"Exhibiting You" - Story

Artist Interview: Orlonda Uffre

By: Masha Rotfeld
Other authors: Orlonda Uffre
Submitted: 03/26/2009

Your parents immigrated to the United States from the Caribbean. How has their heritage influenced your artwork today?

I was surrounded by various Caribbean dialects, languages, foods and cultures since my early childhood. Spirituality, however, was one of the most striking aspects of my upbringing. My mother was a healer in Brooklyn and she had a lot of influence in our neighborhood. Her particular spiritual beliefs were rooted in the syncretic religions of the African diaspora.

There are several such spiritual traditions in the Caribbean: Lucumi, Santeria, Vodun (Haitian Voodoo), Candomblé. In these African-based religions there are Orishas, which are essentially deities that represent aspects of nature and influence the decisions and choices people make in their everyday lives.

For example, color has religious significance in the Caribbean. Every color refers symbolically to an Orisha. Eleggua is an Orisha represented by the colors red and black. He represents the force of nature which makes possible communication with our divine selves and connection to our ancestral origins. These religious beliefs and colors are ever-present in my art.

Can you describe the cultural environment of New York when you co-founded the Women's Interart Center?

I met Kate Millett, author of Sexual Politics, in the early 1970s. There was a circle of people around her, which I would call the early feminists. We picketed the New York State Council of the Arts and got funding for the Women's Interart Center: I've been told that it is the first women's art center in the world!

That was a very difficult period. The media was sensationalizing a lot of what went on with the feminist movement. For instance, the bra burning--that never happened. Kate Millett burning her bra is sort of an urban legend.

At the time, some racial as well as class-based tensions were in play. The early feminist movement was predominantly white and middle-class. The women of color were not in the forefront of the movement and were expected to have the same priorities as the white women. That didn't work out too well.

There was even some resentment against Kate. Many of those early feminists wanted to create a movement of consensus and the idea that some individuals would emerge as natural leaders was rejected. Of course, a lot of positive work has come out of the women's movement. Considering the struggles for equality that women had faced back then, I am dismayed when people take for granted how far we've come.

You say that you are at odds with the concept of "art for art's sake." What kind of art do you create?

My art has always been socially or politically driven. People often say that art should either be decorative or explore "freedom of expression." That might be true, but personally, I don't see the point in that type of art.

I tend to create social narratives mainly because I think that much of history has been forgotten. The way I view the world is shaped tremendously by the effects of colonialism of the last five hundred years. I think history needs to be acknowledged and documented before we can honestly attempt to eliminate the debilitating vestiges of inequity.

Initially I focused on representational art because I wanted to address its historical lack within the diaspora. Up until the 1980s, much of the art that represented Black imagery was very condescending, or extremely romanticized. On the contrary, I felt a need to create images that were more pragmatic and based in reality. 

My first series was Senegal. When I traveled to Senegal and the Gambia, I was really struck by the beauty of that part of Africa and by the social realities of people's lives. A few years later, in 1996, I traveled again in search of my family and created the second series--Caribbean Crossroads. It really encapsulated for me some ideas I had about the Caribbean, which you don't usually hear about. People's lives there are not marked by tourism or other romanticized tropes associated with tropical places; simply because they have less power, control or affluence, doesn't make their dreams and aspirations any less significant.

As a curator, what do you think about art coming from the Caribbean?

What I call "airport art" is widespread in the Caribbean. It is a stereotypical and caricatured art that is created for the tourism industry. You can go from island to island and find the same style of painting.

I wanted to get away from this and create imagery that recalled the Renaissance, or seemed like something Rembrandt would create. I wanted it to have dignity, as opposed to being a quick sketch created as a souvenir for a tourist.

Color plays an important role in your paintings. Do you consciously employ certain color palettes? If so, how do the different themes in your work: Senegal or Naked Abstractions conjure up these different color schemes?

In my most recent series, Naked Abstractions, I wanted to bring back into conversation the idea of the nude. I am trying to move more freely than I had in Senegal. Looking at Senegal in hindsight, I see that I was so much in the moment of trying to capture the essence of these cultures that my brushstrokes were very stiff, producing almost photographic results.

With both series, however, my color palette tends to be intense. I was told I have a masculine use of color. I think it's more about reflecting the bold, vibrant essence of the Caribbean culture. Also, my mother was what they call "hot," meaning unrepressed in many ways. I think both are evident in my choice of colors and styles.

Your painting Now & Then is a tribute to your grandmother, who you believe was sold on Grand Turk Island, then lived in St. Thomas and Hispaniola and was buried in the Dominican Republic. How do you think women not of African-American slave heritage could see themselves in Now & Then?

Easily! As harsh as this may sound, the plight of women today is still, in many cases, like servitude. Women all around the world are sold into sexual bondage. In parts of Africa women are not only treated with total disregard but also victimized as casualties of war. In the industrialized world, many women are victims of domestic abuse. Of course, the situation of most women is not as severe as my grandmother's was, but the problem of servitude persists.

In Now & Then, I try to represent my grandmother's encounter with modernity. The traumatic experience of losing one's indigenous traditions, yet being forced to develop a reluctant acceptance of a marginalized existence in a changing world is the essence of cross-cultural migration.

I feel like an outsider myself at times, having grown up when restrictions on girls were far more stringent than they are now. I see objectification of women brought into the mainstream. Although Hillary Clinton has said that the glass ceiling has "got cracks," it's unfortunately still there.

You say that it is often difficult to mediate the way you are perceived by the current art establishment and the way you see yourself. How do you see yourself?

I don't necessarily know where my place is in the art world. I see myself as on the outside of the mainstream. I have been told that if I had pursued art as my calling, I could have become a well-known artist. But what does that mean? For the past twenty or thirty years, I have focused my artwork on addressing the inequities of sexism, classism and racism. In some ways, I view myself as a political artist. With that said, I am hoping that substance returns to artwork.

What projects are brewing in your mind for now and the near future?

I am exploring the idea of incorporating into a body of work the ceremonial aspects of the indigenous Caribbean cultures. I would like to focus more on the cognitive aspects of the spiritual traditions of the African diaspora, like Vodun or Vévé, and incorporate them into an aesthetic.


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