Sanford Biggers: Music, Afrofuturism, and Re-Envisioning History Interview by Jan Garden Castro

Sanford Biggers sees African-American cultures as part of a global continuum comprised of diverse cultures, symbols and belief systems.

                                                                                                                                                 DIG E, 2011


For example, the tree and the piano are two potent images, symbols and signs that have mythic, historic and environmental significance among several cultures and throughout time. Buddha found enlightenment under a tree, for instance, and this, in some ways, re-members and makes holy the loss of those who have been hanged from trees throughout history in the context of revolutions, wars and racism. Pianos are also made of wood. Trees grow, flower, bear fruits, age and are the subject of many myths – all this makes it an important symbol for the artist.

 Biggers wows audiences whether he exhibits solo, performs with his group Moon Medicine, or gets into conversation with celebrities like Marcus Samuelsson and Yassin Bey (formerly Mos Def) at the Brooklyn Museum. On the heels of his 2011 exhibitions, Sweet Funk: an Introspective (Brooklyn Museum) and Cosmic Voodoo Circus (Sculpture Center in Long Island City), Biggers opened 2012 with The Cartographer’s Conundrum at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts and Moon Medicine at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Other 2012 shows include Codex, a solo exhibition at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida, featuring constellation quilts that reflect on sky signs Harriet Tubman used to guide escaped slaves north. The artist’s floor piece, Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva II, is in Emory University’s exhibition Contemporary Mandala: New Audiences, New Forms. His performance group Moon Medicine – which intermixes a video jockey, disc jockey, performance, and music – received a standing ovation from the full house at the Hammer Museum (University of California, Los Angeles) in February.

The Bridge is Over (biddybyebye), 2006

The Bridge Is Over, 2006

The American Academy recently awarded Sanford Biggers with the  Berlin Prize; he has received The Greenfield Prize (2010), the William H. Johnson Prize (2009) and many other awards. His international residencies include Akademie Schloss Solitute in Stuttgart, Germany; Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, Poland, and the ARCUS Project Foundation in Ibaraki, Japan. His installations, videos and performances have appeared at venues such as the Tate Britain and Tate Modern as well as institutions in China, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Russia. He presently teaches at Columbia University. His website is



 They wants to join you 3

 Jan Garden Castro (JGC): Sanford, would you briefly discuss living in Italy, teaching in Japan and how your interactions with other cultures and peoples affects your work?

Sanford Biggers (SB): I studied in Italy for a year as an undergrad before going to Japan. Aside from the beauty of Florence and the art and history and learning of the language, one thing that really stood out to me was the perspective I gained on the US from seeing it from the outside. It was fascinating how people perceived me on the streets of Italy. This was during the first Gulf War, 1991, and there was an anti-US sentiment in Italy at the time. I found that I could sometimes pass as African and would not get the same flack or scrutiny I would feel when I was with a bunch of recognizable –U.S. students or at an American bar. It made me see myself in a different way. I had the option to be part of a different community whereas I didn’t feel that  this was possible in the U.S. at that point. The most profound thing was that I found myself disliking some things more and also loving some things more.


That persisted in Japan as well, but the thing I found in Japan – and it was probably due to where I was mentally at the time – was meeting like-minded Japanese people. On the surface, it would seem, we had very little in common, but it turned out that I met some of my closest friends while I was there. We had deep, deep connections and long conversations about anything from food to music to politics, both Japanese and American, and we discussed ideas of inclusion and exclusion, which are very important in Japan.


I started studying Buddhism there and the thing that struck me first was the concept of the Middle Way. The Middle Way was a way of going through life without falling to either extreme – negative or positive. It’s basically about taking the good with the bad. Growing up in the U.S. as an African-American, I learned very early on to travel the Middle Way because that’s the way of survival and matriculation through American society.  Obviously, this not only applies to black people, but to anyone who’s not of the dominant culture.


JGC: Do you want to talk about your musical background? How did you teach yourself piano and become a composer?


SB: I was always exposed to a lot of music when I grew up. Everyone in my family seemed to be into music. My parents listened to a lot of jazz, gospel and popular blues like B. B. King and Ray Charles. My brother and sister were into the funk of their generation and, later, jazz fusion. My brother is still a musician; he plays bass. I went to an all-white school for the earlier years of my life, which is where I was exposed to the popular music that we all listened to in addition to rock, which was not happening in my black neighborhood. I was thus also listening to Zeppelin, Hendrix and Pink Floyd at a fairly early age and I identified with all those different types of music. I had a very open ear. There was nothing that I would not listen to. So that’s where the interest in music came from.


I took formal lessons for a year and a half, maybe two years. I didn’t want to study classical. When I stopped taking formal lessons, I didn’t stop playing the piano. I would sit at the piano for hours with the radio playing, trying to play every tune I heard. I tried to figure out what key the songs were in and what notes corresponded to whatever song it was. I spent hours listening to my brother practice with his garage band. By the time I was in junior high, I had a little band. During break time, my friends and I would go to the band room, pick up an instrument and start to play. I carpooled to school with one of my closest friends and we made an arrangement with our parents to take the money from our allowances and invest it into two turn tables and a mixer. If our grades were good, he would hold onto it for a week or two and then I would hold onto it. We shared this thing and we started spinning at high school parties. I was always very into music – playing it and listening to it.


This ultimately led to visual arts. I could play all of these popular songs, but when I started to listen to more jazz, I couldn’t play it. So I started to draw and paint images of the people I was listening to. In my parents’ home, you can see [my] portraits of Ray Charles and John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles, Aretha Franklin, and so on.


 Death Star (not fully operational) 2006

                                                                                                                                      Death Star (not fully operational), 2006

JGC: Evidently you got busted at 15 for drawing graffiti in L.A.?


SB: Yeah. You know, when the hiphop, rap music culture emerged, I was basically about ten or eleven years old and a very limited amount was coming to L.A. from the East Coast. Well, we probably got more than most cities in the U.S., but it was still limited. There was one record store that would sell directly from New York and it was right down the street in South Central. It was called the D. J. Booth and we would go there every Saturday or Sunday to get twelve inches of the newest thing coming out of the East Coast.

Cartographer's Conundrum 22

Conundrum 22


Anyway, back to why I was busted. Because hiphop was so prevalent, we all practiced the hiphop arts – deejaying, doing graffiti, breakdancing and emceeing. I didn’t emcee so much, but I was breakdancing, doing graffiti and deejaying. Consequently, I got busted doing graffiti. Soon after, I ended up in A. P. [advanced placement] art classes, and that’s how I got started on a formal art education.


JGC: Let’s talk about The Cartographer’s Conundrum at Mass MoCA. First, could you briefly define Afrofuturism?


SB:  Afrofuturism is a way of re-contextualizing and assessing history and imagining the future of the peoples of the African Diaspora via science, science fiction, technology, sound, architecture, the visual and culinary arts and other more nimble and interpretive modes of research and understanding.


JGC: You turned your cousin John Biggers’ Afrofuturist mural into an installation that was your own reply. It filled a huge space; let’s talk about the upward rising of the musical instruments and translucent pews in that space. Did the floor pieces and mirror stars on the floor, casting shadows on the walls,  allude to particular periods in Afro-American history?

Ghettobird Tunic (full length), 2006

BIGGERS 12b (prnt)


SB:  Not so much. The floor was a formal gesture. Because the space is so gi-normous, I wanted to complicate it by creating this optical illusion so that when you’re on the steps above the floor, you can look down and have that perspectival illusion from the cut tiles. That was a way of acknowledging the vastness of the space and trying to create even more. The same with the stars; I was interested in how you can look down and see the stars, but at the same time their reflection is above. So, it’s an “as above, so below” type of thing. The mirrors reflecting the ceiling also create more depth through the floor. But the “church” moment – the pews and the exploding pipe organs – really, that was improvised with objects that I found at Mass MoCA. I found a few church pews in one of the back buildings and moved those into the space. Then I decided to construct Plexiglas pews in the same fashion.


