Marvin McAllister: Margaret Bowland and Janasia Smith: Subject and Artist at Play

We welcome a guest post today from Marvin McAllister, author of Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels and Stage Europeans in African American Performance (November 2011). Earlier this summer, McAllister wrote a guest post about racial and religious elements of the recent Thor film. In this post, he explores the whiteface images of contemporary artist Margaret Bowland.–ellen

Flower Girl (2009), by Margaret Bowland. Used with permission of the artist.

Friends and colleagues constantly tell me about whiteface minstrels or stage Europeans they have encountered in various artistic media.  Recently, a colleague at the University of South Carolina told me about Margaret Bowland’s exhibition “Excerpts from the Great American Songbook” at the Greenville County Art Museum in Greenville, SC.  Bowland’s extraordinary oil paintings—large, compelling, confrontational—are expressive of an African American performance tradition I have been researching for over a decade.

The fact that Bowland is white is both unimportant and significant.  At the close of my new book Whiting Up, I argue that explorations of performed whiteness are hardly limited to black artists.  However, as a white artist, Margaret Bowland brings a unique perspective to her complex racial representations. In the “Songbook” series Bowland’s subjects are J.J. or Janasia Smith, a vibrant little brown girl; titles or lines from popular American songs with their embedded romantic iconography; and “whiteness” as a universalized cultural construction.

Art historian John Driscoll reads intricate intentions behind Bowland’s highly skilled portraiture, with multiple plots and subplots operating in every piece.  Novelist Siri Hustvedt explains how Bowland stages visual “confrontations” that spark dialogues between patron and painting, productive interactions where the viewer recreates or redefines the work on the spot.  Most consistent with whiting up, Hustvedt interprets Bowland’s work as a “visionary theater of difference” designed to highlight the artificiality of our cultural images.  Like the estranging whiteface minstrels and stage Europeans throughout African American performance history, Bowland’s portraits invite us to view whiteness with fresh and open eyes.

As I dialogue with four specific paintings—in person and through the exhibition catalogue—I read an interesting relationship between Bowland as artist-subject and Janasia as subject-artist.

The painting included with this blog, Flower Girl (2009), features globs of white paint dripping from Janasia’s forehead, spotting her white face, brown clavicle, and pink dress.  In my eyes, the globs read like metastatic whiteness spreading, overcoming a little brown girl. Through an email conversation, Bowland informed me that to create this particular image, she used a mannequin, not Janasia, and applied the white globs to an inanimate stand-in.

Bowland also revealed that for most of their sessions Janasia sat in white face paint. This insight confirmed my initial impression of The Artist (2010), a portrait where J.J. holds a small brush with white paint, a prop which suggests she created this self-portrait with her face and neck in white, and her little brown arms free of paint. As far as the artist-subject relationship, during their sessions, Bowland also sat with white paint on her face; a gesture which suggests Bowland understands “whiteness” and her role in its creation.

In addition, Bowland explained that as she painted Janasia, her young subject also painted her, with J.J. treating their artistic process as play.  Yet this performative play is deadly serious, with a deeply wounded history behind these explorations of whiteness and blackness.

Bowland foregrounds this history in Somewhere Over the Rainbow (2011), which features a whiteface J.J. holding scissors. Why scissors? In the background, Bowland quotes Kara Walker’s cut-paper silhouettes depicting the Antebellum South, specifically a violent shadow of a young slave girl being choked by a master, and the sexual image of a white figure sucking the breast of a large black woman. Bowland’s thoughtful appropriation highlights the domination African Americans endured for centuries, but on another level, Janasia, scissors in hand, reads as the artist at work. The whiteface subject, now subtly aligned with Bowland and Walker, registers as the creator, chronicler, and commentator on these unsettling images from a painful past.

Not done with archetypal southern iconography, Bowland’s And the Cotton is High (2011) dresses Janasia in a crown of cotton and places her in a field of pillow-soft whiteness with a menacing black bird nearby.  For the painting’s title, Bowland isolates a lyric from George and Ira Gershwin’s “Summertime,” but transforms this one line into an ominous commentary on the impact of whiteness and blackness on little brown girls like Janasia.

The black/white contrast is stark, yet counterpointed by flecks of color from J.J.’s blue and purple berets and multicolored silly bands on her wrists.  What dominates the painting for me—and this is easier to see in person—is a conspicuous gold chain wrapped around Janasia’s neck reading “Asia.”  Despite the high cotton and black raven, Janasia’s self-identifying “bling” suggests this young girl knows who she is and has the potential to emerge relatively whole from a culture that universalizes and privileges whiteness.

Marvin McAllister is assistant professor of English and African American studies at the University of South Carolina and author of Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels and Stage Europeans in African American Performance (forthcoming November 2011) and White People Do Not Know How to Behave at Entertainments Designed for Ladies and Gentlemen of Colour: William Brown’s African and American Theater. He has worked as a dramaturg for theaters in Chicago, the District of Columbia, and Seattle.