To Live Without the Mask of the Past: A Conversation with Curlee Raven Holton
Curlee Raven Holton is a painter and printmaker whose work addresses significant personal, political, and cultural events. On view at MHCAM from July 17–December 16, 2018, Holton's print portfolio Othello Re-imagined in Sepia explores the humanity and emotional complexity of William Shakespeare’s tragic character. Associate Curator Hannah W. Blunt spoke with Holton about the research and inspiration behind the project, and how it connects to his larger creative journey—a journey about restoring humanity, showing our vulnerabilities, and removing our deceptive masks.
To Live Without the Mask of the Past: A Conversation with Curlee Raven Holton
Interview by Hannah W. Blunt, Associate Curator (conducted in May 2018)
Hannah Blunt: Can you tell me about the origins of Othello Re-imagined in Sepia?
Curlee Raven Holton: In 2010 I was invited to do a project at the International Printmaking Workshop in Venice as part of their “Remembering Venice” series, connected to the upcoming Venice Biennale. I told them I’d like to do something related to Othello. I came back for a month in 2012 and produced 10 plates based on illustrations I had done in my own studio in Pennsylvania. I was attempting to illustrate Othello in a way that was more sensitive to his cultural background, his history, and this idea of a person of color functioning in a predominantly white society and his connection to contemporary issues around race.
Being in Venice, I could go to museums and look at arms, swords, all those kinds of metalwork. I also did research on England’s relationship with Moorish empires. That was the inspiration, supposedly, for Shakespeare’s writing of Othello. There was an ambassador that was visiting the English court from Morocco and Elizabethan England had never seen anything like this. Apparently Othello was representative of this cultural encounter. So that is how I got really engaged with Othello in Venice.
I was in the company of other international artists and that was fantastic as well. I executed all the plates in Venice, etched them, prepared them, proofed them and then shipped them back to the US to be editioned. At the closing of our residency, we were invited by the mayor of Venice to his home. The mayor took me over to a window and pointed out a mansion on the lagoon. He said, “That was Othello’s home.” You know, Othello was an imaginary character, but he was so real in Venice. I would go to the plaza sometimes (San Marco) and people would look at me and say “Ciao Othello.” So it was such a real thing you know, it’s amazing.
HB: How much time did you spend with Shakespeare’s text?
CRH: Well, I have always been inspired by Othello, even when I was a student. That final line, “One kiss before death, sweet Desdemona,” has always stayed with me.
I gathered information from the text that would allow me to illustrate the important points: his arrival, his identity, the costumes and clothing. I went through a number of bookshops in Venice looking for copies of Othello to see if there had ever been a portrayal by an artist of color. I never found one. I thought I could bring some sensitivity to it.
I also started reading some of the things written by my colleague at Lafayette College, Dr. Ian Smith. Smith is a specialist on Othello and Shakespeare. He had recently identified a new historical fact that the famous handkerchief in the play—often interpreted as a white hanky with strawberries on it, referencing Desdemona’s virginity—was actually the color of mummy cloth. Mummy cloth is a dark, black, sepia-like tone that relates to Othello’s Moorish past and North African ancestry. So that was very important. It was a recovery of a historical fact that supported an identity of Othello that was much larger than the way he had been described or presented in modern interpretations.
Smith is also very interested in the personification of the other and how issues of otherness are still pervasive in society—specifically, the identity of “black,” the fear of blackness, and the way in which black was associated with a forceful sexuality and bestiality. When Othello kills Desdemona, for example, he is described as returning to his savage nature. This is a stereotype of people of color that Smith had been unpacking in his research, and he was also looking at the portrayal of the black individual throughout history. And my interest was perked. I had been well aware that in the past there have been black anti-heroes such as Richard Wright’s fictional character Bigger Thomas, and of course O.J. Simpson—these heroes that fail, that are defective and flawed. Eventually, no matter how they merge with society, they are separated again from society because of their violence and their uncontrollable passion. So, this really connected not only to Othello but historical portrayals of blacks. I was really intrigued by that.
HB: Let’s hear more about this idea of reimagining Othello. Dr. Smith, who contributed an introduction to the portfolio, describes it as a response to Othello’s appeal for a balanced account of his story. As his final line read, “I pray you, in your letters, when you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice.” Can you elaborate on some of the ways that you’re “relating” Othello’s story.
CRH: It attempts to reposition Othello in a more positive light. He was a hero, but a negative portrayal of a hero. It makes the viewer think about the many black individuals who have achieved great distinction but always remain suspicious characters in public opinion.
Othello was brought in to save Venice but he was not invited into the society, because there were barriers against it. But at the same time, some people loved and cared for him. That’s why the mask is so important in the print series. Everyone arrives with a mask, even Othello, but Othello is willing to take it off, meaning he is willing to become vulnerable and accessible. But even Desdemona continues to wear her mask. It’s the idea that she does not really ever let herself go and become just a human in the interest of his affection. She still holds onto that tribal identity, that connection, and that privilege.
In one scene they’re both talking about their past, or imagining their different paths forward. You can see her hand reaching to his chest. Instead of him penetrating her, she is penetrating him. So it is a switch, a sort of reversal of roles. It is the idea of giving Othello a sense of humanity, relevance, compassion, affection, and vulnerability.
And then the idea of using sepia ink, is related to the context of skin color and race. It connects to Othello’s own background, not the European background, but the Moorish, North African, and Muslim background.
