Markus Ehrhard: Bob, where and how did you first get into contact with African sculpture?
Bob Rizzo: I've always been interested in "tribal" objects. As a child my parents brought us to traditional Native American gatherings "Pow Wow's" . I made all manner of headdresses and costumes. I pretty sure it was on one of the many museum visits to see more Native American objects that I first noticed African pieces, they were/are usually exhibited near each other it seems. What immediately struck me was the similarity between the objects and the amazing power of the African pieces. That was probably because they were so foreign to my knowledge of what I thought of as "Tribal" objects.
ME: What made you curious? Was it the material used? Or the abstract form of the bodies/objects?
BR: I'd say it was a number of things. The materials, the "other worldliness" of the sculptures, the power, the mix of materials, the treatment of the surface. I could tell that these we not simply "art". The objects had a sense of mystery, especially to a young Caucasian boy. I wanted to understand why certain objects were combined. What was the reason that some pieces were covered in dried blood, oils, feathers, furs etc. I wanted to understand what it was that gave everyday objects, drums, flutes, knives, etc. such magic. Something else was going on - but I just couldn't understand what it was. It wasn't until later that I became aware of the perfection of design, the unique understanding of form. I can't say I saw it as abstract but more a refined way of seeing.
ME: The African sculpture provides you the foundation for a new order (in German we have the word “Neuordnung”, which means reconstruction, reshaping, remaking and recreation)?
BR: Yes, I agree African sculpture and adornment, jewelry, use of found objects such a bottle caps and plastic scraps to fasten various assemblages worn on one's body, provides me with a place to build from. It inspires me combine totally disconnected objects to create a completely new story.
ME: Lets have a look at your„The collector“ for example. When I look at your totem, I discover a fundus of small objects. Feathers, cowrie shells, coins, seeds, glass beads, bells, rusty nails and bone fragments are known from African fetishes. Also you use objects from your environment, such as teeth and horns of a buffalo, tickets of New York's Metropolitan Museum, a dog tag, or the turned legs from an antique piece of furniture and a wood mould to shape a hat. And also a variety of foreign objects from Greece and India. What is your criteria and under which point of view do you bring all these objects together?
BR: My selection of what objects go into what piece varies from sculpture to sculpture. In the case of the collector it was really about what I am interested in "collecting" the fact that their are items as animal teeth and a buffalo horn, animal feathers, & beads address my interest in Native American culture. The antique nails were collected from old 1800-1900' s houses, some from my own house (circa 1917). The base of the piece was made by by father in the 1950's to wrap electrical cable around. The bells from India came from a collection of bells I have from around the world. The Greece items reflect my love of Greece and the inspiration from Greek roadside shrines. As for the the items such as museum entrance tickets, dog tags, etc. They are small tokens of travel and life adventures. In many respects the "Collector" is a self-portrait. But, what I've found is that is seems to resonate with other collectors too. It is presently owned by Rand Smith of Rand Tribal Art. He was immediately attracted to the "collection" of objects. I'd say most of my Totem series are built around a similar themes. When I begin a piece I start with a basic form and then begin building. Because I collect Tribal art I am surrounded by objects that in one sense or another seem to reflect that interest. Also I walk a lot so many items are collected on those walks ...its part of my daily ritual. It focus's my walks and makes me connect with my surroundings. So for me what. Ends up in a piece might be full of memories of those walks while for others they may remind them of childhood memories, walks in the forest, etc. making each piece is a bit of a ritual for me, a way of remembering.
ME: With your sculptures you provide the viewer the possibility for reflection, like you say reminding childhood. Your work also provides a projection of one's own perception. What further questions do you ask with your art, respectively on what other involvement you address to with your work?
BR: I'm very interested in the idea of the "mystical". The idea that there is much we don't know or understand. Especially in the case of tribal art. There are all sorts of theories and studies of what certain objects mean and what their powers might be . With some of my work I'm trying to address those issues. I want the pieces I make to engage the viewer in a way that they begin looking for deeper meaning in the various attachments, the "other" story of the attached objects. Does the arrangement of beads mean anything special or are they simply adornments ? Why is a particular object placed where it is? I do make very conscious decisions as to the relationship of one attachment to another. I'm not just " nailing things together". I do find that my work resonates more with collectors of Tribal arts ...they seem to understand the juxtaposition and relationships between the various pieces better. The visual language I use is one they seem to understand. As I mentioned earlier I love how in many places around our planet one object, something as simple as a bottle cap can have so many uses and so many meanings.
