b. 1933 Los Angeles, CA – d. 2019 New York, NY
Camille Billops (1933, Los Angeles, CA - 2019 New York, NY) was an influential artist and filmmaker whose staunch activism and profound belief in the power of memory and representation made her a pillar of the black New York-based artist community from the 1960s until her death in 2019.
As an artist, Billops came into her own within the converging contexts of the 1960s civil rights movement and New York’s emerging black artists movement. She has unapologetically drawn from her life experiences, family history, and community to carve out a space for her voice to be heard. Her work primarily touches upon themes of racism—which she considered ever present throughout society—gender dynamics, black culture, and personal narrative.
Billops began her career with ceramics, though she went on to investigate printmaking, book illustration, costume design, jewelry, and filmmaking throughout her five decade career. She first discovered ceramics while studying at the School of Occupational Therapy at the University of Southern California in the late 1950s. She later learned printmaking in 1973 at master printer Robert Blackburn’s studio under the tutelage of Romare Bearden and Krishna Reddy. As an artist, Camille was profoundly influenced by her extensive travel to Egypt, India, Ghana, Japan and Taiwan, among other locations. It is during her initial travels to Egypt and Ghana in the early 1960s that Billops discovered new concepts of black identity that she would later translate in her art. In 1978 she traveled to Alisah, Morocco to help Blackburn set up his Moroccan printmaking workshop. Billops’s longstanding interest in folk and ‘primitive’ art and Asian aesthetic practices, combined with her husband James V. Hatch’s lifelong dedication to theatre and storytelling, had a profound influence over her artistic practice, leading to a shift to filmmaking in the 1980s.
Billops’s life and career is marked by the myriad of people that she affected with her art, activism, leadership, and friendship. With her husband, Billops founded the Hatch-Billops Collection in 1975 in an effort to preserve and promote black culture and the remarkable work that her peers were producing. This impressive archive currently counts thousands of African American oral histories, books, slides, photographs and other historical references.
Starting in the 1970s, her SoHo loft became a gathering place for visual artists such as Vivian Browne, Howardena Pindell, Faith Ringgold, Jacob Lawrence and Clifford R. Joseph; playwright George C. Wolfe and novelist John A. Williams, among many others. The social meetings of like-minded artists and intellectuals in the Hatch Billops loft eventually grew into more formal salons, where a variety of creative folk converged to discuss the social, cultural, and political issues of the day. Within this context, Billops and Hatch began recording artists’ stories and publishing the annual publication Artist and Influence in 1981. This extensive journal paired prominent curators and thinkers with active black artists in the NYC scene for interviews in the Hatch Billops loft. The interviewees and interviewers include among others Betye Saar, Emma Amos, Norman Lewis, Faith Ringgold, David Hammon, bell hooks, Henri Ghent, Benny Andrews, Elizabeth Catlett, Lowery Sims, and Romare Bearden. Over the decades, Billops and Hatch coordinated more than 1,500 interviews, with just over 400 appearing in print.
Throughout her life, Billops was involved in many activist organizations including the Black Emergency Culture Coalition—which was formed in response to the Metropolitan Museum’s controversial 1968 exhibition Harlem on My Mind—becoming co-directors of the BECC in 1972. She also was a founding member of the short-lived Black Artist Meeting group, which discussed the challenges of black American artists, and was further involved in civil rights groups such as the Black Arts Movement (BAM) which asserted and advanced a global vision of new political directions and possibilities for black people to embrace. In 1974, Billops was invited to become one of Just Above Midtown (JAM)’s gallery artists, and was included in the inaugural exhibition later that year. She further co-edited with David Hammons an edition of the gallery’s publication Black Currant (later known as B Culture). Billops also collaborated with James Van Der Zee and poet Owen Dodson in the 1978 publication of The Harlem Book of the Dead.
Frequently one of the only women present in the black activist circles of the 1960s and 1970s, she was encouraged by her friend Vivian Browne to participate in more multi-racial or white feminist spaces, such as Soho20 and Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics in the 1970s and 1980s.
A lifelong educator, Billops taught at Rutgers University, New Jersey; the City College of New York; Kaohsiung Teacher’s College, Taiwan; and the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, Maine among others. She was recommended to be a fellow at the Huntington Hartford Foundation by Charles White, and was awarded the Fellowship In 1963, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship in 1975, The International Women’s Year Award in 1976, The James Van Der Zee Award in 1994, the Brandywine Graphic Workshop in 1994, and finally the Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.
In 1982, Billops began her filmmaking career with Suzanne, Suzanne, and subsequently made Finding Christa in 1991, an autobiographical work that garnered the Grand Jury Prize for documentaries at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival. Finding Christa has also been aired as part of the Public Broadcasting Station’s P.O.V. television series. Her other film credits include Older Women and Love in 1987, The KKK Boutique Ain’t Just Rednecks in 1994, Take Your Bags in 1998, and A String of Pearls in 2002. Billops produced all of her films with her husband and their film company, Mom and Pop Productions.
In 2023, Billops’s and her husband James Hatch’s documentary filmmaking will be the focus of a major solo retrospective entitled A String of Pearls: The Films of Camille Billops & James Hatch at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, organized by Third World Newsreel. In 2022, Billops was included in the landmark group exhibition Just Above Midtown, 1974 to the Present at the Museum of Modern Art, NY, a retrospective focusing on the historic Just Above Midtown gallery. Billops’s work has also been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions at Featherstone Center for the Arts, PA (2022); Hanes Gallery at Wake Forest University, NC (2021); Georgia Museum of Art, GA (2019); David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, MD (2019); Brooklyn Museum, NY (2017); Albright-Knox Art Gallery, NY (2017); Institute of Contemporary Art, MA (2017); Delaware Art Museum, DE (2017); Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture, NC (2012); among other institutions.
Billops’s work is in the collections of the The Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, Pine Bluff, AK; Boston Museum of Fine Arts, MA; The Burgess Group Fine Arts Collection, New York, NY; Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH; Detroit Institute of Arts, MI; Donnell Media Center, New York Public Library, NY; Featherstone Center for the Arts, MA; Georgia Museum of Art, GA; Harold A. and Ann R. Sorgenti of Contemporary American Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA; Hofstra University, NY; K Caraccio Collection, NY; Library of Congress, DC; Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN; Museum of Fine Arts, MA; Museum of Modern Art, NY; Nasher Museum of Art, NC; Paul Jones Museum, University of Alabama, AL; Petrucci Family Collection, NJ; Photographers Gallery, London; Robert Blackburn Print Collection, NY; Das Schubladenmuseum, Bern; Studio Museum in Harlem, NY; and Yale University Art Gallery, CT.