Novelist and sculptor, printmaker and poet, Barbara Chase-Riboud (chays rih-bew) has achieved acclaim in both literature and visual art. The only child of a middle-class African American family, she was born and raised in Philadelphia, began her art studies at age seven, won her first art prize at age eight, and sold a print to the (New York) Museum of Modern Art when she was fifteen. In 1957 she graduated with a B.F.A. from Temple University and won a John Hay Whitney Foundation Fellowship to study sculpture in Rome.
Stranded on an impromptu trip to Egypt on Christmas, 1957, Chase-Riboud spent three months in Cairo with the family of an African American cultural attaché. This experience, which she describes as a “revelation,” opened her eyes to other artistic traditions and changed the direction of her work. She returned to the United States to earn an M.F.A. degree from Yale University in 1960. Then another chance excursion, this one to Paris, changed the course of her life. She established her home in Paris in 1961, married the French photojournalist Marc Riboud, and temporarily suspended her career to accompany her husband on his travels throughout the world. They had two sons. Chase-Riboud resumed her artistic work in 1967 and, following a divorce in 1981, married Sergio Tosi, an Italian art dealer and historian. She began to divide her time between Paris and Rome.
Chase-Riboud has exhibited prints, drawings, jewelry, and especially sculpture in one-woman and group shows on three continents. Many motifs of her visual art—for example, the complex relationships of apparent opposites such as hard and soft, spiritual and sensual, female and male, black and white—also appear in her writing.
During the 1970’s Chase-Riboud’s creative focus shifted to literature. The theme of her first book, a volume of poems entitled From Memphis and Peking, is journeys, both personal and family, spiritual and physical; many of the poems draw upon her own extensive travels. “Going to Memphis”—Memphis, Egypt, that is—has an American blueslike refrain: “I’m going to Memphis, I won’t be back this way.” The final section of the volume is set in post-revolutionary Peking, China, which Chase-Riboud was among the first American women to visit. Some poems are delicately erotic; a few, humorously so: In “To Gloria,” the poet confesses to famed feminist Gloria Steinem that she is “A/ Backsliding/ Man-loving/ Crotch-gazing . . . Renegade.”
Inspired by a Rembrandt drawing of the same title, Chase-Riboud wrote another volume of poems, Portrait of a Nude Woman as Cleopatra, as a “verse novel,” a “melologue” or recitation to music. Quotes from Plutarch provide a narrative outline for fifty-seven sonnets in the voices of Cleopatra and Antony. Portrait of a Nude Woman received the Carl Sandburg Poetry Prize in 1988.
Chase-Riboud is best known for her historical fiction. Her controversial and best-selling first novel, Sally Hemings, tells the story of the woman long rumored to have been Thomas Jefferson’s slave “wife” and the mother of several of his children. With its shifting narrators, inclusion of actual historical documents, appearances of the famous and infamous in U.S. history, and sensitive characterizations of slave members of the family, Sally Hemings is a moving examination of race and gender, love and power, bondage and freedom in the early United States. Sally Hemings won the 1979 Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for best novel by an American woman.
Chase-Riboud based her second novel, Valide, on the true story of a white French American woman who was kidnapped and presented as a slave to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1781. Renamed Naksh-i-dil, she lived to become Valide, or queen mother, most powerful woman of the empire. This novel, too, explores the corrosive effects of slavery on slaves, enslavers, and their relationships. Chase-Riboud describes Echo of Lions as a “nonfiction novel.” Its subject is the 1839...
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