One can readily place Nellie Mae Rowe (1900–1982) within the venerable (albeit often institutionally neglected) tradition of self-taught American Black artists alongside Bill Traylor, Purvis Young, Minnie Evans, and Gertrude Morgan, and many others. But while Rowe’s aesthetic vernacular shares themes with the aforementioned artists — ranging from spirituality to mythic anthropomorphic elements — her work is utterly singular, distinguished by a playful, dreamlike idiom.

The Brooklyn Museum’s aptly titled exhibition Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe, curated by Dr. Katherine Jentleson, installed salon-style, is brimming with prismatic works on paper. Rowe’s hallucinatory drawings wrap the walls with variegated colorful planes darted by caricatured people, cartoonish animals, and motley interior scenes of domestic life. “Making Soap” (1981) depicts a floating tangerine-colored head that blooms with deep azure tuffets and floats above a stock pot that a flaxen-skinned barefoot woman has stopped stirring. Another orange figure, this one trapped between a half-human, half-animal state, is perched, their face nuzzled against the cook. The simplicity of Rowe’s choice materials — felt-tip markers, ballpoint pens, colored pencils, and crayons galore — belie the complexity of her scenes, which often dovetail fantasy with autobiography.

“Making Soap” is but one beguiling work of nearly hundreds featured in the exhibition, each offering a distinct sliver of Rowe’s allegorical art practice. Gum-molded sculptures and hand-sewn dolls featuring bulbous heads with kaleidoscopic color palettes accompany her drawings, testaments to the artist’s penchant for outfitting otherworldly scenes with commonplace items. 

Nellie Mae Rowe, “Untitled (Self Portrait as a Little Girl Doll)” (c. 1970s), cotton fabric, mixed media and metal and cloth chair, 24 inches × 26 inches × 26 inches; “Untitled” (c. 1981), cloth, fiber stuffing, glass, plastic, mother of pearl, wire, and pigment of unknown origin, wood rocking chair, 37 1/2 inches × 17 inches × 8 1/2 inches (courtesy High Museum of Art)
Nellie Mae Rowe (American, 1900–1982), Untitled (Nellie’s and Judith’s Houses) (1978–82), crayon, marker, pencil on paper, 181/2 × 231/2 inches, High Museum of Art, gift of Judith Alexander, 2003.209, © 2022 Estate of Nellie Mae Rowe/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (photo © High Museum of Art, Atlanta)

The daughter of an enslaved man and reared in Fayette County, Georgia, Rowe lived through much of the 20th century. All too often, biographical accounts note how Rowe, who worked as a field hand and maid throughout her adolescence, did not begin making art “seriously” until the age of 48. Yet this is as grave an error as is the classification “art brut,” “folk art,” or “outsider art” — tendentious labels that propound false distinctions (from which self-taught white Western artists like Henri Rousseau are often curiously exempted). Rowe not only made art all her life but filled her life with it, saturating her home with her sculptures and drawings. Really Free offers viewers a recreation of Rowe’s immersive home, which she called her “playhouse” in miniature, evincing that Rowe was in equal part artist as curator. It has taken art institutions decades to catch up, but this exhibition is a step in the right direction.

Melinda Blauvelt (American, born 1949), Nellie Mae Rowe, Vinings, Georgia, (1971, printed 2021), gelatin silver print, 21 3/4 × 14 5/8 inches (High Museum of Art, gift of the artist, 2021.69, © 2022 Melinda Blauvelt, photo courtesy High Museum of Art)
Installation view of Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe at the Brooklyn Museum, September 2, 2022 – January 1, 2023. Foreground on wall: “Profile in Circles” (1980), crayon and marker on paper late, 9 1/4 inches × 9 1/4 inches (courtesy High Museum of Art)
Still from This World is Not My Own, Opendox, 2019, 97 minutes, © Opendox LLC (photo Petter Ringbom)

Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway Brooklyn, New York) through January 1, 2023. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Katherine Jentleson. The Brooklyn Museum presentation is organized by Catherine Morris and Jenée-Daria Strand.

Ekin Erkan is a writer, curator, and researcher whose academic background combines philosophy and art history. Erkan’s areas of specialization include the history of modernist aesthetics and German Idealism....