From Essex Art Center
20 January – 17 March 2022 | Free Admission
In her first solo exhibition in the Merrimack Valley, artist Marla L. McLeod explores contemporary social issues and symbols of pride for BIPOC Americans through painting, textile, sculpture, and photography.
Marla L. McLeod (b. 1981) is a mixed-race (African-American, White, and Native) artist born in California and based in New Haven, Connecticut. Her portraits feature people of color emerging from dark backgrounds and raise questions about power, privilege, and identity while highlighting the absence or marginalization of people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals within the canons of American and European art.
McLeod grew up living with several African-American families within the foster care system in the 1980s. One of her long-term homes was with a pastor and his wife, a seamstress who would sew quilts, curtains, and the family’s fancier dresses for church. A self-described ‘tomboy,’ McLeod would only help the pastor’s wife with sewing tasks when ‘forced’ to do so. Years later, the artist drew from these experiences during her graduate studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, when she designed a drag ballroom performance.
Drag ball culture is a vibrant LGBTQ+ subculture in which participants don dramatic costumes and walk on a stage or runway in competition for prizes and pride. Inspired by her work as an event photographer at several drag balls in New York City, McLeod began researching garments linked to the at times racist portrayals of various personae throughout American history, including the “mammy” and the “Mexican Folklorico.” Since then, clothing and textiles have formed an integral part of McLeod’s practice.
One of the works in this ballroom series is The Baldwin, an ornate 7’x 4’x 4′ robe that considers the stereotypical perceptions of the Black male body in American society.
McLeod’s hooded garment elevates the often criminalized figure to the ranks of royalty through a wardrobe of luxurious sateen fabric and fur. The costume’s interior is lined
with canvas, onto which McLeod has painted text from the writings of James Baldwin and symbols from across the African continent.
Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood is the largest solo exhibition to take place at Essex Art Center, with McLeod’s paintings, drawings, and garments taking over both the Sidell Gallery and Beland Gallery. The show is co-curated by the Center’s Executive Director and Deputy Director, Monica Manoski and Gabriel Sosa, and is presented as part of McLeod’s Walter Feldman Fellowship for Emerging Artists, which she was granted in 2021.
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