Photo: Sang An
"My first reaction was, it reminded me of my great-aunt, who was the stern matriarch of my family." Cafritz laughs, an unguarded chuckle that warms the room. "Then my reaction was, how do you do that? It's all done with pencils, you know?"
She admits to being an "art glutton," but that's not what inspires her to cram every inch of her house with works by artists of color. "We were so absent from the major art scene for so long—not just African-Americans. I have been involved in trying to change that all my life."
Even though she came from a prominent family in Mobile, Alabama, she couldn't escape the racism that surrounded her. "Just the kind of rage that gets into you, you have to do something with that," she tells me. "And I saw the arts as a ticket to opening up worlds for kids. Their purchase of a train ticket to a broader life. And I thought, 'What better revenge in an unjust world?'"
Cafritz has not only served on Ellington's board of directors but over the years taken in teenagers—as many as eight at one time—and repurposed basement space as bedrooms. She has helped jump-start artistic careers, even as she chaired the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, headed the D.C. Board of Education, and served as an arts critic on an Emmy-winning program. "I find that these kids' work, be it in theater or visual arts, is informed by our history, but it doesn't necessarily carry the baggage of our history. And that's a real difference. I think as we go forward, they'll be able to express a lightness of being, the way young people from our communities never have been." Her loyalty to these artists is evident. One watercolor portrait of a young boy, by a young man named David Jamison who died of AIDS, is particularly close to her heart. Pieces by up-and-coming graduates appear alongside works by more established figures.
"I think that everything you do has to have some kind of purpose," she says. "Artists have a particular responsibility, because they have a special eye on the world, a very special take that the rest of us need to see and hear."
Cafritz believes that art must be an integral part of society. The cultures of minorities have always understood that, she says, "because in the absence of other things, like money and power, art has been one thing that we could be enriched by, cling to, support, celebrate." In her dining room, with its genteel Oriental rug and antique table, she points to sculptures by Ellington students and teachers as well as by artists with a global reach. Dominating one wall is a shimmering, tapestry-like piece by Nigerian artist El Anatsui. It's made of salvaged metal bottle caps—discarded things, their value finally recognized. Before it, Cafritz has placed The Wanderer, a model of a slave ship with dazzlingly patterned sails, by the Nigerian-raised Yinka Shonibare. Nearby, Deborah Grant's stark image of a straight-backed chair, Where Good Darkies Go #11.
"I just think they kind of talk to one another," Cafritz says, explaining why she has grouped these pieces. No one can tell her where to put her art: She just listens for that silent conversation.
We Hear You!