Solange Umutoni - Imagine being born in Rwanda <|>
Imagine being born in Rwanda, a country where "artist" means griots, artisans, singer, or dancer. Vague! And you never heard of contemporary art. A local Museum had primitive masks and traditional crafts made by peasants. No one knew of Bacon, De Kooning… and Nancy Spero could be a new recipe brought by the colonialist?
 So what? You will say!  The only thing those Negros are good at is to kill each other; who cares about art. As a matter of fact, even today, in the year 2009, the profession "painter" still does not exist in my country. We do have problems in Africa. But do you know how beautiful and wild Africa is? Africa is still the mother continent, and we all came from there.
Then, what if your teacher always thought that you were spaced out? Yet you only were having a feeling of longing for something that you couldn’t grasp, something deep, something different. It’s like those people who figured out that the world was round when every one thought that it was flat. But I was never far from art. My mother collected African masks like Picasso, even though I only learnt of him later. As kid those mask were terrifying. At night they had a life of their own and even a smell; they mostly were faces like some of the faces I paint today - faces without faces! The natural beauty of my country, flowers, fauna, trees, parks, volcanoes, African drums, sounds, were my subtle introduction to composition. Little did I know! Arty is Nature and Nature is Art.
Fast forward… in 1997 I am in New York just turned 25 and still didn't know what to do with my life. On my last trip on vacation to Mali I saw colors; I left Bamako filled with colors and sound. In my travels in West Africa, from Liberia to Abidjan, to Bamako, my soul felt awake. I had spent 4 years working for the United Nations but still felt as empty as space! New York is fascinating and I wanted to do something, yet remained unaware of the sleeping artist in me. I decide to go on a quest around the city. From Tiffany’s, to fashion, to being a make-up artist, yet all these jobs proved to be so boring. So I decide to meet people. Luckily I meet an Italian artist who is also a scientist and a professor at Princeton. He was lonely; frustrated because he had given up art to become a scientist. We started painting together on weekends. Then I enrolled at the art student league because I felt very close to the abstract expressionist of the 50’s. I really related to De Kooning who had arrived to New York, just like myself, as an immigrant. On top of it I don't like technology, computer art, or the word MFA. At the Art Student League I was in heaven. It’s a very old school with atelier and teachers only comes twice a week to give a critic, otherwise you are on your own! I was in paradise. Then, I had never set a foot in Chelsea, hence was still sober! Yes.
I wanted to meet the best female living artist, since I come from a culture where older meant wisdom and experience; unlike in America where they pick a 20 year old fresh out of school and put him on a pedestal ! No wonder they fall as fast as they rise, you need life experience to be good and talent to become great... most of us start the good work in our 40's. I decided to meet the oldest living female artist in New York. I was told that it was Louise Bourgeois and she was 92 at that time (now she is 96) and lived in Chelsea on 22 Street in a townhouse where she had a salon for discussion every Sunday from 2 to 6. Her number was listed in the yellow pages. All you had to do was to show her your work and that she loved chocolate and whiskey. So I picked few small paintings and with three other student we went to see her. She was a very small, petite woman seated in her basement surround by old books and people, critics, artist, curators.... you name it. I said hello in French for she is French and offered her some chocolate. One by one, people went in front of her and showed their work to her. I was so nervous, so I drank some whiskey, not a good idea, for it made me even more nervous.
Louise Bourgeois was tough and she asked tough questions, she was very lucid and smart.  I was scared. When it was my turn, I showed her only 2 paintings, with yellow and red in them. At the time I was still working with primary colors. She said, “Tell us about your art, and your yellow and red....”  I started saying bullshit about wars, anger, and genocide.  I went on and on with my bullshit. Everyone was listening so I relaxed a little. Then she stopped me, and said, “I don't want to hear your story. Sorry for what happened to your family but I asked you one question. What does your yellow and red stand for?” I was too scared to say “I don’t know." So she said “Go back to your school and come back when you know what those colors mean to you.” I stood up and went home and for days I only had yellow and red in my mind and my first though not last encounter with one of the greatest artist of our time
Fast forward again… April 2006, I was at the Berlin biennale which was curated by Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick. Not a single painter in the show. All were installations and photos. Art to shock you - like the photos in a former Jewish school in Mitte, East Berlin. When you look at those building your mind travels and you can still smell what happened in that school. I felt so connected to Berlin, to their art and their history; the city was full of new constructions and the paradox was that there was a lot of abandoned old building.
