Sabra Moore (Guinea 1964-66) an artist and activist before, during, and after her Peace Corps years has just published her memoir of twenty-two years in New York working as an artist and freelance photo editor. The book is entitled, Openings: A Memoir from the Women’s Art Movement, New York City 1970-1992. Her book also goes back to her Peace Corps years and her childhood in east Texas. I recently interviewed Sabra about her career, in and out of the Peace Corps, and her current life in Abiquiu, New Mexico.
Sabra, what was your background before the Peace Corps?
I grew up in east Texas- my grandparents were farmers, my father organized for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and was a railroad engineer for the Cotton Belt and my mother was a dedicated first-grade school teacher. I graduated from the University of Texas in Austin with a BA cum laude and studied in the liberal arts honors program called Plan II.
Did you major in art, or did that interest come later in life?
No, I majored in Plan II but remember, this was 1964 and I was from a working-class family. I always made art and it was in Guinea, where I made many colored pencil and ink drawings, that I committed myself to being an artist. It’s a lifetime commitment.
Why did you join the Peace Corps?
It was 1964, Freedom Summer. I had two choices: continue into graduate school or join the Peace Corps. I knew I would have to pay for my graduate studies and I was a finalist for the Woodrow Wilson scholarship, but I didn’t get the scholarship. So I joined the Peace Corps and went to Africa. Either choice would have been good.
And what was your assignment?
I was teaching English as a second language at an École Technique in N’Zérékoré.
In what ways did Africa involve your art work?
You can see my artwork throughout the book. I found living in Guinea an inspiration since art is part of life there- people paint their pottery, decorate their houses, tie their headscarves, etc. and music is omnipresent. I talk about this quite extensively in the first and second chapters- the ways I felt influenced by art in context in Guinea. I also drew over 100 masks and gris-gris objects for the book. Thanos Mengrelis was writing about Guerzé masks and making those drawings was an immersion in Guerzé art. Plus I made a lot of colored pencil drawings of the landscape and people as a way of looking closely. Being in Guinea gave me the courage to become an artist.
From what you write in your book, you begin with your abortion in Guinea and with your difficult relationship with C in New York City. I was struck reading your book that you are still twenty-five or so, and you already have two strikes against you. How did you manage to survive and thrive?
I don’t think of the near-death from my abortion in Guinea or the problems I had with my painting teacher C as “strikes against” me, but rather as actually fairly common experiences of young women as relates to our position in the world at that time and alas, often still today, witness our new President. I managed to survive both incidents, others did not, so I see these experiences as points of strength and resourcefulness. There was another volunteer in Guinea who got pregnant and vanished early in our two-year stay, kicked out of the Peace Corps and sent back to her home in disgrace. That did not happen to me. In writing this book over a seven year of period, I had to consider my role in the multiple stories. I think of myself as an “every woman,” the teller of the tale, and of my very personal experiences as experiences that I actually share in common with many women, but which are often not revealed or articulated.
The reactions of women after Trump’s groping tapes, and the wonderful speech by Michelle Obama in response to those reactions, tell all of us that almost no woman has avoided some form of male violence or some form of unwanted sexual advance or attack.
Your efforts with organizing women in the art world in New York were very early in the movement. How did that all come about?
We worked together because we needed each other, beginning with the simple act of talking together in consciousness raising. Lucy Lippard describes this aptly in her introduction as a form of story-telling. Discrimination against women is so common and accepted, even today, that we needed each other to figure out what we were experiencing by discovering the common threads. From this discovery, everything else was born and then branched into many directions. I was not alone; I did not invent this. My involvement in actions, shows, and events, evolved in relationship to others primarily because we were excluded and we had to find ways to address these issues.
You were involved with the RPCV action called CRV in those early years. What stands out about that? Was it the first step in your activism?
I was first involved in the anti-war movement and then got involved in CRV. I forget now who told me about CRV- we protested the war in Vietnam and also the role of Gulf Oil in struggles in Angola.
Are you still connected to art and Africa today living as you do in New Mexico?
New Mexico has art as well- I think I’m making my best work here, where I have more time and a fine studio. A few of us from Heresies also live here- Lucy Lippard, Harmony Hammond, May Stevens- and we still see each other. One of my last chapters is entitled- We Move Into the World & Take Our Issues with Us. I feel I have done that. I still on occasion organize collective shows- the most recent being THE FARM SHOW. I invited ten artists to interview 20 farmers from the Espanola Farmers Market (a market I have managed for the past 17 years), collect their farm stories, and then make an artwork in relation to the story. I have now created 31 farm banners (1x 8 ft. cloth banners with the farm stories printed on each banner). The artists went to the farm, and then the farmers went to the museum. Lucy Lippard included THE FARM SHOW in a talk she made at the Tate in London some years ago. I had a one-person show at the Harwood Museum in Taos a few years ago as well, and regularly show my artwork in various venues. The collective work in NYC was pivotal for me and remains a touchstone, as my life in Guinea also is a touchstone. It is very valuable to have lived in other contexts- it helps one imagine life from many perspectives, something sorely missing as a cultural value in this country and part of the reason for the tragic persistence of racial segregation, a problem which must be addressed by the entire culture.
In terms of your art, what would you say is your biggest accomplishment?
Art is an ongoing process, not a single accomplishment. Being an artist is an attitude towards life, a continuous practice. I am always working and always most interested in the visual problems at hand.
You left New York in the mid-90s, right? And moved to New Mexico. What brought about that decision?
I needed to be where land was dominant. I am from the country and longed for the country. When I had the opportunity to buy land after I got bought out of my rent-controlled apartment, finding land was a goal and happily, my husband and fellow artist, Roger Mignon, was willing to make this leap with me. I feel in balance here, where humans are not the most important animal in the landscape but one among many.
Do you know other Peace Corps artists with national reputations, besides Martin Puryear (Sierra Leone 1964-66)?
I love Martin Puryear’s artwork- I didn’t realize that we were in neighboring countries at the same time.
Speaking of creative RPCVs what writers have you read and treasure who were once, like you, Peace Corps Volunteers?
Actually, I haven’t read books by former volunteers, but I will now consult your useful site to introduce myself to new writers. Like many volunteers, I am an avid reader of books by African writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Thank you, Sabra, for your time and the best of luck with your memoir.