Dindga McCannon, born July 31, 1947, is an African-American artist, quilter, author and illustrator.
McCannon was born and raised in Harlem and inspired to become an artist at the age of 10. She is self-taught and works intuitively. Calling herself a “fiber artist” she works at “fusing my fine art “training” with the traditional women’s needlework taught to me by my mother, Lottie K. Porter and grandmother Hattie Kilgo-sewing”, beading, embroidery and quilting into what is now known as ArtQuilts.
As a 1960’s member of Weusi, Dindga became interested in the Black Arts movement. In the 1970’s, she was part of the first group show of professional black women artists in New York City. Dindga has been an artist for 50 years. In addition to her work as a quilter author, and illustrator, Dindga considers herself a costume designer and muralist and a print maker. Her work is a celebration of women’s lives, portraits. Her art is a window into “herstory.”
Camilla Saly interviewed her at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Harlem, NYC where she exhibited her piece ‘Age Ain’t What it Used to Be.’
Advantages of Age: The description of Dindga McCannon’s piece, created in 2016, “Age Ain’t What it Used to Be” reads as follows:
Dindga McCannon’s piece calls attention to another social division, age. Her quilt illustrates a woman not deterred by her age. Rather, her personality has been shaped by historic events, like the Civil Rights movement and Feminism, and cultivate her own personality.
Advantages: Can you tell me a little about your artist’s journey?
McCannon: I’ve been an artist over 50 years. I started as a young girl in Harlem, I decided I wanted to be an artist in the late 1950’s. Family didn’t like it, but I didn’t care. It wasn’t sensible. People thought I was crazy. After having children I understand why.
The day after I was 16 I met the Weusi Artists Collective in Harlem. I got a volunteer position in a public school, and I said “I’m an artist,” so I got my first teaching job. The director was sympathetic. I saw the black artists on St. Nicholas Ave displaying their work, and by Sunday I was a part of that group. They helped me have my first exhibit 1965 at “The Truth,” a 135th street coffee shop.
African clothing was coming into vogue. I started making those kinds of clothes. I went to Fashion Industries High School. I started making thousands of Dashikis and selling them. I married a fellow artist, we got an apartment in the Bronx, we were dispossessed, and then we moved to the Lower East Side, and then two years later I got divorced, moved, had a child, and closed the store.
Elsworth Allsby, another artist, recommended I have a show at “Acts of Art” on 15 Charles Street. Because of that show I ended up having a walk-up studio on East 2nd Street. I had lots of men artists as friends. Faith Ringold and Kay Brown were my only women artist friends. I wanted to know what other black women artists there were. We found maybe 10-12 artists, and they came up to my Lower East Side apartment. Charlie Mingus lived around the corner, I had the store on East 2nd Street – a boutique and gallery became a hub of activity. Jazz saxophonist Jackie McClean lived nearby, and Andy Palliet was down the street. My friend Juliet had a fashion store and Kadija sold the first African-inspired designs to Macy’s. We met together.
The lights were out, something was dripping, but they still all came up. By banding together we hoped we could get something done. We had our first gallery at Acts of Art in 1971.
Advantages: What kind of response did you get from the New York art world?
McCannon: “There’s no such thing as black art,” said our professors at the Art Students League, while I took classes with Jacob Laurence, Al Hollingsworth, Richard Mayhew, Charles Alston. Those were our contemporary Black Masters, and they mentored me.
I continued to do my work. I also had to become a jack-of-all-trades. Edgar White, my boyfriend, was a writer, and we decided to write children’s books together. He went back to playwriting afterward, and I was asked by the publisher to write children’s books on my own. So I began to do that. Then I wrote “Peaches,” about growing up in Harlem. Then “Wilemina Jones, Future Star!” about me as a teenager. They’re still available on Amazon.
Advantages: Were you making a living as an author, or how else did you support yourself?
McCannon: I was a teacher. I taught all kinds of arts. I worked with Hospital Audiences, whose speciality was to do this. They hired me to teach art, but I found that was not always sufficient, so I developed a craft-art type of thing to do: sew, make jewelry, paint, whatever, and then I would go to community fairs with my art – I don’t drive – but I went all over the country. You figure out ways of going around and carting all your stuff around. All along I was still exhibiting. In the late 1990’s I stopped doing that so I switched my emphasis to getting into galleries and teaching the “forgotten and the lost” in jails and other places.
Advantages: How did textiles become a part of your artistic expression?
McCannon: My original media was painting. Then I became a print-maker. Then I began doing works with fabrics. I needed to be able to transfer things. Textiles in the art world were just beginning to come into their own. So I had to work with “alternative galleries” where they would exhibit textiles. A lot of African-American women had galleries in their homes because they couldn’t get an exhibit elsewhere. I’ve done murals, too.
Advantages: I’m going to go through some of the statements written on your piece, and ask you to comment on each one: “Don’t call me girl, I am seventy years old.”
McCannon: “I’m doing a piece on that separately. I have this thing about words: I know that between women we say, “Let’s get the girls together.” People refer to us as girls. I remember fighting so hard not to be 18 so I would be a “young woman.” It doesn’t seem to bother anyone else, but it bothers me. The meanings are not so visible: don’t call me girl. I’m a woman!
