travels affect you? Did you go to the West Indies?
FW: I have never been to the West Indies. I’ve been to South America, Africa, Europe, but never the West Indies.
LKH: So, where did you go that had an impact on you?
FW: My travels have never been calculated. When the situation arises, I move with it. I’ve never said, “Next year I’m going to such and such.” My father’s second wife is Dutch, so I have all these relatives in Holland. On my first trip [with a college friend in 1973], we went to England, France, and Holland. It was a typical student kind of experience in Europe, but it was quite a wonderful experience being some place that wasn’t the United States and seeing beautiful cities and being immersed in a place where the language was completely different. I was an outsider in a way that I hadn’t experi enced before.
LKH: What was the difference between feeling like an outsider in Europe, as opposed to your experiences as an outsider here in this country?
FW: In Europe I didn’t have to feel bad for being an outsider, because I was supposed to be. In America you’re supposed to be a part of this place, and you’re not—and everyone’s pre tending that you are. I think part of my work now has to do with all this denial that Ameri cans are into.
The museum is like American society at large. I grew up in an environment where I was alienated, and yet everybody kept smiling…. There I was feeling bad about myself because of how I was being treated, and meanwhile everybody’s acting like there’s no problem. In the museum, you’re in this environment you’re supposed to understand and you’re supposed
to feel good about. All of these “supposed to’s”—and the artwork’s all there, but there’s all this stuff that’s not being talked about as it relates to the real world.
LKH: All this denial!
FW: Yes! All this denial. All this history of America, all this history of Europe, and the relationship between people is not being talked about. Museums just pretend that we can over look it, that we can experience “culture” with out having those feelings [of oppression]. This compounds those feelings. That’s why I like working in museums, because they’re so much of America to me—unconsciously.
LKH: All this came from your first experiences traveling to Europe?
FW: No. If you asked me then what was most impressive, it was just the difference in the envi ronment, the textures, the sounds, the smells, the things that you feel when you first travel— and also the freedom of being really away.
LKH: What other memorable travel experi ences come to mind?
FW: My last year of college I went to Africa with a program called Art Safari. That experi ence really changed my life. Just being in Africa was enlightening. Even if I’d just been plopped down and didn’t do anything I would have learned a great deal, although I did learn about African art and dance since it was an educational trip.
LKH: What part of Africa was it?
FW: We were in West Africa, primarily: Ghana, Nigeria, but also Togo and Benin. I was there for two months. It was in 1975, you know, when we were all going over there. It was the perfect time. It was the time. It was totally different from everything I knew. What “red” means in America is “blue” in Africa.
LKH: These were revelations for you?
FW: It expanded my whole view of the world: There are other realities. Then you add the issue of race—all this stuff that we’ve been taught or not taught. We just didn’t know about the incredible complexity of African cul ture, or at least I didn’t know about it. I remember in the late sixties being very affected by the Black Power movement, but we were not seeing what we know now. I mean wearing a Dashiki was standard, but we were not privy to the kind of overwhelming cornucopia of cul ture, diversity, and beauty that is Africa. That really irked me more than anything else I can think of. Now, I did not go looking for my home land, which I think was probably a good thing, because one look at me and they’d say, “You’re not white, but you’re not black either.” I was thinking, “I’ve been suffering all this time and you tell me I’m not black?”
LKH: That’s culture shock!
FW: It was really wonderful to be immersed in African society, to be in a society where every- one else is African, from the president on down. How the culture and philosophy worked was important to me. It really opened my eyes. It centered me, as it did a lot of people who were able to go at that time.
I think there’s a problem in the United States, where even some African-Americans are still going through large phases of denial about the legacy of their heritage and the com plexity of being from an African heritage. It’s just such an unknown for so many people. I don’t think people have any idea how positive the African legacy is.
LKII: Did any other places you traveled to have as profound an impact on you?
FW: No. No. Never again. And I guess I was just at the right age for it. I did go to Egypt and Peru—
LKH: How did you end up in Egypt?
FW: My father was in Egypt working there. Egypt was the first place where I felt I blended in. Wien I went, I was too young for anyone to believe that I was a tourist. I would walk around with little notebooks, so people thought I was an Egyptian or Sudanese student. As long as I didn’t wear my sneakers, I went unno ticed. It was the first time I didn’t feel like a complete outsider somewhere. So in that way it was very important.
