Raina Lampkins-Fielder: The Furthermuckin Expat Q

When my coworker showed up to work in leather pants and a Rolling Stones T-shirt, I knew she wouldn’t stick around long, and indeed she didn’t. (Neither did I, for that matter.) Working together last year at a “leisure newswire” that shall remain nameless, Marie-Noelle was an energetic light in the office with bigger fish to fry… thus pretty instantly familiar. She had a friend I just had to meet, she kept saying, who she knew I’d hit it off with. Which is where Raina came in.

On a two-hour lunch break at Fuxia, an Italian spot near the Canal Saint-Martin, Raina Lampkins-Fielder and I broke bread last summer, sipping wine and rapping all about art, Brooklyn and parenthood. A former associate director at the Whitney Museum’s education department—with stints at both the Andy Warhol Museum and the Brooklyn Museum of Art—Raina had just given birth to twins, and devoured our adult conversation time like a crispy baguette doused in extra-virgin olive oil.

Hope you do too.

We recently connected in the pouring rain at Odette et Aimé café to discuss more about her editorial spot at the new Paris-based, English-language some/things(pronounced “some slash things”) magazine, and other furthermuckin topics of choice.

No one I speak to for the Expat Q has moved here for “political reasons,” like Americans used to once upon a time. Care to speak on that?

We certainly didn’t leave for political reasons at all. It’s not as if I didn’t kind of think about that. But then when you really think about what you do for political reasons, no, you stay and you fight the good fight. That’s what you do. You don’t flee: you stay. Also, if I would’ve left the US for political reasons…France? Is this the place to choose? [laughter] I don’t necessarily think so. Not for some remarkable French, all-embracing, democratic whatever. I mean, this isn’t that place. It’s not the place to go to.

It did have that kind of veneer, but now that is, like, gone. Fully gone. It’s gone so much that you have those parts where you’re like, “Hmm, I’m raising my little kids here?” I’m kinda glad London is close, so they can see some black folks in suits. Black people on television outside of the month of August. In commercials, maybe with, like, natural hair. [laughter] Those forced bangs, very straightened, it’s not working on little black girls’ hair, man. [laughter] Hopefully there’ll be some sort of change, but you don’t even see many black folks here with dredlocks who are not American.

What are your thoughts on blackness in Paris?

It’s really complicated, because my blackness in Paris is not a black French person’s blackness in Paris. I’ve traveled places where it would be physically impossible for me to kind of assimilate in a certain way. But you try to assimilate in some ways. You try to take on the posture of a country. And I realized, maybe because of living here, and also raising children here, that it is important to me to not take on the posture and attributes of this country. Because it is beneficial to me, being of African origin, to be American.

What I feel, and maybe I’m wrong, but this principle of, “Regardless what color you are, what your religion is, you’re French” is really such a fictional thing. It doesn’t manifest itself in a way that is actually egalitarian. What it does is, it excuses them from having a conversation about difference. And the differences that are here should be this amazing intellectual and cultural currency; they completely deny to take advantage of [it].

I realized that the kind of horrible legacy of saying “everyone is French” is that it makes it difficult for someone who is French but doesn’t look like what a French person imagines themselves to look like to have even developed the language through which to express it. Because they have been raised French.

I tend to know many more black folks in Paris who have come from somewhere else. And it’s not like everyone is going towards this black expatriate community. Those things happen, but it’s not like it’s a black American expatriate community. It’s friends from all parts of the world, they’re pan-African, who kind of find themselves together. We realized that we didn’t really have the type of really close relationships with black French women, and it was curious.

There’s another divide even within that kind of “being black in Paris.” I’ve had people say, “Well, it’s obvious you’re American before you open your mouth.” Well, what is that? “It’s the way that you move.” And so that’s going to define you in a certain way to both white people and black people. You know, I don’t choose to necessarily believe everything that somebody tells me. [laughter] Those are some of the thoughts that are out there. I think it is hard to be black in France.

How do you feel about raising your kids here, in terms of their identity?

What’s interesting is not only teaching them about blackness, but also kind of the definition of what that is, and whose blackness it is. Because my context would be kind of an African-American idea of blackness. Part of what is imbedded in that is insuring a kind of Americanness about them as well. And so it makes it a little bit complicated. Plus, my husband’s British. So there’s kind of that Britishy stuff to bring in. And we’re a multicultural family who have children who look like the spectrum of the races.

