Archive for October, 2011


Friday, October 14th, 2011


— I was born in Charleston, South Carolina. My mother, Amelia Richardson who was born and raised in Charleston, met my father Elmore Gaines, a native of Madison, Fla., while he was stationed at the Charleston Naval Base. Obviously, these facts are important to me, but what may be important culturally and historically is that my parents were part of the Great Migration, the migration of southern blacks to the north between 1915 and 1970. During those years, “more than 6 million African-Americans moved out of the South…”1 mostly for greater employment opportunities. My parents joined this migration in 1946, settling in Newark, New Jersey where my Father’s mother had already settled. His grandmother raised my father in Madison. My sister and I remained in Charleston with our maternal grandmother and grandfather along with our 13 aunts and uncles until my parents came down to get us a year and a half later in a new “used” car my father purchased from income he earned from his new job driving a bakery truck.

This house, from a photo taken in 1940, is the same type my mother was born and lived in until she was 26 years old. I was born by a midwife in the same house and lived there until four years old. Photo taken from ATLANTA HOUSING AUTHORITY PHOTOGRAPHS

In Charleston I lived in an extremely humble wooden house along a dirt road that served about 5 other similar type houses. This was my first view of life: an urban residential site where pigs and chickens lived among people, rather than the agrarian or agricultural site where one would normally find this co-habitation. In this community small livestock was necessary for survival. A site where Jim Crow laws and segregation, along with deep poverty would make life itself seem like a punishment were it not so commonplace, in which case it just seemed like life. It is simply understood as life, not a great injustice.

In many ways my mother was the agent of my understanding, she was the person I could learn from and could talk to since I could not ask for an explanation from the chickens and the pigs, nor the dirt road, nor the wooden “huts” and other figures of poverty that surrounded me. Although I think I understand that my surroundings represented a great injustice, I also saw in them a remarkable fantasy world of black people going about their lives in a landscape of dirt roads, old trees, and crowing and grunting animals. The occasional white person would show up for any number of reasons, but I would know him only as an unknowable alien. Ultimately, beyond the political implications of Jim Crow life, this was simply the place where I lived for my first four years. And this allowed speculations about it that was born out of innocence. I saw the racial separation but I did not see injustice. And although I questioned this separation (I knew somehow it was wrong), in my mind these questions allowed me to deal with racism, not through political activism but through imagining it as a fantastical construction, a moment among changing moments, whose destination was to me uncertain. I could construct fantastic narratives of escape, rather than practical strategies to achieve political emancipation. And I would live out these narratives through conversations with my mother.

“I remember my walks as a child . . . in Charleston, South Carolina. I remember images of trees and the flickering shadows they cast, of cackling hens and grunting pigs behind fences, of barking dogs and singing birds, of neighbors talking. I would look to my mother and ask unanswerable questions about the differences between all of these things. […] Amidst the noise of animals I looked at the birds in the trees. “Can I come back as a bird?” I asked her. As I [now] think back on those moments I realize that my present interest in (art) and (philosophy) grew out of my experiences in the South, where, even at the age of three, existential questions were as much a part of me as the toys I played with.”2

My mother, Amelia Gaines, at 86.

In many ways this is a testimony to my mother. I knew 149 Congress Street (where I lived in Charleston) only through our conversations; what was uplifting was that as I speculated about the nature of things, I could feel her tolerance of my imagination. I saw in her a remarkable spirit that allowed her to convert a tough, hellish life with few rewards into a space of unlimited possibilities. For this was her reality, and in many ways it still is. As a young woman in Newark she worked long hours sewing dresses for $16 a week. And although my father worked construction, he made half the wages of the white worker. This was not enough for him to properly support a family of a wife and three kids. Despite my mother’s admonitions my father would borrow from loan sharks to “Put bread on the table,” as he would say.

On one occasion a Shylo (debt collector or “leg breaker”)3 came to the house and asked for my father. He was late on a payment and knew they were coming; he made himself absent. My sister was in my parent’s bed, very sick, coughing continuously. The Shylo asked my Mother where my Father was, and she said she did not know. The entry to the apartment was through my parent’s bedroom. When my mother opened the door, the Shylo could see my sister lying in bed. He asked, “What is wrong with your little girl?” “She is sick,” my Mom answered, “But we don’t have the money to take her to the doctor.” The Shylo gave my mother money. “See that she goes to the doctor,” he said.