LKH: Egypt is like a global crossroad.
FW: Definitely a crossroad.
LKIH: It sounds as if it were a profound experi ence in your life.
FW: I almost changed my name and every thing!
LKH: Yes, well a lot of us did that during that period. We went on a whole personal quest, cre ated a name to go with that new identity. How about Peru?
FW: I went to Peru because a friend of mine knew an artist there. He wanted to come to the United States, and so he stayed in my loft and I stayed with his family in Peru. I did not have the same kind of experience in Pern as in Africa. As in the United States, the Europeans have really become involved with the native cul ture and created something else. I did meet many native people. They’re so outside the eco nomic structure, but their culture is very rich. But it wasn’t the same kind of experience as going to West Africa, where Europe stops before you get there.
Just like in Egypt, the ancient sites blew me away. Macchu Picchu, Chan Chan in the north, and Andines de Pajaro, where the moun tains are carved to look like the wings of a bird and you can only see it from the air. It was the
same with the Nazca lines in the desert. At that time I was making works that were huge, and you could only see them from above. I was trying to make urban monuments that you could walk on that related to a Mother Earth orientation as opposed to a relationship to Father Sky. I was trying to translate my experiences of African and Peruvian monuments for my own environ ment.
I made some drawings of ancient places, but my interest was primarily in creating space. I’ve always been interested in space. I studied dance in college as well as art, and that made me aware of the human body and its rela tionship to the space around us. I was inter ested in how space affects the body. I also took a class in urban design, and that also got me thinking about the body in the environment. But there was always a piece missing.
I just couldn’t figure out the right context in which to explore my ideas about how we relate to the environments around us. I was interested in the cultures that I was learning about on my trips and in looking at my own cul tures. I knew that somewhere down the way they would all meld together. That was when I got interested in anthropology, archaeology, and philosophy.
LKH: When did you do the first installations, or “space” projects? Oftentimes I think “in stallation” might be an inappropriate term. Space arrangements may be more appropriate because part of your process involves interpret ing or reinterpreting or trying to define an experience within space. I don’t know any other way to phrase it.
FW: I was doing drawings with objects and working in museums. Eventually I heard about Just Above Midtown Gallery. I left my East Harlem job in 1981 and Linda Goode-Bryant hired me. I was always involved with admi nistration or education, and this new position
brought me closer to the art community. I ran a program called “the business of being an artist,” and I had to organize these gallery semi nal’s about various aspects of the art community.
I put the program together and expanded it. There was a lot of information I gathered along the way. I would invite people who I wanted to hear. It really enabled me to get a broad overview of the art community and meet a lot of people. In a short space of time I got an understanding of what the art community was about. I realized that curating could be more fun than the administration I was doing, so I organized one show. Then I got a job in the Bronx running a gallery.
LKH: The Bronx…?
FW: Back to the Bronx. The Bronx Council for the Arts hired me to start the Longwood Arts Gallery because I knew the Bronx from my childhood years. That’s when I really began to formulate my ideas about museums and gal leries. This was the mid-1980s. When I was at Just Above Midtown I wanted to organize a show that was at three different museums. I was very ambitious!
LKH: You wanted to do The Decade Show be fore The Decade Show came to be?
FW: You got it! I wanted to do a show at three different museums: the Frick, the Metropoli tan, and the American Museum of Natural History. Well why not? I had never done a show before, but I thought about it a lot. I was begin ning to see a lot of African-American, Native American, Hispanic, and Asian artists dealing with their history and their cultural identity in their work. At the time there were a lot of Euro pean Americans that were doing work that referred to the Renaissance and to Western art history. I thought, well, wouldn’t it be interest ing to put this artwork in these different mu seum environments to see how they might be
affected by the different settings. Willie Birch was doing these woodcarvings and Jimmie Durham was making these sculptures out of horse skulls. You could put them in the Ameri can Museum of Natural History and they would blend in. I said to myself, “What does that mean about what’s happening in that museum? How can we think about the work of contemporary artists of color in the same way we think about an African’s work, considering the way it’s being presented? And why are we thinking about that African’s work that way?”
