Painting of a Black woman in a bright yellow dress seated in a blue chair against a red wall
Empress Akweke, 1975, by Dindga McCannon (American, born 1947). Image courtesy of Fridman Gallery, New York

Two Days with Dindga McCannon

Elizabeth Leitzell

In a series of recordings, mixed media artist Dindga McCannon talks about life, work, and naming her plants

Dindga McCannon is, in my opinion, one of the country’s greatest living artists. Her prolific career, which began in Harlem with her first one-woman show at age 18, spans 57 years and continues to grow. Today, when she isn’t working at her fellowship at the Robert Blackburn studio in New York, preparing for a show, or traveling, she lives and works in Philadelphia. On two hot days in July, Dindga, who turned 75 this year, generously shared time with me and allowed me to photograph and record her at her home studio and her professional studio at the Bok Building. In the videos, audio recordings, and photographs below, Dindga tells her own story.

The artist describes getting her start at seventeen, moving from Harlem to Philadelphia, and how Black Lives Matter is changing things for Black artists

Dindga’s home greets you cheerfully with a purple door. Inside, you’re able to get a peek inside her mind, with finished artworks, in-progress pieces, and supplies everywhere. Here, listen as Dindga describes her current work-in-progress, which is about Carnival, and giving herself permission to “create something happy” after seeing a Nick Cave exhibition.

  • Dindga McCannon standing in her studio holding a richly decorated bust
  • Detail of top of dressmakers form covered with collaged fabric and beadwork
  • Hands pinning beadwork onto a richly ornamented dressmakers form
  • Top of a dressmakers form with applied iridescent beadwork and collaged fabric
Blues Queens, 2021, by Dindga McCannon (American, b. 1947). Mixed media quilt. Image courtesy of the Fridman Gallery

Dindga created Blues Queens, 2021, to celebrate great female musical artists. Here she talks about how the project came together and the debt she feels to musicians like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, who paved the way for her to be a Black woman artist.

Dindga has had a long career and has been recognized for her contributions for many years. But she became more widely and commercially known somewhat suddenly in 2020, right before the pandemic hit. A painting of hers sold at an auction and she finally started being able to support herself as an artist.

The Last Farewell, 1970, by Dindga McCannon. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the Fridman Gallery
Harlem Memories #4, 2013, by Dindga McCannon. Mixed media quilt. Image courtesy the Fridman Gallery

In this clip, Dindga describes her feelings on the gentrification of Harlem, “my most favorite city in the whole wide world,” and how she translated those feelings into a body of work.

Dindga McCannon surrounded by works of art in various stages of completeness
The artist in her studio at the Bok Building

At the end of our time together, Dindga offered some thoughts for today’s emerging Black and brown artists.

All photographs and video and audio recordings are by Elizabeth Leitzell, unless otherwise noted. The audio excerpts presented here have been edited for length and clarity.

Dindga McCannon‘s work is on view as part of “To Whom Do I Owe The Power Behind My Voice?” at Philadelphia’s Commonweal Gallery through February 18, 2023. She is also featured in Issue 003 of Seen, BlackStar‘s journal of film and visual culture.

Elizabeth Leitzell is a photographer, short film-maker, and editor based in the Philadelphia area. She primarily serves non-profit clients in the arts, science, and academic arenas, alongside collaborations with artists and private clients. 

This post was supported by a Re:imagining Recovery grant to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.