From Graphic Designer To Conceptual Artist And More
Anita Bateman (article), Margaret Vendryes (book review)
It is clear after talking to Fo Wilson that she will not be bound by convention or profession. She had a graphic design studio in a large, beautifully designed space in Tribeca, a staff of assistants, and exceptional clients, but gave it all up to catch her breath and head in another direction. Relocating to a small studio in Emeryville, California, she could hear Destiny whispering: study furniture making. A few years later, after taking basic courses, Wilson was back east, developing an unusual form of furniture-based conceptual art as she earned an MFA in furniture design and art history.
Her recent works include Nesting Chair for Charlie (Yardbird), Sun Ra and the Urban Thrush with Bird Mix. Her preparation for this piece included studying ornithology and trekking through a wildlife preserve in Portland OR. Made of found and natural materials, the chair has an accompanying sound mix that was broadcast at the site and lives on MixCloud. It includes original recordings, excerpts from interviews and samples from Charlie Parker, SunRa & the SunRa Arkestra, critic Stanley Crouch, Abbey Lincoln and urban thrush birdcalls.
In addition to furniture design, Fo Wilson has worked in theater; in graphic design as an art director and freelancer; curator and educator. Her independent streak has led her to trek through India and Nepal, shave her head and, well into mid-life, realize and begin to assert her queer identity. She has packed up and picked one adventure after another, leaving secured positions until finding the right fit. She accumulated these titles as she did her name, through an uncompromising search for self-actualization.
Her mother died when she was 13 years old, and her nomadic search began thereafter. In high school, she talked to a counselor who advised her how to graduate early, and has lived on her own since then. “Fo” is short for Folayemi, a name given to her at 17 by a Yoruba priest when she was traveling with the National Black Theater in Nigeria. The year was 1972, and the trip was her first in-depth immersion into West African culture. She spent six weeks there visiting Lagos, Osogbo, Abeokuta, and Benin, an experience she describes as formative.
She became a fledging graphic designer while touring with the group; she felt she wasn’t very good at acting or dancing, and tried her hand at an alternative role. “The company needed someone to do posters and flyers and I volunteered and liked doing it,” she recalls. “I started learning design, becoming a self-taught designer, and that led to my founding my own firm."
Studio W, Inc., Wilson’s graphic design firm, grew out of her work at a number of magazines. She left her position as an art director at Essence where she had redesigned the format and discovered another passion. "[Before social media], you could specialize in magazine development. I left [Essence], did freelance work at The New York Times for a little while and other magazines, then I helped re-design Glamour. “
Starting with one assistant, her staff grew to five. “ When I had my studio in Tribeca and renovated it, I had hired an architect [Mavis Wiggins]. We worked together to design this raw space for my studio. It was very large, 2500 sq. ft. In working closely together, we designed a lot of the furniture. She designed, but consulted with me. She told me I should think about designing.”
Studio W., established in 1991, coincided with a major economic recession. “No one does that, but I did. BET wanted to develop a magazine, and that was the first big job my firm got. Mine was a service [business], and we were vulnerable. When the economy was good, my business was good. When the economy was bad, business dipped.
“Unfortunately in 1994 and 1995, I lost two siblings in the matter of six months and it really set me back personally and emotionally as you would imagine, but I kept my business together and I made a decision to understand business and what trends were coming.”
During this difficult time, Wilson was juggling managing new employees, studying for a business administration degree at NYU, and selling her siblings’ property. “After that period, I just needed a break. I had to downsize my business which took me a year. I just didn’t want to abandon my employees, so I moved out of my large space into my small office, and decided to move to the Bay Area. I took classes at UC Berkeley in furniture and loved it.”
Now a graphic designer and director with experience, she sought formal training as she moved into this new area. At age 48, she entered the Rhode Island School of Design and received her MFA in Furniture Design in 2005. During her second year and for a year after graduation, she taught at the institution.
Merging craftwork and “fine art” sensibilities, Wilson infuses narrative into her furniture making in a style that is uniquely her own. Her highly conceptual work links the past to the present in the interaction of historical figures—both real and imagined—with contemporary audiences.
Curiouser and Curiouser
With the support of the Chipstone Foundation, Wilson is working on Eliza's Peculiar Cabinet of Curiosities. Among other distinctions, the Chipstone's collection has a number of pots made by the slave artisan known as Dave the Potter. Wilson’s show is tentatively scheduled to appear from June 5- October 6, 2016 at the Lynden Sculpture Garden in Milwaukee, WI. The site-specific installation imagines a slave cabin as a wunderkammer that she will construct. “Eliza [the creator of the cabinet of curiosities] is from Western-Central Africa and [the piece] will fictionalize what she might have found strange about the material culture of her 19th century captors,” says Wilson. “It is the most ambitious project that I have had to date.”
