You'd think that 50 years after the landmark Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which determined that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional in the United States, people would be free to love whomever they want. Tell that to Alissa Paris, who was harassed and called a racial slur while walking in downtown Minneapolis with her then-boyfriend a few years ago. They were both mixed race, but most people read Paris as black and her boyfriend as white.
On February 25, Paris attended an art exhibition with her current partner, Jared, who is also mixed race, at the Public Functionary gallery in Minneapolis. There, they saw a portrait of themselves, painted by artist Leslie Barlow, as part of a body of work that features mixed-race families and couples. In no time, Paris started to get choked up; it was rare to see mixed-race people portrayed in such an intentional way. "It was really emotional," she says.
Barlow wrote a grant to create the work in the spring of 2015. As a mixed-race woman, she had been exploring themes of identity in her work, through self-portraiture and paintings of her family, and wanted to go deeper, especially in light of the upcoming anniversary of Loving v. Virginia. Trump's rise to power and the anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, and racist discourse that has flooded the mainstream in his wake made Barlow's work all the more urgent.
"Once Obama was elected, all of a sudden people thought we were past race," Barlow says. "An important component of this project was to alert people of the fact that Loving v. Virginia and the legalization of interracial marriage for the entire country was only 50 years ago." Trump's presidency has "re-enforced the persistence of racial divides in our country," she says. "I just want to make people aware of how fragile race relations really are, and I think with Trump being president, it is even more obvious."
The exhibition at Public Functionary includes large-scale paintings of interracial couples and families of different ages and backgrounds. They show couples relaxing at home, out enjoying nature, or sharing a meal together. Throughout the work, there's a sense of intimacy, and a quiet kind of love that's simple and comfortable. The piece with Paris includes her partner, Jared, as well as her mixed-race child, as the family lounges on an unmade bed; an abstract painting hangs behind them. Another painting features Derek Conrad-Skar, who is Filipino, with his arm around his blond husband James, drinking wine. The couple were just married in August and have been unsettled by the rise of racist discourse they see in the news. "It's so strange that people are given the OK to act out and just go against each other," Conrad-Skar says.
Barlow found most of the couples through personal connections, but one couple, Lisa and Aaron Bonds, found out about the project from an article in the newspaper and contacted Barlow through Facebook. At 51 and 67 years old respectively, they are the oldest couple portrayed in the series. "I was really excited, honestly," Lisa Bonds says. She contacted Barlow around the time of the election, when she was feeling sick about what was going to happen. "This series is so important—now more than ever."
Barlow infuses her paintings with a playful sense of color, adding pastel highlights to her realistic interpretations of her subjects. For background, she layers canvases and panels with a patchwork of fabrics that show through her figures, as if the families she portrays are woven into quilts.
Growing up, Barlow didn't talk a lot about her racial identity. She says her family members always reassured her that she was black, but she often found herself questioned outside of her home. "What are you?" people would demand.
When she was in college, Barlow started investigating what it means to be mixed race, and began to feel more comfortable with her identity. "Talking about mixed-race issues is so complicated because you have to acknowledge that race is real, and that is just so murky," she says. "There are some unique components to it."
Barlow met Paris at a series of bi-monthly dialogues about mixed-race identity Paris helps organize. The group was partially inspired to get together because the conversation around race in this country "is very focused on a black/white binary," Paris says. "Taking time to explore my identity allows me to more fully show up in the spaces I inhabit," she says. (Paris is currently organizing a conference around the topic.) "As I become a more fully realized person, I can show up for others as well."
Paris thinks work like Barlow's will help take down barriers surrounding dialogue about race. "We are quite capable of having conversations that are more inclusive," she says. "Leslie's work invites us to practice talking about it. Art is a great jumping-off point to create courageous conversations."
"We really connected on mixed-race identity," says Tricia Heuring, the director of Public Functionary, whose parents are of European and Thai ancestry. Heuring met Barlow a few years ago, when the artist was an MFA student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. At the time, Barlow wasn't sure whether to explore race with her artwork, and Heuring encouraged her to do so.
"In the last couple of years, I've been working with a lot of artists of color," Heuring says, and she says they worry their work will be pigeonholed as being "about identity."
Heuring is excited about how timely Barlow's work turns out to be. "Mixed-race identity is often equated with this idea that we live in a post-racial society," Huering says. "As a mixed-race person, I can tell you, we don't."
Heuring is also happy with how the show, while grappling with a complex and timely topic, does it in a way that's filled with love. "It's a political show, but it's packaged in a way for people to access it," she says. "We're living this Trump reality right now, this dystopian government. Leslie's work creates a space where we can still be engaged and think about these issues in a way that is uplifting and positive."
Leslie Barlow: Loving runs through March 25 at Public Functionary in Minneapolis.