Whitehot Magazine

Cultural Rebels: The Art of Defiance: Artist Lonnie Holley Calls His Ancestors and Reflects on the Present Situation in America During His Residency at Elaine De Kooning House

Lonnie Holley, Photograph by Katherine McMahon, 2020.
Courtesy of Elaine De Kooning House


By COCO DOLLE December 1, 2020

I was introduced to the work of self-taught artist Lonnie Holley at the Marlborough gallery a year ago upon viewing producer Matt Arnett’s film on the artist's life “I snuck off a slave ship”. Acquired by the likes of the American Folk Art Museum and exhibited at the White House, the vernacular and visual works of Lonnie read like a metaphor for African American transcendence. Acclaimed by musicians, his dissonant jazz song writing and shamanic aesthetics radiate with brutal freedom and compassionate chantings calling upon his ancestors, reflecting on the present of this country. I came to interview him during his artist-in-residency at the historical Elaine de Kooning house on a beautiful winter day, immersed in the forest. 

COCO DOLLE: Your long life work aligns with the realm of nomadic soulful journeys, starting from a chaotic childhood in Alabama collecting relics, objects and stories along your path. How impactful is your residency at the Elaine de Kooning House to your practice today? 

LONNIE HOLLEY: Well, just knowing that I'm on an Island itself in relation to its local history and the events that have occurred around here. What have we learned since we got here in America? You’ve got to remember this is an Island right off of the United States. And it makes me think, because there is so much water between the land itself, it carries me backwards and forwards to the arrival. Like the sculpture piece that I have over there on the wall, I titled it “Slave Ship” - that little black piece right there. Just knowing that there are so many different types of inspiration just by our journey, through what has been now brought up to our daily living, how we expect our ways. Everything that you see here, has been accomplished within three weeks. As I'm working on my quilts, I scratch, cut and tear up material. I have to think about ways of binding materials together, tying it together. Sometimes I use neglected cardboards to scoot them down. My placements are the pieces that you see behind. And then we go from there to putting the images that you see here. These are my cut ups. Those are my two tables for cutting up. And then we apply them - they act as stencils. They are more of what one would say free. I don't draw them out. I just cut them out right out of my brain.

Lonnie Holley Photographed by Katherine McMahon, 2020.
Courtesy of Elaine De Kooning House

CD: Some of these works seem to reflect the free spiritedness of your musical practice, such as in these paintings on the wall as they read like sound waves applied onto the canvas. Is this how you work from one medium to another?

LH: I think it's actually what I try to tell people about how my talents enhance one another. How I think about the waves, and how I'm listening to the waves, and how I'm vibration as I'm feeling vibration. I'm feeling reasons to catch that and place it onto the canvas or place it onto an old quilt. I'm looking at the old quilts and what their possibilities were, the amount of sewing that went into, the hand worked by whoever the person was, that utilized these splits of material to express their ideas. I’d say, I utilize ideas and allow them to inspire from their pre-existing condition and re-express it. So it's really many different things. This piece I did called “Fenced In” is all that my mother and my grandmother went through. My mother had 27 children out of her 32 pregnancies. Because I remember when I was growing up, I really loved a song that spoke about where you build a fence all around yourself and protect yourself each and every day. This was a spiritual way of growing with a symbolic fence. The piece is made of little patches sewn in that keep growing as I found materials that help complete my idea. Monday I went out walking deep into the woods and I picked up this large stick and called it “Holy Staff”.

CD: Indeed your relationship with nature seems to lead to spiritual happenings. Why do you think you are connecting with life this way?