Wilson calls the small building a “cabinet" because there will be marvelous and curious items in its nooks, floor boards and rafters as well as in, and on, the furnishings. The idea for the project occurred to her about two years ago, and she has been collecting items for it ever since: old coins, specimens of dried eels and fish, old musical instruments, antique books, bell jars, Civil War currency, pictures of Mrs. Lincoln, black rag dolls and other kinds of objects that Eliza could find. She searches flea markets and junk shops for these items. She also makes some of them. The objects will allude to a story about Eliza and to the era in which she lived.
Wilson’s treatment will be a bit surreal: when visitors look though a window or a space in the ceiling, they may see videos, and via this anachronistic technical presence in a 19th-century cabin, be transported through time.
Resounding through the wooden structure will be the voices of formerly enslaved people interviewed for the 1930s WPA slave narrative project. These snippets come from the Smithsonian Institute’s collection. Wilson believes the interviewees were hesitant to talk openly with the white and accompanying African American interviewers about their experiences because interjections like “ah”, “well”, and “um” can be heard in the recordings. She will splice the hems and haws together into a narrative so as to create an abstract audio component to the exhibition.
Wilson’s work has always explored controversial issues. She, along with artists Renee Cox and Tony Cokes formed the Negro (sic) Artist Collective in 1995, completing a poster series that appeared in Los Angeles and New York City. As she remembers, “Renee instigated the Collective. It came together informally around a [four] poster project that addressed criminality, statistics, Charles Murray’s bell curve (theory of black people’s lesser intelligence as compared to non-blacks), and African-American representation.”
Wilson’s concern with the politics of representation can also be discerned in her furniture, where she often mixes media to explore issues concerning race and the body. In the "Seeing Series" (2006), she literally transformed herself into commodities, performing as a lamp, chair, and table in order to deconstruct the ways in which race and gender are continuously (re) configured in/through modern visual observation.
“I used my body as a performance of sorts in conjunction with iconic furniture form. It started with the idea of how we see things—how race, gender, etc. are seen. Just thinking about how we see representation. And also, the idea of blackness and the color black, and how we mix up ideas of race and actual color, and how we see those things and how they’re beautiful. That issue has shown up in that work and my writing. So when I was conceiving this series, it seemed appropriate to use [my body] as that relationship between furniture form, representations of race, and myself.
“Do you see me as a woman, as raced, put against the black lamp? Do you see the color black? What do you see?” She refers to Norman Lewis’s “Black Paintings” of the 1940s and 50s, which also attempted to explicate blackness as a theoretical as well as racial construction. “It was the right time for jazz and black male assertion, and no way that couldn’t have influenced his paintings,” she points out.
Artist vs. craftsperson?
Wilson doesn’t make such distinctions. “In terms of my creative process, I don’t think about the categories. I think about the making. The world, the market categorizes. In terms of putting work out there, I have to put it out there so they understand what it is, but in my head, the lines are very blurred. But the process is the same.
“I identify more as a maker than an artist. I’m making things. I’m using my hands, although I do incorporate found objects. I also think of digital technologies as any other material I would use. Lately I’ve been working a lot with sound, not thinking of it as ephemeral but an object of focus itself.
“Work is a little hard to pin down, because it is very fluid.
“Many times ideas are germinating in my body or mind a long time before I can make them manifest. Some ideas I have I had in graduate school and [then they finally] come together. It depends. Sometimes you have an exhibition, and sometimes you have an idea in your head for years until it has an opportunity to present itself. Where ideas begin is hard to tell, sometimes they just move. It depends on how complex it is. I tend to do bodies of work, and deal with themes over and over again.
“My work comes through the pathway of an idea. Materials and techniques come after. A lot comes from domestic objects or I use domestic objects as surrogates for ideas.”
Fluidity also occurs as an undercurrent in her curatorial work. Wilson has organized shows with artists who integrate technical aspects of design with craftsmanship. In the 2010 exhibition, The New Materiality: Digital Dialogues at the Boundaries of Contemporary Craft, she asks us to consider the relationship between innovative digital technology and traditional handcraft practices in creative processes. The New Materiality exhibition includes the piece by Donald Fortescue and Lawrence LaBianca shown here.
The Furniture Speaks
Hottentot Not!, a work in "The Baartman Diaries" of 2008 consists of a booklet within a bell jar, both atop of a cherry wood table with horsetail hair. Wilson incorporates furniture into the narrative of Sarah Baartman, the 19th-century South African woman who was cruelly exploited as a freak of nature in Europe. For example, the encasement of the table mirrors the cage in which Baartman was forced to perform. (Encasement installation view shown in book review below.)
