Curators Picks: Debra Riffe

In our feature Take Five, Burnaway highlights the work of five compelling artists living in the South. For a special edition of Take Five originally published in Laws of Salvage: The 2020 Burnaway Reader, we asked five curators around the region to briefly profile an artist who captured their attention this year. One of these curators’ picks will be featured on our website each day this week.

Debra Riffe, St. Clair, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Birmingham-based printmaker Debra Riffe’s work is steeped in personal and social histories that she’s both lived and observed in the American South. Following a three-decade career in graphic design and illustration, Riffe arrived at printmaking after trying her hand at needlepoint, which she dropped after the onerous process severely limited her production. Given her past modes of working, it comes as no surprise that Riffe is able to transform the simplest lines and palettes into rich landscapes and joyful, unfettered movements that show the breadth of life in the rural American South. Part of Riffe’s practice is to provide complex representations of Black Americans as a counterpoint to the caricatures and flat depictions that are still all too common. Her portraits, such as i buyed myself free, depict Southern workers whose likeness and labor are rarely, if ever, canonized in art alongside their enslavers and employers, the titans of industry whose portraits live on in the collections of art museums across the country. 

In 2019, Riffe’s work shifted from figures in motion surrounded by the waves of their energy to single figures rendered against a white background. Her print St. Clair was inspired by an eighteen-week course that Riffe taught at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springfield, Alabama. In this print, Riffe obscured the figure’s nose, mouth, neck, and chest with shapes from a doily she inherited from her maternal grandmother to represent the silencing of these men in prison. The waves of energy and atmosphere are also conspicuously absent from this work, leaving only silence in the form of negative space. 

Hallie Ringle is the Hugh Kaul Curator of Contemporary Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, Alabama.