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
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
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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