Michaela Pilar Brown leans across the café table to be heard more clearly.
“It’s OK,” she offers sympathetically. “My voice is small.”
It’s true that the beguiling, doe-eyed artist speaks softly. But a small voice?
Brown’s recent Midlands shows have been alternately enchanting, insightful, shocking, and, at times, in-your-face confrontational − tackling issues of feminism and body image, historical bias, religious hypocrisy, and race.
One of her most powerful creations is a recurring character she calls “Tinkerbell,” a curvy black woman made up in blackface with exaggeratedly large, bright red lips and an ever-present set of fairy wings. In her photographs, Brown models for the character herself, mostly nude. But she doesn’t consider them self-portraits.
“For me it is not ‘blackface’ but a mask of ‘blackness.’ Like I am playing a role,” she explained. “I knew I could catch some flak for the blackface, but I also felt really empowered.”
Brown sees this striking character as a powerful masked avenger. Like Disney’s sprite, Brown’s blackface Tinkerbell is silent, communicating primarily through bold gestures and facial expressions. Both have a core personality that can be alternately angelic and feisty. The similarities end there, however. While Disney presented a white, blue-eyed blonde fairy with an exaggeratedly sexual hourglass figure, Brown’s edgy creation is deliberately black on black with a contemporary real woman’s body and occasional giant prosthetic “man hands.”
Younger audiences who may be unfamiliar with the term “blackface” should know that it was a form of makeup originally worn by white actors in mockingly derogatory stereotypical caricatures of black characters, a form of entertainment common to traveling minstrel shows in 19th century America. [White men in blackface also often portrayed black female characters as mannish and grotesque, which could explain the blackface Tinkerbell’s “man hands.”]
Fortunately, over the years this form of “entertainment” on stage and screen − perpetuating an image of all African-Americans as buffoonish, lazy, stupid, and inferior − eventually declined, although the blackface icon later gained success in advertising and product branding. Even though now considered widely offensive, this “darky” iconography, used to sell toys, soap, and many other products, still can be found all over the world. In fact, there’s a thriving niche market worldwide for vintage blackface “negrobilia” pieces.
Brown’s blackface Tinkerbell is a darkly enigmatic superhero who vacillates intermittently from seductive to dangerous to defiant to ornery to spiteful, and more. Hers is a multifaceted personality that seems to change on a dime.
Some theorists argue that continued white support for blackface images in vintage products and advertising is perpetuated, consciously or otherwise, to counter black progress. Another view is that stereotyping a stereotype, as Brown has done with Tinkerbell, can have the effect of canceling it out, robbing the icon (in this case, overt blackface images) of the power to cause hurt or harm.
“The character is still evolving and changing,” Brown said. “I’m not finished with her.”
To use herself as the nude model for Tinkerbell and another character in her “pedestal envy” photo series is an interesting choice. But it makes a lot of sense the way Brown explains it.
“My work has always been kind of autobiographical,” she said. “I had to work through some personal issues, things related to beauty and value and self-worth. Not that I am not comfortable in my skin; I have always been comfortable with who I am. I was an adored child. But it was about how the outside world related to who I am.”
Another character in the series is an unnamed, faceless nude black woman with an enormous blonde afro (obscuring her downward-gazing face). Her hands are tied up with a noose.
“The blonde image is about identity and finding beauty in who you are. Her hands are bound with a noose,” Brown explained. “It’s a sort of suicide. Every time you destroy part of yourself to pursue some idea of beauty, you are killing yourself. That is why the face is gone. You are no longer yourself. For black women in particular, it is the antithesis of who you are naturally to do that.”
The artist concedes that, like many women in modern society, she once briefly experimented with blonde hair color. She has worn her head tightly shorn for nearly two decades and completely shaved now for two years now. It suits her. However, she completely separates herself from the fictional characters she creates in her art.
“I have a hard time seeing myself in images,” she said. “The work that really gets to the heart of what you are trying to say has to be honest. I need to tackle it from an inside source. I need to put myself in those images first. It is difficult. … I also have to deal with my own vanity, seeing myself honestly as I am seeing myself transformed, confronting some ugly ideas.”
One of the biggest challenges, Brown said, is allowing her mother and other family members to see the images. It’s less about the nudity than it is about the controversial nature of some of the imagery.
“My mother is pretty open,” she said. “She was always exposing us to art.” However, some of the racial issues and, particularly, the religious commentary, tend to run counter to the sensibilities of her mom’s generation.
