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 Art—which is being restaged at VAE on May 19 and 20 in response to Bowland's work—took 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.
Bowland—like her friend and curator, Wimberly, who is African American—seems 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 underneath—but 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.