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A powerful solo show by Karmimadeebora McMillan at Boston Center for the Arts

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
A powerful solo show by Karmimadeebora McMillan at Boston Center for the Arts
Installation view of "Project Room No. 1: Karmimadeebora McMillan." PHOTO: Melissa Blackall

Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) Studio Residency Artist Karmimadeebora McMillan is breaking new ground, physically and artistically. McMillan is the first artist in residence to exhibit in the Project Room space, and the Mills Gallery itself has been closed for several years. “Project Room No. 1: Karmimadeebora McMillan” brings the space back with a collection of vibrant and probing works.

“The show is a way to show all the different things that I do,” says McMillan. “I have wood pieces, paintings, and I also have a character that I call Ms. Merri Mack who is suspended in the space as well.”

Installation view of “Project Room No. 1: Karmimadeebora McMillan.” PHOTO: Melissa Blackall

McMillan’s work is heavily informed by her upbringing in North Carolina and her experiences in the south. Ms. Merri Mack has become a signature icon of her portfolio. The Merri Mack figure is a caricature portrait of a young Black girl, created with racist intent. Wooden pieces with that image on it were historically used as yard ornaments, and McMillan remembers seeing them from a distance growing up. “When I was a child if we saw something like that in someone’s yard, we knew they did not like Black people,” she says.

When McMillan was given one of the figures during a North Carolina residency, she sat with it for many years, considering the best course of action. Friends suggested burning it, holding a séance, using the figure as a way of airing feelings about racism. But ultimately, McMillan decided to take the figure back for her own art.

“In the end I came to terms and said there’s nothing wrong with her,” says McMillan. “She’s just a dark-skinned little girl that people use to pick on people with. It’s up to us, meaning the Black community, to take these things back and change that narrative.”

Installation view of “Project Room No. 1: Karmimadeebora McMillan.” PHOTO: Melissa Blackall

Now Ms. Merri Mack, painted in bright, beautiful colors and patterns, has become a symbol of how society places different judgments and expectations on Black bodies. McMillan says she identifies with the figure, because just as the young girl became a racist signifier without her consent, judgment is often placed on McMillan immediately as a Black woman in the world and in the arts.

The Merri Mack figures are displayed in this space along with McMillan’s paintings, which are of fantastical landscapes and figures. Having moved from the South with its rolling fields and wide-open land, to the condensed city, McMillan channels her memories of North Carolina and her experiences in urban settings in her landscape paintings.

“I wanted to create these fantastical landscapes to be able to put Ms. Merri Mack in to remind people that this figure is only derogatory if you call her that,” says McMillan. “I’m trying to show that everybody has a chance to be able to grow and change and reach their goals. I’m trying to show that this is just a little Black girl living her best life.”