What have you been working on in Wassaic?
Since I've been here, I've been able to experiment with adding color to portraits that are typically black and white. I created about eight portraits that I'll use for collage.
How has adding color changed the work?
Oh, gosh, it changes everything. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Say more.
That's what I’ve really been spending the past couple of weeks doing: unpacking how that shifts the narrative in my work. In the black ink on gray paper drawings that I previously did, I didn't have to address that, you know? This is a way for me to illustrate the breadth of Black and Indigenous Americans. But one question is: will the figures be lost? I really have to wait until I put them into the settings and see how they activate it. Because I don't sketch out my paintings. They really unfold.
Has that always been the case for you? Not sketching things out and sort of letting the work take its own path?
Yeah. I essentially let the pieces tell me what needs to happen. It's a gift and curse. The gift of it is it's a very organic process. The curse of it is it makes the process a lot longer. I feel like I'm a vessel, and I have to be open to where this process, or spirit — or whatever you want to call it — leads me.
Do you feel like you're a vessel for the process itself or for the women that you're trying to portray? Or both?
I think it's a bit of both. I’m just now beginning to understand what it is I was communicating three to five years ago. The work essentially reveals itself, unveils itself. A lot of it is related to my family's heritage.
My family is Mississippi Choctaw and Creek. I had begun making these paintings and I didn't quite fully understand why I had to add, you know, feathers or orbs to my women. This is before I fully understood the extent of my heritage, but the work was already telling me about it, you know what I mean? I’d create a painting that had a very specific narrative, and be like, Okay, this is weird. I made this and I don't quite fully understand why I had to make this. And then years later, my mother would tell me a story, like, “Oh yeah, this is something me and your sister experienced in the 70s.” And I'm like, Holy crap, I made a painting about that.
So you did at one point go back and track down all the genealogy, then.
Yeah, I did.
What was that like? To uncover those things but also not necessarily be surprised by them.
Right. First off, before I can talk about the genealogy, I have to talk about my family's oral history. How I heard it was from my grandmother. My grandmother was a very proud Choctaw woman. Very proud. So I grew up a Choctaw young woman, but as I grew up and started going to American history class, there was a narrative of: “If you identify as Black, then your family was enslaved, and your family is African.“ I began to identify with that particular narrative and identify solely as a Black woman, completely dismissing my personal heritage. But I did my genealogy three years ago and realized that Grandma was right all along about our Indigenous heritage.
So all of those things are beginning to manifest within my work. Part of it is finding the intersection of Blackness and being an indigenous American. A lot of nuance isn't afforded in this country when we talk about racial relations. Even in 2020, we're still learning about how to articulate nuances without taking away from the realities of our American experience.
Let's bring that back to the work a little bit. At the beginning of the interview, you were talking about how bringing more color into portraying the figures themselves runs the risk of having them get lost in the surrounding detail. But given what you just said, I could see a response that being, like, “Well, that's sort of the point.”
Is that the right response? How are you thinking about the contrast between trying to portray someone and their identity in the painting through portraiture versus through the objects that surround them, through the textures that surround them, etc?
Right. I mean, to be honest, that's what I'm figuring out. I’ve been doing these pink and red girls. I'm from Detroit, born and raised, and the first time I left the Midwest was when I went off to college in Jackson, Mississippi. And when I first came, people identified me immediately as “redbone.” Redbone is a term, used within the Black American community, for people who have a very red tone, red hair, very red features. People asked me, “Are you Creole? Oh, no: you’re a redbone.” They were placing me. But when you go back to the historical archives, southeastern indigenous people are a full spectrum of complexions: from copper skin to very pale, from red hair to wooly hair, etc. So the beauty of those drawings is that I can play with the full spectrum of the different groups.
I also want to make sure I ask about the textures — or, often, literal textiles that make it into your work. How do you land on the materials that you work with? And then how do you think about composing them in a piece? Because I think that, looking at a given portrait of yours, one of the dominant impressions you get is that it's very full.
I source my materials from a couple of places. There are store-bought papers, there are handmade papers, there are papers that friends donate to me. I have many friends who are in education, and if they're going to throw some stuff out, I'm like, “Don't — I'll pick it up.”
In terms of the compositions — I mean, seriously, I do not sketch it out. [Laughs.] What I've noticed over the years, especially within the past year, is I'm becoming a little more ambitious with compositions. Before, I created very historical, slightly off-center portraiture. I still do that sometimes, but now I'm beginning to add a little more dimension within the work.
Can you say a little bit more about what that new ambition in the work feels like process-wise? Especially given that you don’t plan the work out.
Part of it is I think I've come to the point of my practice where I am trying to undo a lot of things. And I mean undo.
My background is art education. Traditional American art education is very rigid. It's not really practical. It doesn't necessarily reflect how contemporary artists move and think about art. As an educator, I always fought against that — and part of that struggle was a fight against my own work. You know what I mean? So I am — I think we hear this word a lot the past couple of years — really trying to decolonize how I think about myself, my life, and my practice.
Do you feel like the way art is taught is particularly colonially-based?
Can you say more about that?
[Laughs.] You laugh: that's a whole can of worms, isn't it?
That is. Oh, goodness. That's a whole conversation.
I taught in secondary education. And when you look at the art curriculum, it’s very Eurocentric. So when I think about portraiture, I'm being very intentional about, Okay, well, what does that look like outside of Western art or Western influence? I'm really trying to push myself to think outside of that box. The work has really unfolded in a way that surprises me. I never knew that I could create work like this — this is the work that I've always wanted to create, but I couldn't even fathom it, in terms of density.
So it’s a daily practice while in the studio. Certain ideas that I'm experimenting with in the studio make me uncomfortable, but I'm giving myself that nudge. This is an opportunity to unlock the secrets within myself.
Jamea Richmond-Edwards creates monumental-scale mixed media collages utilizing a variety of papers and hand-drawn elements. Her work focuses on Black Americana and the intersection of Blackness and Indigenous American culture. Her current body of work explores American and pre-colonial history by examining her ancestral roots in the Southeastern parts of the United States.
Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Richmond-Edwards graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Jackson State University in 2004 where she studied painting and drawing and went on to earn an MFA in painting from Howard University in 2012. She is a recipient of the 2019 Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptors Award and a 2020 Joan Mitchell Artist-in-Residence. Jamea has exhibited her artwork nationally and internationally including the California African American Museum, Charles Wright Museum in Detroit, MI, and Kravets Wehby Gallery in New York. Her work is included in the collections of the Studio Museum of Harlem and Rubell Family Collection. She currently resides in Maryland with her husband and three sons.
All Out / All In
2019 Summer Residency