I grew up in the church. John Biggers’ work references the church a lot and it seemed like a fitting motif to go with. I think I mentioned to you before that, on my own, I probably wouldn’t have gone into such a religious direction because I’m really not referring directly to a religion, but rather to the architecture of the Christian church. However, I do think that I was influenced by Biggers’ constant allusion to transcendence and the way he makes connections between the African-American church and worship practices and spirituality that he witnessed in Africa.


As a side-note, no one has discussed John Biggers in terms of Afrofuturism until now. I had the desire to look at his work through the lens of Afrofuturism. Because the term and the field of inquiry is so new, it hasn’t been applied to older visual artists so much.


When I started to learn about Afrofuturism and realized that I considered myself part of that dialog, it made a lot of sense that John Biggers was doing a lot of those things way before the term or that field of inquiry developed.


JGC: So as you go forward, you try to resolve or bring into consilience the larger state of African-American histories, world histories and other meanings and symbols, yes?


SB: Yes. That’s one thing that has been afforded to European history and American history but black history still only exists in February. Obviously it exists all the time. It’s American history. One of the charges of the work is to look at American history in a more collective way and to redefine and re-imagine history. Afrofuturism does this; reclaims history through these other avenues.


JGC: Are there other myths, images or symbols you’d like to explore, or is the field open?


SB: The field is totally open now. I sort of think of it as a gateway. I find myself sometimes clinging to some academic or theoretical proposition to create from, as a departure point, and Afrofuturism sort of opens everything up wide. I think it’s in tandem with the post-Black dialog, which is also a gateway.




My Take By Quincy Troupe

It’s late August, two and a half months from the 2012 presidential election. Make no mistake about it, this historic, potentially nation-changing decision is the most important political decision the people of the United States will have to make in quite some time, because whoever is chosen – whether incumbent Democratic President, Barack Obama or his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney – voters must understand how, on the one hand, this choice will divide the nation because of the two starkly different agendas of each candidate, and, on the other hand, the choice will mirror how the United States will be viewed in the rest of the world.

Today, whether many Americans realize it, the world outside our borders has changed dramatically over the past decades and is now filled with seismic divides – demographic, racial, ethnic, economic, political, social and religious – many in this country did not see coming, nor thoroughly understand. Further, it is still a fact too many Americans citizens never travel outside the country and don’t even have passports. Added to this, a majority of Americans speak only “American English” and see others in the world as inferior to what they deem as American greatness.

These shifts in the rest of the world are intricate and must be negotiated with a surgeon’s scalpel, a delicate, steady hand instead of the proverbial meat cleaver, if we are to survive intact as a world power amidst all these dramatic changes.

Many in the world – this writer included – view Americans today as a people who have lost their grip on what we, as a country, have long stood for: a nation that champions liberty, freedom of expression, religious choice, the right to cast our votes freely, to be free from oppression, racism and sexism. In truth, however, we have never been the nation that upheld these principles and practices, though it appeared we were moving toward some of these ideals when we elected a Black man President in 2008. That was an awe-inspiring, glorious moment, a singular act of political expression and courage celebrated with joy here and around the world. But that moment was short-lived in the United States and what that glorious moment promised lies in shambles today like a priceless crystal vase smashed onto concrete. Now the shards – sharp as honed razor blades – lie around our collective feet, threatening to cut us all so severely we risk bleeding to death

What has caused this? Deep-seated racism has caused it, nothing else, though many people fool themselves into believing something else other than racial animosity toward Barack Obama, our first African American president, is the cause.  But racism IS the real cause; everything else is just excuses, smoke and mirrors. Far too many people, especially Whites, cannot face the truth that widespread racism is deeply rooted in our troubled, conflicted country. Yet virulent racism divides this nation so deeply it has catapulted the homeland shockingly close to the edge of collapse, leaving many us bewildered how it all happened, and so quickly.

If we were honest, ALL Americans would recognize the sad, pitiful picture of what this once great country has become, and that we citizens must shoulder some of the blame for the impending catastrophe. Why? Because we voted for, and put into office the very people responsible for our current situation, that’s why! On the other hand American citizens suffer under a complacent corporate media that permits right wing wing-nuts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Joe Scarborough, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and a host of others to run amok spreading lies and dangerous innuendo about President Obama that undermine the Office of the Presidency. President Obama’s challenger, Mitt Romney, has embraced the notion that the President has bowed down to world leaders, that he is an apologist for the actions of America, is merely a community organizer, that he hasn’t created jobs, has shown no leadership, has raised taxes and that he doesn’t understand how finances work.

Because of our votes and the indolence of corporate media, we face a looming financial disaster and this catastrophe is not limited just to politics; it’s happening on many levels of our essential institutions, including in the arts, education, religion and run away military spending: it is aided not only by deeply embedded racism but egregious greed.

On May 28th of this year, Mitt Romney, spoke to reporters on his “aircraft” about the support he was receiving from Donald Trump (“a bloviating ignoramus” according to Republican columnist George Will, who also commented on “the Donald’s” persistent denigration of President Obama regarding his birthplace and U.S. citizenship). Romney said, “I don’t agree with all the people who support me, and my guess is they don’t all agree with everything I believe in. But I need to get 50.1 % or more, and I’m appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people.”  Translated, Mr. Romney’s statement means he will do ANYTHING to get 50.1 % of the popular vote, which doesn’t actually guarantee his election because the route to the presidency is through the Electoral College.  Mr. Romney’s statement blatantly encourages Whites to cast their votes according to race rather than on whether the sitting President deserves to be re-elected based on what he has accomplished in nearly four years in office. These accomplishments include rescuing the automobile industry, killing Osama Bin Laden, ending the Iraq War, ending discrimination against same sex couples in the military, regulating credit card companies, instituting a national health care program, leveling off government spending, and steady jobs growth through his $800 billion stimulus bill – read Michael Grunwald’s fabulous book, The New New Deal, to get the truth regarding the stimulus bill – and Mr. Obama’s Executive Order, “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” that went into effect on August 16th of this year. This is quite a remarkable record, considering the unprecedented mess President George W. Bush left the country in. Mr. Romney is fully aware there is deeply rooted antipathy towards President Obama because of his race. And so he plays the race card against Obama, both implicitly and explicitly, every chance he gets.

In reality, Barack Obama represents precisely what the nation needs at this time and place in our history: he is young, brilliant, forward thinking, flexible, socially, economically and politically dexterous, and exceedingly tough in his handling of foreign policy. And for so many of us in the rest of this diverse, multicultural world, President Obama IS precisely the person who should be leading the United States – and in a recently released poll, a great majority of business leaders throughout the world picked President Obama over Mr. Romney as the person who would best lead the United States – during this politically charged, complex political time, his few missteps while in office, notwithstanding.

More troubling, states dominated by Republican have proposed enacting voter ID laws that, in reality, attempt to suppress, restrict or deny Democratic voters in the 2012 presidential election, primarily African-Americans, other so-called “minorities,” old and young people alike, the right to cast their ballots this November. Yet Mr. Romney refuses to denounce this blatant attempt to steal the upcoming election. There is no remorse, nor reflection, in this pernicious Republican political ploy. Should he win the election by these illicit means, what does Mr. Romney think people outside the United States will think of his election? While Republican hawks vow to uphold democracy around the world, how does voter suppression impact that sacred tenet in the eyes of those around the globe? Do these Republicans think other people all over the world won’t notice what they are doing here to prevent people from exercising the right to vote? Aren’t they aware that people all over the globe use the internet, twitter, facebook, and all kinds of social media at a rate that is possibly higher than in the United States? Believe me; this will harm our nation’s image immeasurably. How can a nation that has championed free elections all over the world as a path to a country’s sacred ideal of Democracy get away with voter suppression?

