The Art of Topsy-Turvy

ARTIST and York College professor of painting Nina Buxenbaum grew up in a multiracial, politically active family in Brooklyn. Early on, her work centered on black collectible imagery — Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Mammy — that Buxenbaum found “disturbing.” Laterninabuxenbaum_026, it became more personal as she developed her own identity as a biracial African-American woman. Then, Buxenbaum, who landed a teaching position at York in 2003, began using the “Topsy-Turvy doll” in her paintings. The flip doll, whose name stems from the character of Topsy in the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, looks like a Southern belle on one side but her dress hides a black girl underneath. Recently Buxenbaum, whose work has been exhibited at the Studio Museum of Harlem in New York City, Samson Projects in Boston, and the Ingalls Gallery in Miami, talked about how her work has evolved, challenges she has faced teaching at York, and what she’s currently painting in her studio at her Connecticut home.

Can you explain what the “Topsy-Turvy doll” means to you?
I was drawn to that image because that’s how I see myself versus how people see me. I’ve always identified as a black woman — my mother is black. But my dad is white. I’m light skinned, my hair is curly but kind of a looser curl so people would always question what I was. So I thought of the dress on the Topsy-Turvy doll as a metaphor for that veil guarding what’s your interior self versus what’s the exterior self.

How has growing up in a politically active household influenced you as an artist?
I didn’t understand people who didn’t have conversations about politics around the dinner table when they were kids. My mom was part of this group called WREE, Women for Racial and Economic Equality, that held meetings in our living room. And at 8 and 9 years old I would sit myself down in the middle and listen and put in my two cents. My dad was very big into union politics and he pushed me to be very political in my artwork.

In college your work became more personal. What triggered that transition?
I was 22. I had just graduated from college and went to Paris on a scholarship. The French would say, “Nina, why are you painting all these black people, you’re not black, you’re white.” I said, I might be white here, but in the U.S. people don’t necessarily see me that way (credit rosemary at The French equate black with African and I certainly didn’t look like the African women who were living in France. So it made me really think, was I being really honest about who I am, if I’m not saying yes, I’m also biracial.

You have also focused on the lack of representation of African-American women in Western art. Are you on a mission to amend that?
My dad and I would travel to museums a lot and one of the things that struck me was the paintings. They’re beautiful and I kind of wished there were people in the paintings that looked like me or looked like someone I knew. I did a painting, “Subject,” in 2007, a collaborative piece with my friend Zoë Charlton, a drawing professor at American University, and she had this fascination with the Blond Odalisque by Francois Boucher. And so I said wouldn’t it be great if we made you in place of the Blond Odalisque. I’ll remake that painting. I’ve always wanted to do a series of those where I would take paintings by artists I really admired and loved and put black women I knew into them.

Doll, 34" x 28", oil on linen, 2009, Nina Buxenbaum

Doll, 34″ x 28″, oil on linen, 2009, Nina Buxenbaum

When did you first pick up a paintbrush?
I was painting as early as first grade — nothing great, just playing in paint. And I’ve always kept a sketchbook…. I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I had a horrible experience with math [in high school] and I thought what else can I do? I liked drawing so I started putting together a portfolio.

With the Internet, and specifically social media, is the world of art sales opening up to artists?
I’ve been looking into these online websites: ArtSlant, for example, where you can post your work and submit into shows. I haven’t had any sales through it, but I feel like when people see your work and there’s visual recognition of it, that really helps. Curators look at these sites, gallerists look at these sites. Hopefully it will expand my audience. But right now, it’s tough to sell work…. People don’t have disposable income to buy paintings.

What challenges did you face when you first started teaching at York?
Being young and a woman. In 2003, we had more students who were coming back to school later in life; they were often older than me. Now we have a younger population. But at the time people really questioned, not my knowledge base, but my authority to be giving them grades on art and that it’s not possible to grade these things or art isn’t a subject to be taken seriously. They were taking it to relax and have fun. Because I demanded a very professional demeanor in the studio, and I expected them to learn techniques as if they are going to become artists, that was a challenge for them because they didn’t expect that kind of academic rigor.