Barbara Chase-Riboud’s ‘Malcolm X Steles’ at the Art Museum

The presence of a mighty force

'All That Rises Must Converge' (2008): Definitive milestones for fallen heroes.

Barbara Chase-Riboud’s “Malcolm X Steles” is a fitting tribute to the African American civil rights leader, born Malcolm Little, who was assassinated in 1965 by Nation of Islam members. It’s also an overdue recognition of a brilliant Philadelphia native who has achieved success in two fields— fine arts and literature— on two continents.

This display of more than 40 works of sculpture, drawings and prints from the U.S. and Europe invokes an ancient tradition of erecting and inscribing vertical pillars (“steles”) in memory of fallen heroes and definitive milestones. Bronze sculptures have been created from wax forms, surmounting highly textured cascades of knotted and braided silk and wool fabrics.

Integration metaphor?

In the most effective steles, the fabric is drawn up and through the undulating folds of the cast bronze. Some observers claim this is Chase-Riboud’s acknowledgement of integration. Or is it the artist’s aesthetic decision? I’ll go with the latter.

Her drawings and prints are masterful— strong compositions ranging from recumbent forms under rumpled sheets to imaginary monuments, dedicated to her heroes in history and art, that seem to merge into mighty landscapes. Looking at them, you feel the presence of a mighty force. Is it the artist or the subject?

Beyond skin color

Barbara Chase-Riboud, 74, is Philadelphia born and bred: Girls High, followed by Temple University’s Tyler School of Art and Yale University School of Design and Architecture for graduate study. She had the good sense to move to Paris, where she wouldn’t be categorized by the color of her skin, and has lived there since 1961, traveling widely while marrying, raising two sons and achieving international recognition with solo exhibitions in major museums and public sculpture installations.

She’s a rare combination of visual and verbal artist, with 11 published books of poetry and historical fiction. (I borrowed her historical novel, The President’s Daughter, from my local library— Chase-Riboud’s other books were out in circulation— and became so engrossed in the story of Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s child, that I hated to put it aside for sleep.

Here’s an artist capable of inspiring all of us. Is it too late to make Barbara Chase-Riboud a household name in her native city?

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