You can look all you want at Barbara Chase-Riboud's  sculptures and you won't find any obvious reference to the life of civil rights leader Malcom X,  but you can be seduced by the real and symbolic power of the bronze and silk that make up these monumental steles or vertical pillars. That's the reason Chase-Riboud says she chose this ancient art form.

"These steles are a memorial to a transformation that took place in Malcolm from a convict to a world leader. Period," Chase-Riboud said. "It's like the steles that were dedicated to King Tut, Julius Cesar,  whoever. "

Chase-Riboud has been asked so often "why Malcom X?" that she's grown somewhat impatient. She often remarks that Martin Luther King was still alive when she started the series and the point of the steles is to memorialize the leader.

Transformation, not representation, is the key concept in her work  "because that's the basis of history, it's the basis of poetry it's the basis of sculpture," she said.  "As a matter of fact, what do you do?  You transform one material into another dimension. "

Powerful silk and bronze

As you enter the exhibition rooms you find yourself surrounded by ten imposing figures each in a sort of niche framed by subdued lights.  Each sculpture is about ten feet tall.   At the top, armor-like intricate bronze sculptures reveal weavings of thick silk rope-like threads that in turn become immense knotted skirts. The metal takes fluid qualities and the silk becomes almost solid.

"I love the textiles that I use in the sculptures," Chase-Riboud said. "I love silk and it's one of the strongest materials in the world and lasts as long as the bronze.  So it's not a weak material vs. a strong material so the transformation that happen in the steles is not between two unequal things but two equal things that interact and transform each other".

Philadelphia Museum of Art contemporary arts curator Carlos Basualdo worked on this exhibition for eight years.  He selected 34 drawings that show Chase-Riboud's craftsmanship and how some of her ideas developed. They are not sketches for sculptures but ongoing explorations in shape and form,  that stand on their own as major art works.

What makes me American?

It's all part of the complexity of her sculptures, drawings and literature which are both intellectual and powerful in their content and intent, says artist and former Barnes Foundation president Kimberly Camp, who has been following Barbara Chase-Riboud's work for 30 years. Yet, she laments  "the fact that she's not recognized as a major American artist has always bothered me because there is a tendency to label her or pigeonhole her, as an African-American artist, a woman artist.  She's transcended all of those things because her work is really about a global communication, a global message."

Chase-Riboud, who was born in 1939, caused an international stir with her 1979 controversial novel on Sally Hemings' relationship with Thomas Jefferson.  Being born in Philadelphia says Camp, has a lot to do with Chase-Riboud's take on American history

"People in Philadelphia have the history of this country drummed into their heads, because it happened right there," Camp said. "Barbara Chase-Riboud goes to Paris and writes about Sally Hemings, and she has a whole different perspective on the founding fathers and the lives of people that they touched. So she uses that international experience to broaden that voice to make her voice louder about the things that we should be paying attention to  same thing with the Malcom X series".

There's definitely something to that,  says Chase-Riboud.  "Once I realized that Philadelphia was not the center of the world, all kinds of things happened psychologically," she said. "You begin to look at the entire nation and you begin to look at nationality and you begin to look at what is an American and that's the first question that you ask yourself, 'who am I?'  First of all, what makes me American doing what I'm doing?"

Sculptures become just acquaintances

As Chase-Riboud continues to explore issues of identity, transcendence and the meaning of a world without borders and boundaries.  She is pleased at how the works at the exhibition trace   her transformations throughout the years.   She created the first of the Malcolm X steles in 1969 and is somewhat amused at her reaction at seeing them again.

"After so many decades and so on, they're like people you met a long time ago and you suddenly see them again and they're acquaintances, more than friends or children," Chase-Riboud said. "You think of them as children, but as a matter of fact, they're only acquaintances."

Barbara Chase-Riboud plans to make seven more sculptures to complete the Malcom X series displayed  at The Philadelphia Museum of Art until January 20th.
Her next project is editing the letters she sent her mother since the first time she left Philadelphia to embark on her lifelong adventure.