Sheila B., “Southern Motel.” Photo courtesy of Nashville Scene.
Julia Martin invites you to her gallery for a discussion in regard to the recent controversy over Sheila B.‘s painting “Southern Motel” (pictured above), which was removed from the downtown Nashville bar/restaurant Acme Feed & Seed at the request of the restaurant’s investor and mayoral hopeful Charles Robert Bone.
The painting in question is of a blonde, white woman with a Confederate flag bikini bottom bending over next to the Southern Motel, which advertises a swimming pool and exclaims on its hand painted sign: “Every kind-hearted soul welcome! Mean people stay away.”
Julia Martin is hosting an “open forum discussion” about the painting’s removal. She wrote in Tuesday’s press release:
I personally want to provide an opportunity for folks to see and discuss the piece first hand. And to talk about the many issues surrounding this particular situation along with the use of powerful symbols, like the confederate flag, in works of art.
I’m not sure if it’s an open forum (where visitors will be able to have the floor) or a panel (where just a select group of people talk.) She calls it both things. She’s invited Lux-o-matic, the white burlesque performer who modeled for the painting, as well as songwriter Jason White (who is white). Artist Dane Carder will be a panelist (also white and I guess qualified because his paintings reference Civil War imagery), and Nashville Arts editor Paul Polycarpou will join him (whom I love but is also white [CORRECTION: Polycarpou is from Cyprus, which might make a difference to some folks.]).*** And thank goodness Martin has the sense to include one person of color in this event, the writer TJ Jarrett who will perform a poetry reading (BTW, her performance alone is worth the trip; she’s sooo good.) It’s unclear if Jarrett is intended to be on the panel; she must be because otherwise it would be incredibly awkward to have the only person of color billed to perform and not have a part in the discussion — right?.
I’m skeptical of Martin’s intentions because there are plenty of Black artists, writers, and scholars living in Nashville whom Martin could draw out if she were so inclined. Since this conversation is about Confederate symbolism in art, I’d say it’s kind of important that we hear from people of color in the arts, and a visual artist would be especially appropriate. It’s possible that Martin sought a more diverse and relevant panel and came up short, but let’s face it: she obviously didn’t look very far. For me, her choice of panelists doesn’t bode well.
I’m going to be generous and say that Sheila B. has a message in “Southern Motel,” although many I’ve talked to disagree. The message is that an establishment claims to be welcoming while it allows bathing beauties to prance around in Confederate bikinis. There’s a clash of ideologies that is not terribly clever to point out. We’ve all heard versions of it. (“Bless your heart, if you’re a Christian.) If “Southern Motel” says anything at all, that’s it.
Sheila B. has shown work at Julia Martin Gallery in the past. She paints mostly portraits of country musicians and big-bosomed women in that Americana style that Nashville never tires of: pin-up style bodies, random words associated with Southern roots, nostalgic scenes, and I’ll say it again, big-bosomed women. (Somebody pass her a copy of The Ways of Seeing, please.) So I’m not a big fan of her work, but she surely should keep doing what she’s doing because a lot of people love it. Good on all of them.
What’s not so good is her shock and surprise that a Facebook group called for the painting in Acme Feed & Seed to be taken down. I want to be 100% clear in that Sheila B.’s painting is a small offense in comparison to the multitudinous Confederate images in many, many other places. But her response to the controversy shows her to be irresponsible and tone deaf. In an interview with the Scene, she says, “My artwork, it’s pretty obvious that my message is very progressive. And it is a Southern progressive.”
Let’s hold it right there.
When the Scene asks her about her intention with the painting, she can’t give a real answer. She says:
It was a Southern motel, and it said, “Every kind-hearted soul welcome, mean people stay away.” My artwork doesn’t always knock people over the head. I like to gently prod people.
If the prod is so gentle that people don’t notice, is it still a prod? Meanwhile, I’m stuck twiddling my thumbs about how her work is progressive. Her (also unprogressive) paintings of Patsy Cline and burlesque beauties aside, in this specific painting, she’s casually dropping in a loaded symbol and not judging it. Contradiction does not equal critique. In the Scene interview, the artist says that the restaurant’s decision to take the painting down “was so far out of left field — I’ve never experienced anything like that. It was so shocking.” Frankly, it made me wonder if shirking responsibility and disavowing criticism is part of the Southern progressive mindset she touts. Sheila B. says her piece is “about the New South.” If we are to believe this, it seems the New South is not much different from the Old South. Clearly, the Confederate flag is part of the way she defines the South, and she doesn’t want to jettison it as one of the region’s foremost symbols.