At certain moments times were good, but not for long. Just as we were about to achieve what looked like lower middle-class status, something would happen that jerked us back into poverty. This was a tough life for them. But miraculously my mother was able to enjoy her kids, friends and neighbors in those days, and found joy without giving in to the constant weight of injustice that hung over all of us. In a lifetime of no if little material rewards, my Mother was happy. Although she is very sick now and often appears depressed, I believe she is, on the whole, still happy. Her inner glow has always infected all who happened to be around her. It was a glow that was produced by her ability to see the injustice that engulfed her as an impermanent moment in a long and fantastic voyage. It was always impermanent, temporary. Her tendency to see the world this way was not based in a belief in some futile hope that the future will make things right, as was the case with my father, who believed that providence will change things. Her view of the world was based in her remarkable ability to see the world that surrounded her differently. This gift, I believe, she gave to my brother, my sister and to me.

Many African Americans migrated to the North in search of a better life. The Great Migration was another narrative of transformation, a change, but for the better. But I learned from my mother that there are two ways of looking at change. One as part of a system of progress, whether earned or ordained by providence. The other change is a function of the imagination and happens as the result of magic where the world takes on new meaning.

My father, an old Navy man, suffered miserably for twelve years with Parkinson’s disease. He said to me just before he died, “Do you remember how I would always tell you not to worry because someday our ship will come in?” “Yes,” I answered, “What ever happened to that ship?” He quickly responded, “It got torpedoed in the harbor.”

2 Charles Gaines, “Metonymy and the Defamiliarization of Objects,” from the catalog, LURID STORIES, (San Francisco: San Francisco Art Institute), 2001, p.2

Charles Gaines was born in 1944 in Charleston, South Carolina, and raised in Newark, New Jersey. He received his M.F.A at the Rochester Institute of Technology, School of Art and Design in 1967. He has been on the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts since 1989 and has had a crucially important influence on generations of artists emerging from the west coast. His work is included in the collections of the UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; MOCA Los Angeles; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla; the Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Studio Museum Harlem, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Oakland Museum, Oakland, the Lentos Museum, Linz, Austria; the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin, among others. Solo and two person exhibitions include the 2007 Venice Biennale; LAX>


Friday, October 14th, 2011

— Grover Lewis’s name passed in front of me recently, after almost fifty years. Don’t remember where I saw it; maybe in someone’s writing in This Long Century.

This happened by coincidence just about at the same time that I, way past midnight and unable to sleep, had looked up Godwin Matatu on the internet, setting up a channel of thought that stays with me, about old friends who are dead.

Primo Levy wrote a poem about how we all influence each other; how we are both the stamp and the malleable wax imprinted. But we remember some people because their presence in our lives is so acute—as though they are both lovers and teachers.

I knew Grover in Houston, not too long after John Kennedy was killed. He must’ve been a bit older than me but not much. He liked, though, as a defensive gesture against his vulnerability, to seem older and more skeptical than his years and spirit. At the same time, his love and care, solidarity, with all of us, men and women, was like bright sunlight.

He thought we were all important.

What did I learn from Grover Lewis? That we each are in a situation wherein we must bear witness. That I am called upon to look carefully, to think about what I see, and therefore to act; to be a witness.

Silvano Lora was ten years older than me, from the Dominican Republic. He was tall with long black hair and the most beautiful long hands I’ve ever seen.

He came and stayed with me in Geneva for a few days as part of a tour around Europe to speak to other artists and convince us to make more politically active and aware work.

The U.S. war against Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos was in full horror, but so was the U.S. war against the people of Latin America.

How could we as artists, as thinkers, therefore as people with a moral duty, ignore the daily reality of our world?, he asked us.

I could not then do the kind of work that he did, but after he left I could not go back to my usual practice.

We stayed in touch, even when I moved to New York, but I never saw him again. His best gift to me was his simple question. He gave me doubt—a lasting gift.

Godwin Matatu gave me an address book. He also came and stayed with me in Geneva, but many times over the years. Godwin was from a horrible place called northern Rhodesia but sometimes lived in London. He and his beautifully crazy cousin Wilson Katiyo were political organizers and fundraisers. This country now called Zimbabwe had two rival organizations fighting for liberation from the English colonizers. I forget which one Godwin was officially part of, but he had friends and enemies in both of them, as well as in ANC and other South African groups.

Those days of the early nineteen-seventies were very hard for people in Southern Africa. Comrades were arrested or killed regularly. Those from South Africa were always grieving. Their determination was hard, solemn and severe. The Zimbabweans, though, knew that they would win, and won. In the midst of death they sang and had parties.

Godwin was a Marxist Leninist of the Mao Tse Tung school but none of the Africans spoke or acted in the ways of factional disfunctionalism as I saw later among European and American leftists.

They pretty much looked at Marxism as a tool for liberation from colonial oppression.

Godwin, younger than me, was a joyous and funny teacher. He said the first thing a political organizer needs is an address book. Every useful contact I met was to go in, with telephone, address and brief description. Not my own people nor people who might be caused trouble if the notebook were confiscated; money people, organization people, famous people instead.

He said that the key to successful resistance was discipline within the organization (he was Chinese-trained), something we could never grasp back home.