So, when I got the gallery in the Bronx, one of the first projects I did was “Rooms with a View: The Struggle between Culture and Con tent and the Context of Art” . Because it was in the Bronx, no one worried about it. Peo ple didn’t mind my doing whatever I wanted to do. I took three rooms in the gallery and I designed them. They weren’t actual museums, I just had them redesigned to look like a con temporary art space, a salon space, and an ethnographic museum space. Depending on the room, the art looked and felt either cold and calculated, or authoritative and valuable, or exotic and foreign. This was a watershed event for me.
All my interests came together at that mo ment: the Third World, anthropology, issues of race, art and museums, my interest in space…. I decided that if these spaces are changing the artworks to the degree that they are, I want people to see the effects of the environment that they are in, and to feel an emotional response.
Oddly enough, Art/Artifact opened up a month after my show opened at the Center for African Art. Susan Vogel was using African art, and I was using contemporary art, but we were dealing with very similar notions. Around that time James Clifford’s The Predicament of Culture came out. There must have been some thing in the air, I don’t know. At that point, I
knew how to present my work and what the issues were really about for me.
LKH: At what point do The Contemporary and Mining the Museum enter the picture?
FW: Through an NEA project grant I was invited by Cathy Howe, an artist and curator, to do a show at White Columns, called “The Other Museum.” I had vitrines built and put in objects that I collected. It looked like a faux ethno graphic museum. I did a lot of research. At this point, I was only interested in doing this kind of work, and started exhibiting similar work in commercial galleries. I moved this project to the WPA in Washington. Here I was so close to the Smithsonian and all the other museums on the Mall. It was just the perfect place to do it.
Lisa Corrin and George Ciscle of The Con- temporary in Baltimore came and heard me give a talk at the National Conference of Artists, an organization of African-American artists in Washington, D.C. Institutions then began to show real interest in my work. Ulti mately, I did the Mining the Museum project with The Contemporary. This project was criti cal in establishing the nature of my work with museums.
LKH: How was the project designed?
FW: The Contemporary brought me to Balti more and told me to choose a collection in any institution to work with. I chose the Maryland Historical Society because it seemed to have raw material. Some artists use powdered pig ments, empty canvases, clay, or just a pile of stuff—but this museum was raw material to me. It had everything. There was so much that could be done. It was the perfect kind of museum for me to work with because it was so antithetical to my desires for museums. Not that it was different from any other one around the country. It just seemed that if I could do it here, I could do it anywhere. One of the things
that drew me were all these “American” things. Completely American. But why did I feel so completely alien? Why was I not interested in all these fabulous paintings and beautiful objects? Why did I just want to run out?
I had a kind of tension in my body. It was a physical experience. I figured, if I’m having this reaction it is something very strong. It is very similar to other fields of anthropology or science in that you just don’t know what you are opening yourself to. You have to be a sponge. You have to find out where the nuggets of importance are, because you don’t know where they are going to come from.
LKH: While you were becoming energized by these “raw materials” and historical relics, how was the Historical Society responding to you?
FW: I don’t know. Now I have more experience with museums than I had then, but my thoughts at that moment were that they were open and accepting and allowed me to do whatever I wanted to do. When I look back on my experi ences with other museums, I realize what a risk they took, because I had never done this before.
LKH: Do you think it was naivete on their part?
FW: I think there was a certain naivete about what I might do. They hadn’t ever worked with a contemporary artist, but they really wanted something to happen. They wanted to change something. Wien I go to a lot of museums now, they see me coming and may think, “Here’s this African-American coming and he is going to bring only African-Americans through the door, so we will let him do whatever he wants to make this happen.” That wasn’t my intention, necessarily. I’m not the black knight. Certainly, I am speaking to African-Americans as well as everyone else, and it would be a tragedy to me if African-Americans didn’t see my work. But I didn’t go in with that notion in mind.
Once I got into it though, it became extremely important.
LKH: Where did you envision the audience, or did you envision them at all in this process?
FW: I think The Contemporary was more involved with audience issues. As an artist, I was not thinking about it. What was important to me was that I wasn’t going to understand what the Historical Society was about unless I spoke to the community in Baltimore. Eventu ally, as the process went on, it was important to talk to people about where I was coming from. Initially I did experimental research with the Historical Society and The Contemporary’s staffs and the communities in Baltimore. I didn’t know then, but I do now, that it is very important for me to get to know people in the community. I don’t just come into a community and say, “There it is. Now you have to figure it out.” Sometimes it just doesn’t translate. It doesn’t make sense. The meaning changes de pending upon the environment where it is lo cated. The context is critical. My work is all about context and the underlayers of context. It is extremely important that I know where people are coming from so that I don’t make vast assumptions. I want people to get involved in a work that is very important to that community.
