Corrine Jennings Interview Part 11
Ishmael Reed: Some of the metal work, fences, etc. in New Orleans looks like it has symbols in it.
Corrine Jennings: I think about it a lot of Nigerians worked with iron and metal. So that might have had something to do with some of the metal techniques.
Corrine Jennings: That’s what I’m saying about Thomas Day’s work, too. The symbols are in the furniture.
Ishmael Reed: It’s like a secret language in his stuff. Incredible.
Corrine Jennings: One of the things I read was about a house, built behind a plantation, the Melrose Plantation, around 1820 by Louis Metoyer. Metoyer, of the white Metoyer family, had a Black mistress and she built a house behind the plantation house, they called Africa House.
Ishmael Reed: Where was this?
Corrine Jennings: It was in Melrose, Louisiana, in the Natchitoches Parish along the Cane River, a National Heritage Area. That house had a roof, sort of like a boat, and that kind of roof becomes sort of like that Mansard roof that you see here in New York.
Ishmael Reed: What?
Corrine Jennings: Yes.
Ishmael Reed: I thought that was from the French.
Corrine Jennings: Well, it’s from African people coming here that were controlled by the French. I’m going to show you a little painting we have.
(Corrine shows Ishmael the painting.) This is a watercolor by William Carter of traditional houses. See that roof?
Ishmael Reed: Absolutely.
Corrine Jennings: This style of roof comes from the Cameroons. Rather than it being French--
Ishmael Reed: Yeah, the French get credit for it. So Joe, do you want to summarize how you feel about art today? What’s happening? The directions in art in this country. You don’t like it? What do you think?
Joe Overstreet: Listen, you know, it’s very difficult because I do something and other people don’t do it that way, which is good. I don’t see art the way other people see it. I don’t see it as trying to imitate a building or a person or anything. I see it coming straight from your mind into the spirit. The spirit of what you feel. I’ll take you upstairs to see what I do. You see, I don’t see it the same way as an interpretation. I see it basically as an individual spirit. It’s very hard because for many, many years everybody made things that people could identify and say, ‘Well, this is this way.’ I think that what we’re looking for now is a way of expressing what the future means. The future means, okay, life and space, trees and green, I mean the green in trees, it means different things in different ways.
Ishmael Reed: They’re destroying the forests. The Amazon. They’re destroying the planet. They’re getting ready to leave the planet. They’re working on something that travels as fast as the speed of light.
Corrine Jennings: They’re trying to go to Mars and places.
Ishmael Reed: I feel sorry for the Martians.
Corrine Jennings: That guy-- the Black astrophysicist at Hayden Planetarium--, Neil deGrasse Tyson, refuses to say that aliens had visited here. But he said carbon is the building block for life.
Ishmael Reed: Yeah, but they’re messing up things. They dropped something in the ocean of Jupiter that contaminated it. So I feel sorry for outer space because they are going to have plastic in their oceans.
Corrine Jennings: The pollution. You know, another thing that’s going on now is, so this is 2017, we are finally in the 21st Century, but this is a period of change, and so there are the old art styles that are being recycled, and then there’s where people are trying to look at a more futurist art form: Afro Futurism. This is all the same stuff regurgitated with different colors or whatever. It’s not a rethinking of things, so, and just in terms of time, we’re finally in the 21st Century, but we haven’t really moved. So I think it’s very difficult…I don’t see a lot of the new art when I…this is not necessarily Black folks only that we’re talking about. When I look at the stuff I see online or in magazines I’m unimpressed, and that’s partly because I recognize what it is and I see its limitations. That’s what I think, but I’m really talking about the time warp or the lag time between the old and whatever’s coming.
Ishmael Reed: So conceptual art…do you think that’s going to replace everything? Conceptual art?
Corrine Jennings: Well, but conceptual art, you know, this is like eighties, seventies, we’re talking about at least forty years or so of conceptual art…we’re talking about people producing cartoons and saying that that’s art or we’re talking about the derogatory and recycling… Kehinde Wiley is popular now.
Ishmael Reed: What about Graffiti?
Corrine Jennings: That’s so egotistical. Really troubling. We get a lot of it on this building, so I look at it and I watch…I stood out there for about twenty minutes watching some guy put his initials on the fence with a huge can of spray paint. He was stepping back to look at it. He was so foolish. He didn’t know I was standing across the street watching everything.
Ishmael Reed: You know what? African writers are replacing African American writers.