LH: It's just survival, that we got to survive. A lot of us get bored with our situation. Like I don't have nothing to do, but want to party all the time - sure! We want to party, we want something that we can be energized by. We want something that's gone to allow us to live. Meanwhile tornadoes, hurricanes, twisters, volcanoes and earthquakes, all other kinds of things that can happen on this one planet. We look at it with a God-Pain-Love situation. When we are supposed to be looking out for each other, trying to help each other or trying to tell each other, let's not give up, let not die. Let's not rush ourselves to death because we are like any other creatures. If you take down the beehive from the bees, they're going to build another. If you take and step on an ant hill, those little creatures are gonna build another. We need to be like them. We need to be very, very active in our ways to not let our emotions get in the way. Now we have the digital. I call it “code mana”, this manic computer technology management. We allow certain activities, like social media to get in the way - we allow it to run our emotions. Though It doesn't shut down your heart. It doesn't stop your brain from thinking. So my view as an artist, especially when you are having your works cataloged and put into book forms, when the information from your activities is important to the whole art world, is that types of information are important to be looked at, just like I made that slave ship sculpture. The activities that were captured out of and put into slavery here in America from different types of islands and that we had to break away from, in order to learn again. We had to learn how to be adaptable here. So my view as an artist is that information is a beautiful piece of mind. I tried to use everything that has a message. 

Lonnie Holley, Slave Ship, Photograph by Katherine McMahon, 2020. 
Courtesy of Elaine De Kooning House

CD: The notion of transfer is very strong in your work shaping traumatisms and experiences into genuine poetical forms. Do you believe we are messengers and instruments of transformation? 

LH: We are the caretakers. We are the example. We are the one that carry the living experiences. If you look at this branch, isn't it beautiful? One can imagine a story perhaps, as she's peeping through the branch, as she was on her way, home carrying the load of wood on her head. So this piece here is more of a center flow piece. Isn't it beautiful? It just showed the cloth, the garments. It shows everything that has been accomplished. But before I let you capture me, a lot of those human experiences were captured. There were great thinkers from generation to generation, and so on. Because of the activity of giving birth, I call it woundsmithing, all that has aligned. And that's that big profile that you see there. It's again, an energy that's inside of you. And then when your children are born, you see it, and then all the children down beneath you. And those that talked about how many people have been on this album and how much has been explored everything down to the ground. See the ground, see the roots, the roots are down when I did this sculpture here. I didn't know that it was going to be looking like a little small totem. It looked like an African mask. So what gives us indication of what is when we walk out in nature? This kind of drives me to want to do another big, beautiful piece like that. A lot of times I get up and I think about things that I have in front of me. I say, okay, let me see. Can I drop some notes? I'm always thinking. I'm thinking when I get up, I'm thinking on how to move it off. One thing leads to another operation.

Lonnie Holley, Photograph by Katherine McMahon, 2020. 
Courtesy of Elaine De Kooning House

CD: Your multifaceted practice unravels mythical territories. Is this how you live by everyday? 

LH: Just like you say, the concept is the mythical thing. It's in the mythical code zone. It's only when we as humans, take an idea and work it and take it to the next level. Let’s say, I take this idea and get up here and look down and take my pictures, click, click. I'll show you how fine it looks from above [the mezzanine in Elaine de Kooning’s house]. I come up here and study. And in the process, I go back down with a much clearer sense of what I want to do. I think Elaine De Kooning had a beautiful studio and how she designed it, let her keep in contact with nature because she could come over here, touch the branches of the tree. So I'm sure that back in her days, she would get up early in the morning. I get up sometimes four thirty or five o'clock in the morning and come up here, just sitting down sometimes just to think. That's wonderful. But the main thing is about how we keep being appreciative and keep seeing. WM


Coco Dolle

Coco Dolle is a French-American artist, writer, and independent curator based in New York since the late 90s. Former dancer and fashion muse for acclaimed artists including Alex Katz, her performances appeared in Vogue and The NY Times. Over the past decade, she has organized numerous exhibitions acclaimed in high-end publications including Forbes, ArtNet, VICE, and W Magazine. She is a contributing writer for L’Officiel Art and Whitehot Magazine. As an artist, her work focuses on body politics and feminist issues as seen at the Oregon Contemporary (OR) and Mary Ryan Gallery (NYC).


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