LKH: So it is important to you to find a bridge to the audience. It is central to you that the community find a viable way to identify with your work.
FW: This is true of all my work. In Mining the Museum what made it important is that my project was not only about the artworks on the wall. It was about how the whole museum envi ronment affects us. If no dialogue arises, then to me the work is not so successful.
LKH: Where does this go for you? For the audi ence? Where does this go for the museum?
FW: I want to tap different regions of my emo tions and my identity, as well as different aspects of the world outside myself. This was fundamental to Mining the Museum. It was a painful experience for me to do that project.
LKH: What were some of the pains involved?
FW: Just the research alone. I would come from New York every weekend until I was full time in Baltimore. I was coming every weekend for a year, and I would read on the train. I was reading The Classic Slave Narratives, edited by Henry Louis Gates. I would come to Baltimore and I would go back in time, back into the nine teenth century. Baltimore was, for me, really the nineteenth century. I was going through manumission papers, the logs of slaves, and the letters…but I was also struck by the wealth that was there. Seeing the juxtaposition of those things was really painful.
You know, I grew up in New York, a town where we’re all immigrants. You know, half of my family were immigrants. So, coming to Bal timore and getting to know people in the com munity who have names that connect to white names was really a new experience for me. Of course we all know about this, but for me it was a visceral experience, and it started me soul searching about my own name and about my own background and connecting that to the materials I was coming up with. Before I did this project I was thinking about colonialism and Africa. I wasn’t really thinking about Amer ica or African-American slavery. I thought we had dealt with that and we had gone past it and were dealing with other issues. I didn’t choose slavery. I was really taking my cues from what was there. Whenever I go somewhere, I try not to layer my ideas over everything; otherwise the work is not really about that place. I took my cues from what I found. It came to be about what I found, or what I didn’t find.
LKH: What you found was what you presented to the community: the discovery of the denial of so many identities. The discovery of hidden wealth…tremendous wealth in nineteenth cen tury Maryland. You uncovered a piece of his tory that was not written for anyone to know. That’s part of the pain and part of the beauty of your discoveries. Your “concept” of the museum includes its riches and treasures and also the horrendous secrets it harbors—its dark past and terrible scars.
FW: We often have to read between the lines. But, there are several museum experiences I’ve had that forefront the complexity of identity and have influenced my work. First of all, see ing work by Isamu Noguchi, a bi-racial artist who was interested in space, performance, and the arrangement of objects in the environment. His “otherness” was really important to me. Then, there were the Richard Hunt, Romare Bearden, and African Fabric exhibitions, all at the Museum of Modern Art. That was a turn ing point for me. I remember that there was music playing in the room with Bearden’s huge work “The Block.” This two-dimensional art work became environmental.
On the flip side, I remember going to the Whitney Museum of American Art and seeing Robert Colescott’s work. At the time, I did not know he was an African-American. In Robert Colescott’s early works, he consciously makes a mockery of African-American history by com bining famous African-Americans with stan dard white American historic figures and events in a slapstick manner—George Wash
ington Carver Crossing the Delaware, for exam ple. I do not know if it was my projection or if it was actual, but I remember looking at the Cole- scott and observing the African-American guard. I remember looking at his face and just seeing his humiliation. I don’t know if I pro jected it onto him or if he actually experienced that, but I felt humiliated and I projected it onto him having to stand next to the painting. These were moments that showed the variety of experiences you can have in a museum and what denial can do. I felt that Colescott’s work was destroyed for me at that moment because of the context that it was placed in. Just the fact that I didn’t even know he was African- American…I can’t tell you what that did. It was devastating. You go into the institution feeling that it’s a powerful white institution and you feel powerless in communicating with it. This particular painting was speaking directly to me and to this brother in a uniform, but we were completely bound and gagged. We were completely denied, because of the muse um’s denial.
In short, I am trying to root out that kind of denial. Museums are afraid of what they will bring up to the surface and how people will feel about certain issues that are long buried. They keep it buried, as if it doesn’t exist, as though people aren’t feeling these things anyway, in stead of opening that sore and cleaning it out so it can heal.
The time of creating Mining the Museum was a healing process for me. A lot of what I do is about healing myself….