Corrine Jennings: Yes, I know, I know.
Ishmael Reed: Because they feel that they’re easy to deal with and they like it over here and they put us down, you know, and they come with that British, you know, their sponsors are trying to wipe out the Black vernacular with all of this British Jane Austen type writing. Of course, there are exceptions like Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He complained about his treatment at a San Francisco hotel where they mistook him for a homeless person. They probably feel that he is unruly. Is that happening in painting, too? It’s happening in art. They’re the new pets.
Corrine Jennings: You know, one of their top Black artists from maybe fifteen years or more, in fact he doesn’t really share with Black people;
Ishmael Reed: Oh, yeah, I know who you’re talking about-- a Nigerian artist who lives in England and is handicapped. And he’s got all of these Whites working for him. I like his work and bought a book of his work.
Corrine Jennings: Yes, he has a number of studios. He’s no longer working by himself, so there are some others who have that kind of support. You know Basquiat had that.
Ishmael Reed; The museums feel that African artists are easier to get along with? This White professor got drunk and told me--I went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Baton Rouge of the Louisiana state system, and we were at lunch and there was a Nigerian playwright, and I said, “I’ve never heard of this guy.” I said, “Who is this? I’ve never heard of him.” We were all having lunch, the faculty lunch, and so this guy got drunk he said, “You know we had Wole Soyinka here last year and the head of the department said, ‘Get me somebody like that.’” So a great writer like Soyinka is interchangeable with any Nigerian writer to these people. Like Baldwin is considered interchangeable with somebody who has one or two books out.
Ishmael Reed: Okay, tell me about this new acquisition. What’s her name?
Corrine Jennings: Pauline Powell Burns. She was the great-granddaughter of Joseph Fossett, who was owned by Thomas Jefferson and one of two brothers freed by him.
They were blacksmiths and could earn money. And they saved their money and gradually bought their brothers and sisters, except when it came to the last one, Isabella. They were exhausted. They had no funds. So they stole her.
Ishmael Reed: Where was she when they stole her?
Corrine Jennings: She was there in Monticello, on the plantation. But they stole her and sent her to Boston and she was there for some time and then they moved her to Cincinnati where they lived.
Ishmael Reed: Where the rest of the family was?
Corrine Jennings: Yes, as people in the family were freed, they went to Ohio. I do not remember exactly when. I am not sure. After Isabella passed away, Pauline Powell's mother, Josephine, moved to Oakland, and I think she was friendly with Mammy Pleasant.
Ishmael Reed: What? Wait a minute this is Mammy Pleasant of New Orleans and San Francisco--
Corrine Jennings: She was a child prodigy pianist as well as a painter. As I was saying I think there’s a library there, a Black library collection in Oakland has some of her--
Ishmael Reed: The African American Museum.
Corrine Jennings: I look at some auctions and also some people I know look at auctions and they send me things, saying “come” and what have you, and in this case I told someone that I really liked a painting of hers in an auction here and he looked at that, so he was buying it himself, and he couldn’t quite work it out financially, so--
Ishmael Reed: Was it a landscape?
Corrine Jennings: No, it was a still life.
Ishmael Reed: Of what?
Corrine Jennings: It’s a fruit basket. It has sort of golden brown tones. It’s very dry and the canvas was cracked, so I have it packed and stored.
Ishmael Reed: So why would it be in that condition? People don’t care, or what?
Corrine Jennings: Well, paintings sometimes have a life of their own. You don’t know--this canvas is very thin.
Ishmael Reed: So how are you going to preserve it?
Corrine Jennings: Well, it’s probably going to have to be relined. It’s pretty old. We will have to try to stabilize it and protect it.
Ishmael Reed: So what are some of your other recent acquisitions? Name some of the recent acquisitions in the last five years, like the highlights.
Corrine Jennings: There was a Duncanson painting.
Ishmael Reed: Robert Duncanson.
Corrine Jennings: Yes. I was talking about James Presley Ball to you, as having developed the first commerical photography studio owned by an African American. I saw an etching of this studio and he had his photographs on the bottom and Duncanson's painting on the top of the walls. That's how I saw Duncanson. So a friend of mine had access to a Duncanson that had been in one family and he bought it directly from him and it has a glass cover. It was on the wall.
Ishmael Reed: So you got it an auction?
Corrine Jennings: No, I got that from someone who does a lot of nineteenth century art collecting. I want to continue to find some things by19th century African American artists.
Ishmael Reed: Thanks Corrine!