Artist, novelist and poet Barbara Chase-Riboud (Pennsylvania 1939) has innovated across sculptural and literary formats throughout her seven-decade career. Chase-Riboud’s exploration of sculptural technique and materiality are defined by the interplay between folds of cast bronze or aluminium, and coils of wool or silk which are knotted, braided, looped and woven.
Through the recurring motif of the fold and by combining materials with opposing qualities (hard and soft, tactile and rigid), Chase-Riboud creates forms that “not only relate to the art of the oxymoron by skilfully interweaving opposites, but which also reverse and upset the established order and hierarchy of parts – as only a true revolutionary does.”
Featuring a focused selection of large-scale sculptures, alongside works on paper dating from the 1950s to 2021, Barbara Chase-Riboud: Infinite Folds marked the first UK presentation of some of her most celebrated works. These included her early figurative bronze casts with found materials, geometric sculptures in aluminium, and finally, grand yet materially fluid fibre totems and obelisks, alluding to both real and mythical figures – and decorated in her signature colours of red, black and gold.
The most recent works in the exhibition revealed her enduring interest in examining the idea of monumentality. Committed to foregrounding transnational histories and cultures, Chase-Riboud draws breath from her personal experiences of living, working and travelling across Western and Eastern Europe, West Asia, Africa and South-East Asia. Her encounters with classical architecture, sculpture, and historical artefacts from global traditions have informed her ongoing fascination with the public monument.
In her major series, The Monument Drawings (1996 – 97), and across a selection of sculptures dating from the late 1960s, Chase-Riboud reimagines edifices and memorials that honour various historical, cultural, artistic and literary figures. These include Malcolm X, Josephine Baker, Cleopatra, Marquis de Sade, Nelson Mandela, and the Queen of Sheba. Such works reimagine the notions of memory, legacy, and power – prompting a consideration of which events are commemorated, and for whom. Set within the context of Kensington Gardens, where public statues frame the landscape, these works highlight the seminal yet often unacknowledged figures or events that continue to shape our impressions of the past and present.
The Formative Years (1950s – 60s)
Chase-Riboud’s work throughout the 50s and 60s was defined by her relocation from the US to Europe – instigating her experimentation with form, material and subject matter. Arriving in Paris in the 60s, she found herself among a diverse community of socio-politically engaged writers, artists, activists, and thinkers such as James Baldwin, Alexander Calder, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, Lee Miller, and Man Ray.
Through subsequently extensive travels throughout Egypt, Turkey, and Sudan, she deepened her knowledge and appreciation of global art and architecture, which continued to shape her output from this point onwards. Adam and Eve (1958) depicts two figures immeshed beneath a canopy, and was birthed while she completed her fellowship at the American Academy in Rome.
Alongside Walking Angel (1962), and Sejanus (1966), Adam and Eve demonstrates her experimental approach to the centuries-old, lost-wax casting process. In her use of the technique at the time these works were created, Chase-Riboud would forge figures in bronze from an assemblage of found animal bones and vegetable matter. Her ethereal forms recall the other-worldly and dream-like scenes that defined the surrealist movement of the time.
Similarly, these early pieces share a formal language with the accentuated forms and expressive surfaces of fellow sculptor and writer Alberto Giacometti (1901 – 1966), with whom Chase-Riboud met twice: first in 1962 at his studio in Paris with the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, and a few months later in Milan.
Confessions For Myself (1972)
Confessions for Myself was made following Chase-Riboud’s travels to China, India and Egypt between 1957 and 1965: a period that informed a “big creative change” in her work. During this time, she developed a unique process of sculpting with sheets of pliable wax and casting objects directly in the foundry. Marking an important touchstone within Chase-Riboud’s body of work, Confessions for Myself marries abstract and architectural sensibilities.
Folded strips and ribbons of bronze intersect around a triangular form, and then unfurl to meet woollen cords that hang towards the ground, creating a pyramid-structure. The work incorporates intricately knotted and braided fibres that are emblematic of the artist’s sculptures, indicating the influence of cultural objects that bring together contrasting materials – such as African performance masks carved into wood of raffia and reed.
In the preface to her first published collection of poetry, From Memphis and Peking (1974), Chase-Riboud stated that “poetry is very close to a discipline both familiar and dear to me: drawing. Both are dangerous searches for perfection… drawing prepared me for the demands of poetry.” In tandem with her work in bronze, Chase-Riboud has produced an extensive body of work on paper.
