On October 16, 2018, Skidmore students Monica Andrews ’19 and Cassie Taylor ’19 interviewed artist Renee Cox about her work Do or Die (South Bronx-The End), 1991, from the Tang Teaching Museum collection.
This interview was part of a series of interviews with artists conducted by Skidmore students in the Art History course “The Artist Interview,” led by Dayton Director Ian Berry.
Monica Andrews ’19
You grew up in Scarsdale, New York, an overwhelmingly white community.
Oh, God, yeah. There were seven black families when we lived there. I went to the prom with the eligible black guy in my class. I had to educate myself on my blackness down the road, because in high school I was listening to New Riders of the Purple Sage—not cool at all. And then, senior year, I had an epiphany and was introduced to rhythm and blues and soul music, Billy Cobham, Herbie Hancock.
Cassie Taylor ’19
You worked in fashion photography before working in fine art photography. What was that transition like?
I did fashion photography for ten years. There was a pretty pivotal moment that happened. I started getting more conscious about my reality and what was happening in the world. I was in Soho at this restaurant named Jerry’s, and I was already starting to question how fashion was going to pan out. When I did an editorial story, my photographs only had a twenty-eight-day lifespan. After twenty-eight days, they were garbage. You’re putting your heart and soul into this. And at the end of the shoot, the fashion editor would say, “Okay, this is the next shoot.” I didn’t even have time to wallow in a pleasurable way of my accomplishment.
Anyway, I’m at Jerry’s. I’m having dinner with a bunch of folks. We’re all just bullshit fashion chatting. You talk about a shoe for, like, ten minutes, saying, “Blah, blah, blah.” Nothing relevant. It was the day that Nelson Mandela got released from prison. And I say to them, “This is amazing. Nelson Mandela finally got released after twenty-seven years in prison.” My God, this is a big deal for me. And they turned to me and said, “Donald and Ivana are getting a divorce,” which was the front-page story in the New York Daily News that day. I was like, “Donald and Ivana? Are you freaking kidding me?” When they said that was the important thing that had struck them on that day over Nelson Mandela, that was the moment where I said, “I gotta get out. I can’t be here.”
As it would happen, the art director from Essence sent over Lyle Ashton Harris, who was a photographer as well. But at that time, he wanted to know about fashion. We ended up having lunch, and he showed me this artist that was doing photography. There was a big catalog and every- thing. I was like, “Really? I could shoot this with my eyes closed.” I wasn’t even looking at it from a conceptual point of view. I was looking at it just as straight photography. That was the moment when I realized, this is my trajectory. This is how I have to do it. At that time, people didn’t care if you had a great mailing list; they wanted credentials. I’d already had my first kid. I started looking at grad schools. And the School of Visual Arts was a good spot.
You felt like you needed to go to grad school?
You had to go to grad school. Otherwise, nobody would take you seriously.
Do you feel like you learned anything in grad school that actually helped you pursue your career in the arts?
Definitely. Grad school gives you that time without pressure to explore your ideas. My first semester I didn’t really know what my direction was going to be. And then, by second semester, I started getting much more into racism and identity. And that’s what really made the work come together and have a focal point.
Even though I grew up in this white neighborhood, I never experienced racism in my face. But during that first semester, I had an incident where I experienced racism in my face. It was shocking. That moment changed me completely. I started to explore the history of African Americans, of Afro-Caribbean people, and in doing research and learning about it, I was getting angry and realizing that the history that we’ve been taught has been biased. I was asking, how can I go in there and make a change in terms of representation? Had I not gone to grad school, I don’t know if I would have come to that.