“My house is clean enough to keep me healthy and dirty enough to keep me happy,” wrote artist Nellie May Rowe in one of her graphic pastel paintings. The text is placed above a large, brightly colored rooster and is surrounded by illustrative flowers and shrubs, birds in flight, and figures with arms outstretched in greeting or with wild abandon. The composition resembles a decorative confirmation hung in a kitchen above a hearth, but the feeling is distorted, the italics are coarser, the images are looser.
Rowe knew about domestic expectations for women, especially African-American women in the American South in the second half of the 20th century. Born in Georgia in 1900, she spent most of her life as a domestic helper and the rest of it caring for husbands (she had two in a row). She came late to art – she retreated into it, summoning a dormant creative impulse that had been buried for more than 50 years. Perhaps more of a refrain than an affirmation, My house is clean enough to keep me healthy and dirty enough to keep me happy (1978–82), like much of the artist’s work, takes pleasure in the debris and detritus of life and defies the societal expectations that have come to define Rowe’s own.
“Truly Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe” at the Brooklyn Museum brings together more than 100 works from the last 15 generative years of Rowe’s life until her death in 1982, including compositional drawings and illustrative tables, graphic signatures and self-portraits with vibrant crayons and markers, along with 3D dolls and miniature reproductions of Rowe’s infamous home, the Playhouse.
The phrase “Really Free” is borrowed from another Rowe graphic composition No title (Really free!) (1967–76), made from a page torn from an old pamphlet published by the Bible Society and written with the same emancipatory impulse as its hearth refrain. Roe knew, as we do, that no one is “truly free” until we are all free. But as a retired widow, these past years have offered some personal freedom in creativity and personal expression.
Rowe was not politically active, but personal politics were fundamental to her work—a politics operating at the intersection of race, gender, and class. The Brooklyn Museum has placed the exhibition in a feminist context that would risk putting words in Rowe’s mouth if the work were not so bound up with these tacit markers of identity, not least femininity. This is most evident in Rowe’s self-portrait, where she is resolutely herself, albeit in different guises – at home, naked or clothed, with a cane or clutching a chicken.
in A real girl (1980), Rowe appears in a black-and-white photo, holding a doll and wearing a pressed white dress outside her home, in sunlight in Georgia. The photo is framed by a love heart, hand-painted on cardboard and decorated with traditional tropes of femininity such as flowers and scalloped edges in bold shades of fuchsia and sunset yellow.
Below the photo and in the center of the image are the words:
Nellie Mae Rowe
A real girl
Peace of mind
Rowe told a reporter in 1979, “I’m black and I love my blackness,” and in real girl she challenges the tenets of femininity by framing her blackness, her femininity, and her spirituality, as if to say “we’re not really free, but I’m really here.” This feels radical everywhere, but certainly in the Jim Crow South.
When he wasn’t portraying his own image, Rowe spelled out his name in elongated, expansive letters—the long tail of a serif “M” for Mayin Really free flutes like a trumpet. The trumpets are loud, and Roe’s signature becomes more than a simple provocation, but an imperative, akin to the political enumeration tool used by the oppressed to mourn the dead or imprisoned.
Rowe is often associated with the outsider art movement, a term coined in 1972 by art critic Roger Cardinal to refer to self-taught or so-called “naïve” artists living on the fringes of society and removed from the art world. Rowe’s true freedom, the thing no one could hold back, was the initial insight of being a self-taught artist. Playful rather than whimsical, bright and honest, her work is not shaped by the politics of institutional learning, nor beholden to canon or artistic movements. But this freedom came at a price – Rowe lamented his childhood spent on the family farm when he could have been making art.
After years of service to others, Rowe sought the emancipatory feeling of childhood—the one she never had—turning her home into a playhouse filled with fabric and yarn dolls, framed pictures, memorabilia, and a yard strung with clotheslines and garlands. It attracted unwanted attention from local vandals and fanatics, but it also welcomed tourists, travelers and art enthusiasts; it allowed her to engage with the world on her own terms.
The beauty of Rowe’s work is in the “really” rather than the “free” that she suggests through her refusal to yield—be it in color or form, or in the directness of meaning through text. And if there is to be a notion of freedom in the work, it is freedom from the harsh reality of domestic life or its redeployment into forms and spaces where scale, color and composition slip through and beyond reality.
Truly Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe is at the Brooklyn Museum, New York until January 2, 2023.