Art History

City Life Org – The Brooklyn Museum celebrates a prominent but overlooked figure in 20th-century American art in Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe | Pro Club Bd

Nellie Mae Rowe (American, 1900–1982). Untitled (Peace), 1978–82. Chalk and pen on paper, 17 × 14 in. (43.2 × 35.6 cm). Hohes Kunstmuseum, gift of Judith Alexander, 2003.219. © 2022 Estate of Nellie Mae Rowe/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (Photo: Courtesy of the High Museum of Art)

Exploring themes of girlhood, play and spirituality, the exhibition contextualizes Rowe’s practice as a radical act of self-expression and liberation for a black artist in the Jim Crow-era South.

Nellie Mae Rowe was a self-taught artist born in rural Georgia around the turn of the century. Rowe discovered her passion for creating art at an early age and made drawings and rag dolls as a child. While the demands of her family farm, an early marriage, and decades of domestic service delayed Rowe’s artistic journey, the death of her second husband and longtime employers in the 1960s allowed her to return to her art. As a result, Rowe produced an immersive, idiosyncratic, and exuberant body of work.

Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe is on view at the Brooklyn Museum from September 2, 2022 to January 1, 2023 and presents Rowe’s deeply personal work as a deeply radical endeavor by a black artist determined to create her own create life and aesthetics in the south of the Jim Crow era. Divided into eight sections, the exhibition features more than a hundred works that emphasize the breadth and importance of her practice in the American art canon. Incorporating everyday and often recognizable materials into her assemblage, Rowe used accessible means of production to assert her creative independence and recycled scraps to create handcrafted dolls and bubblegum sculptures.

Really Free is created by Dr. Katherine Jentleson, Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, organized from the high school’s premier collection of Rowe’s artwork. The Brooklyn Museum iteration is organized by Catherine Morris, Sackler Senior Curator, and Jenée-Daria Strand, Curatorial Associate, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum. The presentation at the Brooklyn Museum highlights Rowe’s legacy in New York City, which began with a solo show at the Parsons-Dreyfus Gallery in 1979. Three years later, Rowe’s drawings were debuted as part of the landmark exhibition Black Folk Art at the Brooklyn Museum America: 1930–1980. In 1999 she was the subject of a retrospective at the American Folk Art Museum, which, along with the William Louis Dreyfus Foundation and the Judith Alexander Foundation, loaned works for this expanded presentation of Really Free, nearly doubling the size of the museum’s high original exhibit.

“Nellie Mae Rowe is one of the most important self-taught artists of the 20th century and we are proud to be able to bring our visitors closer to the depth of her creativity and to expand canonical notions of art history and artistic merit. Additionally, this exhibition significantly builds on the museum’s legacy as a champion of 20th-century folk art,” said Catherine Morris, Sackler Senior Curator, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum. “The presentation offers a unique opportunity to examine Rowe’s legacy and impact through radical impulses that undoubtedly remain feminist.”

Although Rowe rarely engaged directly with political issues, her work was shaped by the cultural, social, and political forces that shaped her experience as a Black woman in the South. Subtle social commentary can be seen in selections such as Untitled (Pig on Expressway) (1980), a colorful scene centered on a brown pig who seems overwhelmed by the busy, interlocking streets and highways. In this illustration of gentrification and sprawl, Rowe references the upheaval her community experienced after the completion of Interstate 285 in Atlanta in 1969.

Rowe remains an integral figure in the ethos of 20th-century artists who created “garden art” and built environments. In addition to Rowe’s autobiographical drawings, photomontages and experimental sculptures, the exhibition shows two miniature models of her “Playhouse”. The artist transformed her longtime home and yard into an exceptionally built art environment. Reflecting her aesthetic of abundance, she filled pots and urns with plants and decorated them with artificial flower strands; She positioned handmade dolls on chairs in her garden and tied garlands and clotheslines to tree branches, hanging them with Christmas decorations, children’s toys, plastic fruit and other items. The playhouse became an ever-changing work of art, serving as a place for many curious visitors to socialize. Although it was demolished shortly after Rowe’s death when her neighborhood fell victim to gentrification, the playhouse’s legacy lives on in her drawings and photographs of visitors, important examples of which are on view. Playhouse models were created for a film about Rowe’s life entitled This World is Not My Own, which was produced and directed by Opendox and premiered in late 2022.

“Rowe’s artistic practice was driven by a desire to reclaim creative visions formed during her childhood in the Jim Crow era and to achieve self-liberation within the complex cultural climate of the post-civil rights era South,” says Jenée-Daria Strand , Curator Associate, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum. “The act of a black woman inviting people into her own home was radical and courageous for her time. She demanded to be seen on her own terms.”

The Brooklyn Museum presentation is the largest of the national tour and the first exhibition of Rowe’s work in the Northeast since 1999. Other stops on the Art Bridges Foundation-sponsored exhibition tour include the Hunter Museum of American Art (Chattanooga, Tennessee) , California African American Museum (Los Angeles, California), Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts (Montgomery, Alabama) and Lehigh University Art Galleries (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania).

Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta and curated by Dr. Katherine Jentleson, Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Auto-Taught Art, High Museum of Art. The Brooklyn Museum presentation will be presented by Catherine Morris, Sackler Senior Curator, and Jenée-Daria Strand, Curatorial Associate, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum.

This exhibition and publication is supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Major funding for this exhibition and publication is provided by the Judith Alexander Foundation.

Generous support for the national tour is provided by Art Bridges.

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