Untitled depicts an illusory space composed of architectural fragments, rock formations, and carved stonework. Emerging from an expanse of black charcoal, it recalls the ruins or archaeological sites of ancient civilisations. Engaging with the continuous presence of relics of the past in contemporary spaces, Untitled highlights her interest in public memory and commemorative contexts, and can be seen as a precursor to The Monument Drawings – depicting imaginary monuments to both seminal and underrepresented figures and events.
Following her travels to the people’s republic of China, Shanghai, Inner Mongolia, India and Cambodia, Chase-Riboud developed new attitudes not only towards her sculptures – which progressively moved further towards abstraction – but also to her literary practices.
In 1966, she represented the US in the World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. And in 1969 she returned to the continent for the Pan-African Cultural Festival of Algiers. These visits, alongside experiencing a plurality of artistic production from across the continent, made a significant impact on her creative development, which eventually saw her begin to challenge the hierarchies of the material.
During this period, she also began to work with aluminium – initially with her first public commission for the Wheaton Plaza Shopping Center in Maryland, and later with works such as Time Womb (1967) and Bathers (1969). By the end of the decade, she wanted to reimagine what she described as “the tyranny of the base” by fashioning elaborate ‘skirts’ that would hide the sculptures armature, and seemingly defy gravity. “The fibre skirt disassociates [the sculpture] from the ground and its surroundings [and finds its feet as] an object of ritual, and of magic.”
Meta Mondrian Monumentale (1967)
Meta Mondrian Monumentale is a scale model of the artists first public sculpture – a fountain commissioned for the now demolished Wheaton Plaza Shopping Centre. Constructed from polished aluminium with silk cords that cascade between the narrow seteles to emulate the flow of water, the original piece was designed to exist outside the plaza, where running water filtered between stamped aluminium produced music as it fell between the panels.
Chase-Riboud continued to create public works throughout her career, and in 1995 she was commissioned by the US General Services Administration to realise Africa Rising (1998). This was a large-scale bronze memorial dedicated to the free and enslaved Africans interred in the African Burial Site of Lower Manhatten, NYC. The piece is now permanently installed in the lobby of the Ted Weiss Federal Building, adjacent to the burial site.
“In the early pieces, I had used bronze in a fluid, liquid way, while the wool was static. There was often this paradoxical transfer of power from the bronze to the silken wool threads. But it really looked as if the wool was holding up the bronze. Bundled together, the fibre became a column of strength, the strong element – lets call it, for arguments sake, the male element. And reciprocally, the bronze became the soft, feminine element. I liked the contradiction of that.”
In the 1970s Chase-Riboud focused on playing with polarity. In the series Zanzibar which was inspired by her poem, Why Did We Leave Zanzibar? (1969 – 70), the totem-like forms constructed from strips and ribbons of bronze adorned with cascades of wool and silk, were drawn from her travels to East Africa.
Both the poem and the sculptures consider the history of violence, subjugation, and resistance on the island of Zanzibar, which was the centre of the Indian Ocean Slave Trade between the 17th and 19th centuries. Chase-Riboud mirrors this interest in colonial histories in her writing, which developed in the late 1970s to shed light on the history of slavery, and unearth the lost narratives of women of African descent.
As part of her series on Monumental Figures, many of the works bear striking resemblance to obelisks; tall, tapered structures such as those erected outside the entrances to ancient Egyptian temples for commemorating the dead. It includes Standing Black Woman / Black Tower (1973) and Standing Black Woman of Venice (2021). The latter was an artistic reply to Alberto Giacometti’s Women of Venice, a series of standing female figures he designed for the French Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1956.
In the 2021 exhibition, Standing Woman of Venice / Standing Black Woman of Venice – the two pieces from Giacometti and Chase-Riboud were displayed side by side; highlighting the dialogue or confrontation of styles between artists. Where Giacometti’s works are figurative and employ a minimum of means, Chase-Riboud’s are abstract and expressive.
Taken together, the works that form this series chronicle the evolution of Chase-Riboud’s sculptured creases, pleats and folds, which became more intricately detailed and stylised over time; expressing her exploration of touchstones of the Baroque: grandeur, dynamism, contrast and deep, bold colour.
