The contentious case of the ‘young black artist’ Donelle Woolford

Creative experiment, ‘conceptual rape’ or just playful fiction?

A timeline on Donelle Woolford’s website provides visitors with some background on the artist. Following a somewhat lonely childhood spent in private education, she started at Yale University in 1999. While studying she took a job as studio assistant to an art professor, Joe Scanlan, and a few years later started experimenting with making works of her own. Using wood scraps found around the studio, she created rough cubist assemblages, a movement whose origins in African art she felt had been woefully under-explored.

The experiment was a success, and the timeline charts how the career of the young black artist soon overtook that of her middle-aged mentor: solo shows in Vienna, New York and Paris; lecturing engagements in Madrid and Chicago; inclusion in the ICA’s Double Agent exhibition and the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Next week, paintings from Woolford’s “Dick Jokes” series – messy, large-scale, lewd anecdotes mounted on canvas – will be exhibited by Wallspace at Frieze London. The works are intended as a humorous attack on the cultural prominence of male genitalia and as a “cathartic counterpoint to all the recent political speculation about women, their bodies, and what they can do”.

All this is ironic. Because the male member and the politics of the female body are about the only thing critics talk about when discussing Woolford. The artist is a fiction, created by her supposed mentor in the late 1990s. And her art, laden as it is with explorations of race, gender and identity, is made by Scanlan.

Over the years, Scanlan has recruited a series of young black women to help tease out the imaginary artist’s personality. At first they worked behind the scenes; a designer who had graduated from Yale helped craft Woolford’s graphic identity, and together they settled on her signature – a small, italicised “DW”. Over the years, these women have come to embody the artist. Donelle Woolford now appears at gallery openings and, increasingly, experiments with performance art.

With celebrity has come controversy. The outlandish biographical artifice that has made the set-up a hit with curators (Scanlan is under no illusion – it is not Woolford’s art alone that has secured her a run of prestigious bookings) has also attracted indignant attacks. The apex came in the run up to the 2014 Whitney Biennial, when the collective HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN withdrew in protest at Woolford’s presence. In a statement they described the process of a black body being “willed into existence” by a white male as “conceptual rape”.

Scanlan’s main defence against those who accuse him of indulging in a form of modern-day minstrelsy is the project’s collaborative nature. Many women have played Woolford over the years, but Scanlan is adamant that their “different financial relationship” to the work (they are paid, while he profits from sales) does not make them exploited stooges. For the past five years, Abigail Ramsay and Jennifer Kidwell have become the faces most associated with Woolford’s public appearances. Scanlan emphasises that they put their own stamp on the character, imbuing the fiction with so much complexity that “it’s sometimes hard for me to keep up”.

He also says that he is receptive to being “schooled” on matters of perception and privilege. When he wanted to include in Woolford’s biography the 1990s TV sketch show In Living Color, considered a watershed moment for the representation of black comedians in American culture, one of the two (he thinks it was Kidwell) shot down the suggestion, telling him it would look like he was “laughing at the idea rather than with the idea of that show”.

This claim of collective authorship is borne out when talking to Ramsay and Kidwell in person – something that, Ramsay is quick to point out, few critics have chosen to do. Ramsay says she sees Woolford as a place to experiment with how theatre and the visual arts intersect. She knows that performance can be political – her day job is as director of global partnerships for Girl Be Heard, a charity that uses theatre to empower disadvantaged women – but she stands by Scanlan’s project, believing that it highlights important questions about the lack of black faces in the arts world.

Kidwell recalls her initial reaction clearly. “I remember saying: ‘I don’t want to have any part in your postcolonial bullshit,’ ” she says of her first meeting with Scanlan. “But when he explained that it wasn’t about exploitation but about raising questions about authorship I became more interested.” Rather than seeing Woolford as the white man’s puppet, she sees the relationship as symbiotic: “People say he’s benefiting from her otherness, but at the same time she has always benefited from Joe’s perceived normalcy.” Kidwell has often influenced Woolford’s artistic direction. Recently she was the driving force behind Dick’s Last Stand, a touring performance in which Woolford (played by Kidwell) recreated a Richard Pryor stand-up routine.

But recognising that Woolford is the product of collaboration cannot trump all charges. Questions remain about what exactly is being achieved. In a 2010 interview Scanlan said that he invented Woolford after making collages that he thought would be more interesting if made by “someone who could better exploit their historical and cultural references”.

He stands by the statement, seeing it as a comment on the interplay of intentions and execution in art, but today he prefers a less incendiary explanation. Using what he admits is a “terrible metaphor”, Scanlan describes the art world as “a giant ice cube tray that has been filled with cement”, and says that Woolford began as an “absurd” challenge to that containment.

But for an artist intent on shaking things up, Scanlan has made strange choices. Although he insists he never lied about Woolford’s fictional status, for a long time most people who encountered the artist did so with no knowledge of the deception – Ramsay recalls visitors to the studio being amazed at her inept handling of the woodcutting machine. Scanlan expresses regret at Woolford’s outing, which was not intentional but the product of coming up against a “real hostility to deception and role-play” in the visual arts. And although both Ramsay and Kidwell see Woolford as broadening engagement with issues of art-world elitism, Scanlan does not, insisting that: “This project has no interest whatsoever in what we might call the general public.” He believes that addressing a wider audience would require simplification and push the fiction into “minstrelsy, black face, or some other insulting gesture”.

Scanlan doesn’t offer a definitive answer to the question of whom exactly he does intend Woolford to speak to. As in most things, he embraces the absence of certainty, believing it to be essential for a project to evolve.

For his critics, this is a problem. Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett, the art historians behind the experimental curatorial project Triple Candie, suggest that the ruckus surrounding Woolford stems from the fact that Scanlan doesn’t offer a solid defence of why he has chosen to work with such potential provocation. Bancroft and Nesbett have experience of the terrain – in 2006 the duo, who are both white, curated a retrospective of Lester Hayes – a fictional African-American artist. “We were straight-forward about the fictionalisation of it and our intent right from the get go,” they say. “The way [Scanlan] has approached it has varied over time and that’s something of an issue.”

Such criticisms are unlikely to bother the professor, who quips that it would be problematic for the venture to be problem-free, as it would signal the mastery of the white male. But for as long as Scanlan chooses to insist that not knowing what he’s doing is all part of the plan, it seems unlikely that the presence of Donelle Woolford’s work in gallery spaces will prompt a critical debate about privilege in the art world, rather than being attacked as a perceived instance of privilege in operation.

Photographs: Lyndon Douglas, Stephen Dewyer, Bradlee Hicks, James Ewing, Donelle Woolford

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