Articles

A Black Outsider Artist in a White Art World

by Sabine Heinlein on February 19, 2013

Winfred Rembert, "All Me II" (2002), dye on carved and tooled leather, 31 1/2 x 37 3/4 in (image via flintarts.org)

Winfred Rembert, “All Me II” (2002), dye on carved and tooled leather, 31 1/2 x 37 3/4 in (image via Flint Institute of Arts)

I recently went to the National Arts Club to watch All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert, a documentary about a 68-year-old African-American outsider artist, which is currently being screened at various locations in New York.

I had come across Rembert’s leather paintings at the most recent Outsider Art Fair. I was struck by the artist’s decorative, almost ornamental treatment of gruesome subject matter. Rembert’s multihued cotton-field paintings depicting women and men performing tedious, backbreaking labor are almost cheerful, considering the theme of racial oppression and injustice. His repetitive handling of characters and paint gives his work a patterned feel reminiscent of some children’s books. Yet the contrasts are fierce and unforgettable. The painting “All Me II” (2002) portrays countless prisoners in a chain gang holding baby blue hammers for breaking rocks. While there is something whimsical about the depiction of the prisoners, the way they are crammed onto the leather canvas, their bodies interlocking, suggests the iconic images of Auschwitz’s mass graves. People considered dead while still alive.

The narratives of Rembert’s impoverished childhood, his time in prison, and the emotional and physical torture he had to endure at the hands of whites are all drawn from his “photographic memory,” as the artist explained during the Q&A following the screening of All Me at the National Arts Club. Joining Rembert on the panel were the filmmaker, Vivian Ducat, her husband and producer, Ray Segal, and Sharyn Grossman, the club’s chairwoman, who had organized the event. Rembert should by all rights “be an angry man,” Grossman said, “but he is a happy human being.” As if trying to fit America’s complex and violent race relations into a comfortable frame, Grossman repeated her statement almost verbatim twice before the end of the panel.

Why did this notion make me uncomfortable? Because I wondered whether this primarily white audience would still like Rembert if he were angry. Would we shun him? Lock him up?

Winfred Rembert answering questions at the National Arts Club (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Winfred Rembert answering questions at the National Arts Club (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

There was another, more immediate notion that made me sad. In the film, Rembert appears to be respected and well liked in his African-American community, but it is clear that his work does not get the same recognition there as it does from the predominantly white, art-loving community that has adopted him. “I would love to be recognized by my own people,” Rembert said to the audience at the Arts Club.

After having written a book about three former prisoners of color, I have to admit that I find myself very sensitive to racial incongruities. Many of my concerns played out during the Q&A. It was evident that the predominantly white audience preferred to ask art-related questions rather than confront the artist’s dire subject matter.

Referring to the repetitive dots of white paint in his cotton-field paintings, a woman in the audience asked Rembert whether he had ever seen “the aboriginal paintings with the white dots.”

“No, ma’am, I have not,” Rembert responded politely.

“Have you ever been to an art museum?” another white woman wanted to know.

“Ten years ago I didn’t even know who [Horace] Pippins was,” he responded. “I’m just now trying to see what other artists are doing.”

Someone else asked whether his methods have changed over the years. Rembert explained that his paintings have become more colorful because until recently leather dyes — regular paint tends to crack on leather — were only available in very limited colors.

“The color white just came along in the past five years,” he said.

Rembert literally works through his torturous memories from rural Georgia. Repetitive, relentless, perfectionist, and clean, his paintings have a ritualistic, obsessive-compulsive quality. (The artist, by the way, travels from his home in New Haven to his exhibitions in New York with a large piece of marble so he can punch, carve, and stamp dots into leather at night in his hotel room without waking his wife, Patsy.)

Winfred Rembert, "The Lynching" (1999), panel 1 of 3, dye on carved and tooled leather, each panel: 35 x 33 in (click to enlarge) (image via hrm.org)

Winfred Rembert, “The Lynching” (1999), panel 1 of 3, dye on carved and tooled leather, each panel: 35 x 33 in (click to enlarge) (image via Hudson River Museum)

Rembert suffered from alienation and torture at the hands of whites for almost as long as he can remember. As a child his mother was told, in front of him, by one of the white brothers who owned the convenience store in his hometown that her son would “never be a damn thing.” His “mama” advised him that “if white folks do you wrong, let them do it.” In the ’60s, Rembert took part in civil rights demonstrations and was arrested and lynched. In the film he graphically describes how he was tied up and hung, and how one of the white cops carved into his genitals with a knife. It was when the blood ran down his legs that he remembered his mama’s advice. He survived the experience, only to be sent to prison.

The owners of the grocery store reappear in his paintings, and so does his lynching experience. Rembert noted that he couldn’t make more than a few of the lynching pictures because reliving the horrible experience made him sick to his stomach. It was during the seven years he served in prison that he learned to hand-tool leather into reliefs; his prison ID number is included on some of the license plates on the cars in his paintings.

