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Art exhibit triggers debate about whiteface, its history and artist's intent

“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.
“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. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Artist Margaret Bowland's exhibit "Painting the Roses Red" at CAM Raleigh museum has been controversial since before it even opened. Now on display for more than a month, the works and the artist behind them have continued to stir debate in the community and art world.

The show features grand, elaborate paintings of Bowland's subjects, many of them black, splattered with white paint. Bowland, a Burlington native who now lives in Brooklyn, is white. In an interview last month, Bowland defended her paintings and the intent behind them.

But the exhibit has sparked accusations of cultural appropriation, drawing a standing room-only crowd to CAM for an April 24 discussion, "Who Gets to Interpret Race and Power?" It turned into a heated debate between members of the audience and curator Dexter Wimberly, who is black. He also is a subject in one of Bowland's paintings in the show.

During the question-and-answer portion, more than one participant described the impact of Bowland's paintings as "traumatizing." Wimberly acknowledged the criticism but also said he didn't understand why everyone was talking about race. That did not sit well with many in the audience.

Since then, the museum has posted a statement on its website that says Bowland's first solo North Carolina exhibit exemplifies the museum's mission and show that art is "a vehicle for change."

"It confronts contemporary cultural challenges through deeply personal paintings that also question Western societal expectations of gender, race, power, beauty and identity," the statement said. "We understand the art can be deeply personal. We want to ensure that everyone who visits CAM is able to view the work in its proper context. Every exhibition is an opportunity to listen and learn. We will continue to create opportunities for conversations."

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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

Monet Noelle Marshall, an African-American artist from Durham, didn't attend April 24, but she wants to continue the conversation. On Saturday, May 12, she is organizing "A Pop Up 'CAMversation About Race (For Real This Time)" at 2 p.m.

"I heard from folks who felt like there was condescension," Marshall said of the museum's discussion. "And this was a talk with 'race and power' in the title."

The conversation will be held at the museum, but is not considered an official CAM event. Participants can pay CAM's standard $5 admission fee, enter the main gallery and join in.

"We're just gonna show up, and people can come talk as equals," Marshall said. "We may not be art scholars, but we have lived experiences that inform how we view art through the lens of race and power."

A troubled history

The act of putting white paint on dark skin has a long and symbolic history. Marvin McAllister, a University of South Carolina professor who has written about Bowland's work before, calls it an area rife with "representational minefields."

"The whiteface in Bowland's work is part of a tradition of cross-racial play that has been around for centuries," said McAllister in an email. He specializes in Arican-American drama, theater and performance and has written a book published by UNC Press about the history of whiteface.

"It's tied to a centuries-old, socially and commercially sanctioned message: Black is ugly and not good enough, and the beauty ideal is all about white bodies," he said.

Historically, this idea has manifested in practices like African-Americans bleaching or lightening their skin — perhaps most famously with the late Michael Jackson. In the decades before his death in 2009, the onetime "King of Pop" radically transformed his appearance with a series of surgeries. Jackson said he had a skin condition called vitiligo that resulted in lighter skin.

Last fall, there was also controversy over a Dove Soap ad that depicted a black woman becoming white.

Bowland, who has responded to some of her critics on social media, said last month that the critics are missing the point of her work. She also said a young girl featured in the paintings is a family friend.

RAL_ CAM-AE-041818-RTW02
“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

"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."

The exhibit will be on display through June 17.

Not everyone agrees with that interpretation nor her artistic intentions. In the run-up to CAM's April 24 event, Marshall published an open letter on Facebook asking a series of questions of museum management: "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?"

McAllister said he isn't surprised to hear about the controversy that this exhibit triggered.

"When Bowland works with globs of white paint and a young brown subject, she is walking into something serious," McAllister said. "As an artist taking on this kind of responsibility, working through real trauma to get to that 'we are beautiful' message, Bowland has to be vigilant and mindful because the stakes are high."

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

Details

What:"A Pop Up 'CAMversation About Race (For Real This Time)," about the exhibit "Margaret Bowland: Painting The Roses Red" (on display through June 17)

When: 2-3:30 p.m. Saturday, May 12

Where: CAM Raleigh, 409 W. Martin St.

Cost:$5 CAM admission charge (free for CAM Raleigh members, children 10 and under, seniors, members of NARM and Mod/Co, active-duty U.S. military members and their families, First Responders including teachers, area college students and NC State College of Design students, staff and faculty)

Details: 919-261-5920 or camraleigh.org

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