We Think CAM Raleigh Hasn't Answered the Community's Questions About Its Controversial Margaret Bowland Show. Curator Dexter Wimberly Says We Just Don't Like the Answers. | Arts
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Friday, May 11, 2018

We Think CAM Raleigh Hasn't Answered the Community's Questions About Its Controversial Margaret Bowland Show. Curator Dexter Wimberly Says We Just Don't Like the Answers.

Posted by on Fri, May 11, 2018 at 11:02 AM

click to enlarge Dexter Wimberly, the curator of Margaret Bowland's CAM Raleigh show, depicted with his son in Bowland's "Tangled Up in Blue" - LOAN COURTESY OF GREGORY SHANNON
  • loan courtesy of Gregory Shannon
  • Dexter Wimberly, the curator of Margaret Bowland's CAM Raleigh show, depicted with his son in Bowland's "Tangled Up in Blue"
On April 6, CAM Raleigh opened Painting the Roses Red, a solo show of Brooklyn-based artist Margaret Bowland’s paintings that was guest-curated by Dexter Wimberly. Bowland, a native of Burlington, North Carolina, is white; her oil portraits frequently depict black subjects with their faces painted white. Triangle communities reacted strongly to the work, with many people finding it racially problematic at best and traumatic at worst.

Heated online debates about issues of race, privilege, and representation set the tone for an April 24 “CAMversation” at the museum with Wimberly, Durham artist Gemynii, N.C. State Africana Studies Program Coordinator Kwesi Craig C. Brookins, and N.C. State Assistant Professor of Psychology Elan C. Hope. More than two hundred people attended the event, but many of them left unsatisfied with the answers—or lack of answers—to their questions.

The INDY has been closely following the story since the exhibit opened, and we had many of the same critical questions about the work as others did. We, too, felt unsatisfied with the answers we were getting, and we thought it was time to try to hold CAM Raleigh, the curator, and the artist accountable to questions that were deflected at the contentious April 24 event or ignored on the internet.

This week, we spoke at length and one-on-one with both curator Dexter Wimberly and CAM Raleigh director Gab Smith (we’re still trying to reach Bowland for a similar conversation) for a story in next week’s issue. It will also cover the pop-up community conversation at the museum at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 12, organized by Monèt Noelle Marshall—whose open letter to CAM Raleigh on Facebook became a flashpoint in the debate—and the cast of her theater installation Buy My Soul and Call It Art, which will be restaged at VAE May 19 and 20 in response to the Bowland exhibit.

But first, we want to show you both interviews in their entirety, with the aim of bringing more transparency to a conflict that has in significant ways been driven by a lack of it. First, we'll hear from Wimberly, whom we reached in Brooklyn by phone, followed by Smith later.

INDY: How did the Bowland show come to CAM Raleigh?

DEXTER WIMBERLY: It’s my second show at CAM Raleigh. I just curated a show two years ago called The Ease of Fiction. Then I proposed a solo show of Margaret Bowland to CAM and they loved the idea. Margaret is a very significant artist who has had a great career. Not a career that has been filled with a lot of fame, per se, but she’s made a great body of work that has been represented by some good galleries and has had shows in several other museums. But she had never had a solo show in a museum in her home state, and I thought that it was time for that. It was a good opportunity for both the artist and the institution.

Have you been surprised by the community’s reaction to this show?

Well, I am surprised for a number of reasons. The first reason is because this isn’t new work. Margaret's work has been shown in museums in the South before, and in different countries and states in the U.S. Her collector base is broad and diverse in terms of gender, age, and ethnicity. And so I did find it surprising that people reacted this way because it’s not as if this work hasn’t been seen by thousands of other people who haven’t had the same reaction.

"I think you should be mindful of the difference between a question going unanswered and the answer not being the one you want to hear."

I’m not sure I agree. I’ve read critical reactions to Bowland’s work, and the reactions of our local communities are already out there. The reaction here might be more intense but some of the same questions have been asked of the artist and gone largely unanswered—about racial issues, issues of appropriation and colonial themes.

I don’t agree with that. I think you should be mindful of the difference between a question going unanswered and the answer not being the one you want to hear. Margaret has done, in my opinion, a good job of explaining the underpinnings of her work in interviews and has presented talks that I believe have been comprehensive in terms of why she’s making this work. And while some people have not been satisfied with the answers that have been given, I don’t think it’s genuine to say that questions have gone unanswered.

There are several images in the show that people are reacting to in particular. A lot of the reaction is to whiteface on black people. To you, what’s the social meaning of this at this point in time in the South?

That’s a complicated question. What’s the meaning of a black body with whiteface, or with white makeup on it, at this time? Keep in mind that Margaret has been making this work for a very long time. We understand that times change, and the context of things can change with the times. But the fact is that I can’t speak for anyone else’s reaction to the images. I understand that people have their own interpretations, their own emotions, and their own historical baggage, and things that are going to trigger a reaction. But the reason she is putting makeup on her models has been explained multiple times: the makeup is put there to be a metaphor for how society attempts to change people’s identities so that they can project onto them whatever it is that they want them to be.

