This World Is Not My Own (
directed by Opendox (Petter Ringbom and Marquise Stillwell)
For most of her life, Nellie Mae Rowe made art just for herself and her close friends and family. Filling her home with sculptures made from any object she could find, making rag dolls out of old clothing and rearranging her home into her own “Playhouse” she would delight in entertaining her family, especially the children, with her arts and crafts. All driven by what she saw as a gift from God to create and make her environment more beautiful.
Raised in poverty, the daughter of a sharecropper, Rowe existed outside the world of “fine art” and galleries. Her vibrant, exhilarating paintings and drawings seen only by the family and the occasional passer-by who stopped in wonder at the sight of the extraordinary home she had created. Though less enlightened folk would throw rocks at the place. Six years before her death, a wealthy gallerist, Judith Alexander, “discovered” her and introduced her work to the art world. This led to Rowe jetting off to New York for an exhibition and the buzz of excitement as the art cognoscenti recognised her talents and wanted to share (and own) her art.
The World Is Not My Own tells Rowe’s story using archival footage, photographs, art work and a variety of “talking heads”, including family members and art world associates. In addition to this there is a motion-capture rendering of Rowe, voiced by Uzo Aduba, as she moves around an exquisitely detailed model of her “Playhouse”. These scenes are an inventive way of getting around the lack of archival footage of the artist herself and give voice to Rowe’s own thoughts (lifted from written sources or remembered anecdotes). They work well, breaking out of the well worn talking head/ stock footage route of a number of similarly themed documentaries. Less successful, and a similarly misjudged approach was used on the Henry Darger documentary “In the Realms of the Unreal” (2004), is the animation of some of Nellie’s 2D work where animals/people are made to move around the screen. Though the filmmakers may have feared the ennui of relentless slide showing of static art in some cases it’s absolutely necessary to hold the image still and allow the work to stand for itself.
There are some wonderful sidetracks within this beguiling portrait including a scene stealing appearance by the larger than life wrestler Thunderbolt Patterson who featured in a number of paintings by Nellie. Elsewhere the issues of racism are expertly uncovered, contextualizing Rowe’s life and times. Former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young adds astute commentary on the importance of visual artists in the fight for civil rights and social justice positioning Nellie Mae Rowe as a representative of so many other marginalized artists of colour. Similarly the filmmakers are unafraid to stretch the bounds of the traditional single artist biography by pulling at threads that may initially seem only loosely connected to their subject until revealing how everything can be linked and that the “history” part of “art history” is as important as just looking at the pretty pictures.
After her “discovery”, and the discussion of the part that Judith Alexander played in Rowe’s later years is more nuanced than that of “the great white benefactor” that could easily have been expected, she achieved a level of fame and admiration that she seemed to neither quite understand or want. She turned down a request from Nancy Reagan to provide the illustration for the annual White House Christmas card because “no poor folk and no Black folk” were likely to see it.
It’s easy to view the works of so called “folk artists”, or “outsider artists”, or “visionaries” are they are now sometimes referred to, as having some kind of naive purity and only accidental aesthetic qualities but as one of Rowe’s relatives recalls, as she watched her working on one of her felt-tip drawings, Rowe always thought she was going to be a famous artist one day. She always knew how good her work was. Now everybody gets to see how right she was.
THIS WORLD IS NOT MY OWN premiered at SXSW.
For future screenings check https://thisworldisnotmyown.com/
Kirk Lake is a writer, musician and filmmaker. His published books include Mickey The Mimic (2015) and The Last Night of the Leamington Licker (2018). His films include the feature films Piercing Brightness (2014) and The World We Knew (2020) and a number of award winning shorts.
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