I heard that he was shot in Zimbabwe. Wilson lived long enough to become a published novelist, died young in London.

Visiting New York in the eighties when I lived in Mexico I would stay with Sandy. Dr. Sandra Shepherd. Without her there I think I could not now bear the emptiness of New York.

She was the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Medical School, and was a pediatrician/gynecologist who worked at one of the large hospitals. In the evenings she had her private practice in part of her house on the edge of Harlem. This was a non-paying practice for the poor people of the area.

She would work into the night and then perform various organizing tasks for support work around South Africa, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Once I went into her office and found her stitching up a head wound for a teenage activist who had been clubbed by the police at a demonstration in front of the Apollo Theater. He had run to her place to hide and to get fixed up.

Sandy had a degenerative lung disease and sometimes could not get her breath. She hoped for a transplant but it never came.

I’ve written a poem about the Filipino artist, Santiago Bosé who seemed irresistible to all women and wanted to love them all.


Far in the (not really so cold!) north of Norway
But not yet Karasjok where I hope to go
Next year, I was not shocked but struck;

Surprised by a display of woodcut prints
By John Savio. “John?” I asked
Myself, “Why isn’t he called ‘Jan’ or ‘Johan’
Or even something close to the Cherokee

I want to ask Santiago Bosé.
In the whole world, not only the South Pacific,
There is no Santiago Bosé.

Jimmie Durham was born in Arkansas, in 1940. He lives and works in Europe. From the early 1960’s he was active in theatre, performance, and literature in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. In 1973 he became a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), from 1974-1980 he was the Director of the International Indian Treaty Council and representative to the United Nations. From 1981-83 he was the Director of the Foundation for the Community of Artists (FCA) New York City. His work has been exhibited widely at venues including the Venice Biennale; Whitney Biennial; Christine Koenig Galerie, Vienna; kurimanzutto, Mexico City; Matt’s Gallery, London; Documenta IX; DAAD Gallery, Berlin; SMAK Museum, Ghent; and the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), London, among many others.


Friday, October 14th, 2011

Roe Ethridge was born in 1969 in Miami and received a BFA in Photography at The College of Art in Atlanta, GA. His work has been shown extensively in the United States and internationally, including: GRETER NEW YORK, MOMA/PS1 (2000); THE AMERICANS, Barbican Center, London (2001); HELLO MY NAME IS…, Carnegie Museum of Art (2002), MOMENTUM 4: ROE ETHRIDGE, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2005); The Whitney Biennial (2008); Les Recontres D’Arles, France (2010); and NEW PHOTOGRAPHY 2010, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2010).


Friday, October 14th, 2011

— I plan to build a home on a field that’s located just outside downtown Athens, Georgia. There were once houses on the field but these were damaged beyond repair in a huge gas main explosion that took place back in the 70s – I was told this event had made the national news and that windows as far as several blocks away were broken. Since then the field has been left alone except that some construction debris from various downtown building projects was dumped down its steep back slope for land fill. Kudzu and privet and other invasive plants have grown rampant. The lot is fenced in so it was possible for me to bring in a couple dozen sheep to see if they could help clean up the field, which they did.

Mark Steinmetz was born in Manhattan, in 1961. He has had several books published with Nazraeli Press including SOUTH CENTRAL, SOUTH EAST, and GREATER ATLANTA. Another book with Nazraeli, SUMMERTIME, a collection of photographs of kids and teenagers made in the late 80s and early 90s, is due this fall. His book PHILIP & MICHELINE, about his parents at the end of their lives, came out this Summer with TBW books. He lives and work in Athens, Georgia, and hopes to travel more often to France and Italy.


Friday, October 14th, 2011

For two years, between 1995 and 1997, I lived on the Rue Ménard in Nîmes. When, not long after, in England, I happened across the last line of Pierre Ménard, author of the Quixote – “Nîmes, 1939” – I found the precision of the coincidence very pleasing.

Raphaël Zarka was born in Montpellier, France in 1977. He lives and works in Paris. In 2008 he was awarded the Ricard Foundation prize for contemporary art. Previous solo exhibitions include: GIBELLINA, CAN, Neuchâtel, Switzerland (2011); PRINCIPLES OF ROMAN KNOWLEDGE, Pastificio de Cerere, Rome, Italy (2011); Stroom, Den Haag, Netherlands (2011); PERGOLA, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France (2010); GEOMETRY IMPROVED, Modern Art Oxford, Oxford, England (2009); DOCUMENTARY SCULPTURES, Motive Gallery, Amsterdam (2009), RATIOCINATION, Galerie Michel Rein, Paris, France (2008); PADOVA, La Vitrine, Paris, France (2008). Forthcoming exhibitions include; Le Grand Café, Contemporary Art Centre, Saint-Nazaire, France (2011) PERFORMA 11, New York, USA (2011)