Twin Cities artist Leslie Barlow remembers wandering the hallways of the Minneapolis Institute of Art as a child and discovering the 1856 painting "Peace Concluded" by Sir John Everett Millais. The family portrait shows a white, British family gathered in a cozy living room setting while the father, a wounded war veteran, reads a newspaper announcing the end of the Crimean War.
The portrait would stick in her mind. It was the first she had ever seen, but the family in it looked nothing like hers.
Barlow, who identifies as Black mixed-race, grew up in south Minneapolis and lives not far from there now. At 31, she is reflecting on the present moment and looking to the future, where her vision of what families look like is part of the canon. Her Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) solo exhibition "Leslie Barlow: Within, Between, and Beyond," opening July 16 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, includes 16 paintings of people or families who identify as mixed-race or transracial adoptees. They are accompanied by video interviews with the subjects, made by artist Ryan Stopera (who is also Barlow's partner). By centering narratives from marginalized people, the exhibition pushes back against the whiteness and Eurocentricity that dominate art history and pop culture.
Last summer, following George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police, Barlow and artists from Public Functionary Studios and Studio 400, its incubator for young artists of color, participated in #CreativesAfterCurfew, a decentralized collective that painted murals focused on the demand for the end of racial inequality, the start of police abolition and recognition of #AllBlackLivesMatter.
Barlow is a 2021 Jerome Hill Artist fellow, a 2019 McKnight Visual Artist fellow and a 20/20 Springboard Fellowship winner, with works in the permanent collections of the Weisman Art Museum, Minnesota Museum of American Art and U.S. Bank Stadium. She also founded and leads Studio 400.
For the MAEP show, you expanded your subjects beyond mixed-race people and into transracial adoptees. How did that shift occur?
It wasn't really a shift. Adoptees have been in my work from the beginning. There is adoption in my extended family and in friends' and families more, so it is actually about naming it. Transnational or transracial adoptees means people adopted by families of a different national or racial identity than their own. They often navigate complex layers of policing and identity erasure that emerge within the mixed-race umbrella. I'm interested in amplifying experiences you wouldn't see in portraiture. As someone with a white mother, I can connect with being labeled as an adoptee.
What's your family background?
My dad is Black and from Chicago and moved to Minnesota after he married my mom, who was born and raised in Fridley and is a first-generation immigrant. Her mom immigrated here from Denmark. So she's white but had a particular experience of navigating a mother who doesn't speak English fluently. I have two younger brothers — Nathan, 30, and Daniel, 27. I'm glued to the Upper Midwest. I did my BFA at University of Wisconsin-Stout, and my MFA at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Like most Black folks, I can trace my ancestry to the South.
Have you been to Denmark?
I went for the first and only time in 2019 as a part of the series I was working on, called "A Familiar Portrait of Labor and Love." I wanted to connect with both sides of my family and learn more about ancestry and have deep conversations with my grandmothers about their personal histories and stories.
What do you think your grandma's immigration story says about those of today?
It's an immigrant story depending on who you are. In this time, it's a little different. You don't have to assimilate as much. She felt pressure to assimilate. She wanted whiteness. That was typical for that time.
How did your upbringing impact how you became aware of racism at an early age?
I think as a kid I didn't understand the complex layers of that, of my parents' complex individual experiences and how they navigated the racism they experienced in their relationship. I started to understand it by seeing how white supremacy worked within my own family. How my mom moved through the world different than my dad.
Being someone who is mixed-race and has that proximity to whiteness, to see it, to feel it, to have white family I love but also see racial dynamics play out in regular interactions with community or the police — I had this very interesting kind of complicated access to a fuller story. I didn't really know as a young person how I fit into that, but I was very much aware of that.
How did the pandemic and racial reckoning impact your work?
I am talking about people's very specific experiences with race and racism, and it's so intimate — nuance, contradictory stories, and then thinking about how do you, as a painter/portrait artist, represent them as they are, honoring people's lived experiences, amplifying their stories? There's a feeling of responsibility. I am thinking of the legacy of stories. All of that is in it for me and heavier because of the time I'm making this work in.
What's the difference between the paintings and the videos?
The paintings are joyful. There's a feeling of connection, of love. I think creating these paintings last year and right now helped me dream of a future of abundance and healing, and understand all the things I wish for me and for these people and for all people of color right now. The video recordings and interviews hold deep and emotional stories. It's been a ride. I have no idea what it would be if I made it at a different time.
How do you decide who to paint?
It depends on the project, but I usually stick pretty close to home and focus on family and friends. For this project, we did an open call. I did the same thing with the "Loving" project, I said, "hey, if you know anyone who would be a good fit for that." I do that on social media and in my newsletter. It's people that are typically connected to me or connected to folks that are around me. I like painting regular people.
How do you feel like your work disrupts whiteness in the history of portraiture?
To bring it back to my childhood story, this impacts the way you perceive identity, race and family. What's a normal representation? I see my work as kind of being that long overdue mirror and I want it to feel familiar because it is familiar. These are my family members and friends, but also there is power in that disruption.