Creating Art for Our “Dire Times”

Eleanor J. Bader: Has your artwork always been concerned with political themes?

Marcia Annenberg: Yes and no. My first solo show was at the Rockland Center for Holocaust Studies in upstate New York. One of the paintings depicted a young girl holding a doll and looking out at the barbed wire of the camp. Another painting, In the Still of the Night, addressed the massacre at Babi Yar. But I am a colorist at heart. Exploring color makes me feel more positive. It reminds me that although there is a lot of misery in the world, there is also a lot of joy. There is sadness, but there are counterweights to all that is regrettable about the human condition.

Still, over the past decade or so, my work has increasingly focused on political themes. One of my prompts came from a New York Times article by David Barstow about the relationship between General Electric, the company that owned WNBC-TV from 1986 to 2011, and war profiteering during the early years of the Iraq War. I started to wonder why a company like GE that was involved in weapons’ manufacturing was allowed to own a TV station, and why their news coverage never disclosed this connection.

The turning point for me, though, came after passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The Act was signed into law by George W. Bush in 2006 and gave the government the power to put people suspected of terrorism away indefinitely. What got to me, in addition to the fact that this was signed into law in the first place, was the fact that this was not on the front page of every newspaper in the country. I saw this as part of a trend that had begun in the 1990s to replace hard, factual, information with true crime, cooking, and celebrity news. Here we are, a supposedly free society based on a free press, but we have to research what’s going on independently if we want to learn what’s happening. The NDAA seemed like a violation of everything I grew up believing. What about the right to a trial by jury? What about being considered innocent until proven guilty?

These questions influenced a few of my installations, including “No News is Good News” and “Checkmate: Foxy Moxy.” Both look at media consolidation and bias.

EJB: Did you grow up in a political household?

MA: My parents were very political. They subscribed to I.F. Stone’s Weekly and I knew from an early age that there were official and unofficial versions of the news. I was aware as a child that not everything I heard on the TV or radio or read in the papers was true.

My parents also watched the BBC News and I remember when I was about five years old seeing newsreels of the liberation of the concentration camps. I was terrified, but there was no conversation about what we were seeing. If you combine this with the fact that I was forced to participate in schoolroom drills where we hid from Russian invaders by going underneath our desks, the message was clear: Either the Russians or the Germans were after us.

I grew up in a state of terror about what would happen next. I think that this fed right into the “live for the moment” ethos of the 1960s that many post-war children gravitated to.

EJB: Were you part of the movement opposing the Vietnam War?

MA: I went to the City College of New York as an undergraduate and we closed down the school three times! After seeing the now-famous photo of the little girl running with napalm burning her back, I really “got” the power of an image. That realization has influenced my art.

Things were different then. Protest was a cultural phenomenon. None of us felt isolated. We did things in groups, where everyone felt a sort of natural connectivity, as if a force drew us together with a shared understanding of what we had to do.

EJB: After college did you pursue art making full-time?

MA: No. I taught art for 25 years and worked at a public school in Washington Heights from 1987 until 2006. When I began working there, there was no art program for special education students so I started one. It made me feel that there was a purpose to my being there. It was really gratifying.

I also continued to study. I took figure drawing classes at the Art Students’ League after college and later got a Master’s degree from New York University.

The beauty of teaching, for me, was that most days I was done at 3:00 p.m. so I could then paint or draw until 6:00, as well as during summers and on weekends. Even after my husband and I adopted our daughter in 1996, I kept this up.

EJB: Tell me a little bit about the adoption.

MA: We adopted our daughter from an orphanage in Russia. She was two. The transition from a facility to a home was not easy and we saw a lot of hyperactivity and difficult behavior. In retrospect, I now see that it was a blessing that I had been a teacher before becoming a mother because I knew how to structure time and dispense discipline in a loving way.

My daughter is now 23, and she and I are going to Russia later this summer on a trip sponsored by Russian Ties, a group for adoptive parents and their Russian-born children. We’re excited!

EJB: How did you become involved in the environmental movement?

MA: What really got to me was something I noticed right after Hurricane Sandy. When the weather people talked about the destruction and discussed the need for sea walls, they never mentioned why the water levels were rising. This was a suppression of critical news. Even today, so many people have no idea that we’re facing an environmental emergency. It’s mind-boggling.

Of course, groups like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have documented the crisis, but the U.S. is still largely in denial. Once I understood this, I became involved in and the Jewish Climate Action Network. I’m also part of the environmental group at my shul, B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Several of my art projects—including “Check, Checkmate, Game Over”—are a response to environmental calamity.

EJB: Are you also involved in feminist work?

MA: Not in a formal way. It’s funny. My mom passed the bar exam in 1945 and was a very independent woman. She spoke about the discrimination she and other women experienced in the law field and was a fantastic role model, a woman who broke glass ceilings and barriers. I guess because of her example, I never personally felt constrained or hindered by my gender. I just assumed I could do whatever I wanted to do.

At the same time, some of my art touches on sexism and misogyny. I created a sculpture called “Little Red” as a tribute to Aisha Ibrahim Duholow, a 13-year-old girl who was stoned to death in a stadium in Somalia. Aisha had been raped but instead of arresting the men who attacked her, Al-Shabaab (a militant Taliban-like group) killed her as she traveled to her grandmother’s house. Another installation, called “Helen of Troy,” focuses on the concept of beauty as culturally determined and informed.

EJB: How did you become affiliated with the Flomenhaft Gallery?

MA: A few years back I was part of an exhibition called Women Call for Peace where “Little Red” was displayed. As part of the exhibit, the organizers scheduled a panel discussion. Eleanor Flomenhaft, who’d opened the Flomenhaft Gallery in 2004, was there because she used to represent Faith Ringgold and wanted to hear what she had to say. Apparently, Eleanor liked what I had to say, too, because, after the panel she came up to me and invited me to participate in a group show she was pulling together. I’ve been one of her artists ever since.

EJB: What’s next for you?

MA: I’m now working on a large public art project about the environment, but it’s in process so I can’t talk about it yet.

Oh, and some of my work will be included in a book about Jewish artists being compiled by Ori Z. Soltes of Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.