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Nellie Mae Rowe (American, 1900–1982). What It Is, 1978–82. Crayon, colored pencil, pencil on paper, 21 × 21 1/4 in. (53.3 × 54 cm). High Museum of Art, gift of Judith Alexander, 2003.215. © 2022 Estate of Nellie Mae Rowe/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (Photo: © High Museum of Art, Atlanta)

Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe

September 2, 2022–January 1, 2023

Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe celebrates a preeminent and underrecognized figure of twentieth-century American art, contextualizing Rowe’s practice as a radical act of self-expression and liberation for a Black woman artist living and working in the American South. Featuring more than one hundred works exploring themes of girlhood, play, and spirituality, the Brooklyn Museum iteration is the first devoted to Rowe in New York City in more than twenty years. Autobiographical drawings, experimental sculpture, and renderings of Rowe’s “Playhouse”—an environment the artist built and lived in for decades—capture her assertion of independence and accessible means of art production. During the last fifteen years of her life, Rowe was fueled by a desire to reclaim a creative vision that emerged during her childhood and achieve self-liberation within the complex cultural climate of the post–civil rights era South.

Born in Fayette County, Georgia, at the turn of the twentieth century, Rowe discovered her passion for art-making early on, producing drawings and cloth dolls as a child. However, the demands of her family farm, an early marriage, and decades of employment as a domestic laborer made it difficult for Rowe to create for many decades. After the deaths of her second husband and her longtime employers in the 1960s, Rowe wholeheartedly returned to her art, devoting the rest of her life to realizing her creative calling. Her dedication resulted in a practice that was immersive, idiosyncratic, and joyous.

A publication, produced by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and DelMonico Books/D.A.P., was created for the High Museum of Art’s presentation of Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe and will be available for purchase at the Brooklyn Museum.

Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and curated by Dr. Katherine Jentleson, Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art, High Museum of Art. The Brooklyn Museum presentation is organized by Catherine Morris, Sackler Senior Curator, and Jenée-Daria Strand, Curatorial Associate, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum.

Support for this exhibition and publication is provided by

Major funding for this exhibition and publication is provided by


Generous support for the national tour is provided by

Additional support is provided by Helene Zucker Seeman Memorial Exhibition Fund.

Special thanks to the American Folk Art Museum, The Judith Alexander Foundation, and the William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation for their partnership to expand this presentation of Really Free and emphasize Nellie Mae Rowe’s legacy in New York City.