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Split Personality
The artist Donelle Woolford seems to be everywhere. But who is she really?

Cleverly crafted of wood scraps, Donelle Woolford's modestly scaled neo-Cubist collages seem like art historical inside jokes until you hear what she has to say about them. “I'm here to take back for my people what was stolen from us almost 100 years ago,” she writes in an artist's statement, referring to the appropriation of African art by early Cubists. With this assertion, and her identification as an African American artist, Woolford stakes her own ground in the modernist canon. But her overall practice raises broader, arguably more timely, questions about the relationship between identity and public reception.

So far, Woolford’s career is on the upswing. In January, she had her New York solo debut at Wallspace, and this summer toured the U.K. in the group show Double Agent. In fact, Woolford—who routinely sets up a studio and works in the gallery—achieved the impossible feat of being in two places at once, appearing concurrently in Newcastle and Coventry, 200 miles apart. How? Woolford is a character, invented by artist and writer Joe Scanlan, and played by different women.

Scanlan, who teaches at Yale, first came up with Woolford in 1999 as the nominal maker of collages he had already created. “It was just curious to me that no one of African descent that I knew of…had taken on the origins of Cubism or the legacy of Cubism and kind of reclaimed it,” he says. Eventually, he hired one of his students, Namik Minter, to play Woolford, and the details of Minter’s life became the fictional artist's biography. Born in the South to professional parents, she attended Yale, worked as Scanlan’s assistant, and graduated in 2003. The following year she participated in her first group show in Paris, moved to New York, and began showing regularly.

For three years, Minter played Woolford while also pursuing her own career, attending openings and other public appearances. Last year, however, she decided to move on, and through casting agents and Craigslist ads, Scanlan replaced her with actresses Jennifer Kidwell, who continues to play Woolford in New York, and Abigail Ramsay, who portrayed the artist for eight weeks at London’s Institute for Contemporary Art this spring. Actress Miranda Craigwell and gallery assistant Mariama Attah were later engaged for the Newcastle and Coventry shows respectively.

"The biography you read is probably wrong,” Craigwell wrote to me in an email, referring to the chronology that appears on Scanlan’s website, thingsthatfall.com. She points out that Woolford’s details shift from venue to venue. For example, while Scanlan's web site says she was born in 1980, her Antwerp gallery lists her date of birth as 1977. These inconsistencies reflect the leeway Scanlan gives the artists to interpret the role. Kidwell describes Woolford to me as “watchful,” and a bit withdrawn, while Ramsay’s characterization is more expansive. “For me, the background was, this is her first time in London and ‘Oh my god, she's at the ICA, and this is so amazing. Let's go and have as many drinks as you can get!’”

Not surprisingly, Woolford’s appearance has triggered ethical debates. “I understand that there’s this real annoyance, that people maybe feel like they're being duped,” Scanlan says, acknowledging that Woolford’s fictitious nature isn’t always obvious to viewers. He also recognizes that she treads on the contested terrain of race relations. The political implications of a white male artist inventing a black female artist and putting her on display don't bother Ramsay, but Kidwell describes the project as “neo-colonialist,” and Craigwell speculates that Woolford is a well-timed marketing ploy. “Is it a mere coincidence that the concept of affirmative action…would provide Donelle Woolford with more opportunities and doors opening than Joe Scanlan?” she asks. Woolford’s existence critiques the art market's penchant for exoticism and youth, and advances the postmodern truism that all identities are essentially performances. But it also seems to poke fun at sincere efforts for historical redress.

In the end, Woolford may have the last laugh. Her schedule has become so demanding that Scanlan has trouble keeping up. “I never expected her to become this challenge or threat to myself,” he says. “I'm a bit overwhelmed. I think it would be funny if she destroyed my career.”

This feature originally appeared in the September/October 2008 issue of art on paper. Reprinted with permission.

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