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The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe at the Brooklyn Museum

Nellie Mae Rowe’s drawing “When I Was a Little Girl” (1978) in the exhibition “Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe” at the Brooklyn Museum.Credit...Estate of Nellie Mae Rowe/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; via High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe celebrates a preeminent and underrecognized figure of twentieth-century American art, contextualizing Rowe’s practice as a radical act of self-expression and liberation for a Black woman artist living and working in the American South. Featuring more than one hundred works exploring themes of girlhood, play, and spirituality, the Brooklyn Museum iteration is the first devoted to Rowe in New York City in more than twenty years. Autobiographical drawings, experimental sculpture, and renderings of Rowe’s “Playhouse”—an environment the artist built and lived in for decades—capture the artist’s assertion of independence and accessible means of art production. During the last fifteen years of her life, Rowe was fueled by a desire to reclaim a creative vision that emerged during her childhood and achieve self-liberation within the complex cultural climate of the post–civil rights era South.

Born in Fayette County, Georgia, at the turn of the twentieth century, Rowe discovered her passion for art-making early on, producing drawings and cloth dolls as a child. However, the demands of her family farm, an early marriage, and decades of employment as a domestic laborer made it difficult for Rowe to create for many decades. After the deaths of her second husband and her longtime employers in the 1960s, Rowe wholeheartedly returned to her art, devoting the rest of her life to realizing her creative calling. Her dedication resulted in a practice that was immersive, idiosyncratic, and joyous.

Through inventive use of color, space, and form, Rowe realized fantasy-like landscapes in her drawings and paintings. While her early works focused on a single subject, later works exhibit more complicated compositions. Describing Rowe’s “masterly” multifigured works from 1980 and 1981, Kogan notes that “figures generally interact and merge organically; negative space often invites other forms, and every available space is occupied either by images or decorative patterning or both. The viewer’s eye literally dances around the composition at a lively, rhythmical pace.”

Throughout her body of work is an unflagging focus on narrative. Rowe sought to recreate scenes from her daily life, past memories, and dreams. Paying “equal attention to scenes of everyday life and to fantasy,” she composed “naturalistic scenes” and scenes, which sought to merge “the everyday with the fantastic.”

This merging of real and fantasy often represented itself in Rowe’s shapes. While human and animal shapes are repeated throughout Rowe’s works, she often created “hybrid figures such as dog/human, a cow/woman, a dog with wings, and a butterfly/bird/woman.” Rowe’s original use of space and perspective further reinforce the imaginative and whimsical qualities of her work. Eschewing realistic constraints of scale, her figures often seem to float in space.

Throughout her two-dimensional works, she incorporated common religious imagery, like the cross, or faith-based texts. A member of the African Methodist Church, Rowe was a deeply spiritual and religious Christian. Across some of her canvas she wrote, “Beleave in God and He Will Make A Way Far You” or “God Bless My House.” She said, “Drawing is the only thing I think is good for the Lord” and attributed her artistic talent to God. Additionally, some scholars have located her depiction of “haints” or spirits in broader African-American spiritual traditions, which accepted the presence of voodoo spirits.

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 Self-Taught Art, High Museum of Art. The Brooklyn Museum presentation is organized by Catherine Morris, Sackler Senior Curator, and Jenée-Daria Strand, Curatorial Associate, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum.

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