Nellie Mae Rowe (American, 1900-1982). Untitled (Peace), 1978–82. Pencil and pen on paper, 17 × 14 in. (43.2 × 35.6cm). High Museum of Art, 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 youth, 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 at the turn of the 20th century. Discovering his passion for art at an early age, Rowe produced designs and fabric dolls as a child. While the demands of her family farm, an early marriage and decades of employment as a servant set Rowe’s artistic journey back, she was able to return to her art after the death of her second husband and longtime employers in the 1960s. As a result, Rowe produced work that was immersive, idiosyncratic and exuberant.
On view at the Brooklyn Museum from September 2, 2022 to January 1, 2023, Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe situates Rowe’s highly personal work as a deeply radical endeavor by a black artist determined to create her own. life and aesthetics in the Jim Crow era south. Organized into eight sections, the exhibition presents more than a hundred works highlighting the scope and importance of his practice in the canon of American art. Incorporating everyday and often recognizable materials into her assemblage, Rowe exploited accessible means of production to assert her creative independence, recycling scraps to craft handmade dolls and chewing gum sculptures.
Really Free is curated by Dr. Katherine Jentleson, Merrie and Dan Boone curators of folk art and self-taught at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, from Rowe’s main collection of works of art. The Brooklyn Museum iteration is curated by Catherine Morris, Sackler Senior Curator, and Jenée-Daria Strand, Curatorial Associate, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum. The Brooklyn Museum presentation focuses on Rowe’s legacy in New York, which began with a solo exhibition at the Parsons-Dreyfus Gallery in 1979. Three years later, Rowe’s drawings debuted in Brooklyn Museum as part of the flagship exhibition Black Folk Art in 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 to this expanded Really Free presentation, nearly doubling the size of the High Original museum 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 present the depth of her creativity to our visitors and expand the canonical ideas of art history and artistic value. Additionally, this exhibit builds significantly on the museum’s legacy as a champion of 20th-century folk artists,” 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 remain unmistakably feminist.”
Although Rowe rarely directly addresses political topics, her work has been shaped by the cultural, social, and political forces that have defined 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 brightly colored scene centering on a brown pig that seems overwhelmed by the tangled roads and highways. In this illustration of gentrification and urban sprawl, Rowe nods to the upheavals his community experienced after the completion of Atlanta’s Interstate 285 in 1969.
Rowe remains an integral figure in the philosophy of 20th century artists who created “court art” and constructed environments. In addition to Rowe’s autobiographical drawings, photomontages and experimental sculptures, the exhibition features two miniature models of his “Playhouse”. The artist has transformed his long-standing home and yard into an extraordinarily constructed artistic environment. Reflecting her aesthetic of abundance, she filled pots and urns with plants, embellishing them with sprigs of artificial flowers; she placed handmade dolls on chairs in her yard and strung tinsel and clotheslines from tree branches, hanging them with Christmas decorations, children’s toys, plastic fruits and other items. The Playhouse became an ever-changing work of art that served as a place of social interaction among many curious visitors. Although it was demolished shortly after Rowe’s death, as his neighborhood succumbed to gentrification, the Playhouse’s legacy lives on in its drawings and in the photographs taken by visitors, prominent examples of which are on display. . Playhouse models were created for a film about Rowe’s life, titled This World is Not My Own, produced and directed by Opendox and premiering in late 2022.
“Rowe’s artistic practice was fueled by a desire to reclaim creative visions that emerged during his childhood in Jim Crow times and to achieve self-liberation in the complex cultural climate of the era. post-civil rights of the South,” says curator Jenée-Daria Strand. 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 display is the largest of the national tour and the first showcase of Rowe’s work in the Northeast since 1999. Other stops on the exhibition tour, funded by the Art Bridges Foundation, include the Hunter Museum of American Art (Chattanooga, Tennessee), California African American Museum (Los Angeles, CA), Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts (Montgomery, Alabama), and Lehigh University Art Galleries (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania).
Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe is curated by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta and curated by Dr. Katherine Jentleson, Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art, High Museum of Art. The Brooklyn Museum presentation is curated by Catherine Morris, Sackler Senior Curator, and Jenée-Daria Strand, Curatorial Associate, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum.
Support for this exhibition and publication is provided 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.