And what exactly does Mitt Romney offer the country as a would-be President of the United States? By what we know of him, Romney offers us a record of lies, deceit, denial, obfuscation, and personal ambition. He already owes the country a tremendous amount of explanations. Like for instance, like why he confiscated all computer hard drives holding his record as governor of Massachusetts? Have all the hard drives been erased? Also, at the time of writing this editorial, Mr. Romney still refuses to discuss his record at Bain Capital: why? Then there are the questions of his back tax returns, which as of this date he refuses to release; his tenure as head of the 2004 Olympics, and whose financial records he also confiscated; did he scrubbed them clean, too. What about the millions he’s allegedly secreted in off-shore bank accounts in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland; why can’t he come clean with voters if he wants to be President of the country? Fiurther, Mr. Romney has no foreign policy experience, which he proved in London at the Olympics and on his subsequent visits to Israel and Poland. Finally, we know Mr. Romney wants to cut taxes for rich people by trillions of dollars, that he would gut Social Security and attempt to abolish Medicare and President Obama’s health care act.

In spite of having run for the office of the presidency for twelve consecutive years, Mr. Romney is quite a backwards-looking man, rooted in the past. He appears arrogant, socially and politically inflexible, is a “flip-flopper” on many important issues that comes to mind, and seemingly incapable of telling the truth, especially when he talks about his and President Obama’s political records. He questions Mr. Obama “faith” while refusing to discuss how his Mormon religion informs his own world and political view. He calls President Obama an “appeaser” and an attacker of capitalism, but refuses to explain why the stock market continued to soar during Mr. Obama’s tenure in office. In spite of 4 million jobs having been created during the Obama administration, Mr. Romney claims that Mr. Obama hasn’t created any jobs and that he has raised taxes, even though Obama, in fact, has cut taxes. Another absolute lie is Mr. Romney’s assertion Mr. Obama is “weak” on foreign policy. Like many of Mr. Romney’s supporters, who are “tea party” members and so-called “birthers,” Mr. Romney readily casts aspersions as to whether Mr. Obama’s is a true “American,” He remains silent while his advocates call Mr. Obama “the food-stamp president” and simultaneously complains that the Obama campaign employs dirty politics when they attack his lies and his known record. (He’s such a whiner when he is attacked!)

Deeper still, Mr. Romney surrounds himself with mostly rich, greedy White men (the likes of Donald Trump, most notably) and former George W. Bush neo-conservatives and warmongers. I have yet to see (with the exception of the “White” Cuban, Marco Rubio) any people of color around him. Mitt Romney has been dubbed a “vulture capitalist,” one who destroys companies to make money for himself and his stockholders. Is this really the type of person needed in the Oval Office, running the country in such perilous times?

It’s a sick, toxic mess we are living in today. I shudder to think how bad it will be if Mitt Romney wins the presidency, with Paul Ryan, a right-wing, radical zealot who also lies about President Obama’s record with a smile (who also lacks foreign policy experience and is a proven hypocrite regarding much of his record in Congress) as his Vice President.  Look at the facts on the ground: a tiny, select group of giant corporations (maybe six or seven) and some extremely wealthy, extremely conservative old White men will have a tremendous impact on the next president of this country if it is Mitt Romney. Because it is THEIR money that is supporting Mr. Romney and much corporate media (who control at least 80 percent of the media, which in turn controls what we see, hear, how we see it and digest it) provide their tacit approval. And thanks to the Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court these corporations are able to pour unlimited amounts of cash into political campaigns, overwhelmingly supporting right-winged Republican candidates. This is a critical issue that we as concerned American citizens need to keep in mind when we go to the polls.

Perhaps Politicians in Washington and all over this country – along with American citizens – should keep in mind the example that was on display at the Summer 2012 Olympics, where teamwork, pride of country over narrow partisanship and a sense of collective purpose were on display. Such important attributes are key to a bright, promising future for any nation. But don’t hold your breath waiting on an avaricious, stupid, short sighted, selfish Washington political elite – and the American electorate, which sadly seems to be more divided than ever – to move collectively to right the wrong-headed direction in which this nation is headed at breakneck speed. I truly hope we can apply the brakes to halt this catastrophic death plunge, though I doubt it. Still, always the optimist, I hope we can pull back from the edge of the cliff and come together as a country. It’s going to be difficult, but as Malcolm X once said: “only time will tell” and indeed it will.

Changing the subject, we are again very proud of this new issue of Black Renaissance Noire. We have in this issue wonderful interviews conducted by the French scholar, Francois Noudelmann, with the great Nobel American novelist, Toni Morrison and Jan Garden Castro’s conversation with the American artist, Sanford Biggers. In addition, there are probing, revealing and controversial non-fiction pieces by Ishmael Reed, Dr. Gerald Horne and Walter Gordon. We are proud to publish very fine fiction by William Melvin Kelley and Michael Datcher, poetry by Paul Celan, Will Alexander, Pierre Joris, Monica Hand, Sarah Scheig, K. Curtia Lyle, Greg Hewitt and Desiree Alvarez. Finally, there are marvelous visual portfolios of art and photographs by Will Calhoun, Willie Cole, Osaretin Ighile and Nandipha Mntambo.

As always let me hear your opinions of this new issue, whether positive or negative. And thank you for your continued support of our efforts in the past and we welcome it in the future.


When the Muse Comes a-Callin’: In the Print Lab with Mary Lovelace O’Neal By LIZZETTA LeFALLE-COLLINS

Last Lay-Up, 1970-79

After teaching at several other Bay Area
institutions—including the California
College of Arts and Crafts, Humboldt
State University, and fi nally the
University of California, Berkeley (cal),
where she became part of the full-time
faculty—she was awarded tenure at
cal in 1985 and appointed chair of the
Department of Art Practice in 1999.
Primarily known as an abstract painter,
some of O’Neal’s most memorable
minimalist paintings have been well
documented. Th ese include her
lampblack series as exampled by (Fig.
1) Last Lay-Up, c. 1970-79 and Abstract
Expressionist works such as Red Whale
(c. 1980s) and Running with Black
Panthers and White Doves (mid 1980s/early
1990s). Other important paintings include
(Fig. 2) Racism is Like Rain, Either It’s
Raining or It’s Gathering Somewhere, c.
1991-93, a piece that was also made into
a lithograph with the same title. While
some of these works will be discussed in
this text, greater emphasis will be placed
on O’Neal’s printmaking work, which
she began in Robert Blackburn’s print
studio in the early 1980s.