Wilson says that the Baartman was one of three South African women diplayed as an anthropological curiosity in Europe. "They had steatopygia, a so-called condition where proteins are stored as fatty tissue in the posterior and thighs and is common in women who live in arid parts of South Afrca." Wilson further explains that Baartman's celebrity inspired the bustle dress worn by 19th century white women.
In Hottentot Not!, Wilson draws on, and critiques, 19th-century anatomist Georges Cuvier’s examination and dissection of Baartman’s body. The entry reads:
What shall I call you George Cuvier? [sic]
Lusting to explore the secrets of my own dark continent, you pull me off my throne and use my brain, endowed backside, and secret jewels to build a throne of your own in glass jars.
“Cuvier’s treatises about her are in the bell jar [his ideas that she is a missing link],” Wilson explains. “I’m re-inscribing his interpretation of her. I use the bell jar as a magnifying glass. There is a danger in working with this, but I tried to celebrate her. I have a table that celebrates big thighs and hips and I find that beautiful. I tried to give her voice in diary entries. I imagined her captivity…so I feel like I’m celebrating her by trying to give her voice in the aesthetic inherent in her body.”
One especially sees this in Sarah’s Lament, a collaborative piece by Wilson and her son Dayo Harewood, which includes a fictional diary entry in Baartman’s point of view as well as a video component of gyrating contemporary black women from hip-hop videos. Baartman cautions them about “giving away their secrets,” not to chastise them for their sexuality, but to encourage its protection. She also admonishes her “dear brothers” not to exploit black women, lest they become both the slave and slave master.
Sarah Baartman also speaks with several contemporary pop icons in trans historical dialogue. “I think [this conversation is important] because there is a lot of residue from the history of how black people and black bodies have been circumscribed in Western culture as negative—the residue from 19th century sciences that tried to make blackness inferior is still with us. The idea that time and history can still be with us in the present makes sense in the narrative strategy that has [Baartman] speaking through time.”
Wilson’s Oh Josephine features a 1920s typewriter and a fictional diary entry on a wooden plinth (not shown here) and also speaks to this sort of “residue”—where black female bodies today are being influenced by negative stereotypes of famous black cultural figures of the past. Here, Baartman addresses Josephine Baker and Lil’ Kim, writing:
Oh Josephine, you may find fame, riches, and the favor of the powerful Other, but you will not be free from the untruths you perpetuate that our sisters will live with long after you are gone. Celebrate our blackness, not theirs. Our full hips, our voluptuous backsides, strong thighs and secret lips that hold our lovers in delicious embrace. Abandon the savage dance, and the buggy eyes that weave stories of us that aren’t true. You seat us off our thrones and give them cause to justify what they do to us, and others with brown skins.
Baker occupies an ambivalent space in the grand narrative of black liberation struggles and civil rights, as both vanguard émigré and perceived sexual object. The question “was Baker detrimental to the ‘black cause’?” was met with the following response:
“There are things that she did that were very positive, but at the same time, she couldn’t work here. [One must realize] what was going on in Paris in the early 20th century. France was still a colonizer of Africa.” In Primitivism, a modern art movement, the aesthetic/image of the savage was considerably reproduced and celebrated. Due to European imperialism, access to the “Other” appeared in many ways, including in the appropriation of raw materials (ivory and wood, for example) and sculptural elements of different African masking traditions. Baker, according to Wilson, capitalized on this negrophilia, which necessarily subjects her to the critical eye. The sexualization of her body has informed the perception of black women today, such that her fame and influence must be contextualized as both transgressing and reinforcing then-accepted social constructs.
“But who else has benefited or not? Sarah Baartman is asking that question. We have internalized that [sexualized personas] in our community and our young girls adopt this, and now our male counterparts have internalized that. So, I question where does that come from.”
Fo Wilson’s influences are far ranging, and the other side of her physically demanding work with furniture is the sedentary experience of reading. “ I’m a pretty obsessive reader. I spend anywhere from one to two hours in the morning just reading. Newspapers, blogs. I’m really interested in the goings- on in the world of art in design. Columbian artist Doris Salcedo [is a big influence right now]. I’m also inspired by my students and the questions that they ask.”
May her work continue to pose hard questions. Onward Fo!
Anita Bateman is a Ph.D. student in the Art, Art History, and Visual Studies department at Duke University. Her doctoral research will explore modern and contemporary photography of the Ethiopian diaspora as well as Addis Ababa as a burgeoning art center.