A few years ago, Rembert was catapulted to fame by the noted art dealer Peter Tillou after the artist was featured in a two-person show at the Yale Art Gallery. At the Outsider Art Fair, Rembert was represented by Kinz + Tillou Fine Art, which is co-owned by Michelle Tillou, Peter’s niece.

The documentary, which was first released in 2011, makes sure to contrast Rembert’s suffering with his fortuitous discovery by the Yale Art Gallery. The film shows the artist remembering the lynching as well as his first experience with Yale: He didn’t have an invitation, and a guard tried to deny him access. This time, Rembert didn’t let the “white folks” do him wrong; he walked right in and showed the director one of his works, which led to that first show and his subsequent discovery by Peter Tillou.

All Me culminates with Rembert barbecuing a whole pig for his African-American neighborhood. “I would love to be recognized by my own people,” Rembert says in the film, the same comment he made at the Arts Club. He added at the panel that he wants to teach African Americans about suffering, perseverance, and heritage.

Until recently, Rembert’s motivation was not fueled by the constricting demands of the market. But with the increasing price of his paintings and the attention his adoptive community has given him, his motivation has shifted.

Winfred Rembert, "Amazing Grace" (2008), dye on carved and tooled leather, 30 1/4 x 36 1/2 in (image via Adelson Galleries)

Winfred Rembert, “Amazing Grace” (2008), dye on carved and tooled leather, 30 1/4 x 36 1/2 in (image via Adelson Galleries)

“What are you working on now?” asked a woman in the audience.

“I hate to say this,” he responded, “but I’m working on more cotton fields. This seems to be what people want.”

All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert was shown at the National Arts Club (15 Gramercy Park South, Gramercy, Manhattan) on February 6. Check the website for future screenings.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/brianmoz Brian Fernandes-Halloran

    In the outsider art fair I saw the gallerist manning Rembert’s booth touch the surface of the painted leather on several occasions while explaining the process that the pieces were made. (This by the way was one of 4 times I saw people touch works at the fair that were in no way described as interactive) This is when the veneer of genuine respect peels back to show something a bit more self congratulatory. The art world when dealing with “outsider art” is by its own definition completely unqualified. How can an institution possibly have authority or a notion of best practices when dealing with something it has itself defined as its antithesis?

    It is really interesting how you point out his happiness as a key to his viability in the art world. What do we really want from his work, a sense of comfort, that a troubled past is just the material for building character? That racial atrocities are something of the past that we can all get over with beautiful compositions? I do not want to say that his work is guilty of this at all. It is beautiful, honest and deeply personal. But when his work is shown and an angry artist’s work does not make the cut, we are essentially using him to tell an inexcusable lie.

  • Lital

    I’m poorly read on “outsider art”, but isn’t the very premise of its naming perpetuating social distinctions that are being challenged and no longer seen as substantiated or relevant?

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Hi Lital, Yes, it may not be as distinct as it used to be but it is still used in the field and with reason, since it does offer some explanation for understanding a context for work and their creator. I can say that as art writers we are always looking for way to categorize work we see and write about.

      I wanted to draw your attention to the equally problematic tribal and primitive art labels that we’ve discussed elsewhere: http://hyperallergic.com/35460/primitive-art-vs-tribal-art/

      • Lital

        Hi Hrag, Thank you for sharing Claire’s article! She talks about the same kind of mentality as that which I think is sustaining the “outsider” category. Actually, I read that article the day it was posted because I obsessively follow Hyperallergic…

        Why, for instance, does contextual interpretation of “outsider art” has to be so exclusive? Do we not take interest in the artist and their story without being told “I am from the nether-regions of society, thou shalt read into me”? Even beyond that blatancy, what strikes me is the persistence of “outsider” and its implications in, once again, maintaining certain social stratifications… giving them a certain legitimacy, as though, yes, it’s okay to continue justifying “The Other”. In light of the “WTF is Primitive and Tribal Art”, it’s a scar of colonialism. I feel that the categorization of “outsider art” is incredibly outdated and even destructive; but it makes for interesting discussion :)

  • http://jdsiazon.wordpress.com/ JD Siazon

    It is essential that we all know the story of Winfred Rembert’s genitals being cut by a white cop because then the puppets of the art industry can get to work constructing the legend of his maimed manhood for profit no less.

    White people love to throw black people a bone because it alleviates some of the great historic guilt while further perpetuating the fantasy that the bone cures all when in fact it is questionable as to whether something indeed needs to be cured.

    Winfred Rembert seems to be an okay artist but it is his backstory that we really want. We want to glimpse his genitals being cut in our minds because our own genitals have never been cut and in some perverse way that makes our lives less valid as fodder for artistic greatness to subsume in flame.

    Then we realize the “living legend” so to speak of Rembert’s martyred genitals and we weep on the inside for this man. So much so that we purchase one of his paintings.

    And that my friends is a pricey bone.

  • suealda@aol.com

    After reading this article, I am sure many are eager to see the documentary and I am writing to let you know that there is a free screening and art exhibit, Saturday, February 23, 3pm at Goddard Riverside’s Bernie Wohl Center, 647 Columbus Ave and 91st Street. http://www.goddard.org/communityart

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