O’Neal’s initial introduction to
printmaking was an undergraduate
printmaking class at Howard University
with master printmaker James Lesene
Wells. She remembers she couldn’t
be “bothered with” grinding the stones
in a lithograph class—she found
the process cumbersome and generally
loathed the whole printmaking
experience with Wells. She recalls how
he chided her when she left a plate
in the acid too long: “Miss Lovelace,
that was a brand new batch of acid
and you’ve ruined it.”[1] Another
unfortunate mishap incident provoked
his ire and sealed her fate in the class.
After spilling red ink on a stack of
pristine Arches paper, Wells chastised
her again: “ Miss Lovelace, how did
you get that red ink drip down the side
of a whole ream?”[2]

Traditional printmaking is very
process-oriented and Wells, known
for his etchings and lithographs, was
a skilled technician in printmaking.
He was greatly infl uenced by the
woodcuts of Albrecht Durer and
German Expressionists such as Emile
Nolde and Ernst Kirchner. Unlike
many of his contemporaries Wells
viewed printmaking as a fi ne art on par
with painting and pursued the fi nest
detail in line and tone. Th is attention
to detail was a natural byproduct of his
tenure working with Stanley Hayter at
Atelier 17 in New York. Hayter became
known as the father of contemporary
printmaking, and in December 1964
Art in America declared Atelier 17 in
New York and Paris the most infl uential
print studios in the world.[3] Wells
could see that O’Neal did not share his
seriousness about printmaking. O’Neal
appreciated Wells’ printmaking skills,
but was not interested in conforming
to the established printmaking processes
he adhered to. O’Neal railed against
tightly structured processes and
approaches to art and displayed her
indiff erence to structure in Wells’
printmaking class as well as in Lois
Jones’ watercolor class. In printmaking
O’Neal experienced particular problems
with etching, dismayed that the image
could only be realized after several
steps. Recalling her initial impressions
of the printmaking process, O’Neal
shares, “Printmaking at that time was
too labor-intensive and needed greater
focus than I could muster—simply put,
a horrible Howard experience that left
a bitter memory.” Wells was equally
frustrated working with O’Neal, and
she remembers he even pleaded with
her once, “Miss Lovelace don’t come
back, don’t come back.”[4]


O’Neal didn’t even consider revisiting
printmaking until 1983, when she
was in New York participating in an
exhibition that her artist friend, Joe
Overstreet, organized at Kenkeleba
Gallery. During the reception, master
printmaker Bob Blackburn spoke with
O’Neal about her work in the exhibition
and asked if she’d like to work on
some prints. The Robert Blackburn
Printmaking Workshop had been
a catalyst within the international
printmaking community since 1948,
“seeding” other institutions, schools,
and workshops as far away as Morocco
and South Africa. Remembering her
experience at Howard under Professor
Wells, O’Neal was leery of Blackburn’s
offer to work at the print studio.[5]
She eventually accepted Blackburn’s
invitation and in 1984 was in his
workshop trying printmaking again,
this time experimenting with a
freer form of monotype printing.
This technique paralleled the way she
painted with vibrant colors and free,
gestural line movements that swirled
and meandered across the surface
of the composition. Remembering
this time, O’Neal says, ”I was given
the bare minimum of instruction by a
fabulous printmaker who became
my printer’s devil. Over the course of
the days I spent in New York City I
was liberated, taught the wonders and
true joys of monotype printmaking.
I discovered that for me it was
the process most like painting in its
directness. However perhaps the
greatest gift to me from the workshop
was a love of printmaking. All of
it—etching, lithography, silk screen,
woodcuts—I was smitten.”[6]
O’Neal’s second foray into printmaking
opened doors to new discoveries.
Working with fluid inks, she could
create one image after the next. She
didn’t even mind the intensive cleanup
with lithotine that was required. She
referred to the printmakers as “mad
hatters,” alluding to 19th-century
English hat makers who suffered the
consequences of exposure to mercury,
a necessary tool of their trade used to
stabilize wool.[7] In Blackburn’s shop,
O’Neal made over 200 prints and
printed two lithographs. Perhaps she
enjoyed the process more in his shop
because there, trained printmakers
did all of the hard work of registering,
mixing inks, rolling up plates, placing
them in acid baths or talcing them up,
and of course, rolling them through
the presses. Blackburn just wanted
to give artists an opportunity to pull
prints, and O’Neal reveled in it.
Blackburn recognized O’Neal’s delight
in arriving at images by monotype and
approximating the same sensibilities
that she sought in her paintings.
Encouraged by her zeal for the
monotype process, he recommended
her for a printmaking residency
in the Printmaking Workshop in
Asilah, Morocco that he had helped to
establish. Blackburn had founded

this printmaking workshop with
another Black American printmaker,
Camille Billops, during the First Asilah
Cultural Moussam (a festival) in 1978.
The site of the workshop was in the
Raissouni Palace, originally built in
1909 and once home to a famous pirate
named Ahmed-al Raissouni before
being renamed the Palace of Culture.
Historically a small fishing town, Asilah
had largely lost its major industry, but
had garnered a reputation as a venue
for a prestigious international arts
festival. O’Neal recalls that this festival
was unlike any other she had ever
experienced, including Venice. When
Blackburn extended the invitation to
go to Asilah, she had to act quickly,
with only a week’s time to travel to
California from New York to gather
her things and return to New York City
to leave for the festival. O’Neal fondly
remembers her experiences in Asilah:
Artists and people literally from
all over the world were invited to
this festival—musicians, actors,
poets, critics, authors, writers,
activists, newspaper columnists,
political theorists, politicians, and
religious leaders, etc. Each evening
there were offerings of dance,
theater, music, poetry and the like.
However what set this festival
apart from most was the fact that
painters and printmakers and one
or two sculptors were invited to
[be there for the] entire run of
the festival in Asilah. Most of us
lived in a one hundred-year-old
palace with great mosaics and
secret passages. My quarters were
covered with rich mosaics and
overlooked the ocean; many nights
I watched the moon until it traded
places with the rising sun. The
palace, the mosaics, my sleeping
roommates, the filtered moonlight
and the black dark of the sky on
moonless and sleepless nights
reminded me of my childhood
and my nights of dancing as one
of the villagers in the opera Amahl
and The Night Visitors.[8]

O’Neal’s time in Asilah thus brought
back memories of Amahl and the Night
Visitors, an opera by Menotti that was
first televised in 1952. O’Neal’s father
directed the opera for Arkansas State’s
Christmas Concert.[9] Her best friend
Marian played the role of Amahl
and O’Neal was one of the dancers.
She memorized every note and
still remembers lines of the aria that
later informed the narratives for
the paintings in her panther series.
The images that she had envisioned as a
child became her reality in Asilah.
A 1986 monotype from this residency,

(Fig. 3) Princess Poo-Poo—depicting her
black Dachshund, “Tillie,” romping
in the palace—served as the model
for her mid 1980s/early 1990s Running
with Black Panthers and White Doves,
in which black panthers roam the black
marble palace of the Black King.
This was a pivotal painting in which she
transitioned from lampblack pigment
in works like the Last Lay-Up, and
began revisiting Abstract Expressionism.
Black Panthers… is an important work
that also contains references to O’Neal’s
activist years, as an undergraduate in
the student-run Non-Violent Action
Group (nag) and following graduation
with the Congress of Racial Equality
(core). In the opera, Amahl asks the
Black king ”Where do you live?” and
the Black king responds, ”I live in
a black marble palace with black and
white doves.” O’Neal’s monotype
(Fig. 4) Untitled (Black King), c. 1991-23
points directly to the Black King in
Menotti’s opera.