At the supermarket, an old woman was trying to get some change and she couldn’t find it, so I started to get her some change. She pointed out my babies, and I’m sure she assumed I was the nanny. I could be nothing but the nanny. [laughter] Which I certainly get a lot, particularly when they were much younger, ’cause some people [tend to] not think I’m their mother because of the way that they look. This woman, I could barely understand all that she was saying, but what she had said that I did get was that she was not into my one child because she was darker, and said something to the effect of, not knowing that they were mine anyway, she could kind of accept that the white child was okay.

I know that I’m probably considered American first to a French person than a black person. So that’s quite a difference. There is something about that that’s quite liberating. Not that I ever felt a burden in the States. I’ve never not wanted to be black or to be different. Sometimes I have felt like I needed to be more of something, but I’m okay with who I am, and have been for quite a while. The American thing here trumps everything. You’re just like any other American.

White children in France can play with black dolls. It’s just a doll. It’s a doll first. It’s not a statement that a person is making. Whereas in the States, if it’s a white family and they gave their child a black doll, they’ve had conversations. [laughter] Whereas here, people just do it.

What’s so amazing is that they’re not necessarily helpful to their own folks, who don’t have the flexibility to straddle the lines of being a French person here and being part of a viable international community. A Senegalese community is considered an immigrant. I can’t really speak to certain things, because I know I’ve been given a very different entrée to things.

How did some/thingsmagazine come about?

I’d never done a magazine before at all. And funnily enough, I was at a party and met someone who was doing another magazine called UOVO. She said, “Oh, would you like to do something for this magazine?” What I discovered now that I’ve worked on two magazines is that I work on magazines that call themselves magazines but are in fact books. You know, they function as sort of curated books. So I did a couple of things for UOVO, which is super, and then they disbanded because of this crisis.

But at a launch party for UOVO, I met this woman, Monika Bielskyte, the creative director who actually founded some/things. This is before that was anything. She just started talking to me, and I liked her. She said, “Let’s stay in touch.” I knew she was a photographer, and I liked her spirit. She was unusual. Finding that person in Paris who a) comes up to you—

Is she French?

No, she’s Lithuanian.

There you go.

[laughter] But somebody who comes up to you and says, “You look kind of interesting to me. What’s your story?” That’s her approach. I didn’t really follow up. I had her card, she had my card, she would send me things like, “Look at my work.” I never followed up. And then finally, like two years ago, I looked at her work on her site, and I really liked it. I liked her aesthetic, I like her eye, what she focused on. So I said, “Let’s talk, I’d love to do something.” “I’ve started this magazine, don’t you want to do something, da da da da?” And I’m like, “Well, I have no time.” I just had the twins.

But then she’s like, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon.” So then we started doing this magazine.

The launch party was great; I liked the space too. What’s the point of some/things?

There are three of us who do the content. I oversee all of the contemporary art. And now that we have a creative agency that’s come from the book, I’m the deputy art director. And at the gallery, I’m the deputy art director for the art budget of the gallery.

The whole point of some/things is, we really wanted to create something that was unique, that tells some sort of story—whether we’re dealing with an artist or a fashion designer or politics or what have you—that we’re kind of taking on something that’s, it’s a different view to it. We want to spend the time in interviews, we want to create portraits of people, portraits of ideas. In some ways, the book itself becomes a portrait of who we are, who the team is, as people. Because we don’t say, “a third of it has to be fashion, a third has to be art, a third has to be politics.” Every book starts from something that’s just random, that excites us.

Everything has a primal theme and a title. The last one was called Farewell My Concubine. That was based on the film. Not that we wanted to reënvision that story, or not as if it would be even overtly communicated to the audience. But we liked some of the color palette that came out of the film, a certain type of red. Ideas of transformation. Certain ideas of sexuality, of a changeability. That’s what drove the artists, the personalities, the musicians, all the people that we selected. And it certainly provided the direction for how we would interact with them.

The types of interviews that we had were exhaustive interviews. Some of the people in that issue, they could start their memoirs from the interview that we had with them. [laughter] But it was really getting into the person, portraits of that person. There are many more shots of people’s faces; we really wanted to have the actual portrait of the artist.

I think of it as this tone poem: this idea that you can go from the beginning to the end of this book and that it is literally about a journey. We don’t have any ads, because that would sort of interrupt the flow. It also places it in a time, it assumes something. We’ll draw from anywhere. If there’s someone who did something in 1920 that we think visually works, whatever. It’s quite a personal thing that we hope has sort of visual and intellectual resonance for others.

The issue that we’re working on now, it’s called The Wings of a Locust, dealing with ideas of architecture, ghostly presence, loss, memory, transparency. A color palette that came out of just looking at images of oil spills [laughter] and the way that an oil spill—just a certain type of shimmer, a certain palette that came out of that—wanting to find ways of replicating it.