Now, if that explanation isn’t enough for someone or they feel that she doesn’t have a right as a white artist to paint these images, they’re entitled to feel that way, but it doesn’t necessarily make it so. There’s a difference between someone finding images to be challenging or even difficult for them to take and something that doesn’t have the right to exist or someone who doesn’t have the right to create these images. I’m an African American and my immediate reaction to Margaret’s work, when I met her ten years ago, was a very positive one. That's obviously very different from some other people’s reactions, so it means that people can see things very differently and they have the right to do that.
"If someone looks at a painting and they experience trauma and it makes them feel debased and silenced and angry and brings up all of this past hurt—I’m a curator, not a clinical psychologist."
The reactions I’m finding most interesting and relevant, which haven’t been addressed, are by people saying that some of the images are triggering trauma or other negative feelings. A lot of people have expressed this and feel debased or silenced or manipulated in these images, and it causes them to be hurt. This isn’t an interpretation, where there can be debate; it’s a reaction, where there can't be argument, and it’s valid. I didn’t hear in the panel anything about how you speak to somebody who has that kind of reaction. You just wouldn’t address it.

I don’t know if that’s something that I can do. If someone looks at a painting and they experience trauma and it makes them feel debased and silenced and angry and brings up all of this past hurt—I’m a curator, not a clinical psychologist. I can’t answer that. And we’re all living here in America, right? I’m not trying to be a jerk. But we are surrounded by traumatic things all the time. And I believe that people are reacting to this work because of other things that don’t have a lot to do with this work. That’s my opinion.

I’m not dismissing people’s emotions and feelings, because everyone has a legitimate right to feel whatever it is that they want to feel and to say whatever it is they want to say. But an artist, whether it’s Margaret Bowland or Damien Hirst or Kara Walker, is not capable of addressing the individual traumas and issues of every person who sees their work. And I don’t necessarily know if that’s what an artist is there to do. That’s me being completely honest.

Someone who’s had something terrible happen in their life, and they see a painting that makes them think about that terrible thing, I think that person needs a forum where they can be counseled, and they can talk through those issues and they can be made to feel whole. But I don’t know if a museum or an artist is capable of doing that.

I agree that no artist can be universally responsible for all possible responses to their work. But one of the problems that people here are having is that the reactions are not one or two people, but a number of communities having a substantial negative reaction to this work—even feeling attacked by it. Don’t you think that an artist has the responsibility to at least listen rather than just trotting out a bunch of quotes she’s been trotting out for years about interpretation? When she only says, “You’re misinterpreting my work,” what she’s basically saying to these communities is “Your reactions are invalid. I don’t have to be responsible for them.” She’s sticking her head in the sand on this.

I don’t think that’s true. What is she supposed to do, in your opinion? To say she didn’t listen—I don’t agree with that. She listened but she didn’t necessarily agree. Obviously not many artists out there are going to agree with a serious amount of criticism to their life’s work. They’re going to defend their work. That’s what most artists would do. But I don’t think it’s fair or right to use the language that she’s not listening or sticking her head in the sand. My question is: What is the solution?

The solution is an actual conversation about the content of the work. I found the panel discussion frustrating. People who came forward to talk about trauma were answered with responses about interpretation. There were people who wanted to talk about black history and the history behind some of the images, but history wasn’t addressed. We went back to “the whiteface is about concealment and social metaphor.” People wanted to talk about the meaning of the imagery but there wasn’t any give and take. I think an artist, when the context changes around her work, is responsible for changing with that context. Maybe not changing the work but certainly being much more willing to have an open conversation about the work. In effect, the reaction, to my mind, isn’t about the work—and you said this, in a way, earlier—it is about other things going on. It’s about this work being shown in these particular communities right now. Art only has a social context; it doesn’t have a base meaning. She’s just not willing to allow the context around her work to change, and she fights this hard in interviews and exchanges online.

What is it about the work that any artist is doing that would make you think that they’re unwilling to have their context change? They’re making the work that they want to bring into the world. And while people may react to it in a way that is not what an artist expects, I don’t think many artists are going to change what they make as a reaction to how people are responding to it unless they’re just responding to commercial demands or something.

I think that artists change like that all the time. They’re constantly taking in new information, new ideas, new feedback, new critiques about the work they’re making, and they’re feeding it right back into the work. It’s constantly changing through this process.

But that’s different. Taking critique and feedback on the work is different from someone saying to you that the very nature of what you’re doing is problematic and that you shouldn’t make the work.

The first interpretation that occurred to me looking at the work was that Bowland has this Renaissance style and composition which recalls issues of colonization. And her subjects’ poses and the bodily painting on them add together, to me, to look like a colonization of those subjects. She has said that she’s raising them up to an aristocratic status, but to me those are synonyms—it’s a colonial act upon the subjects. And certainly you could say that Bowland, who’s a white artist, is taking images of black bodies and profiting in the art marketplace. It doesn’t look good. You can interpret the sum of her aesthetics and her career as a kind of trading in these bodies. That’s problematic.