In Asilah, O’Neal lived in a palace
with mosaic rooms with other visitors
to festival, including a Chilean woman
who lived in Italy and another man
from Northern Africa. They would lie
awake at night gazing at the moon
as it hung over the ocean. Then the aria
would come to her, alongside memories
of her father directing the opera and
her dancing thirty years ago. She explains,
”The light of the moon would sweep
into the room illuminating the ancient
mosaics. I started to imagine panthers
having the run of the palace and white
doves catching a free ride on the backs
of these mysterious night creatures.
[I visualized] these imaginary creatures
along with the reality of blinding white
light pushing back from snow-white
houses into which flashes of black

veils darted [and] puffs of unblemished
cotton [were] contained in ice-blue

“These great far-ranging conversations
[among the visitors] would last into the
wee hours at the restaurants and hotel
bars frequented by foreigners. When
we heard the muezzin begin the call to
prayer we were just turning [our] beds
to sleep, and others were preparing
for their morning prayers,” O’Neal
recalls.[11] Before the intense blues of the
Moroccan sky and sea, O’Neal
worked on the rooftop of her gleaming
white-walled residence in the city
encircled by ochre-colored ramparts.
She painted images onto her monotype
plates on the roof of the palace in
full view of other women doing their
daily chores, from washing and dying
clothes and fabric to repairing and
painting furniture. Their voices filled
the air with chatter, quarreling and
laughter as children ran in and out of
work and play. This scene was repeated
from one rooftop to another—the
rooftops were the location of the
women’s cottage industries. Her father’s
production of Amahl kept creeping
into her memory and then into her
imagery as she captured these unveiled
women moving in and around their
homes. Her monotypes were impressions
of Morocco illuminating “the light,
the national and traditional dress, the
architecture, the color and shape of
food, Tangine pots, sardines, lettuces
and other greens, flat breads, and roasts
on a spit,” in her words.[12] She painted
the monotypes as quickly as she could
because the strong searing heat could
dry out the inks, making the plates too
dry to print in the studio below. “[From
the roof ], I then with great purpose
ran down the steps, pushing my way
on through the narrow passages to
‘bogard’ [cut in line] a turn at one of
the few presses—I rushed the piece
through the press, assessed the plate for
the possible ghost, the residuals of what
imagery might still have viable paint
left to be the seating for the next image
to be laid down,” she shares.[13]

O’Neal’s days in Asilah were filled with
hard sweaty work in a hot printing
studio with no air conditioning. Unlike
the Blackburn workshop, where ample
printers were ready to assist her or to
pull the prints for the artists, in Asilah
the artists had to pull their own prints.
The hot and sweaty days would meld
into balmy evenings, and in the cool
of the late evenings the artists ate
delicious food, listened to lulling music
and poetry and joined in the dance
until the early morning hours. Morocco
offered a rich experience that filled out
O’Neal’s personal and artistic life. She
says that she left it with “firmly placed
postcards in my brain, and friendships
that have lasted to this day.”[14] These
“postcard images” made an indelible
mark on her work, as evidenced by her
statement, “I had to fight to let the
paint rule rather than the postcards
I had filed away in my body and mind
during my days in that country.”[15]
Her mental “postcards” captured many
unforgettable experiences: the blinding
sand storm that she encountered on
the way to Fez; the trip she took with
her friends Mechi and Carmen to
spend a much-deserved girl’s day in
a Hammem where the women tried
to scrub her very dark skin a brighter
shade; and her time in Marrakesh
where she ate with old men at Djemaa
el-Fna into the night and after a brief
sleep, returned in the morning to find
whirling Dervishes, dancing cobras and
a sea of humanity “lost in the deep
medina of the old town,” said O’Neal.[16]
She felt a strong desire to put these
images on paper, but as a student of
Abstract Expressionism she struggled
with the question of the figure.

After Morocco, O’Neal returned to her
studio in Oakland and her teaching
job at cal and began a series of works
exploring the light and architecture
of Morocco that was dedicated to
the women in swirling garments she
had just left behind. In 1985, O’Neal
showed several paintings, including
Hammem, 1984 at Jeremy Stones’ San
Francisco gallery.

In other essays, I’ve written about how
the art of printmaking has been assigned
a low profile historically. I explained
several reasons for this, including
the prevalence of attention given to
large-scale abstract paintings that
engaged the viewer with their sheer
size and the materiality of the paint.
Additionally, modern art assemblages
that bridged the gap between painting
and sculpture and used mass-produced
or found or refabricated/repurposed
objects—including images printed on
fine art presses—were generally received
as wholes greater than the sum of their
parts, comprised of prints and numerous
other elements. Artists used the art
of photography and the hand-drawn
in addition to the printed image in
assemblages. Finally, if one maintained
the traditional method of printmaking,
the labor-intensive process for perfection

in tonal and line qualities and registration
emphasized the skill of achieving
sameness in the production of an edition
of prints in which every print was
exactly the same. Thus the traditional
focus in printmaking has been on
editions, but more recently artists have
been producing smaller editions. The
fine art print is now viewed as something
that can be combined with other media,
and compromising a work by scratching
or painting into the virgin print is
more acceptable. But is such a work
still a print? Most of O’Neal’s
prints are monotypes, and after her
reintroduction to printmaking the
process became an integral part of her
art practice as she realized that
monotype printing was the technique
that was the most easily adaptable
to her dynamic large-scale paintings.

During her first trip to Morocco in the
midst of her printmaking residency,
O’Neal noticed the way Moroccan
women would subvert the large overgarments
required by their Muslim
religious beliefs: “They would have on
pantaloons that would be shocking pink
with gold slippers. [The] most creative
fashion statements seemed to come in
the shoes, which could be exposed—gold
sandals or saddle shoes.”[17] In 1989 during
her sabbatical from cal, O’Neal received
a humanities grant to return to Morocco
and to travel to Egypt and Chile to
develop a new body of work, including
a 1989 video entitled Two Deserts, Three
Winters that focused on the Sahara Desert
in Egypt and the Atacama Desert in
Chile. For her sabbatical project, she
concentrated on women’s dress and
temporarily abandoned printmaking in
favor of drawing furiously and taking
hundreds of still pictures and miles
of video footage for the video project
that included some of the images that
influenced her monotypes in her Desert
Women Series, c. 1990. O’Neal noted that
in the Sahara, groups of women seemed
to appear out of the desert sands from
nowhere with baskets and cloth and then
disappear just as quickly. These images
of women are captured in monotypes
in her Desert Women Series. In this series,
O’Neal plays with the swirling clothing
replicating its silky movement with
the colorful inks. The three examples
pictured in (Fig. 5-8) Desert Women
Series (Sun, Woman in Black Dotted
Scarf, Magenta, and Pink) mirror the
video that captured garment-wrapped
women, and reveal the influence of the
architecture and light that had captivated
O’Neal’s imagination since her
first trip to Morocco. One image that
was stamped on in her memory was a
woman in all black moving through the
beige landscape with bright green jelly
shoes—an image that became one of
what she calls her “postcards” from her
desert encounters. Women entombed
in swirling wind-blown garments, often
revealing dashes of color peeping out
from their over-garments epitomizes this
series. (Fig. 9) Desert Women Series (Two
Black Garments), c. 1990.

Known for her fashionable and exotic
sartorial style characterized by multiple
clothing layers, head wraps and bangles,
O’Neal was attracted to these women
for their layered and flowing clothing.
Their style of dress piqued her curiosity
and left her wondering what types
of clothing and fabrics were beneath
the large billowing outer garments
that hid female bodies—she wondered
how they individualized their dress
underneath in order to accept this type
of outer uniform. Most women she
questioned spoke of the practicality of
the dress, but she soon learned that
the women were free to wear anything
they wished under these outer garments.
This freedom underneath led to all
sorts of subversions. The drawings,
photographs, and video footage O’Neal
created while in Morocco would inform
much of her future printmaking
upon her return to the US, including
(Fig. 10) Cora of the Children, 1994.

