Leslie Barlow’s Collaborative Portraits
By Keisha Williams
Won’t You Celebrate with Me
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
Lucille Clifton, “won’t you celebrate with me” from Book of Light. Copyright © 1993 by Lucille Clifton. Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press. Source: Book of Light (Copper Canyon Press, 1993)
The Census Bureau recently revealed that the number of non-Hispanic people in the United States who identify as multiracial has jumped by 127 percent over the last decade. For those who identify as Hispanic, the number is even greater. This is attributed to a combination of more mixed babies being born, more people acknowledging their full identities, and a design change in the 2020 Census questionnaire which allowed for a more detailed snapshot of identity. While mixed and multiracial identifying people are still a small percentage of the American population, this is a significant increase in people acknowledging multiple cultures, identities, and experiences. Yet the data only capture a snapshot in time, with so much left unsaid.
“Within, Between, and Beyond,” an exhibition now on view at Mia by Minneapolis-based artist Leslie Barlow, fills in the story—a loving and collaborative examination of the intersections of race, representation, family, and belonging. Barlow, a recipient of the prestigious 2019 McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship and the 2021 Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship, identifies as a Black mixed-race woman and focuses her work on reimagining relationships with racial identities and the collaborative process. Through her portraiture, she memorializes community members and unpacks the role that race plays in intimate sphere of love, family, and friendship. Often emerging out of community dialogue, her work offers deeper insight into her subjects, enhancing the personal connections we all have to racial identity, belonging, and family.
This exhibition highlights 16 Minnesotans who identify as mixed race, multiracial, and/or transnational/transracial adoptee (people adopted by families of a different national or racial identity than their own). Mixed people can be found throughout culture and history but often within the margins, their stories undiscovered or altered. Here, their lived experiences are brought to the forefront through life-sized oil paintings by Barlow and video interviews with the subjects by collaborators Ryan Stopera and Lola Osunkoya.
Being mixed myself, I felt an immediate connection to the show and to Barlow herself. She exudes a loving care for people and a desire to connect. Growing up mixed, with a Black father and a white mother, was a complicated experience, something I continue to explore, expand, and redefine. Like the stories that Barlow highlights, it may take a lifetime to solidify our identities.
The mixed and transnational/transracial adoptee existence is a composite of deeply personal experiences and very public performances. In the era of social media, we are bombarded with the aesthetics of mixed identity, which have become co-opted and commodified. One only has to look to melanin injections popularized by reality TV royalty, or those infamous news stories of people faking their parentage and racial identity for access and acclaim, to understand the minefield that mixed and transnational/transracial adoptees can find ourselves in when seeking to define and embrace our multiple realities. “They want our rhythm, but not our blues” naturally comes to mind in these moments.
The convoluted space that mixed people and transnational/transracial adoptees exist in today shows the need for more open conversations on race. Maria PP Root, author of the Multiracial Oath of Social Responsibility, highlighted this in three pillars: “I strive to improve race relations; I recognize the people who have made it possible for me to affirm my multiracial identity; I must fight all forms of oppression as the oppression of one is the oppression of all.” In this context, “Within, Between, and Beyond” functions as both a spark and a salve. It sparks audiences of all backgrounds to engage in dialogue. It also functions as a salve for those who personally connect with these stories. Finally, people are speaking truth to multicultural realities of all types.
A Love Letter to the Unseen
Visitors are called into the space by a larger-than-life video projection of the interviews with Barlow’s subjects, whose care, attention to detail, and openness is an invitation. Many of the participants are sharing their stories — certainly this publicly — for the first time. I would be remiss if I did not thank them all for their openness and vulnerability, they truly are all changemakers.
Stepping into the second gallery, museum halls filled with portraits of immortalized sitters come to mind. Yet Barlow’s portraits are clearly different: subtle yet deeply caring depictions of vital community members from around the Twin Cities. Her subjects go beyond static beings frozen in oil; they are true collaborators in the process. Depicted in everyday settings — homes, neighborhoods, natural spaces, and with cherished belongings — we see them at their most authentic and comfortable. While walking through the gallery recently, she noted, “it feels like we’re surrounded by friends.” While navigating identity and representation, Barlow’s work is infused with tenderness, compassion, and connection. You feel a connection to each subject whether you know them or not. When the museum is quiet, you can hear the faint voices from the interviews from outside the gallery, like the paintings are whispering their secrets, never letting their story go unspoken again.
The positionality of Barlow’s works within Mia also communicates volumes. The subject matter, in the way it is displayed and its location, speaks to and fills in the gaps of a larger historical and art historical narrative. Portrait paintings are inherently connected to the political as they define who had value, leaving many unrepresented in an art historical and museum context. “What’s a normal representation?” Barlow noted in a recent interview. “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.” Finally, the faces lost to history, the faces that were unseen and pushed aside, are reclaimed in a celebration of community and storytelling.
The portraits and the videos naturally complement each other as a careful way to add life and nuance into the museum — these stories will not be lost again. However, Barlow’s show goes beyond the inherently political context while also transcending it, which may be its most significant aspect. Her portraits do not come out of a place of pain and exclusion — this is not a callout to revise what has been erased. Rather it is a caring embrace for the people and stories she connects with. At its essence, her work is a love letter to those who have felt hidden, erased, or relegated to the margins.
For mixed people to share their experiences in a way that does not tokenize or stigmatize is something most of us have never done. What could have felt exposing and deeply emotional instead is handled with care and internationality. The mixed experience is a deeply personal one — as Lucille Clifton put it, “what did i see to be except myself? i made it up here on this bridge between.” But seen through Barlow’s eyes, it can also be one shared within community. So come celebrate with us, as we affirm our presence.