Well then what do you say to the African-American supporters of her work?

I would say that, and then I would close my mouth and listen. I would want to have a conversation. I want to know what you think of that interpretation.

I understand the theory of what you’re saying. But I also believe that if you apply that thinking to this work, then you also have to apply it to everything.

Yeah, and I kind of do right now. Communities here are doing this applied theory.

Right. So then what do you say to black people who are spending their money on products that are made by corporations that are not necessarily being supportive of the black community? All I’m saying is that, while your or others' interpretation of the work is valid because you’re entitled to have your opinion, it is not the final word on the work. And your interpretation does not define the work or who the artist is or what the artist is attempting to do.

"I sat on that panel at CAM and a thirty-something-year-old African-American woman said to me, without even knowing me, that I’m afraid to leave the plantation. Now you’re going to say that she doesn’t feel that she’s being listened to. I never insulted her. In fact, when she was done, I said she made a valid point. So you can’t tell me that people aren’t being listened to."

Honestly, thank goodness for that. Artists get to act upon that vision. I just hope that artists would listen, and that an institution that would show the work would facilitate more conversation, and I hope that you would take some of these interpretations and roll them into how you frame the work. You’re an experienced curator and I don’t mean to disrespect that. I saw The Ease of Fiction at CAM and it was great. I know that you know how to do this work. But in this community right now, this is our daily life. There’s a lot of work being done , a lot of argument being made. That’s why so many people are upset that they don’t feel they’re being listened to or engaged with or even respected in trying to bring up these issues and really bear down and deal with them.

I hear you. I think that CAM has facilitated ways for people to come in and share their views, and I think that’s an ongoing thing. I’ve noticed quite a bit of an attack on both the artist and the institution on social media. If people take that posture to begin with but are then saying they’re not being listened to, at the same time they’re spewing so much terrible language around this show and the issues around this show, that’s not fertile ground for good conversation. Just because someone’s upset doesn’t give them the right to say whatever they want to say and then turn around and say that no one’s listening. I sat on that panel at CAM and a thirty-something-year-old African-American woman said to me, without even knowing me, that I’m afraid to leave the plantation. Now you’re going to say that she doesn’t feel that she’s being listened to. I never insulted her. In fact, when she was done, I said she made a valid point. So you can’t tell me that people aren’t being listened to.

But the thing is that the time for conversation has now come around. Some of the heat and venom will roll back around if a good conversation isn’t facilitated.

It would be great if everyone was in the same room and was talking, right? But it wouldn’t be great if the people feel that they have the right to launch personal insults on an artist or curator because they don’t like some of the paintings in the show. I mean, it’s not civilized.

Would you be willing or interested in returning to Raleigh and sitting down in a room to have that open conversation?

I’ll talk to anyone at any time about anything.

The musuem doesn’t seem to be doing any public reaction other than putting a general statement on their website. They don’t seem interested to facilitate a continuing conversation. It’s as if they did an artist talk and a panel talk and their obligation is over. But the conversation is going to be taken to them one way or another. How do you feel, as someone who has a continuing relationship with this institution, about how CAM is handling the community reaction, looking at the next month and a half that we still have this show on the walls?

I don’t think that anyone was prepared for this as it’s played out. I think they’re doing what they can do. I don’t know what’s happening on a day-to-day basis because I’m not there. I know that there’s likely to be additional programming, but we don’t know what at this particular stage. But I just think that they were caught off-guard by the negative reaction to this show.

"My reaction to all of this, and the emotion that I feel about it, is rooted in the sense that there is something really, really dangerous happening when people start to want to control what an artist makes and what they say and what they do."

Are you having a dialogue with Bowland about how this show has played out in Raleigh? How aware is she about the panel talk, and how much information are you giving her about things?

She is completely up to date on everything. We talk very regularly, nearly daily. She knows everything that’s happened and has also been reading what’s been written. You know, it’s hard for any artist to avoid this kind of criticism.

How are those conversations going?

She’s hurt by the reaction. It’s as simple as that. And she’s trying to understand it. But you could assume that. She was really looking forward to having a wonderful experience with this show and unfortunately, she hasn’t.

Would she be interested in returning and being a part of more conversations here?

I’m certain that she would.

I think these visits would be terrific, especially with a conversation that would have more shape to it than the panel discussion.

My reaction to all of this, and the emotion that I feel about it, is rooted in the sense that there is something really, really dangerous happening when people start to want to control what an artist makes and what they say and what they do. And the people who believe that they have the right to do that should be very careful about what that means for their rights. As citizens of this country, we really should be careful about trying to take away the rights of other people. That’s a double-edged sword. It doesn’t mean that we have to like everything or even agree. And that’s the thing—the repetition of people feeling that they are being dismissed because what they’re saying isn’t met with acquiescence. I just don’t think that’s accurate. If someone disagrees with something that I feel passionate about, it doesn’t mean that my opinion is invalid.

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