Her sabbatical also took her to Egypt.
In Egypt, O’Neal reflected on walking
the path where Jesus is said to have
walked. She and her former husband
Patricio Moreno Toro encountered
the ruins of a recent war in the Sinai
Peninsula—a ghost town of leftover
tanks and bunkers scrawled with
graffiti. The combination of the delicate
curvature of the Arabic letters with the
heavy tanks eventually inspired several
monotype prints in the Tanks Series,
ca. 1990s. In the Valley of the Kings,
O’Neal and Toro waved to Queen
Hatshepsut—in the scorching heat of
the valley, the thought of walking up
hundreds of steps made the investigation
of Hatshepsut’s tomb too much to
bear. Back in Cairo, O’Neal witnessed
papyrus papermaking and purchased
some of the paper to use later for
monotypes. She would later discover
that her inks and paints were not
compatible with the papyrus. While
the monotypes on papyrus were a
disappointment, another process
discovered on this trip proved more
rewarding. She and Toro were introduced

weaving schools in Cairo. Upon learning
of the weaving schools, they were
concerned at first, imagining the small
fingers of child laborers weaving the
tapestries. But their fears were allayed
when they visited the school and
found teenagers in training to become
weavers of tapestries illustrating
traditional domestic life and biblical or
Pharaonic tales. Their guide, Tarik,
helped them negotiate an agreement
to make some of O’Neal’s paintings
into tapestries. O’Neal had slides of
the work made into photocopies and
12” x 7” transparences. At the weaving
school, the transparencies were made
into a large “cartoon” for the weavers to
follow. She was told to come back in a
few days and when she returned, much
to her surprise, she found the tapestry
was a faithful recreation of her painting.
O’Neal was so pleased with the tapestry
that she asked the “Old One” about
having other paintings made into
tapestries. He directed her to a town
known for its weavers. There she was
led into a complex littered with vats
of dye, with a loom located below a
broken-out hole in the ceiling—the
only light filtering into the workspace.
O’Neal gave the director the cartoons
needed for Meaningless Ritual, Senseless
Superstition, early 1980s and Hammem,
1984 to be made into tapestries.
They negotiated the project into the
afternoon while drinking mint tea
and devouring little cakes. O’Neal left
at dusk as the livestock were brought
into the work area where they would
sleep for the night. She and Toro drove
back to Cairo having left no monetary
deposit for the work. During the rest of
their trip they visited Coptic churches,
ate pigeons, and watched as butchers
holding long curved knives herded
branded camels through the street to
the slaughterhouse. This scene inspired
several works that included animals, a
frequent subject of O’Neal’s.
Continuing her sabbatical, O’Neal
traveled to Chile, Toro’s home. There he
introduced her to the Atacama Desert
and although there were no swirling
garments in Chile, the isolation that
O’Neal felt in the Atacama paralleled
her experiences in the Sahara, a quiet
and still place, yet teeming with unseen
animal and insect life.[18] She immediately
connected the landscapes though they
were so many miles apart.
In Santiago, Toro also introduced her
to his mentor Nemesio Antúnez,
director of the Museo Nacional de
Bellas Artes, who, upon learning that
she was an artist, invited O’Neal to
present slides of her work at the
museum. She showed paintings as
well as monotypes, and an impressed
Antúnez invited her to be a guest
printmaker at Taller 99 beginning the
following day. Antúnez had previously
directed the print workshop until 1963
before returning to reorganize and
revitalize it in 1986. Generations of
Chilean artists passed through the
Taller, and it continues to play an
active role in art education in Chile.
It was modeled on Stanley William
Hayter’s Atelier 17, where James Lesene
Wells, O’Neal’s printmaking professor
at Howard and Antúnez, had worked.
The aim of Taller 99 was to provide
young artists with the equipment and
encouragement to develop their technical
skills in different print media within an
ethos of collaboration. Breaking away
from initial primitivist/indigenous
styles and content, the Taller fostered
explorations in abstraction and
The next morning after her meeting
with Antúnez, O’Neal arrived at
Taller 99, greeted by shop regulars.
These printmakers were the elite of the
printmaking community in Santiago.
O’Neal filled her days printing,
disregarding her initial apprehensions
as she struggled to communicate in
Spanish. She worked from morning to
night, reveling in the blustery winter
evenings in the Taller with artists
bundled up in thick sweaters, coats,
boots, and scarves. She recalls the print
workshop had the smells and the feel
of a “traditional old fashioned print
shop—kerosene, cigarettes, lithotine,
alcohol, coffee, wet wool and the
estufa fueled by parafina.”[20] O’Neal
embraced this dangerous working
atmosphere, grateful that the shop
enveloped and protected the printers
away from the cold night. Her time in
the Taller shop was similar to her printmaking
experiences in Asilah. There
were no “little princesses,” she explains.
“Everyone had to earn their
keep from the moment they crossed
the threshold. From beginning to end
a work was your own, although each
printer was in the end paired with
other driven souls—exchanging the
printer’s devil position. I was allowed
to choose a [lithographic] stone, which
at the time seemed to be just about
as big as I was, and it grew as I learned
to prepare it from beginning to end.
I learned to wash the stone—one of the
most pleasurable processes in readying
it for drawing. One stone washing
the other which removes the old image
of the previous maker, there is a
marvelous rhythm that starts to manifest
as your body and mind get a hold of
the job at hand.”[21]

The process and rhythm of the shop
require the whole body to become a
part of the grinding down and smoothing
of the limestone—something that
would otherwise take years for water
to achieve in the natural environment.
O’Neal completed several lithographs
during her residency at Taller 99, where
her anxiousness to return to the stones
grew stronger each day.
After her experiences with printmaking
and her induction into the Taller 99 in
Santiago, O’Neal returned to cal with
a renewed commitment to reinstate
lithography into the art practice
curriculum. However, the traditional
use of highly corrosive combustible
chemicals made this impossible—the
Environmental Protection Agency’s
(epa) move to rid university print shops
around the country of serious health
hazards posed by toxins was the death
knell for many printmaking programs.
Compliance with epa guidelines
required an overhauling of the process
of printmaking, and as the art practice
program at cal was reshaped, the
printmaking program was terminated.[22]
In the summer of 1989, Robert
Colescott insisted that the University
of Texas at Austin (uta) hire O’Neal
for the second session of his summer
school contract because he had to leave
for Europe. On the first day of classes,
Tom Vanderlyn was assigned to her
as a teaching assistant. Upon learning
that he was a printmaker and had
access to the shop, they decided to
work together for the summer. They
worked after her classes, from 4 pm
until past midnight. “Tom taught
me an enormous amount about the
manipulation of the print process:
how to let the chemicals do much of
the work, how to use the reverse side
of the paper, tiny beads and stones,
fabrics, string, rope and various tools
as simple as a pencil to accomplish
certain quite unexpected and magical
results. I made probably 500-plus
prints, several of which were etchings,”
O’Neal recalls.[23] She was invited back
to teach painting at uta for three
summers in a row, and she continued
to pull prints with Vanderlyn during
these summer sessions. “[Vanderlyn]
was tough. [What] he taught me to do
was incredible,” she shares.[24] She used a
new technique—the reverse monotype
process in which a drawing on the back
of the paper creates a ghost-like image
that bleeds through to the image on
the other side as it is passed through
the press. In addition to this work,
O’Neal and Vanderlyn also printed
monotypes from drawings she created
during her Morocco residency,
including Two Deserts, Three Winters,
1990. O’Neal’s printmaking techniques
and skills improved as a result of
working with Vanderlyn, and the two
shared a mutual respect for one
another. “Tom and his family always
took me out for lunch or dinner before
my flight back to California. We were
forever amazed and amused by the
reception we received in these fine
establishments. You could hear a fork
drop—the African American woman
with this whole family of flaxen haired
people, five of which were beautiful
children,” O’Neal warmly remembers.[25]
By 1992 O’Neal was off again, exhibiting
examples of the monotypes she printed
during her 1984 residency in Morocco
at the Biennale Internationale Du
Dakar, in Dakar, Senegal, Africa. She
had previously represented the United
States at the Second World Black
and African Festival of Art in Lagos,
Nigeria (festac77) in 1977, where she
was in a group exhibition with Throne
Mitchell, Noah Purifoy, Faith Ringgold,
Haywood “Bill” Rivers, Vincent Smith,
William T. Williams, and Melvyn
Ettrick from Jamaica. While in Dakar,
the artists gave workshops, visited
studios and spoke with students at both
the Nigerian and Senegalese festivals.
An extended visit with the legendary
Nigerian artist Twin 77 at his compound
in Nigeria stood out as an especially
unforgettable moment for O’Neal. She
joined his wives in dying fabrics that
were sewn into traditional national
dress and modern and original designs
for men and women.[26] Once again
enthralled by African women and their
colorfully wrapped garments, O’Neal
observed that in Senegal the vibrant
clothing and wraps seemed to be almost
falling off of the women, slipping off
of their shoulders and revealing their
dark skin. The contrast of colored
fabric against dark smooth skin added
to the women’s sexiness—the wind
caught everything in its path, including
their elaborately braided coiffeurs.
This experience in Dakar inspired the
painting When History Speaks, It Dreams
(c. 1992) featuring a stone arch and
its supporting walls depicted in purple
hues. An image of the passageways in
the Goree Castle in Senegal that opened
to the sea, known as the “door of no
return,” this structure served as the last
exit for slaves as they boarded slavers’
vessels bound for the New World.[27]