These are the things that drive the sensibility of it. And the sensibility of the magazine also is a little bit dark. It’s not like this happy dance through these images. It’s a little dark. But we also want it to be revelatory in a way. It’s a little bit vague. But when you see the book, it’s actually quite concrete for the reader.

That’s what some/things is about.

And what’s going on at the some/things secret space?

Well, we had our first exhibition in November. And I’ll let you know: it is hard to do a magazine when our staff is this small. That’s over 320 pages of just pure content, no filler, no ads, while also opening a space that needs to be completely gutted and remade. While also then deciding that we were going to have an exhibition. It’s a bit crazy. We’re also having another exhibition, January 23.

The first exhibition was kind of an extension of the work in issue 3. I think we’ll continue to do that. But then we also want to have other activities that this space can accommodate, whether it’s people who want to do readings, or something that makes sense within what we do.

Our next show in January is going to be looking at fashion, but in the way that welook at fashion. ’Cause I don’t think art is fashion, and I don’t think fashion is necessarily art. I think both of them can be in some ways. But there’s an aspect of me that is a purist for art. I don’t want to put everything into a commercial market. But we do look at fashion in a very particular way.

Even when we did the piece on Yohji Yamamoto, the works that we chose from the archives to show, we wanted it to be something that for me looking at it as somebody coming from the art world, it would work for me. And it can be such a subtle thing. Like the part of the back that is shown that is clothed in some Yohji Yamamoto piece, a slight kind of turn in image can function as a photograph itself, as opposed to something that is a photograph of [the clothes]. We want to have an exhibition that expresses that kind of sensibility.

Let’s talk about your apperances on Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Serviceradio show on BBC 6.

He’s a great friend. Our children are extremely good friends. We met through our kids, and we became kind of fast friends ourselves.

I only know Jarvis from bum-rushing Michael Jackson at the ’96 Brit Awards. I don’t know any Pulp songs. Did you know him from the English rock band, Pulp?

Yeah, but you know, I didn’t really recognize him. He and I just totally clicked. It was at a time when I was really new in Paris, and he’d been here a few years. We needed to talk to someone. We would have coffee every single morning, kind of without fail, for a couple of years. We’d talk about life, stupid stuff, we would do the crossword together. He’s the godfather of my girls, so we’re really good friends. That’s the real reason why I’m on the show, if the truth be told. [laughter]

It’s an awesome show. It’s something that’s coming from his mind, the various types of music, the various types of references; politicians or artists or whomever that he’s got coming to interview. I mean, it’s just really fun. It’s almost old-fashioned, where you can go to a radio show and listen to it for two hours and you’re gonna hear music that you never heard before and you’re gonna hear [director] Ken Loach talking about something or… it’s fun.

He often would have readings, and so he asked me to read some stories for the show, which is good fun. It’s something that I enjoy doing. When I put on my more performative voice, it’s something that I can do pretty well.

Will you be on again soon?

The show is on every Sunday. If everyone writes in, I will be a regular. [laughter] He curates each of the shows, so it sort of depends. The last story that I read was for his holiday special, kind of about Christmas and the holidays. The story worked for that show. And the song that came after worked with that story, so it really depends on that.

Was your grad work at the University of Cambridge your only experience living abroad?

I spent a semester abroad in London before, when I was in undergrad. I got into it, and got a lot of friends. It was through the Yale program, and we studied at the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art. I just really loved being on my own.

And then Derek, my husband, when I was in London—he’s British, so his family lives there—he had gotten a job with Reuters. Well, eventually with Reuters, but he first got a job being editor-in-chief of a Russian business magazine called Kak Dela. It was actually in Russian and English, in St. Petersburg, in Russia. So we went to Russia and I was in England.

You visited?

Often. Then he moved to Moscow to be a producer with Reuters, which was amazing. So I was back and forth between England and Russia. I’d have eight weeks in England and then I’d spend like a month or six weeks in Russia over those two years. He was there full-time, for three years totally.

We moved back to the States, we were in New York… Pittsburgh first, and then New York. He’d lived abroad. He grew up in Hong Kong. When we were in New York, I became this sort of New Yorker. I never thought at all about leaving New York.

Where are you from?

Pennsylvania and Indiana.

You were born in…?

Ohio. I’m totally midwestern. It’s, like, not cool. [laughter] But I think it’s super cool. Who’s from Indiana in Paris now? So it’s kind of interesting. [laughter]