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Mon, 06.26.1939

Barbara Chase-Riboud, Artist, and Author born

Barbara Chase-Riboud

*Barbara Chase-Riboud was born on this date in 1939. She is a Black visual artist and sculptor, novelist, and poet.

Barbara Chase was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the only child of Vivian May Chase, a histology technician, and Charles Edward Chase, a contractor. Chase displayed an early talent for the arts and began attending the Fleisher Art Memorial School at the age of eight. She was suspended from her middle school after being accused, mistakenly of plagiarizing her poem "Autumn Leaves". She attended Philadelphia High School for Girls from 1948 to 1952, graduating.

She continued her training at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art. In 1956 Chase received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Temple University. That same year, Chase won a John Hay Whitney Fellowship to study at the American Academy in Rome. There, she created her first bronze sculptures and exhibited her work. During this time, she traveled to Egypt to discover non-European art. In 1960, Chase became the first Black woman to receive an MFA from Yale University. After completing her studies, Chase left the United States for London, then Paris. 

Chase-Riboud's modern abstract sculptures often combine the durable and rigid metals of bronze and aluminum with softer elements made from silk or other textile material. Using the lost wax method, Chase-Riboud carves, bends, folds, and manipulates large sheets of wax before casting molds of the handmade designs. She then pours the metal to produce the metalwork, which melts the original wax sculpture. The finished metal is then combined with material threads, which are manipulated into knots and cords, and often serve as the base for the metal portion of her sculptures, including those of the "Malcolm X Steles."

In 1955, her woodcut Reba was displayed in the Carnegie Hall Gallery as a part of the exhibit. It's All Yours (sponsored by Seventeen magazine). The Museum of Modern Art subsequently purchased this woodcut. The Temple University yearbook Templar published fourteen of her woodcuts in 1956. She created her first direct wax-casting sculptures at the American Academy in Rome in 1957 on a John Hay Whitney Fellowship. In 1958 Chase began experimenting with bronze sculptures, using lost-wax casting techniques. 

Her first solo exhibition was at the Galleria L'Obelisco at the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds in Italy in 1957. Her first museum exhibition in Europe was held at MOMA Paris in 1961. Her first solo gallery exhibition in Paris was at the Galerie Cadran Solaire in 1966. Her first public commission was completed in 1960 for the Wheaton Plaza in Wheaton, Maryland. This fountain was formed from pressed aluminum and incorporated abstract shapes, sound, and light effects to add to the vision of the falling water. In Paris, Chase met Marc Riboud, a photographer. They married in 1961 on Christmas Day. The couple had two sons, David Charles and Alexis Karol Riboud. Years later, they divorced. In 1981, Chase-Riboud married her second husband, Sergio Tosi, an art publisher and expert.

In the late 1960s, Chase-Riboud began to garner broad attention for her sculpture. Nancy Heller describes her work as "startling, ten-foot-tall sculptures that combine powerful cast-bronze abstract shapes with veils of fiber ropes made from silk and wool." Chase-Riboud and Betye Saar were the first Black women to exhibit in the Whitney Museum of American Art, following protests organized by Faith Ringgold to gain more recognition of Black women artists. Her piece, The Ultimate Ground, was displayed in the exhibition Contemporary American Sculpture. In 1971, Chase-Riboud and four other contemporaries in Five were featured in a documentary about African American artists.

In 1996 Chase-Riboud was among the artists commissioned for artwork at the African Burial Ground National Monument in Lower Manhattan. Her 18-foot bronze memorial, Africa Rising, was installed in the Ted Weiss Federal Building in 1998. Chase-Riboud also wrote a poem with the same name as the sculpture. Continuing to work as a sculptor throughout her life, her work is in major corporate collections and museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, New York City; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Geigy Foundation, New York; and Lannan Foundation, Los Angeles.

She has received numerous honors for her literary work; she attained international recognition by publishing her first novel, Sally Hemings (1979). The book earned Chase-Riboud the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for the best novel written by an American woman. It was reissued in 1994. It was published in paperback in 2009, together with her novel President's Daughter (1994), about Harriet Hemings, daughter of Hemings and Jefferson, who passed into white society. Chase-Riboud explored the intricate relationships between the Hemings and Jefferson families. Because Sally Hemings was a much younger half-sister of Jefferson's late wife (they had the same father, John Wayles), she was an aunt to his two daughters.

In place of civic myths that deny America's mixed-race beginnings, Chase-Riboud turns to the Hemings family to unveil the historical presence of antebellum interracial relationships and the possibilities of a post-civil rights multiracial community. Since then, artists, poets, and writers have thoroughly explored the Jefferson-Hemings relationship. In 1991, Chase-Riboud won a vital copyright decision, Granville Burgess vs. Chase-Riboud. She had filed suit against the playwright of Dusky Sally in 1987, shortly before production was to open at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. She said his work infringed on her copyright for her novel Sally Hemings because it borrowed her fictional ideas. 

Lawsuit: Chase-Riboud v. DreamWorks

In 1997, Chase-Riboud settled a suit against DreamWorks for $10 million on charges of copyright infringement of her novel about the Amistad mutiny, Echo of Lions. The author claimed that the screenplay for Steven Spielberg's film Amistad (1997) was plagiarized from her novel on the topic. It was finally established that David Franzoni, the sole credited screenwriter on Amistad, had spent three years, beginning in 1993, writing a script based on Chase-Riboud's book, Echo of Lions. This was under an option held by Dustin Hoffman's Punch Productions. Franzoni claimed he had never read Chase-Riboud's book, which she had sold to Dustin Hoffman's production company. At the same time, Burt Fields, the DreamWorks leading lawyer, was unbeknownst to Chase-Riboud's attorneys, a stockholder, lawyer, and board member of Punch Productions. He did not recuse himself from the suit but had Punch Productions dropped from the original complaint. Franzoni was never obliged to testify under oath. He may have carried some of his thinking to his screenplay for Amistad.  When Chase-Riboud filed a second suit against DreamWorks in France, the dispute was quickly settled out of court for an undisclosed amount days before the 1998 Oscar nominations were announced. 

Chase-Riboud's first work of poetry, From Memphis & Peking (1974), was edited by Toni Morrison and published to critical acclaim. Her poetry volume, Portrait of a Nude Woman as Cleopatra (1987), won the Carl Sandburg Award in 1988. In 1994, Chase-Riboud published Roman Egyptian poetry written in French. Chase-Riboud has continued her literary exploration into slavery and the exploitation of African people with her subsequent novels. Valide: A Novel of the Harem (1986) examined slavery in the Ottoman empire.

Her Echo of Lions (1989) was one of the first novels about the historic Amistad slave-ship revolt of 1839. Hottentot Venus: A Novel (2003) explores the life of Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who was exhibited naked in freak shows in 19th-century Europe. In 2014, she published Everytime a Knot is Undone; a God is Released: Collected and New Poems 1974–2011. She contributed the poem "Ode to My Grandfather at the Somme 1918" to the 2019 New Daughters of Africa anthology.

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