Barbara Chase-Riboud: ‘The so-called culture war has nothing to do with culture’

Barbara Chase-Riboud is listing the only three Black American women to have ever been awarded the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest order of merit: “There’s Josephine Baker, there’s Dr Ruth Simmons, who was the president of Brown University, and there’s me.”

As a sculptor, novelist, poet and occasional fashion model, Chase-Riboud had, in a fanciful way, been eyeing up the award since her childhood in Philadelphia. “As a little girl I learned about Josephine Baker as a war hero, and that she had the Légion d’honneur. I decided that was the one decoration I really wanted to have in life. And finally, I got it this year, at the same time Josephine was entered into the French Pantheon!”

We’re speaking ahead of two retrospectives – one at London’s Serpentine North Gallery, the other at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St Louis, Missouri. It is also publication day for I Always Knew, a memoir structured around 30 years of letters from Chase-Riboud to her mother Vivian Mae Chase. The pages pulsate with romance, high fashion and celebrity. There are tales of intrepid trips. There are encounters – with James Baldwin (who “does a wild twist”), with Alberto Giacometti (“who slept with the lights on because he was afraid of the dark”), with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who made possible the publication of Chase-Riboud’s bestselling 1979 novel Sally Hemings) and dozens of other luminaries.

The letters are gossipy and intimate. Mother and daughter were close in age, their relationship sisterly and unreserved. I want to know more about her mother, and the formation of the brilliant, intrepid young woman that emerges from the letters – but Chase-Riboud won’t play ball. She doesn’t want the book read with a backstory: “It was very important to drop the reader in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.”

Thus we find ourselves at sea. In 1957, not yet 20, this young sculptor boarded the liner Le Flandre on her way to a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. “All the French waiters think I’m very pretty and that I don’t look American,” she wrote to Vivian Mae during the voyage. “They keep spouting this French to me, which I don’t understand at all, so I just smile sweetly.”

The waiters were prescient. Within a few years, Chase-Riboud would marry the French photographer Marc Riboud and start a family in Europe. Today she lives between a home in Paris and Rome, the site of a foundry where she casts sculptures made using a lost-wax process that dates back to the fine Edo bronze work of the kingdom of Benin. She has lived in many languages. “I’m different in French than I am in English. And I’m a different mother in French than in English. I dream in French …” she pauses knowingly, “and I curse in Italian.”

Through the letters, we accompany Chase-Riboud through the US civil rights movement and the violence that followed on the other side of the Atlantic. “People assume I was distanced from it, but I was not – the Europeans were very aware what was going on. The coverage of the whole movement was much less in American media than it was in Europe. I felt distanced only with the news of Malcolm X’s assassination. It arrived like a bombshell for me.”

In the 57 years since, Malcolm X has become a central subject, one that Chase-Riboud has explored in tall cast bronze and braided fibre sculptures. “The idea of making a statue of Malcolm grew with this idea that he was beyond memory. He was emblematic. He was more important than he knew. And he was more important than we knew.” Chase-Riboud describes her monumental abstract forms as “steles”, evoking the ancient Egyptian carved stones at Karnak or Luxor.

These contemporary monuments raise questions about which figures are remembered, and which histories preserved. “People in power get to write history, not the oppressed,” she says. “I love the way people say this is a ‘culture war’: it’s nothing to do with culture. It has to do with power, it has to do with history, it has to do with the suppression of half the population in the United States of America.” As with her exploration of historic figures such as Sally Hemings – an enslaved woman who bore six children by President Thomas Jefferson – Chase-Riboud’s interest in monuments came decades ahead of its time.

She tells me that she discovered her old letters in 1991, in a blue metal box among Vivian Mae’s clothes. But it was too soon after her mother’s death. Instead, she waited until 2008 to read them. “I was surprised. I didn’t know who that silly girl was. Who did she think she was? What did she think she was doing? How could she have the nerve?” she recalls, reliving her life of adventure. “I was turning the pages as if I didn’t know what I had done!”