“I point out hypocrisy within the black church, which denounces homosexuality from the pulpit, but if you look at the choir stand, every man is gay,” she continued. “My mother is 78 years old. She has said, ‘I don’t like that.’ My mom is from the culture and generation where you don’t air your dirty laundry. You don’t talk about it in public.”
Everything Brown does with her art − whether it’s photography, painting, video, installation, sculpture, or performance – comes with an unspoken objective of engaging the viewer and inspiring meaningful dialogue.
“I want to have real, honest conversations, and I think you have to be brave in order to do that,” she said. “I am probably also a little foolish. I want to do what I want to do. There is a little tomboy in me who says ‘you can’t tell me what I can and cannot do.’ But that is my personality. …
“I think part of the reason people can’t move forward is that they absolutely refuse to face the hard questions.”
The Call of Family
The youngest of five children and the only girl, Brown left home to attend Howard University in Washington, DC. As a freshman, she came under the tutelage of a master ironworker. Just 18 years old, Brown had her first professional show, featuring her sculpture of a metal bust with swollen abdomen, titled “Pregnant With An Attitude.” That piece today resides in a private collection in Wisconsin.
“After I took some art classes, I became convinced that I would never do anything else,” she said. “My family never once discouraged me from pursuing art. My mother worked in a museum. I knew professional artists when I was growing up.”
Brown loved DC and decided to stay, working in a series of nonprofit administrative positions focusing on education and the arts. But in 2003, a family crisis called her back home to Great Falls, SC, near Winnsboro. Her beloved father, suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s, needed full-time, hands-on care.
“I came here kicking and screaming. I didn’t want to leave my life in DC. But sometimes you just have to face up to your role in the family,” Brown explained. “I was a woman, unmarried and without children. I was considered available for the role of caregiver.”
Brown put her artistic pursuits aside to care for her father at the family’s rural compound. It proved to be a holistic and bittersweet experience that brought her back into the close fold of family and afforded her a chance to experience a memorable farewell with her dad. He died in 2007.
She soon began to chronicle the family’s history, which took on a life of its own.
“The last year of my father’s life, my brother and I basically documented the process of the goodbye,” Brown said. “He stopped eating and wasn’t taking any fluids. Despite the Alzheimer’s, he knew who his children were. He knew we were filming him. He first gave us the camera.”
That planted the seed for a larger oral history project, the idea for which had taken firm hold. After her father’s death, Brown won a grant-funded curatorial position at the Fairfield County Museum, where she introduced her oral history project, focusing on the African-American midwifery legacy, to advance the museum’s exhibit schedule. For six months in 2008, the museum exhibited “Birthing a Community: Fairfield County Midwives.” It covered midwifery from slavery into modern times. Financial challenges eventually ended the run, but the fact that it happened is progress.
“It was a very white museum in a very black community. They were trying to bridge that gap,” she explained. “Ultimately, it didn’t get fixed. Part of that is economic. Cultural institutions are habitually given small budgets. They simply couldn’t do more.”
Meanwhile, Brown rediscovered a deep love for the rural South and her family’s “19th century way of life” on 250 rolling acres of land and four houses. Everyone in the community, she said, is related in some way.
“There are things about rural life that are beautiful beyond words. I can trace my ancestors back to 1775,” she said, adding that her ancestry includes Irish, Catawba Indian, and English. “My family turned color in one generation. … Daniel Brown was a white man who took a black woman as a spouse and not just a concubine. In one generation, we became a black family. …
“There is something about living here that I love. I love southern culture. I love the food. I love all the weirdness that is racial politics in the South. It is not all hate, and it is not all love. It’s a weird relationship. It helps define who you are. When I started working again, those were issues I wanted to tackle.”
Brown cites Chicago-based abstract metal sculptor Richard Hunt as a major inspiration in her eventual decision to become a professional artist. The internationally renowned Hunt, 75, was the youngest artist to exhibit at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to the governing board of the National Endowment for the Arts. He also served on the boards of the Smithsonian Institution. He is said to have completed more public sculptures than any other artist in the United States. She had an opportunity to work with Hunt once in one of the first real professional projects of her life, and she said the experience lent real validation to her growing artistic ambitions.
Hunt’s influence is clear, particularly in the personage of Brown’s aforementioned winged Tinkerbell character. Many of Hunt’s sculptures visually echo writer Toni Morrison’s themes of flying, often with bird or angel wings.