Here’s what I think is the trouble with Sheila B.’s painting “Southern Motel”: her work overtly celebrates Southern culture in way that some might call playful, whimsical, and above all nostalgic. Taken in this context, it is easy to understand why some folks are not cool with looking at the Confederate flag on the ass of a white woman in a five foot tall painting while they’re eating and drinking cocktails, no matter the ironic subtext. And let’s be clear: The contradiction is present in the painting. A critique is not. Persistent racist ideologies should not be summed up as some kind of trifling “meanness.”Nostalgia for Southern roots is perhaps the main defense of those who still want to fly the flag of the Rebel army. The message in the painting, therefore, is that although there’s a bit of a paradox in Southern ideologies, it’s really no big deal.
Her response to the controversy gets more and more disturbing. She tells the Scene:
I don’t really feel censored. I actually wanted it taken down once I saw all this stuff happening. Because I didn’t want anything to happen to my artwork. People are such nutjobs, people are so crazy in this time we live in — look at what happened last week in Charleston for God’s sake, you know, crazy people do crazy things. So for me it’s not censorship. For me, I resent being co-opted into this mudslinging — it’s someone taking advantage of a situation.
Wow. There is a lot to unpack here! First, the artist shows a disturbing lack of priorities when she says that she wanted the work taken down because she was worried about it. A worse scenario might be a family from Nashville or from out of town walking into the restaurant and feeling unwelcome because of the presence of the Confederate flag, or someone not submitting a job application for the same reason.
And I’m unclear: Is she lassoing the people who wanted the painting taken down with Dylann Roof, the radical, racist terrorist and murderer of nine innocent people? Or, is she acknowledging the absolute crisis of racism in America, even while she defends her use of the flag? Or, is she excusing the Charleston massacre as an isolated incident committed by a “nutjob,” and not a symptom of an epidemic of racism in America? I’m confused. All of these options suck. Her response is blatantly tone deaf in the same way as your white uncle who says, “I’m not racist; I have black friends.”
And how about that swimming pool in the painting? Supposedly, Jim Crow ended with the Civil Rights Act, but we saw its legacy just weeks ago in McKinney, Texas when a police officer used excessive force and brutalizing language on teenagers at a pool party. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” A Southern progressive should know this and be receptive to criticism surrounding the use of these symbols.
Stay with me; we’re still unpacking that paragraph! The “mudslinging” she’s referring to is the fact that Charles Robert Bone requested that the painting come down. It looks like Sheila believes that the FB group “Boycott Acme Feed & Seed” was started to smear Bone. (I have a hard time believing that any campaign manager would sign off on such a stunt.) But to chalk this up to political maneuvering seems to trivialize the situation. Politicians become a scapegoat for Sheila B. Casting this as mayoral mudslinging shows an unwillingness to take the critique constructively. In fact, her response is a dismissal of feelings surrounding the flag and what it stands for, even as she claims to be a progressive.
“This is a made-up controversy,” Sheila B. says.
Arist Sonya Clark unravels a Confederate flag in her artwork “Unravelling,” which she completed in June 2015.
Actually, it’s not. The country is in shock and mourning. Activists and artists are making brave and critical statements about the confederate flag and its symbolism, like Bree Newsome who climbed the South Carolina State Capitol’s flag pole, and Sonya Clark who unraveled a flag as an artwork just prior to the terrorist attack in Charleston. Here’s an article from Hyperallergic called “How Artists Can Help Conceive of New Flags and Monuments for the U.S”, not to mention Southern artists like Fahamu Pecou, Fabian Williams, Dustin Harewood, Princess Simpson Rashid, and Overstreet Ducasse. Sheila B. would do well to consider some of their thoughtful, and in some ways monumental work and see how her use of the Confederate flag is not isolated in her own imagination or repertoire. The call to take her painting down did not happen in a vacuum, but she insists it was another display of people being “knee jerk crazy.”
I credit Martin with wanting to explore this issue as it pertains to art, but for some reason, I’m not hopeful for a very productive conversation, in part because Sheila B. doesn’t seem open to one, and in part because there’s an inherent support of the artist in coordinating such an event with a white-dominated panel. On one hand, it seems like an opportunity for people, probably majority white people, to grapple with these issues; but more so, it’s likely to do little more than give Sheila B. a broader avenue for excuses. Maybe I’m wrong about that. You can see for yourself Friday, July 10 at 5:30 (for cocktails) / 6:00 (discussion) at 444 Humphreys.
Let me conclude with one thing: I don’t tear people down for amusement or self-gratification. I invite you to try to find another post on this blog — or in my publication history — that is so negative. But I’ll die on the hill of getting other white people to examine their intentions and actions, and I’ll take them to task when they don’t.
***I was incorrect in stating that Polycarpou is white. The CEO of Nashville Arts Magazine is from Cyprus, and he moved to England as a child with his parents. He experienced a great deal of discrimination there and has had to overcome the weight of prejudice ever since. I was wrong about his background and I apologize. I was not trying to say anyone is white so much as I was trying to say that no one was African-American. It seems (as you can read in the comments below), that TJ Jarrett will be part of this discussion, and I’ve heard that artist Sam Dunson will also be involved.