Home Arts A film about self-taught artist Nellie Mae Rowe shows the limits of the artist documentary genre

A film about self-taught artist Nellie Mae Rowe shows the limits of the artist documentary genre

by godlove4241
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Documentaries about revolutionary artists often adhere to a paradoxically predictable pattern. Writing recently in Director on the new documentary Nam June Paik: Moon is the oldest television, Vadim Rizov expressed his displeasure with “assembling talking heads and archives” as a genre; attempts to “educate the curious but uninformed while offering rare archival footage and/or new insights for the already initiated” invariably err on the side of the former, allowing for laboriously explanatory visualization. A reviewer invested in the formal possibilities of cinematic nonfiction (or an art lover hungry for new ideas) is entitled to feel pissed off watching something seemingly designed to play at 1.5x speed like a podcast – but, as Rizov also admits, such films serve an educational purpose, offering glimpses of the work, critical soundbites and narratives encapsulated in its context, making it accessible to a non-specialist audience.

In an attempt to defend the work of an artist on the periphery of the canon, This world is not mine, a portrait of Nellie Mae Rowe, is an inadvertent advertisement for the skillfully executed paint-by-numbers documentary. The film is riddled with stylistic eccentricities that have little to do with Rowe’s work, it struggles to impose a critical perspective on his art or his life, and fails to question the wider implications of the story he tells about a “folk artist”.

Nellie Mae Rowe brought to life by her home known as the “Playhouse” © Opendox, Photography by Petter Ringbom. Character Animation and Visual Effects by Kaktus Film

Born in Fayetteville, Georgia on July 4, 1900 – her father was once a slave; her mother was born in the year of emancipation – Rowe lived a difficult life defined by farming and domestic work before returning, in late middle age, to the artistic practice she had explored during the rare free time granted to him in his youth. The documentary’s scenes of an elementary school art studio, juxtaposed with Rowe’s own description, in a 1970s interview, of his art as “game”, posit his work as the reclamation of a childhood effectively robbed by institutional racism and poverty.

Rowe’s worked more expressively with materials made specifically to facilitate play, including crayons, crayons, and markers. She also made sculptures out of chewing gum – just her own chewing gum, an interviewee in the film says. Arranging autobiographically, symbolically or spiritually significant people, animals and objects into a flat perspective, many of his works, like that of Chagall, appear as still lifes freed from the constraints of stillness or life, gravity or realism.

Not that Rowe knows anything about Chagall, as one of his great-great-grandnieces says in an interview. While much of the contemporary art world is rethinking the hierarchies that are reinforced when a self-taught genius like Rowe is defined as an “outsider” artist – outside of what? –This world is not mineRespondents largely accept this framing. It’s potentially intriguing, but the discussion is hauntingly incomplete. The publishing structure parallels Rowe’s life with that of Judith Alexander, his gallerist and establishment champion in Rowe’s later years; this underscores the many comments about their friendship transcending race while remaining fundamentally uncurious about their professional partnership and Rowe’s reception.

Animated Judith Alexander and Nellie Mae Rowe © Opendox, Photography by Petter Ringbom. Character Animation and Visual Effects by Kaktus Film

There is also a fundamental lack of understanding of the art itself. Rowe’s large extended family, who knew her as a somewhat eccentric older relative who enjoyed expressing her creativity and encouraged them to do the same, provide fond memories. But their childlike gaze is not deepened by other talking heads, whose words are generic to the point of being downright unconvincing, as with the scholar who places Rowe in the very general line of Afrofuturism ( allowing filmmakers to insert an excerpt from Black Panther).

The directors – this is an “Opendox film”, co-directed by Petter Ringbom and Marquise Stillwell, also partners of the urban design consultancy Openbox – generally let themselves be caught up in their talking heads. Struggling to impose a parentage beyond the general chronology, they most often embellish digressions that reduce the story of black life in the South to a string of unrelated anecdotes.

Rowe, who died in 1982, lived to see herself become an admired and analyzed artist, the subject of multiple museum exhibitions. A more recent to show, currently on tour in the United States, includes a miniature replica of her house, which she called the “Playhouse”. A complex and evolving habitat of scrap metal sculptures, sadly now demolished, the Playhouse was a local attraction and proof of Rowe’s ingenuity and responsiveness to his environment.

A similar line is used in the film for its most extensive gambit: it’s the setting for imaginary scenes from Rowe’s life, with Uzo Aduba playing the artist in motion-capture animation and delivering “dialogue based on direct quotes”. These sequences are inexplicably washed-out monochrome in the first half of the film, before transitioning to color, and less evocative of Rowe’s work than the floating animations featuring segments of his drawings that fit into the whole – a technique simpler but which, when layered over the relevant “more archival talking-head assemblage” captures some of their core misdeeds and mysteries. As a film with an implicitly educational mandate, This world is not mine will probably perform better in class than on public television; Rowe’s story is inspiring and her artistry joyful, but the film makes her look kinda cute.

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