In the 1980s, Chase-Riboud drew on her love of Egyptian art and Chinese antiquities, by returning to her experience of viewing the Han Dynasty burial tomb – containing the bodies of Prince Liu Sheng and Princess Dou Wan. Both were encased in traditional ceremonial suits constructed from delicate jade plaques, and sewn together with gold wire.
Cleopatra’s Wedding Dress (2003) and Cleopatra’s Bed (1997) employ similar techniques by composing objects from thousands of bronze squares, each intricately sewn together with red thread. In these works – part of a discreet series dedicated to the queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt (c. 69-30 BCE) – Chase-Riboud evokes the power, energy and desire associated with Cleopatra, through objects that seemingly could be found either in her long-lost tomb, or within the contents of her home.
Chase-Riboud’s interest in exploring “power as wielded by women” can also be found in works within her Tantra series from the 90s. These pieces allude to the goddess Shakti, the female consort to the god Shiva, who is said to represent cosmic energy, fertility, and feminine creativity, alongside exploring the interconnectedness of the spiritual, poetic and sexual experience.
Chase-Riboud has always remained deeply engaged with the politics of her home country. In the 1960s she expressed her solidarity with the civil rights movement, as well as the African independence movements. In 1965, the African American Muslim minister and human rights activist Malcolm X (1925 – 1965) was assassinated.
Deeply affected by this loss, Chase-Riboud dedicated a series of sculptures to his rememberance around 4 years later. “It was a matter of memory, of doing a monument – not to his philosophy, but in the Latin sense of memoria.” It was during this series, to which she would later return in 2003, 2008 and 2017, that Chase-Riboud described “using silk like you would clay – sculpting it.” The three ‘Malcolms‘ on display in this series show how the artist grappled with physically manifesting his memory, and in returning to him over the course of 48 years, she expressed his profound significance both to herself and the transformation of society at large.
The theme of remembrance is also the focus of her series of works on paper – made in the late 90s, and titled The Monument Drawings – which, through imagined monuments, commemorated political, cultural, and artistic figures and places with legacies that have transcended the ages. Executed in ink and charcoal, the delicate cross-hatching and marks depicting ropes or cords that emerge from organic matter find echoes in her sculptures.
Several drawings from the series include tributes to: the French nobleman, politician, philosopher, and writer best known for his erotic work, Marquis de Sade (1740 – 1841); as well as the Italian Roman Catholic Bishop and cardinal Giovanni Ricci (1498 – 1574); the father of Austrian philosophical writer Robert Musil, Alfred Musil (1846 – 1924); anti-apartheid activist and first president of a democratic South Africa, Nelson Mandela (c.1994 – 1999); Consort Zhen (1876 – 1900) concubine of the Guangxu Emperor of the Qing Dynasty in China; and the Queen of Sheba (c. 10th century BCE), a figure first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.
Numero Rouge and La Musica Josephine Red / Black (2021)
According to the artist, red in three-dimensional form is the most seductive colour in the spectrum – evoking powerful emotional responses and drawing attention with its luscious hue. Chase-Riboud was captivated by colour in the art and architecture of Beijing’s Forbidden City, with its tiled red roofs and lacquered scarlet columns.
In the La Musica series (1990), Malcolm X (2016), All That Rises Must Converge (2008) and Numero Rouge (2021), the bronze is stained through a patination technique that involves applying a thin layer of chemical compounds (patina), to create crimson, carmine and dark red-ruby hues across the sculpture’s surface.
Continuing the exploration of “the concept of women ruling the earth and shaping society in immutable ways”, La Musica Josephine Red / Black (2021) towers at two-metres, and honours the American-born dancer, singer, actress, civil-rights activist and World War II Agent, Josephine Baker (1905 – 1975). She was also the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, and to enter the French Panthéon.
Chase-Riboud has previously stated she feels as though she has a parallel existence to Baker – in that both are American women who made Paris their home, and contributed significantly to its creative and cultural milieu. In 1975 Chase-Riboud attended Baker’s last performance at the Bobino music hall in Paris.
The sculpture’s articulated black bronze is punctuated by undulating red cords which embody the grandeur, energy and dynamism of Baker, whom Chase-Riboud vividly remembers as being “transformed before my very eyes into a celestial being, towering ten feet tall and crowned in a beaded feather headdress, as she glided on stage.”