MARGARET BOWLAND: PAINTING THE ROSES RED
Through Sunday, June 17
CAM Raleigh, Raleigh
Let’s dig in. What would it mean if you were a ten-year-old black girl and you came to CAM Raleigh?”
This is what Monét Noelle Marshall, a Durham-based performing artist and arts activist, asked those gathered for the pop-up conversation she spearheaded at the museum Saturday. Issues of race, power, and representation in art had already been heatedly raised around Brooklyn-based painter Margaret Bowland’s solo exhibition, Painting the Roses Red, and a contentious “CAMversation” with guest curator Dexter Wimberly and other panelists on April 24.
At the core of the issue is a museum that didn’t anticipate or respond well to criticisms, a guest curator who scoffed at community concerns, and an artist whose seemingly willful naïveté about the highly charged nature of her work precludes meaningful conversation.
Bowland, a native of Burlington, North Carolina, is white; her oil portraits often depict black subjects with paint on their bodies, sometimes in what can only be described as whiteface. Triangle communities reacted strongly to the work, with many finding it racially problematic at best and traumatic at worst.
When community members raised questions about these issues online and described their trauma at the CAMversation, which more than two hundred people attended, they found Wimberly patronizing and dismissive of their interpretations or emotional experiences. Marshall and the cast of her theater installation Buy My Soul and Call It Artwhich is being restaged at VAE on May 19 and 20 in response to Bowland’s worktook up the task of asking those questions in their pop-up conversation Saturday. It was yet another example of people of color doing intellectual and emotional labor to deal with a white problem.
“It’s your first time coming to the art museum and this was the first thing you saw,” Marshall asked about that hypothetical ten-year-old. “What do you think you would feel?” Attendees responded with words such as “frightened,” “intrigued,” “conflicted,” “assaulted,” “embarrassed,” “worried,” and “made a mockery of.”
But in interviews throughout Bowland’s career (she canceled a scheduled interview with the INDY this week on her manager’s advice) and in the brochure CAM provides, Bowland uses antonyms for these words. She says she’s “affirming the resilience and fierceness of humanity” by using whiteface on black subjects, showing how the world projects identities upon them (though it’s easy to argue that this is exactly what Bowland is doing). She is raising her subjects to the level of “aristocrats.” She’s simply saying, “You’re beautiful!” And she talks about her close personal relationships with some of her subjects and how they apply their own body paint.
But it’s difficult to reconcile her innocent stance with the actual content of the pictures. Many are of women in princess dresses or wedding gowns or nude. Their surroundings are dim, surreal, even phantasmagoric. When Bowland paints a young African-American girl coming out of a watermelon (a picture not in the CAM show) or wearing a crown of cotton, it becomes absurd for the artist to insist her paintings are not about race and refuse to discuss it.
Bowlandlike her friend and curator, Wimberly, who is African Americanseems to believe her studio is an autonomous zone in which contemporary racial issues can’t intrude, that her subjects are stripped of all social context when she picks up her brush.
“The color of someone’s skin is one of the first visual facts our mind records,” Bowland told the Huffington Post in 2015. “And in that second, a door opens and a rush of information fills our unconscious. The conscious mind must then fight past this onslaught to get back to apprehending the person standing before us.”
And in a 2014 interview with the same site, Bowland bent a Saul Bellow quote to imply that white people are oppressed, too: “[Bellow] says, ‘Repression is not precise. You repress one thing; you repress the thing adjacent.’ The white adults who raised me had no idea of what they were paying through the repression of their souls by the world order in which they lived. But damage was done.”
To Bowland, we’re all just humans underneathbut this is a rather deluded idea in a country that still does not recognize the full humanity of people of color. It sounds like white privilege run amok in a Brooklyn studio, and most people at Saturday’s pop-up conversation weren’t buying it.
While an artist might be able to avoid being held accountable for his or her work, a museum partially funded by public dollars is a different story.
“I don’t care about Margaret Bowland as an individual artist,” Marshall said on Saturday. “I’m more interested in systems, and in what does it mean for an institution that has a mission to curate art for a wider community to be responsible for the art they bring in.”
Most art museums have staff curators or curatorial boards that include a wide range of art historical and community perspectives, but CAM Raleigh has largely farmed out its curation since the board fired the museum’s first director, Elysia Borowy-Reeder, in 2013. (Borowy-Reeder has gone on to expand a vision of social justice through art at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.) In this case, CAM’s failure to anticipate reactions to this work in the Triangle and provide context might have been a bigger mistake than booking the show at all.