Another printmaking residence came
as a surprise. Unknown to O’Neal,
her husband organized her prints from
the Blackburn Printmaking Workshop
in Manhattan, the Printmaking
Workshop in Asilah, Morocco, and
the Taller 99 Printmaking Studio in
Santiago, Chile, and sent them for
consideration for an Artiste en France
Award. Returning home from teaching
one day, tired and irritable—a
condition she often found herself in
while working at UC Berkeley at a
time when she felt the art department
was being “dismantled easel by easel,”
in her words[28]—she was greeted by
a pleasant surprise when she learned
Toro had applied for the prize on
her behalf, quietly responding to an
invitation in the mail to send in slides
and other materials. He selected the
slides, filled out the forms, gathered the
materials requested by the committee,
and sent them in. He knew that left
up to her, the invitation might not
get a response. O’Neal won the Artiste
en France award from the French
Government and Moet Chandon.
The award included, among other
things, a studio in Paris for six months,
round-trip tickets on Air France to
Paris, and a beautiful medal created by
Tiffany that would be presented at an
exhibition of her work at the French
Cultural Center in New York. O’Neal
was shocked and delighted.
The exhibition at the French Consulate
in New York was beautifully mounted
and the reception swelled with colorful
flowers, gorgeous food, fine champagne,
and delectable French desserts. She
invited guests from all parts of her life,
from the East and West Coasts, and
places in between. The French Consulate
invited the New York museum
community and gallery directors.
After this event, O’Neal and Toro
returned to Oakland from New York,
packed their bags and left for Paris.
As resident Artist en France at the Cité
International des Arts building, O’Neal
shared a printmaking studio with
other printmakers. Although they were
quite social, the printmakers at the
Cité were also extremely territorial.
O’Neal remembered: “[I] found it hard
[to believe] that as a professional artist
I could still cause a shop to want to
banish me. I am not sure why a brand
new bath of acid tempts [my] worst
behavior. Yes, it happened again—as
the most recent arrival in the
communal shop, I was already seen
as an interloper, taking up more press
time, more wall space, more table
space, more thumbtacks, more very
petty little things, pencils, touche, rags,
the lot. Well, it of course just made
matters worse—I left a plate in the
new acid bath too long and this time it
smoked up the whole lab. No one
actually said go away, but my blunder
was the talk of the Cité printmaking
world for a few unpleasant days.”[29]
O’Neal did have one friend at the
Cité—Bejou, who she had worked
with in Asilah. They were happy to be
working together again. Bejou taught
O’Neal techniques that she hadn’t
used before which were innovations
that Bejou developed from the more
traditional techniques passed down to
her through family. Bejou also tried to
defend O’Neal to the other printers,
but the American artist’s reputation in
the lab was so stained that she decided
as soon as she could find a place, she
would move to what she called “higher
ground.” One evening at the Cite
Gallery, O’Neal ran into an old friend
from her first trip to Asilah, Morocco,
Prince Mohammad Bennani. After the
gallery opening closed, he returned
to her studio and they talked into the
night. Later, it was the Prince came to
her rescue, solving her studio problem
by finding her a print shop that was
about to close due to rent problems.
It was still winter, and this was the
coldest shop O’Neal had ever worked
in—colder than Santiago, and colder
than her studio in the Pardee Building
in Oakland on damp fog-filled Bay
Area days—but she felt she was meant
to be there. All of the paying printers
had deserted, but after she moved in,
some returned and resumed printing
and paying the rent so that the lab
could be sustained.

In Paris, O’Neal made a habit of going
into the printmaking studios and
collecting the torn sheets of printing
paper that other printmakers had
tossed. Sometimes there were printed
images on the throwaways. She retrieved
these from the trash and took them
back to their studio—this was good
paper that could be used again. These
cast-off papers became parts of her
paintings as collage papers, glued
onto the canvases or other surfaces
and painted over. Often, ghost-like
images from the original printer’s
hand showed through beneath the
paint. O’Neal didn’t care. The printed
images were treated just like any
other collage material gathered from
disparate sources. O’Neal and Toro
were sharing and borrowing ideas and
materials from each other during
this time, and these collage paintings
were a favorite experiment of theirs,
allowing them to create a variety of
types of surface textures. They both
were invited to participate in the
Troisieme Triennale Mondiale d’Estampes,
Musee d’Art Contemporaine de
Chemalieres, France, 1994-1997.

O’Neal’s challenges diminished as she
settled into the rhythm of the shop.
She found another friendly face in
Carrie Mae Weems, who had a studio
in the same Cité des Art building.
The two women visited each other’s
studios frequently, sharing ideas on
their respective works, residencies, and
their winter in Paris. The weather was
still very cold—Parisians said it was
the coldest winter in recent memory—
and the whole city seemed to exist in
monotones of gray. Only months earlier
O’Neal had emerged from the arid
sunbaked lands of Northern Africa to
arrive in this color-starved city of damp
narrow streets—the most populous
urban center in Western Europe. In
Morocco, her work mirroredthe colorful
scarves and fabrics that contrasted with
the often all-black sheaths and veils
worn by the women. In Paris, O’Neal
observed the atmospheric change
that caused people to bundle up and
scurry in and out of buildings and
underground passages in search of
shelter. It was during this period that
O’Neal produced (Fig. 11) Dark Days
in the Abundant Blue Light of Paris,
Bojangles Series, 1994, a print that
makes reference to the commonly
expressed notion of Paris as the “city
of lights.” Since the Middle Ages,
Paris has been known as Ville Lumière
thanks to its reputation as a center of
education, ideas, and culture. During
the 19th century, whole quarters
of the city were torn down, opening
up large avenues and letting light
stream through the transformed
modern city—a makeover that further
reinforced the perception of Paris as
the “city of lights.” In the prints and
paintings she produced in Paris,
O’Neal often portrayed the bluish light
emitted by street lamps on cold winter
evenings. (Fig. 12) Claquettes, Bojangles
Series, 1994, is also a part of that series.
As is often with O’Neal her colleague
Robert Colescott, they slyly presented
historical and political antidotes in
their paintings and prints. Here O’Neal
names this Parisian series after the tap
dancer, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, also
one of the Harlem Hellfighters like
James Reese Europe, whose regiment
led the first Americans into France
during WWI and then after the Armistice,
into Germany. A large monotype of
two café chairs, entitled Round Up the
Usual Subjects (1994) alludes to another
iconic Parisian subject. An animistic
rendering of the familiar shapes loved