Sara’s Story in her Own Words with a Message for Today’s Video Girls
Margaret Rose Vendryes review of Fo Wilson, The baartman diaries (Chicago: Studio W Editions, 2013)
If the late Khoisan woman, S. Baartman had written a diary it might very well read as Fo Wilson’s fictional creation. Wilson writes in elegant, calligraphic script that appears to have issued from a pen held sure and steady to give voice to a woman who was popular and yet remains nearly unknown.
Wilson’s words implore, admonish, and encourage women Baartmen could not have known, like pop singer Nicki Minaj and the late vaudeville songstress Josephine Baker, towards self-determination and pride. This work of inscribing and carving, assembling and installing is smartly recorded in a slim black volume. We open to a glimpse of Wilson’s studio wall where the sorting through of ideas around this body of work, the clippings, statements, images, fabrics and tools, came together.
Trained as a furniture designer, Wilson uses those skills to construct forms that are familiar in immediate ways and then thoroughly foreign as the recognizable forms recede and provocative visual statements emerge. This aspect of the objects in this project made up of facts, fictions, and musing is primary. Carla Williams, whose writing and art making is concerned with the realities and representations of black female bodies, contributed a foreword that poses the question, “Was it longing or loathing that made her so popular?” Certainly, the reverberations of what little we know about how Baartman “performed” in public are felt in both subtle and blatant references in contemporary art and popular culture. Williams references Minaj’s 2012 "Stupid Hoe" video as a telling example of how deeply entrenched in the psyche are ghosts of Baartman’s figure. Minaj excerpts also appear in Wilson’s Sara’s Lament, 2008. Baartman’s majestic buttocks identify her with her South African people and they were the primary attraction while she was available for public viewing as a living ethnographic curiosity.
Williams credits Wilson’s efforts to personalize Baartman as a conduit for enabling black female subjectivity. Some might say that empowering black women is the most important undertaking for a black woman artist. Wilson wrote “herstory” and, in this record of it, evoked often that deeply feminist twist on a discipline still dominated by history.
Glass specimen cases, traditional museum apparatus used to contain and protect, make what lies within both prized and inaccessible. Wilson places unexpected items under glass asking for the kind of conscientious scrutiny one would give a rare specimen.
In Hottentot Not! (2008), a sturdy-legged, polished cherry foyer table framed by a steel-framed glass box has just enough variation on that form to incite further exploration rather than a passing glance. Having wanted a Senufo work stool for many years (its legs are echoed by Wilson’s assemblage) made scrutiny of every inch of Hottentot Not! necessary and rewarding. Once the skirt of horsehair dripping from the table’s underside is discovered and the diary entries weightlessly hovering against facing glass walls demand a reading — the body of Baartman appears. As with Wilson’s The Women Wanted Some of Me Too (2008), this piece brings to mind Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum (1992) project that brought disparate manmade objects together to make new and poignant statements about race representations at a time when individuals and institutions grappled with ways to negotiate the African Diaspora in contrast with the more common, and limited, national considerations. Race is problematic on a global scale.
Wilson reveals an intriguing intersection of elegance in two vastly different cultural adornments that perform essentially the same function, the Ndebele girl’s beaded apron and the exaggerated mid-to-late-19th century dress bustle (the latter believed to have been inspired by Baartman’s body profile). Both were designed to accent the lower torso and appeal to the opposite sex. Both insisted because of black South African creativity.
An attempt at answering Williams query above: I believe both “longing” to know how to respect this infamous woman and “loathing” the spectacle Baartman’s body represented and represents for all time are in play. This is where Wilson’s writing takes center stage. A fictional diary was in order and the irony of Oh, Josephine (2008) brings it to life. Comprised of an old well-worn manual typewriter perched on a milled wood plinth with a stream of pristine white paper flowing to the floor behind it, Wilson pens herstory in that aforementioned script on the paper facing out for us to read, citing the machines used for recording the science experiment that was Baartman — an “experiment” that did not, could not tell us who this woman was.
Art historian and artist Margaret Rose Vendryes is a distinguished lecturer in the Performing and Fine Arts Department of York College, City University of New York and director of the College's Fine Arts Gallery. Her "African Divas" series of paintings most recently have been on view at Childs Gallery in Boston (May 21, 2015-July 11, 2015).
Of Related Interest
"A Freak Show for Sarah Baartman" was performed by Annabel Guérédrat on June 19, 2015 at Made at the Citadel in the Little Haiti section of Miami, FL. From the performance announcement: “The common thread is the Hottentot women exposed, naked like animals fair in Europe in the early nineteenth century.”
The program was presented by DVCAI (Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator) which promotes artists from the Caribbean and Latin Diaspora. Annabel Guérédrat is from Guadalupe
An excerpt from another performance of “A Freak Show for S” can be viewed here.