Arts & Culture

Critics offended by portraits of black people painted with white faces. Artist says they're missing the point.

CAM executive director Gab Smith walks through the exhibition “Painting the Roses Red” by painter Margaret Bowland on Wednesday, April 18, 2018, at CAM Raleigh. "Dust Up" (left) and "Tangled Up in Blue" (right, featuring curator Dexter Wimberly and his son as subjects) are part of a series of large-scale paintings by Bowland on exhibit through June 17, 2018.
CAM executive director Gab Smith walks through the exhibition “Painting the Roses Red” by painter Margaret Bowland on Wednesday, April 18, 2018, at CAM Raleigh. "Dust Up" (left) and "Tangled Up in Blue" (right, featuring curator Dexter Wimberly and his son as subjects) are part of a series of large-scale paintings by Bowland on exhibit through June 17, 2018. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Margaret Bowland's "Painting the Roses Red" exhibit is striking in every sense of the term.

The show at downtown's CAM Raleigh modern art museum consists of more than a dozen large-scale portraits. Most of the subjects are African-American, some in various states of undress. Almost all the people in the paintings are shown smeared with white paint, a few with blue streaks.

Since the exhibit opened April 5, it has sparked questions online and in the arts community about the artist's intent along with accusations of cultural appropriation. Bowland, a North Carolina native now living in Brooklyn, New York, is white, while most of her subjects are black.

"We absolutely knew there would be strong opinions about Margaret's work," CAM executive director Gab Smith said after the show's opening weekend.

That's why before the exhibit even opened, the museum scheduled a program April 24 to engage people in conversation. "CAMversation: Who Gets to Interpret Race and Power?" will feature a panel discussion with curator Dexter Wimberly.

"Our job as a museum is to show work that's relevant, engaging and powerful," Smith said. "Ultimately, our mission is to be transformative and get people talking about ideas."

And with whiteface makeup and skin-lightening having a history that still flares up in the present — witness Dove Soap's recent ad in which a black woman becomes white — people are talking about the show's overtones.

Monet Noelle Marshall, an African-American artist from Durham, wrote an open letter to the museum on Facebook after seeing the art on opening weekend. She asked museum management a series of questions: "Has anyone involved ever been a Black girl? Why did this exhibition need to come to Raleigh? What Black communities do you have relationships with?" and "Do you know the difference between provocative and traumatic?"

That kicked off a lengthy discussion on social media, with many people in agreement with Marshall's concerns. Marshall said she won't be attending Tuesday's event.

"Having read up on the artist, I was primed before I went," Marshall said in an interview. "If I'd gone in without knowing that, I would have assumed the artist was black. I was troubled because there's a long history of white artists using black forms in irresponsible ways and calling it 'provocative.' I think this artist does not adequately understand or articulate how race is a factor in putting white or blue paint on black bodies, which makes it dangerous."

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Artist Margaret Bowland, a North Carolina native, lives in New York. "Painting the Roses Red" at CAM Raleigh is her first solo museum exhibition in North Carolina. Lisa Barlow Image courtesy of the artist


Speaking 'truth'

Bowland, in an interview after the opening, said she thinks critics are missing the point of her work.

"I'm simply trying to show how beautiful everyone is under the makeup, the color, the paint underneath," Bowland said. "It's a great deal more human than racial. That's my message: Look at you, you're gorgeous."

Born in Burlington 65 years ago, Bowland grew up in circumstances she describes as "barely middle class."

"The people closest to me in my life were African-American women," Bowland said. "It's a cliche, I know. But the edges down there in North Carolina were very woozy."

Since leaving North Carolina, Bowland has had a fair amount of success as an artist, with exhibits across America and as far away as Germany. On her Instagram page, photos of her work draw mostly positive comments, despite the debate simmering in Raleigh.

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“White Crows” by painter Margaret Bowland on exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday, April 18, 2018. Bowland’s series of painting in her show “Painting the Roses Red” will be shown through June 17, 2018. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

The Raleigh exhibit is Bowland's first solo show in her native state, and the work shown is typical of her style. Some mimic well-known paintings by artists like 19th-century French painter Edouard Manet. They're framed with recurrent images that she has frequently used over the course of her career — barbed wire, warplanes, paper money in flames or folded into flowers.

To explain the use of body paint, she writes in the artist statement on her website that she wants to show her subjects "(have learned) to survive through what the world has thrown at them." The intent, she writes, is to "fuse the past with the present and slash into the future."

Childhood memories of segregation have been a major theme of Bowland's work.

"Painting is Margaret's process of working through issues of equity and race and gender and beauty and black and white," said Wimberly, a Brooklyn-based curator who assembled the show and appears as a subject with his son in one of the paintings called "Tangled Up in Blue." "Not just for women but for everyone."

Familiar subjects

The pictures that make up "Painting the Roses Red" — on display through June 17 — span more than a decade of Bowland's career. For subjects, Bowland turned to people she knew, allowing them to choose poses and outfits while covering themselves in paint.

One of her frequent subjects is a young African-American girl named Janasia Smith, whom Bowland said she has been painting since Janasia was 6 years old. A number of the works featuring Janasia have an almost regal bearing, like what you'd see from 18th-century royalty.

"She presented herself to me as someone who needed to be seen," Bowland said. "She had the physical bearing of aristocracy. Every time I see her, she's Anastasia and I just try to keep up. The child is unique, crazily one of a kind."

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“Dust Up” by painter Margaret Bowland on exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday, April 18, 2018. Bowland’s series of painting in her show “Painting the Roses Red” will be shown through June 17, 2018. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com


Bowland has faced criticism before, including when one of her works won an award at a competition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 2009.

But she said she doesn't worry about accusations of exploitation, pointing out her involvement with Janasia's family — close enough for her to have taught Janasia how to swim.

"I understand the question," Bowland said. "But that would be pertinent if I'd looked at a group of models in a line and picked her. It's not accurate of this particular situation. I love that child and I never transgressed against that child. From my heart, it's the truth."

'That is a slippery slope'

For Marshall, Bowland's explanation isn't enough. The situation has raised the question for some of whether an artist's race matters. The same work by an artist of color would not be nearly as loaded, Marshall said.

"The conversation would be more nuanced and interesting if this were done by an artist of color," Marshall said. "If you're coming from a space where something is 'just art' and people need to reframe, art ain't innocent. Because this entire country was founded in racism, any system can uphold white supremacy. This show is saying, 'I as a white woman have the power to do whatever I want and you shouldn't ask why.' "

Wimberly, the curator, has worked with Bowland on other exhibits and has been assembling this show for nearly five years. He said he takes issue with Marshall's assessment.

"This is not the first time I've heard criticism of Margaret's work, although I was surprised at how quickly people (in Raleigh) jumped to conclusions," he said. "Most people were struck by her work as fantastic and staggeringly beautiful. But there were also people asking about the artist and intentions. Other white artists who represent black people get the same questions. I am against censorship. That is a slippery slope."

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

Details

What: "CAMversation: Who Gets to Interpret Race and Power?" presented in conjunction with the exhibit "Margaret Bowland: Painting The Roses Red" (on display through June 17)

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 24

Where: CAM Raleigh, 409 W. Martin St.

Cost: Free

Details: 919-261-5920 or camraleigh.org

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