by visitors to Paris—French black and
yellow café chairs of the sort that are
found in many traditional French cafés,
especially those in parts of the city
frequented by tourists—these chairs
seem to say, “be seated.”
O’Neal searched for and found
color in this gray environment in her
daily walks through street market
stalls, focusing on the fresh fruits and
vegetables, the loaves of bread and
cheese, and the fish and eggs. Thinking
back on those days, O’Neal remembers
the advice she received from David
Driskell, who taught her to always
work in the studio: “You don’t know
the hour or the day that the muse will
drop into the studio. You have to be
in the studio for her to visit. So many
pieces start as a bowl of fruit or a
bouquet of flowers”—or a still-life—
shoes in a bowl as in (Fig. 13) Untitled
(Shoes), c. 1994.[30] She imagined color
in other ways in compositions that
were humorous and tragic as in
(Fig. 14) Willie Jackson Stuffed her in
the Closet and Left, 1993.
Paris served as a needed immunization
against what was to come upon O’Neal’s
return to Oakland. Returning to her
studio, the artist found a notice on the
door informing her that the property
had been sold and all tenants would
have to vacate the building. The building
was a center of artistic activity that
also housed an independent bookseller,
a shoeshine shop, a beauty shop, a
sandwich shop, a metal plating outfit,
an art gallery, and Crown Point Press,
a printmaking shop that pulled prints
with artists such as Robert Colescott,
John Cage, and Richard Diebenkorn.
In my recent essay for Choose Paint!
Choose Abstraction! Celebrating Bay Area
Abstract Artists, I explore the relationship
between O’Neal’s tough paintings and
her printmaking residencies:
“Several residencies marked her
years at Berkeley; the first was
with Robert Blackburn at his
printmaking workshop in New
York. O’Neal was drawn to
printmaking because it provided
an opportunity to make her work
available to more people. Her
monotypes had their origin in
her large paintings, so large that
they could only be exhibited in
museum galleries. Printmaking
also opened a wide door to
another technique, to social
interactions with artists and others
in new places, and to further
residencies: in New York; Asilah,
Morocco; Santiago, Chile, and
Paris, France, at Cité International
des Arts, where she printed Dark
Days in the Abundant Blue Light
of Paris (1994). This monotype
has the same organic feeling as
O’Neal’s paintings, which she says
are alive and constantly changing.
It has two beautiful white impasto
corsets that seem to pulsate out
from their dark blue backgrounds,
and it is the quality of the light
depicted in the print that is so
evocative. O’Neal has described
walking back from her Paris studio
to her apartment and seeing the
brightness of the reflected light from
street lamps against rain-covered
streets and sidewalks. She was in
Paris in the winter, so the contrast
between a multitude of lights in the
darkened city and these artificial
lights created a striking display.
Printmaking was also personally
gratifying for O’Neal. It was more
immediate than painting and
allowed for more experimentation,
and also for her to change from
one medium to the next. O’Neal
later transferred some techniques
from printmaking into painting.
Her paintings from the 1970s
through 1980s are known for
their opaque quality and, when
in color, for the bushiness of the
buttery movements of the paint.

Beginning in 1989, the time she
spent in several printmaking
workshops—especially in Nemesio
Antúnez’s Taller 99 print workshop
in Santiago, Chile—changed her
paintings. Antúnez was known for
his use of new technical methods
that correspond to mechanized
images, which influenced O’Neal.
She began to thin the paint and
scrape it across her canvases with
commercial paint rollers. She
stamped designs onto darkened
surfaces that had been covered
in charcoal, allowed to set, and
then glazed. These works relate
to O’Neal’s lifelong concern with
building up layers. Although
they are paintings, the markings
imitate what she experienced with
printmaking brayers and other
tools. So, while her monotypes
initially replicated the qualities
of her paintings, later paintings
replicated the qualities of
O’Neal’s transition from the last decade
of the 20th century into the 21st
century is marked by a fluctuation
between paintings featuring a very dark
palette and ones with heated surfaces
of reds, oranges, and yellows. In the
dark paintings, O’Neal uses commercial
paint rollers to apply paint to her
canvases, stopping the roll, skipping
the paint, moving the roller in
different directions, and standing it on
end to achieve varying visual shapes
and textures, thereby invigorating her
canvases with roller marks that suggest
the layers achieved in printmaking.
(Fig. 15) Grave Robbers, c. 1998 was
inspired by Hatshepsut’s tomb in Egypt
that contrasted the ancient with the
contemporary realities of war tanks.
In (Fig. 16) Tillie, Lassie and the Don,
1998, she created a new type of
rhythmic energy on an otherwise
darkened canvas. Alternating from
her signature brushwork to painting
with paint rollers was just one more
way to get the paint onto canvas—to
create spaces and a place for her
drawings to live, a place for the viewer
to walk into and take up temporary
residence with her cast of characters
who could include Tillie, frolicking
Whales, running panthers chasing
doves, and the many fruits and flowers
that are all over the inside of her
home and outside in her garden. Her
hot-palette paintings were inspired
by her last difficult years at cal where
she envisioned gargoyles—hybrid
humanoid and animal forms, sometimes
dancing and happy, and sometimes more
sinister. She focused on the gargoyles
as a symbol of her hard-won residency
in Paris. Because her department head
did not approve her leaving so soon
after her sabbatical, she had to win
the support and approval from the
Chancellor. The gargoyles on Notre
Dame near her studio apartment in
Paris found their way into her carnivalesque
drawings and paintings,
which blossomed into the mixed media
paintings comprised of distinctively
layered competing drawn imagery that
illustrates the profound richness her
various printmaking residencies have
added to her art practice.

[1] The information for this article is based on taped
interviews with Mary Lovelace O’Neal by Lizzetta
LeFalle-Collins from March 2007-2008 and personal
communications by telephone, email messaging
[2] Mary Lovelace O’Neal, email to author, 9 August,
[3] Notes complied by Michael A. Roosenvelt, “Stanley
William Hayter & Atelier 17,” www.ateliercontrepoint.
com/a171.html. Quoted from Art in America, 52,
December, 1964.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Long exposure to the toxic fumes caused poisoning
and created agitated personality disorders such
as the one epitomized by “The Mad Hatter,” an
eccentric character that behaves erratically at the
tea party table with the March hare and utters
nonsensical poetry and riddles in Lewis Carroll’s
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
[8] Ibid.
[9] O’Neal, clarification by telephone with author.
[10] O’Neal, email to author, 9 August 2009.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17 O’Neal, email to author, 9 August, 2009.
[18] David Driskell and Mary Lovelace O’Neal in
conversation at the Third Annual Distinguished
Lecture at the David Driskell Center, University of
Maryland, College Park, 22 April, 2004.
[19] Taller 99,
(accessed 9 August, 2009).
[20 O’Neal, email to author, 9 August, 2009.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] O’Neal, transcribed from cassette tape, 15 July, 2008.
[25] O’Neal, email to author, 9 August, 2009.
[26] O’Neal, email to author, 11 July, 2009.
[27] Reviews: African Arts vol. 11, issue 1 (October 1977);
Black Scholar vol. 9, issue 1 (September 1977): 34-37.
[28] O’Neal, transcribed from cassette tape, 15 July, 2008.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid.
[31] “Mary Lovelace O’Neal: Tough Painting,” in Choose
Paint! Choose Abstraction! Celebrating Bay Area
Abstract Painting, Museum of the African Diaspora,

San Francisco, CA, exhibition catalog, 2012.