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Winfred Rembert is a self-taught artist who has been recognized for his paintings depicting his experiences as an African American in the segregated South. Rembert grew up in Cuthbert, Ga., where he spent his childhood working in the cotton fields. As a teenager he was held in jail without charges for over a year for participating in a civil rights demonstration. Rembert tried to escape and was punished with a prison sentence and an attempted lynching and castration. Now in his 60s, Rembert has developed a following among art collectors and has had his art exhibited at the Yale University Art Gallery and the Adelson Galleries in association with Peter Tillou Works of Art. His documentary, All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert, was released earlier this year, and provides a portrait of Rembert’s life and his art process. The Eye sat down with him at one of the movie’s previews in Marcus Garvey Park to talk about his art and the importance of teaching today’s youth about African-American culture.
Why did you decide to make this documentary?
I’m trying to reach some young black folk who don’t know their history and have no interest in their history. If they see this film, then maybe they could stop the violence. Black-on-black crime–there is too much of that. If you know your history, you wouldn’t do that. There is no other race of people that kill each other the way we do, and I do feel that that’s because they don’t know their history and the price that was paid for them not to have to ride in the back of the bus and to not have to go to the back of the store. So I think this movie tells some stories. I am trying to reach these black kids.
Can you tell me about some of your experiences in the civil rights movement?
Well, my first experiences weren’t that bad. It was just in around 1969 when the very bad experience came—when I almost got killed and lynched. I guess you don’t live to tell about a lynching–I am just a lucky guy. I lived to tell that, so I thank God for that. If all of that stuff hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be here.
What was it like picking cotton?
Picking cotton is just tough—it’s like slavery. What good can picking cotton be to the person who is picking when you only get two cents a pound? You pick a hundred pounds, you get two bucks, and it takes you all day to pick a hundred pounds of cotton. They sang songs in the cotton field—that was the best thing about picking cotton. You got to hear all the singing all day long.
How did you first get into making art?
My wife suggested it when we are sitting around the table. I was telling them stories of my life, growing up as a little boy. So she suggested that I should make some history out of it, and that’s how we got started.
What goes through your head when you are working on these pieces? They are so personal.
Yeah, they are. I’m just trying to make sure I am telling the true story because people have a tendency to check behind you to see if you are lying. I just want to concentrate on telling the truth.
In the film you talk about how white people have been your main collectors. Can you elaborate on that? How does it make you feel?
Like my wife said, I think a lot of white people are trying to figure out what happened between the blacks and the whites and really get themselves together. It’s not like it was years ago–white people are kinder now. I have a ton of white friends, which I didn’t have back in the day.
How does your art help you cope with the things that you have been through?
It is hard doing this work because I have to go to the doctor all of the time. I think about all of the bad things that happened, and I get sick. A lot of times I have to go to the doctor and get medication to keep doing the work.
What are the differences that you saw in Georgia when you went back to do your show?
It is not the same. All those stores, juke joints, restaurants, and black-owned stuff, you know, it ain’t there anymore. All that stuff is torn down—there ain’t nothing there, just empty spaces. So that’s another thing that this artwork can do, is help remember those things because street by street, I have it down.
A lot of your art depicts characters from your childhood. How do you pick which ones to show?
Cuthbert was like no other place when it comes to characters. There were so many, just so many characters. And guess what? I’m not going to be able to do them all because there are so many characters.
What are your plans for the future with your art?
I am just going to keep on doing what I have been doing. I am just going to be trying to capture history and making sure that I do a good job of that.
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