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Facing up to disturbing racial stereotypes

In the uncomfortable art of Beverly McIver, the past continually intrudes on the present and makes itself visible literally on the artist's face.

McIver is an African-American artist whose tense, expressionistic paintings of herself depict a stereotypical "Mammy" of the minstrel era, a sad-faced clown with exaggerated lips and eyes drawn in crude blackface makeup.

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Not surprisingly, a lot of people are disturbed by such images, which recall this country's painful racial history in a particularly pointed way. Why would a black artist, of all people, they wonder, deliberately adopt a stereotype that has been so ugly and hurtful?

But for McIver, the pain is exactly the point. In Mammy, I Love You, a peculiarly heart-wrenching exhibition at C. Grimaldis Gallery this month, McIver sets out to demonstrate that it is only through confronting such images -- and then transforming them -- that the power of the old stereotypes can be broken.

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"I think the reason people react so strongly to my blackface paintings is because they haven't resolved in themselves what that image has meant in the past," McIver said last week, when she was in town for the opening of her show.

"Every emotion my images make people feel is something I have felt myself, either in my life or when I was making the painting," she said. "I had to find a resting place for those feelings, and painting has been a way for me to do that."

McIver's paintings aim for a radical transformation of the meaning of racial stereotypes, of which that of "Mammy" -- the devoted black household servant who cares more about the family of her white employers than about her own children -- is one of the most enduring examples.

McIver, 40, spent more than two years traveling through the South interviewing black women who had worked for most of their lives as maids in white households, a trip made possible by a grant that allowed her to take a sabbatical from her job at the University of Arizona, where she is an associate professor of painting.

Reenacting stories

The stories that McIver collected -- some bitter, some poignant, some ineffably sad -- provided the material for the series of large self-posed paintings that became Mammy, I Love You.

The title is an ironic comment on the genuine affection many white families feel for their long-time domestic servants, even as they remain totally incapable of seeing their black employees as equal human beings.

(It's also a bittersweet reference to McIver's own mother, who worked for 50 years as a maid in white homes to support her family. McIver's father abandoned the family when the artist was 3.)

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In each of the paintings, McIver reenacts some incident or event in the lives of the women she interviewed. One of the maids, for example, a black woman named Elizabeth, recounted how she worked many years for an elderly white woman who became utterly dependent on her.

McIver turned that story into the painting "Holding My Baby," in which the artist, wearing blackface makeup and a red gingham dress, appears seated in a large chair holding a grown white woman on her lap.

The startling image substitutes a costumed and made-up McIver for Elizabeth; the elderly white woman has been transformed into a much younger woman who appears to be in her twenties. The white woman tilts her head slightly, as if about to rest it on "Mammy's" breast. Meanwhile, the older woman's sad eyes and vacant stare seem to express all the unfulfilled hopes she once held for her own family.

McIver's unnerving visual displacements give her picture the power of allegory. In her paintings, the relatively straightforward stories she collected during her travels turn into surreal parables of the intimate lives of masters and servants.

Autobiography, too

The use of the blackfaced "Mammy," which figures so prominently in McIver's work, actually has an autobiographical basis. As a young woman growing up in Greensboro, N.C., she longed to be a professional circus clown -- partly because that role seemed like an escape from the burden of America's obsessive color-consciousness.

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In high school, McIver enjoyed dressing up for parades and other school theatrical events in white-face clown makeup, carefully covering her hands and fingers with bright paints to conceal her brown skin.

But after graduating from North Carolina Central University, where she was an art major, McIver got a rude awakening when her application to a white circus troupe was summarily rejected. Looking back on that disappointment, it seems to McIver that the circus managers of the era simply could not imagine a black woman clown as a successful entertainer.

Disheartened, McIver decided to attend graduate school at Penn State University to earn a master of fine arts degree in painting. It was after her graduation from Penn State in 1991 that she began a new series of pictures based on her memories of growing up with her mentally disabled sister, Renee.

After that series was completed, McIver began experimenting with painting herself as the white-faced circus clown she had never been allowed to be. But then one day she saw a French dance troupe perform wearing blackface makeup, and "It was like an epiphany for me," she recalled.

"I thought 'Oh, I could be a black clown.' And when I put on the blackface, it was kind of a liberation," she said. "I had been hiding under this white face because I didn't know I could be a black clown. There weren't any role models for that."

As McIver continued to paint and explore her theme more deeply, she discovered America's long history of negative portrayals of blacks -- from the 19th-century's minstrel shows to the gangsta rappers of the hip-hop era.

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She also realized that she might be able to "use these images to liberate myself from some of these stereotypes."

How it was done

To create the "Mammy" series, McIver first selected which of the maids' stories she wanted to tell. Then she organized photo sessions in which she donned costumes and acted out the maid's role while a friend photographed her performance. The photographs became the basis for McIver's paintings.

There was another reason McIver used her own image in the paintings rather than those of the maids themselves.

"I didn't want to get into a thing where the maids would say, 'Oh, that doesn't look like me,' or 'Why'd you make me look like that?' Using myself gave me a lot more freedom," she recalled.

And how did the women whose stories she relates react to seeing themselves portrayed by the artist in blackface?

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"I was actually surprised by that," McIver said. "One of the maids was a woman named Oni, who once lived in this area but then moved back to Pinewood, S.C., to take care of her mother.

"Oni was sitting in the front row during a talk I gave at the [Baltimore Museum of Art] last night, although I didn't know it at the time.

"I had made one painting, Desperate Cries, after visiting Oni, and it shows this very sad, distraught face because I felt she had been trapped in this wasteland where the only job she could find was working for a white family that had triplets.

"After I showed a slide of the painting at the museum I thought, 'Oh my God, what if she's here tonight?' When I found out she was, I was hoping she wouldn't be mad at me for painting her as this desperate, sad figure and saying it was based on her life.

"But it turned out she was actually very flattered. She was pleased to be part of the exhibit, and she was happy to see her face come up on the screen and know that she had inspired a painting."

A smaller show at the rear gallery presents 17 black-and-white portraits of the maids McIver interviewed for her project, taken by photographer Ernie Button, who accompanied the artist on her travels. Button's sensitive depictions of the real-life women on whose stories McIver's pictures are based perfectly complement the elegiac mood of this beautiful show.

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Mammy, I Love You runs through March 29. The gallery is at 523 N. Charles St. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday by appointment. Call 410-539-1080.

For the record

An article in Sunday's Arts & Society section about painter Beverly McIver's show Mammy, How I love You incorrectly identified the school where the artist teaches. It is Arizona State University. The Sun regrets the error.


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