Beverly McIver is an artist who lays her soul bare in her paintings. She allows the viewer to enter her lived experience as a Black, female artist growing up in the racially-charged 1960s and 70s in North Carolina. Her willingness to make herself vulnerable simultaneously enlightens us and compels our introspection.
McIver grew up in public housing projects in Greensboro, North Carolina, where some of the first anti-segregation sit-ins occured. Her mother was a single parent of three girls, one of whom, Renee, had a mental disability and needed additional support. McIver’s mother was a housekeeper in a home owned by a white family in an economically advantaged neighborhood of Greensboro. When desegregation in schooling finally rolled around, McIver was bused across town to a predominantly white school. At that time, Beverly McIver felt socially accepted only when she joined the clown club at her school, and wore white makeup and a yellow, yarn wig.
Richard Powell, considered the foremost art historian on the subject of African American art today, writes, “In the 1980s McIver was performing as a white-faced, costumed clown at a party for preschoolers in Greensboro, North Carolina…when a little white girl…climbed into McIver’s lap and stroked the yellow strands of her mop wig…McIver’s sleeve separated from her gloves, and the clown’s true skin color showed through. The child pulled away in revulsion. ‘You’re Black,’ she screamed at McIver and then screamed at her tiny playmates: ‘The clown is Black. The clown is Black.’” McIver later admitted that “It triggered a lot of feelings and contradictions for me at that time. I really wasn’t aware that I was putting on clown makeup to escape being Black.”
In the late 1990s, McIver attended graduate school at Penn State where her advisors refused to award her MFA unless she spent an additional year on campus. Confounded, McIver sought the advice of fellow Black, female artist and eventual life-long mentor, Faith Ringgold. Ringgold informed McIver that such academic shenanigans were no surprise; that universities facing high levels of Black student attrition routinely tried to keep Black students on campus longer to ameliorate their data. Ringgold encouraged McIver to “paint her reality,” advice McIver adhered to, and that shaped her successful career as an artist.
Later in her career, McIver painted herself as a clown in whiteface make up with a yellow wig, like she had worn in clown club. She saw that hiding behind the white mask was “a way to escape the projects.” She stitched diary pages onto canvas to be shown with the clown paintings. Thus, she “painted her truth” just as Ringgold suggested. In Art in America, Raphael Rubinstein wrote that in painting her face first, and then creating an oil painting of herself with her face painted, McIver is “painting an expressionistic self-portrait” that simultaneously brings “the language of expressionist, even hallucinatory, painting into a realist setting.” These early clown paintings and diary entries reveal McIver’s efforts to understand the use of social facades, and to explore her sense of self.
As McIver delved deeper into painting her own experience, she took on hardcore stereotypes. She painted herself in blackface as a clown—an association inextricably linked to Jim Crow, the black-faced minstrel character devised by white actor Thomas Dartmouth Rice. She depicted herself as a black-faced clown in mundane stereotypical settings such as housekeeping, eating watermelon, dancing amidst dress forms created for white body types, and in relationship with her white, male partner. The paintings present uncomfortable associations with black-faced minstrels, mammy, and African American domestic workers taking care of white families. Her Loving in Black and White paintings that featured herself in blackface with her white, male partner, were removed from the Chandler Center for the Arts by gallery staff after briefly being shown in 1999 due to cultural taboos about interracial relationships.
As Richard Powell points out in his essay “Pigments and Personas,” McIver’s use of color—whiteface, blackface, brightly colored makeup, and overall high pitched hues—plays an equally important role in her subject matter. Powell cites the great color theorist Joseph Albers: “the physical properties of color are of less interest than the psychic effect. What color is, is of less concern than what it does. Painting is color acting. The act is to change character and behavior, mood and tempo.” McIver pulls no punches, using her body as the stage for color to act upon, painting both her colored self and her self, colored, onto canvas in order to double the impact of her lived experience.
After winning the Rome Prize, McIver was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome in 2018. One of the few Black women artists to receive this honor, she again had to break new ground as she faced racial tropes in a foreign land.
A concurrent and expansive retrospective titled Beverly McIver: Full Circle, is touring nationally. This exhibition, Beverly McIver: An Introspective Retrospective, is presented in two parts: one in Santa Fe, New Mexico at Turner Carroll Gallery, and the other at CAM.
CAM Main Gallery
Beverly McIver is widely acknowledged as a significant presence in contemporary American art and has charted a new direction as an African American woman artist. She is committed to producing art that consistently examines racial, gender, social and occupational identity.
McIver was born in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1962. She is the youngest of three girls born to Ethel McIver. Her oldest sister Renee is mentally disabled, with the mindset of a second grader. Beverly is Renee’s legal guardian. Renee is a frequent subject of the artist, as are other family members.
McIver’s work is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Weatherspoon Art Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the NCCU Museum of Art, the Asheville Museum of Art, The Crocker Art Museum, the Nelson Fine Arts Center Art Museum at Arizona State University, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, the Cameron Art Museum and the Mint Museum as well as significant corporate and private collections.
McIver is currently the Ebenshade Professor of the Practice in Studio Arts At Duke University. She was the Suntrust Endowed Chair Professor of Art at North Carolina Central University, 2007-2014. Prior to this appointment, McIver taught at Arizona State University in Tempe for twelve years, Duke University, North Carolina State University, and North Carolina Central University. She has also held residencies at many of the nation’s leading artist communities, including YADDO, the Headland Center for the Arts, Djerassi, and Penland School of Arts and Crafts. She has served on the board at Penland, and currently serves on the board of directors at YADDO in Saratoga Springs, NY.
Oil on Canvas
60 x 60 unframed
Screaming Out Loud
Oil on Canvas
36 x 36 unframed
Mourning My Dad
Oil on Canvas
40 x 30 unframed