“My own use of winged forms in the early ‘50s is based on mythological themes, like Icarus and Winged Victory,” Hunt told Sculpture Magazine in 1998. “It’s about, on the one hand, trying to achieve victory or freedom internally. It’s also about investigating ideas of personal and collective freedom. My use of these forms has roots and resonances in the African-American experience and is also a universal symbol. People have always seen birds flying and wished they could fly.”
Brown has taken a hiatus from metal sculpture for purely practical reasons.
“It’s not like I lost my love for it,” she said. “I felt very powerful. I liked bending the metal to my will. I like physical labor. I am a builder. That’s why I was so excited about the ‘Change for Change’ art project using decommissioned parking meters (a 2010 fundraiser for the Climate Protection Action Campaign). I was so excited to weld again. … But metal sculpture does require a very specific kind of space and often some assistance. I do hope to return to it.”
Installation art always will have a special place in Brown’s heart. She connects to the degree of compromise installation art requires. She feels it has a sort of spiritual connection to the African Diaspora.
“I like installation because I think the ability to compromise is something that is unique to African-Americans,” she said. “It is the idea that you are making it happen right on the spot. You make a rhythm and stick with that rhythm, moving people through environments and ideas through installation.”
Most recently, Brown has had an installation showing in “SC3D: an Exhibition of Three-Dimensional Art from South Carolina” running through May 29 at the 701 Center for Contemporary Art. It combines video and fabric sculpture.
“I am attracted to the theater of video. It gives my work dancing light and movement. I am really attracted to storytelling and narrative, and I think video does that in the most concise and clear way,” she explained. “I really like the idea of being able to paint with light. That’s really what photography is.”
This summer, Brown has a solo show running from June 24 to July 24 at Le Cochon Noir, an upscale Philadelphia restaurant and gallery. It will include images from her “frock” and “pedestal envy” collections. Private showings of the adult-themed Tinkerbell series are planned, and Brown is scheduled to give a salon talk on July 14. She also is scheduled to give a second salon talk June 25 at The International House on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania for an organization called Fourth Wall Arts.
“Twenty years ago, I was told never to hang work in restaurants and bars, but it’s different now,” Brown said. Using social media, it’s possible to rally people to turn out for an exhibit. “In a restaurant, there is a quiet environment, and people spend time with your work. And this venue has had a lot of success; artists have been selling out.”
Brown also looks forward to living and working for three months as the Harvey B. Gantt Artist in Residence at the prestigious McColl Center for Visual Art in Charlotte from September 6 to November 22, 2011. While there, she also will exhibit at the Gantt Museum for African-American Arts and Culture.
“What I need to do right now is to talk about my work, to be in an engaging environment where there is rich dialogue,” she said. This residency fills the bill. “When you are isolated, you can get stuck. Your output atrophies.”
The McColl Center’s mission is to connect artists with the community, and it draws artists from all over the world. Columbia-area alumni include Deanna Leamon in 2010 and Marcelo Novo in 2009.
Because the Center asks its artists to include an outreach component to their work, Brown hopes to connect with people through a victim’s assistance program for a photo series on all forms of trauma − physical, emotional, and spiritual. Years ago, Brown’s brother suffered a brain injury in an accident. She plans to begin the series with photos of the physical scars he now has. They are surprisingly small scars compared with the internal trauma he suffered.
“His personality changed after the accident,” she said. “He was an athlete but now has no interest in sports.” She also is planning to focus on a disfigured woman who was attacked in her home but has no memory of it. The perpetrator remains at large. “I’m going to use all real people and real stories,” Brown added.
Nothing to Lose
Brown looks easily 10 years younger than she is, but she is coming to embrace the benefits of aging.
“I think everyone who tries to make art is brave. In order to be brave, I have to face myself as I am. Part of that is facing my age,” she said. “I am 40 years old and deciding to go back to a career in art. I have got nothing to lose. I also think there is comfort in being 40 and not 20. I have something to say.”
After her father died, she reached a crossroads. It was decision time. Stay or go back to DC.
“It was a shit-or-get-off-the-pot moment. What I have gained is the ability to keep growing. So I started working and showing again. Now I can never imagine doing anything else,” Brown said. “I felt an intense fire to get moving. … I have no apologies about my life. It is not the life that I imagined, but I am happy to be working as an artist.”