ME: Talking about your series of shrines, like „Object of Desire“. This shrine remembers me to the curiosity cabinets and strange collections at the time of European Baroque, collected by scientists and personalities. These conglomerations of some grotesque abominations have always had a fascination for people. Considered sustainable, these collections symbolize the study and knowledge but also mortality and transience. What kind of symbolism do you express with your work?
BR: It's funny you bring up the subject of curiosity cabinets - sometimes I feel like I live in one! I My shrines contain all manner elements. Some contain collections of found objects in combination with items I find in shops. Others speak about travel, relationships, and memories through mementos I save. A few of the attachments like the amulet bags found on many of the pieces might contain something as simple as a stone or a bunch of feathers found on the ground. The act of collecting that particular stone or feathers and placing within a small bag "captures" that moment of the walk, the journey.
ME: Looking at your shrine „St. Sebastian“, you see the Martyrdom of the Catholic patron Saint Sebsatian, a religious theme in your work. At the same time the statue looks like a Nkisi statue from the Congo. Is the aestheticization of the african sculpture device of your expression?
BR: Yes, that was exactly what I was attempting to do. In much of my sculptural work you'll find the mixing of spiritual imagery.
ME: Some of your works of art are a combination of sculpture and painting. You unite not only the representational, but also the acoustic. You yourself have compiled and impressive collection of Lamellophones. African music also appears frequently in your installations and performances. How do you describe the medium of the sound in your art?
BR: I have used music in my performances but have not yet combined my music played on Lamellophones with my work. That is the next step I think. Music, especially African music is very important to me. As a concert producer I worked with many African artists such as Sally Nyolo from Cameroon , Thomas Mapfumo, Oliver Mutukudzi from Zimbabwe as well as Orchestra Baobab from Senegal. There is something very special about African music, the people who play it and it's importance to their everyday life. African music carries much oral history, especially that of the Griots of Mali & Senegal. I think it is often forgotten how major an influence African music has the musical world. Much in the same way that African imagery has influenced western contemporary art.
ME: You said earlier that african sculpture is exhibited next to Native American objects in your museums. Do you know sculptures that were made by Africans for their traditional ritus in America during slavery?
BR: It was that way when I was a child but I think that's changed over the years. I think that was part of the "primitive" categorization of any non-white people. I'm not really sure if sculptures were created. I know there was a use of amulets and other protective objects. Small groups of ritual objects have been found under slave quarters as far as I know. There might be small ritual items produced in the practice of Voodoo but I'm not sure you'd call them sculptures.
ME: For you, the creative process is like a ritual. What do rituals mean to you?
BR: Yes, that’s true. But I think it is probably the same for many other artists or musicians. Rituals help me focus; allow me time to shut out the chaos and noise of the everyday world. There are many different processes/rituals I go through before I make each piece. First, I must have music; sometimes I play my Kalimba or Ngoni for an hour or so before beginning. I can’t seem to work without it. I then put some music on. I go through my jars & cans of items I’ve soaked in different fluids to attain a certain patina or color: a bit of alchemy. Then begin by clearing of a space on my bench, I tend to work in organized chaos. Then the sorting of items to be used begins, followed by a period of simply looking at the collected items, organizing the collections into sub collections. Some days that’s as far as I proceed. Other days from there I start putting things together-taking them apart, until it feels right. The next day begins much the same way, music, bench clearing, organizing, then changes are made to what I made the day before and a piece grows from there. This can go on for days, months or years. I usually work on many pieces at once. One piece serves as a jumping off point for another.
ME: What are you working on right now?
BR: At present I’m working on a series of small figures, all less than 18 inches tall, similar to the Totems in materials and surface treatment. I’ve also been slowly working on a series of paintings using pigment made from pollen and juice from berries collected from my garden. Actually that is one thing I wanted to bring up. The surface treatment I’ve developed was actually inspired by the contemporary aging I found on many African items I came across that were offered as old or tribally used. I’ve seen documentaries on how the pieces are “aged” and I really love the amount of work, thought and energy that goes into aging a piece for the collector’s eyes. Many times it’s very difficult to tell the old from the new especially for the beginning collector. What interests me the is the idea of a sped up or “non-spiritual” libation ritual.
Images by Bob Rizzo
Copyright by Bob Rizzo
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