Imagine, for example, how different CAM’s role would seem if it presented Bowland in a group show of other works dealing with race and representation, with critical commentary, rather than letting the painter’s race be the white elephant in the room.
“There’s the brochure presented with the artist’s descriptions of the paintings, but there’s no commentary from the museum on the walls in the space,” one audience member said on Saturday. “I just was at an exhibit of sculptures at the Met Breuer and what made that exhibit powerful was the curator’s commentary about the pieces. It talked about race and bodies in really interesting ways.
“I feel like the museum allows this artist to speak, but it doesn’t say anything about the work,” the audience member continued. “It’s a lost opportunity to push back. The museum could present the work and critique it at the same time.”
CAM compounded the fallout from the initial controversy by handling it so poorly. The April 24 panel discussion about the show, thrown together only after the pushback began, was a disaster.
“I was asked to come here and give my opinion on what I thought of the work,” panelist Gemynii said on Saturday. “And the curator literally rolled his eyes as I spoke. … I was told that we weren’t art-literate enough to speak that night. I was basically told that my opinion as a black woman didn’t matter from a black man. That hurt, and I’ve yet to hear from CAM about follow-up conversations or about what’s going to be done.”
Wimberly, who ostensibly ran the discussion that night, still doesn’t seem to feel responsible for perspectives like Gemynii’s.
“If someone looks at a painting and they experience trauma and it makes them feel debased and silenced and angry and brings up all of this past hurtI’m a curator, not a clinical psychologist,” he told the INDY in a phone interview last week. (Read our full interviews with Wimberly and CAM director Gab Smith on our arts blog.) “And we’re all living here in America, right? I’m not trying to be a jerk. But we are surrounded by traumatic things all the time. And I believe that people are reacting to this work because of other things that don’t have a lot to do with this work.”
Wimberly admonished the other panelists, saying that people in other communities haven’t had these issues. (Bowland, for her part, claims she has only heard complaints about her work from white people until now.) Wimberly accused the panelists of censorship, misconstruing their complex questions about cultural appropriation and identity as a simple edict to forbid white artists from making work about black people.
Gemynii responded that black people are tired of having white people tell their stories and, gesturing at the walls as an example, asked why white artists are consistently given prestigious opportunities to do so. Wimberly said he obsessively studied black history as a young man but insisted that the night’s discussion wasn’t about black history.
The event had been billed as “Who Gets to Interpret Race and Power?”
In some respects, CAM is getting off easy. The controversy fits into a larger narrative of artist-activist responses to white artists depicting black bodies. The brightest flashpoint was the 2017 Whitney Biennial and the painting “Open Casket” by Dana Schutz, which shows the dead, mangled face of Emmett Till, an African-American teenager who was lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white womana claim that was later admitted to have been fabricated. Artist Parker Bright stood directly in front of Schutz’s painting for hours, essentially blocking it from view, wearing a T-shirt with “Black Death Spectacle” written on the back.
In an open letter, Berlin-based critic Hannah Black called for the painting’s removal and destruction. “Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame,” Black wrote, “this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artistthose non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.”
Black’s words could have just as easily been written about Bowland, who claims the same shaky justification of empathy as some kind of racial exemption. And like the Biennial curators, CAM Raleigh has avoided the very issues the show purports to explore. But so far, no one has picketed CAM’s entrance or staged an action or a protest in front of the work. That could still happen, but the temperature seems to be dropping as the conversation shifts away from present trauma and toward productive futures. Smith knows CAM Raleigh needs to change.
“We are a small staff of three white peoplewe acknowledge that,” Smith told the INDY. “We acknowledge that it’s a huge privilege to do this work. … [W]e have to reflect the community better than we do. And we need our community to help us with that.”
Community members, in online exchanges and at the pop-up conversation, want to see changes in the structure of the organization as well as its policy around exhibits. An advisory board or curatorial board could be formed quickly yet strategically to open the organization to different communities and to make its programming considerations more transparent and accountable.
“Art is powerful,” Marshall said at the close of the pop-up conversation Saturday. “We need to be responsible with whatever amount of power we have … challenging who we are upholding and suppressing, and [asking], who’s at the table and who isn’t?”