The contradiction and the heaviness of guilt and shame in the East really inspired me so much that when I came back to New York I started a series called “Berlin" 12 pieces.
They were dark grey colours, pink, heavy. I had found my way out of primary colors and my subject finally. My teacher saw them and said well here there is no diploma so it's time for you to go out in the world and have exhibitions – your work is ready. I freaked out on May 31 2006 when I had to pack my stuff and move with 3 other artists to Long Island City. That summer of 2006, in August, I went to see Louise Bourgeois again with the new work. I took drawings plus images of the paintings because I was working on a big scale. She said right away, the work is very good, keep on! I was happy to see her again, she was a little more tired and her assistant was doing most of the talking for her. I felt proud and validated.
Then after "Berlin" in 2007, I was ready to dig in my own backyard and go deeper, so I started a series called “constructing destruction destructing construction”. This series was abstract also but had more architectural forms in it you could see a house sometimes, and the subject was the genocide in 1994 that took the life of millions. So I constructed and destructed the web of massacres. I was going also to Chelsea every Thursday to opening, which I still do, art fairs, art parties. I started meeting artists from all over the world of my age in their 30’s up to their 40’s and we started visiting each others’ studios and critic each others’ work, galleries were coming to see my work, but they kept saying that I needed more time to make new work. To this day, I love studio visits because there you get to see good work that sometimes doesn't make it in Chelsea and it's nice to be with your peers and exchange ideas. These visits also left me so excited and I wanted to be better everyday.
In 2008 I started a series called Faces. It was so powerful that those faces could not be ignored anymore. A French gallerist commented that I was so sweet but why was my art so strong and dark. I told her that I did not come here to paint flowers and boats. I had found the core and the base of my work. I was very happy but I knew I had a lot to express, and it was just the beginning of a long journey that will end when I am too old to hold a brush. Then I was at a gala at the MOMA where I met the maestro Chuck Close who asked me to pose for him.  I had only posed for my friend Christophe Shmidberger who shows at Patrick Painter; I could not say no to Chuck Close. I gave him my number. I went home and at midnight the phone rang… it was Chuck. At first I thought that I was dreaming or I had drunk too much champagne. He asked send me for images of my work and asked if I could go to his studio at 20 Bond Street next Wednesday so I could see what he did.
I was super excited that he liked my work. Wednesday at 6pm I bought a bottle of champagne and went to his studio. We were alone since the assistant had left already. He showed me the way he paints; he has a machine that turns the canvas around. Then he showed me the new work which are photos in black and white that have a silver touch, a technique I have never seen before. He explained how he achieved it but its too complicated to write about it here. He photographs the face of most of his subjects whereas others he cut the faces creating headless nudes. But the pigmentation of the skin was amazing. Then he offered me to pose nude for him for 1 or 2 weeks, 200 $ an hour adding that he would have to cut off my head since he was only interested in the body for the time being. I looked around the studio and I saw faces; then I realized that he only made a portrait of your face only if you were famous like Lorna Simpson, Cindy Sherman, the Chinese artist who works with explosive. Since I was not famous then he needed the body and was going to cut my face. In reply, I told him that this year I was only painting faces, it took me years to have a face and a voice so there is no way, someone is going to cut it. I felt very angry. I saw in my mind those images on CNN of people being harked to death in 1994. We lost faces but not faith! He said nothing personal and I refused. He was not happy about it and asked me to take back my bottle of champagne. I told him that if he change his mind I would like to pose for the face, not to have it cut. I am glad I did not give in because as a Rwandese and our sad history, it would have been tragic again!
September 2008 I got pregnant; yes, a boy is coming soon in June and in December Deitch gallery out of the blue had me in a group show in Miami called "It ain't fair". It was a show made of 30 emerging New York artists. The show was so well curated that when you walked into the space you thought you were somewhere downtown New York. We got lots of reviews; even the New York Times art section wrote an article about one of the was fun and new! New Work, New York...
That was then, so last year! Today I am trying to figure out how I will balance motherhood and art. As women, we have come so far that I am not worried. Of course you can do both, you can be a mother, an artist and anything you want you just need to work a little harder than everyone else. I am glad the market went down after I went to this armory fair in March ...I am glad that the market went down and took away those superficial people who think that art is owned by coked up gallerist and some fat hedge funds in Connecticut. We had sold out; now we are reclaiming our power. The best is still coming out of the studios all over the world; being made every day; not from the banks or AIG. A new era is starting, and ART really matters "IN ART WE TRUST".