The Brooklyn Museum has announced “Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe,” an exhibit exploring themes of girlhood, play, and spirituality, contextualizing Rowe’s practice as a radical act of self-expression and liberation for a Black woman artist in the Jim Crow–era South, on view from from September 2nd, 2002, to January 1st, 2023.
Nellie Mae Rowe was a self-taught artist born in rural Georgia at the turn of the twentieth century. Discovering her passion for art-making early on, Rowe produced drawings and cloth dolls as a child. While the demands of her family farm, an early marriage, and decades of employment as a domestic laborer delayed Rowe’s artistic journey, she was able to return to her art after the deaths of her second husband and her longtime employers in the 1960s. As a result, Rowe produced an immersive, idiosyncratic, and exuberant body of work.
Organized in eight sections, the exhibition features more than one hundred works emphasizing the breadth and importance of her practice in the American art canon. Incorporating everyday and often-recognizable materials into her assemblage, Rowe harnessed accessible means of production to assert her creative independence, recycling cast-offs to make handmade dolls and chewing gum sculptures.
“Really Free” is organized by Dr. Katherine Jentleson, Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, from the High’s leading 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 Brooklyn Museum presentation emphasizes the legacy of Rowe in New York City, which began with a solo show at the Parsons-Dreyfus Gallery in 1979. Three years later, Rowe’s drawings debuted at the Brooklyn Museum as part of the landmark 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, has loaned works to this expanded presentation of “Really Free,” nearly doubling the size of the High Museum’s original exhibition.
Though Rowe rarely engaged with political topics directly, her work was shaped by the cultural, social, and political forces that 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 centered on a brown pig that seems overwhelmed by the busy interlocking roads and highways. In this illustration of gentrification and urban sprawl, Rowe nods to the upheavals experienced by her community after Atlanta’s Interstate 285 was completed in 1969.
Rowe remains an integral figure in the ethos of twentieth-century artists who created “yard art” and built environments. In addition to Rowe’s autobiographical drawings, photomontages, and experimental sculptures, the exhibition features two miniature models of her “Playhouse.” The artist transformed her longtime home and yard into an extraordinarily built art environment. Reflecting her aesthetic of abundance, she filled pots and urns with plants, embellishing them with strands of artificial blooms; she positioned handmade dolls on chairs in her yard and strung garlands and clotheslines from tree branches, hanging them with Christmas ornaments, children’s toys, plastic fruit, and other items. The Playhouse became an ever-changing work of art that served as a place for social interaction among many curious visitors. Though it was demolished shortly after Rowe’s death, as her neighborhood succumbed to gentrification, the Playhouse’s legacy lives on in her drawings and in photographs taken by visitors, important examples of which are on view. Models of the Playhouse 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.
“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. For more information, click here.
Painting by Nellie Mae Rowe.