White artist's paintings of black subjects provokes big debate at Raleigh museum

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Controversial Raleigh art exhibit stirs impassioned debate.

There was a packed house at Raleigh's Contemporary Art Museum on Tuesday night.

Nearly 200 people showed up for what turned into a very contentious - and sometimes uncomfortable - conversation about race and art.

The event was spurred by the CAM's newest exhibit of paintings - by a white artist and her works of mostly black subjects.



"Who gets to interpret race and power?" was the question posed by moderator Michael English. It was also the title of this "Camversation" in the museum's gallery space.

The gallery was filled with people eager to wade into the debate over the paintings of Margaret Bowland - who was not there - but her critics and defenders were.

"One of the things she was attempting to do was to provoke us, to get us to thinking," said NC State Faculty Fellow Kwesi Brookins."

Bowland's works seem larger than life. Her subjects are mostly black. And, in almost all of them - their faces are smeared in paint - sometimes white, some with blue.

For some, it evokes the nation's painful past of black actors forced to perform in white face makeup -- to entertain white audiences. For others, it's blatant misappropriation of black culture.

"So I think the problem is we're tired of white people telling our stories," said Gemini, a visual artist and D.J. "I don't need a white woman to represent me as a black woman."
Bowland has said she covers her subjects in paint because that's what the world does to them -- trying to turn them into people they're not -- illustrating their will to survive through what the world has thrown at them.

Dexter Wimberley is Bowland's friend and the exhibit's curator.

"I realized that it was important; that it was valuable; that her experience as a person had as much value as my experience as a person," Wimberly said.

Monet Marshall is a performance artist and racial equity consultant whose Facebook post about the exhibition sparked a long online conversation. Monet stayed away from Tuesday night's talk at the museum but we asked her to respond to Bowland's statements that she wants to show that her subjects have survived, that they are more than what the world sees.

"I think what's wrong with that is she follows that up by saying it's not about race. Because how can you talk about survival - survival of what?" Marshall said. "If she's not ready to then engage with the narrative that they are supposedly surviving, then you're missing a key part of that story."

The exhibit is called 'Painting the Roses Red.' It runs through June 17 at the CAM.
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