Donelle Woolford: The Politics of Appropriative Parafiction – An Analysis of Craftsmanship and Collaborative Structure

In a Tortoiseshell: In this junior paper, Heather explores the multifaceted components of the Donelle Woolford project to interrogate the implications of race, authorship and ownership, and performance on the viewer’s experience of the artworks. This excerpt demonstrates a sophisticated, antithetical approach to effectively concluding a long research paper by wrapping up previous analyses and integrating a new theoretical concept.

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Excerpt / Heather Grace

In Ken Chen’s 2015 essay “Authenticity Obsession, or Conceptualism as Minstrel Show,” the author describes “the use of supposedly neutral tropes (quotation and appropriation) as a force field that can both repress and exhibit the excessive ‘authenticity’ of race.”1 Chen poses this practice as Conceptual Poetry’s way of “ingesting” the racial body in “an aesthetically justifiable way,” as he writes primarily of poets Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place.2 In his section “Mathematics of the Unliving,” Chen introduces the work of geographer Katherine McKittrick, with special attention to the documentation of slave trade. Where Chen reproduces a section of an old slave ledger that had been seminal to McKittrick’s archival work, I want to highlight the formal structure of the listings. The excerpt below was originally cited in McKittrick’s 2014 article “Mathematics Black Life” in The Black Scholar:

Anny Bolton, 42, stout wench, (James Alexander). Formerly the property of Thomas Bolton, Nansemond, Virginia…Jenny Frederick, 32 years, ordinary wench…Certified to be free by Jonah Frederick of Boston, New England…Betty Rapelje, 21, stout wench, (Peter Brown).3

In addition to being deeply disturbing, what is perhaps most striking about the format of the list is what McKittrick terms the “parenthetic possessors.”4 Returning to Eunsong Kim and Maya Isabella Mackrandilal’s essay “The Whitney Biennial for Angry Women,” we can see this very structure in their reference to a 2014 Biennial wall text: “Donelle Woolford [Joe Scanlan] radically calls into question the very identity of the artist…”5 The need to ground Woolford’s character with a parenthetic stand-in replicates the ledger’s documentation of the literal, economic possession of black bodies by white slave owners, a commodification reinforced by Woolford’s role in the art market. Though this does not always occur visually in the project (in the Biennial Catalogue she is listed singly without mention of Scanlan), this quality is inherent in the artist’s structuring of the work, and therefore exists even without printed parentheses.6 This combination of appropriation and ownership expressly aligns the project with the agenda of simultaneously refusing and imposing whiteness in order to “ingest” the irrefusable racial body, as Chen, Kim, and Mackrandilal would likely argue as well.

This idea of bracketing is also helpful in summarizing the way in which Scanlan organizes the many aspects of the Donelle Woolford project. As we have seen, the central components of the work are those that were designed to be the most public (her plastic works and performances) or those that otherwise received considerable attention (her online biography and invented narrative). However, the aspects that offer more nuanced investigations into race — seen in the political capacity of Kidwell’s acting and Ramsay’s experience of racial microaggressions while playing the role of Donelle Woolford — are bracketed and even submerged within the project such that they are not integrated into viewers’ experience of the work. This essentially divides the project into what is seen and what is unseen, allowing us to come to terms with the actual impact of the Donelle Woolford project as experienced by art world viewers. What was made most apparent to those who did not interact with Woolford at her gallery performances, or read the content on her website, was the fact that Woolford was a black woman invented by a white man, whereby the bracketing of underlying, but potentially productive, racial aspects within the project reveals a kind of white-minded negotiation of visibility.

When included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, the Donelle Woolford project presumably belonged to the category of “art as strategy,” a lesson composed by curator Michelle Grabner that she equated with “conceptual practices oriented toward criticality.”7 Certainly, there are critiques of appropriation, Richard Prince, subjective authenticity, and the art market, within Scanlan’s work, all in varying degrees of specificity. Yet, the issue of race manifests itself within Donelle Woolford in ways that are largely unseen, obscuring a clear sense of its criticality. As Chen concludes in his essay, the burden of racial trauma and colonialism cannot be appropriated or assimilated as “it represents a visible but inaccessible ‘realness.’”8 It is the simultaneous quest for and avoidance of this ‘realness’ in the case of Donelle Woolford’s parafiction that frames Jennifer Kidwell’s equally accurate and ambiguous description of Woolford: “Her existence exhorts the public to rally and come to her defense, but has simultaneously exposed its inability to do so.”9