Advantages: “The girl is gone the girl is gone, ‘Cause the girl is gone, except in spirit. The woman is here; the woman is here. Proud member of the silver panther club”
McCannon: There used to be a group of women called the grey panthers. I called myself a silver panther. It arose from my yoga class. There was this conversation about the “silver sneaker club.” They said, I don’t want to be known as old.” I thought, “Hello, you are old!” They wanted to be platinum, but I said, “What’s the matter with being old? You can’t go back. Age is the best thing that ever happened to me. Each age has its plusses and minuses. Embrace it! If you’re lucky enough to retire and have a pension, embrace it! People complain, they have nothing to do. I pray for their hours!
It’s related to my coming up at the time of the Black Panthers. I considered myself a fully aware human being. I was not a member of them, but I was quite aware of that they were doing. The world needed to be shaken up and woken up. Also, the African-American art movement was very much community-oriented. We wanted to define and plant a stake saying, “We have an art form. Don’t deny that we have a culture.” We wanted to do black art, show black faces, and my early teachers didn’t understand that. In the classroom when I started my people were green, or purple, until I could do what I really wanted to do. Outside the classroom it was different.
From early on I was doing work that would reflect what was going on my life.
Artists were doing women holding children — stereotypes of women. They weren’t doing women who were thinking, working; who were thought-provoking, or angry, and I started to do work to reflect my life around me, the women I knew.
Advantages: “It’s not about age it’s about a soaring spirit.”
McCannon: That means: this is a time when, for most of us, our responsibility level should be less. This is your time to be yourself to soar! It’s not too late; you still have time.
Advantages: “Party over the hill!”
McCannon: It’s a whole play on words. I went to the party store and I wanted to see what they had for people over 65. Some of it was downright tacky, but I used it to make a book that said, “Oh my gosh, I’m 60!” They had some crazy confetti, some crazy, awful stuff! I gathered all that stuff from the store, and because it was so awful I ripped apart the book and used some of it in the piece. I think we should celebrate. Every day we discover our friends have cancer, have passed, so every day should be a party. We should be happy about every day we are glad to see another day. Every day should be a celebration – not necessarily a formal one, but a mental one. Each day is an unwritten book, an adventure.
Advantages: “It’s uphill from here. Silver is the color of my hair, not red”
McCannon: Everyone said, “Why don’t you dye your hair red? I used to dye my hair red, but now I feel, “My hair’s silver! Love it, leave it or go away! You see older women. You should be able to dye your hair any way you want. You see a woman at 90 dying her hair dark black – there’s nothing wrong with that, but to me there is. I went to a wig store and picked up a nice curly grey wig, and that’s what I wear when I feel like doing something different. When they dye their grey hair they don’t want people to see them as old, and you should have the freedom, but I choose to present myself au naturel.
Advantages: “No earned income credit after 65”
McCannon: When I went to get my taxes done, my tax accountant said, “they cut you off at 65.” They cut you off? There’s no earned income credit after 65? That’s ageism.
Advantages: “Old people jokes ain’t funny
I hate old people says a fabric store man”
McCannon: He did. You know I had something to say! He was probably aggravated. I’m not your average old person, so please don’t put that on me. You better pray that you reach old age. It’s a blessing! “If I didn’t need your cheap fabrics so much I would never come back here,” I said.
Advantages: “You are 65–welcome to pill world!”
McCannon: You go to the doctor; they start giving you pills. Every little ailment they give you a new pill: one for the morning, one for the afternoon, one for the evening. The medical/pharmaceutical people are in cahoots. When you have to take medication you find out how much it really costs. It costs 300-400 dollars for a short supply. Generic is not the same, but it’s just as good? What’s that all about?
Advantages: What is your art process like these days?
McCannon: I moved from New York to Philadelphia a few years ago. I thought I’ve always wanted to live somewhere else. It was the best move ever! It’s like living life without limits. I don’t have that many friends there, but I have my studio, and because I’m new to the city, I’m always seeing the visual feast of the city that’s all new to me. It’s fascinating and beautiful. Sometimes we get on the bus and go to a new part of town and we discover it.
I have a morning ritual: “Thank you God for letting me live another day; thank you. I’m not in New York any more. Thank you for my backyard!”
Follow your heart. Follow your dream. I chose to do my life differently. Others went to school and work where they would have a pension. I chose to do my life differently, and I think there should be room for everyone. I had a dream back then, and people said it was impossible, but I knew this is what I wanted to do, and I did it. I had faith and determination, and I pulled it off.
As an older person the wisdom that you have accumulated over your life helps you.
I am on my last series of mistakes. When I see life set up for me to make mistakes I can see them and avoid them before they happen. You can smell a rat, and your experience tells you how to act.
I personally think it is the best period of my life. Everything fell together: I got a husband and a house, I have more control over my time, I’m able to spend more time in the studio. Before, my studio time was a juggle between my working and exhibiting life. I’m having a ball. I’ve never had this much fun in my life.
Advantages: How can people find out more about you and see your work?