HB: You were just talking about the image, “Dreams of Two Different Worlds,” right? I had been hoping you would tell me about the imagery in the background, behind the two characters. Do I see a Virgin Mary figure?
CRH: That’s behind Desdemona, that’s a classical religious reference. And then you see her riding a bull, that’s the sexual reference. Dreaming of a bull, according to Jung and Freud, represents a certain kind of sexual desire. So Desdemona is dreaming of this bull which represents Othello, and he is dreaming of a past that has no connection to her past. They’re coming from two different worlds and they are trying to merge those worlds. I’m suggesting that he is willing to merge his world. He gave up, in a sense, his Islamic religion, his background. He becomes a European general. So he is surrendering his past, his history, to become a member of this tribal group—the military. But what has Desdemona surrendered?
HB: Can you say more about the masks?
CRH: Masks are all over Venice! They have big celebrations and festivals where they wear elaborate gowns and masks.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger suggested that we are all on an axis, and that every now and then we reveal ourselves and conceal ourselves, so to speak. Homi Bhabha, a contemporary philosopher, speaks about it as well. That only with a certain kind of security and comfort are we willing to show ourselves, but outside of that we have a pretend self that is presented. So my prints explore this idea that Othello has a self that is available to the public, while Desdemona remains concealed by the mask.
In relationships, as you know, we often say “tell me the truth, and how do you really feel?” Well, we’re always hesitant because if we tell the truth it might undo those we love. We always negotiate that. In Othello Re-imagined in Sepia, Othello and Desdemona are negotiating the ability to share one’s true identity and opinions with each other. So that’s what the mask stands for. And then also the double consciousness that W.E.B. DuBois speaks about for African Americans: one self that negotiates American society and the other self that is hidden away—the patois, the other language.
Joan Jonas. We’re looking at this idea of the mirror as a universal symbol of the discrepancy between meaning and appearance. I think masks are a similar trope, and I suspect there is going to be potential for some interesting dialogues across these exhibitions. About how we see ourselves and how the world sees us.HB: There are elements of this project that connect to another exhibition we’re opening this summer, focused on the theme of the mirror in the work of
CRH: And what those images service and the construction of those images. The myth and how memory is constructed in such a way that perpetuates a positive mythology of an individual. We filter all the time. You can imagine, Shakespeare writing a play, creating a metaphor to make statements about society, about culture, about interpersonal relationships, about otherness. And the metaphor is not real but it gives us a chance to ponder these issues. If you are willing to look at the reflection and understand what you see in that reflection, it’s really a manifestation of your imagination. You can start to unpack it. It’s really wonderful.
That brings to mind something that happened to me years ago. I was at a party and I was being introduced to this woman who had this large hair on that wasn’t her hair, and she had this extreme makeup and blue contact lenses. Well, she was an African American woman and I was frightened when I looked at her because I said, “Oh, this is like a clown or something!” Of course she was presenting herself as beautiful.
HB: How do you feel this project connects to your larger creative journey and other aspects of your work?
CRH: I’m glad you asked that question. When I look at artwork and think about artists, I try to get at their motives. What is the work really about? What are they saying? And some artists, they’re making objects that can be profound, can be entertaining, indulgent, can be a whole set of things. But what is that artist using that object to assert? What positions are they taking with it? I think one of the principles of my work is the restoration of humanity.
If we can speak about humanity and move things that get in the way of expressions of humanity, I think that is the most positive thing. I think it’s rooted in the historical experience of the African American—a person often represented with a kind of absence of humanity, a diminished sense of humanity, that one wasn’t a complete human—and an effort to re-humanize the African American. This is a constant effort. Some of the major institutions related to the story of African Americans, whether it is the new Lynching Memorial, or the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, represent a restoration effort. If we can tell this story, then we can reveal the incidents and the pain and the contradictions that existed. If we can do that, then we can get to the point where we can rebuild that sense of humanity.
The Othello series is a restoration of his humanity. To speak of his humanity is to speak of my own humanity. It’s also an assertion of a cultural perspective and that cultural perspective is relevant.
When I first arrived at Lafayette College as a new faculty member in 1992, I was expected to do an exhibition as well as a public lecture on my work. So what I did, rather than have an announcement produced with an example of my work, I displayed a photograph of myself. At the time I had dreadlocks and all of that, and that was the cover of my announcement. I wanted people to see me. So you can imagine, all around campus every staff person had stuck on their bulletin board a photograph of Curlee. Not a work of art, but my face. And then I did a presentation of photographs of my family, not my artwork. I told them, “I believe you think I’m a manifestation of your imagination, that I don’t come from a real place.” So it was my grandparents, my cousins, family gatherings, all those kinds of things.
So the ideal in my work is to assert a cultural perspective that is relevant. And my particular existential, philosophical being, although it is idiosyncratic—meaning it is personal—does reflect a universal human struggle for relevance. My story is our story, your story is also my story. I think that’s important and I want to achieve that in my work.
The current series I’m doing is called Deluge and it has these storms and people surviving and people gathering things and all kinds of things happening. It’s really a metaphor for how we survive the deluge—the deluge that can be both physical and emotional—the things that happen to us that we have no control over. I know you know about this, when your child is born, there is a point where you’re controlling it and then there’s a point where you have absolutely no control of what’s happening. He controls you, totally. There’s points when everything is gone, just the essentials left. What do you hold on to? What are the most important things? So that’s what my work is about and I think that the Othello series fits into that, my journey, our journey.