Author Commentary / Heather Grace

I was first introduced to the Donelle Woolford controversy while in “Issues in Contemporary Art,” the Junior Seminar for concentrators in the Visual Arts Program. During a class focused on the theme of appropriation, Joe Scanlan, who had been the department’s director at the time, visited our class to give a presentation on his work—mainly, the Donelle Woolford project—followed by a conversation with the class. Without any prior knowledge concerning Donelle Woolford or other works by Scanlan, I felt ill-equipped to join in on what was a very heated discussion about Scanlan’s avatar: a young black woman whose name he had appropriated from his favorite football player. Months later when I began my research, I found that the gut reactions experienced by many of my peers matched those felt by the art world when Donelle Woolford was announced as a participant in the 2014 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art, with Woolford being a “fake” artist counted among only 32 percent of participants who were women and 9 independent black artists, of the 103 participants represented in the show.

For me, the question of structure loomed large in thinking about both the critical merits of Scanlan’s work and the widespread negative reception of his uses of appropriation and parafiction. I had the great privilege of access to both Joe Scanlan and Abigail Ramsay, one of Woolford’s principal actors, during the course of my research, and these conversations were extremely helpful in allowing me a glimpse into the working structure of the Donelle Woolford project—what rehearsals were like, who decided on aspects of the avatar’s biography, what it felt like to portray Woolford in public, and more. In sorting through this complex structure for myself, I found myself categorizing various components of the project—Joe, Abigail, Jenn (another principal actor); performative, authorial, accidental; race-based or not. Interestingly, I found a strong parallel to the metaphor of the bracket, which I encountered in Ken Chen’s 2015 essay “Authenticity Obsession, or Conceptualism as Minstrel Show.” In the conclusion of my paper on Donelle Woolford, I focus on this idea of bracketing within the work’s structure as a way to discuss the context of Conceptualism and to summarize the ways in which appropriation, collaboration, and visibility function in the work.

Editor Commentary / Regina Zeng

This excerpt is from the end of a JP written for the Art & Archaeology Department. The 30-page research paper examined the elements of race, authorship, and performance in the parafiction of the Donelle Woolford project, in which a white artist, Joe Scanlan, invented a young black female artist named Donelle Woolford and presented her as the creator of artworks he created, showcasing the work and the fictitious artist at numerous exhibitions and press conferences through the performance of professional actors. We are including Heather’s essay in our journal this year because it showcases a strong conclusion to a long research paper that incorporates both a summary of research and analysis previously discussed and the author’s own scholarly arguments. Deviating from the elements of a traditional conclusion, which summarizes and elaborates on the original thesis, Heather’s conclusion incorporates an extra-disciplinary concept, which she synthesizes with the summation of her argument to generate insightful implications for the Donelle Woolford project.

In my commentary, I want to walk the reader through every element of this excerpt in order to explain how all the pieces work together to successfully conclude the paper. Starting at the beginning, we can see that Heather begins her conclusion by introducing the concept of bracketing, as described by Ken Chen in the context of the slave trade. Heather then takes this concept, along with the historical and economic implications that accompany it, and applies it to her topic of inquiry: the Donelle Woolford project. In her application, Heather skillfully summarizes her previous analyses on the many diverse facets of the project (the most public components, the actors’ experiences, the performative depictions, etc.), and, using the new concept of bracketing, synthesizes an original argument: “This essentially divides the project into what is seen and what is unseen, allowing us to come to terms with the actual impact of the Donelle Woolford project as experienced by art world viewers.”

The final paragraph of Heather’s paper first zooms out from the Donelle Woolford project to discuss the criticality of race in broader areas, before then returning to the project with a final summarizing quote. Unlike a more traditional conclusion, which ends with broader implications, Heather chose to return to the subject of her paper and end with a nuanced quote that both encapsulates the paper’s argument and highlights the paradoxical complexity of the argument. Overall, this conclusion, while expertly demonstrating the scholarly moves of summation and synthesis, also draws the paper to a close on a particularly intriguing note.

The author


Heather Grace ’18 is a senior from Palm Beach Gardens, FL. She is a student in the Department of Art & Archaeology and has completed independent work in both art history and visual art. At Princeton, Heather writes for The Daily Princetonian and is a project leader for SVC: El Centro, a volunteer group offering English as a Second Language classes in Trenton. This essay is excerpted from her spring Junior Paper.

Regina Zeng ’18  is a senior from Southern California. A student in the English Department, she is also obtaining certificates in Theater and Gender and Sexuality Studies. On campus, she has competed with the Princeton Mock Trial team and led a Breakout Trip on youth homelessness this past fall. Regina has thoroughly enjoyed her time as an Editor for Tortoise these past three years. In the future, she plans to pursue a career in law.