The 2018 exhibition Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor, organized at the Smithsonian American Art Museum by curator of folk and self-taught art Leslie Umberger, was the first major museum retrospective dedicated to the work of an artist born into slavery. Traylor’s work had an immediacy and power that makes it readily accessible, but the exhibition raised interesting questions about who gets to tell this African American artist’s story. With the documentary portrait Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts, director Jeffrey Wolf at once offers a multifaceted profile of the artist’s life. But the film goes deeper: presenting various figures who champion Traylor’s work, Wolf observes the curious contradictions in the posthumous life of a vital Black artist.

Bill Traylor (1853-1949) was born into slavery in Alabama, and in his long life bore witness to great changes in the South. Wolf uses still photographs and contemporary illustrations to demonstrate the life of servitude into which Traylor was born, along with commentary from Black and white scholars. There are talking heads, of course, but there’s also a running Greek chorus, after a fashion, in the form of a dramatic performance of work by Langston Hughes as well as readings from the work of Zora Neale Hurston. These performances, while they do not specifically relate to Traylor’s life, provide some context and variation to set the scene of African American life in Traylor’s time.

Yet the narrative of African American art turns out to be insufficient for Traylor. Interestingly, it is an African American scholar who notes that the life that Traylor and his family led does not entirely lend itself to the conventional narrative. While the white Traylors who owned Bill and his family may have reluctantly granted their freedom after the end of the Civil War, the families maintained a relationship for decades after Emancipation.

While Traylor had no formal art training, his animal and human figures were vivid and dynamic in a way that might not have been possible in an academic setting. As one African American art scholar notes, such so-called primitive aesthetics were perhaps more palatable to some art patrons, so much so that classically trained artists such as Romare Bearden might have at times defied the aesthetic principles of their education in order to meet the expectations of patronizing patrons. Whatever his method, Traylor tapped something essential with his work, capturing the African American experience at work and at play, with hints of suffering and tragedy never far behind.

But how does such work gain purchase in the art world? Traylor indeed was “discovered” by a white artist, and excerpts from his commentary on Traylor are dripping with condescension. And to be honest, it’s not hard to get a whiff of condescension in present-day contributions from the established art professionals who deem Traylor’s work worth considering.

Wolf lets this fascinating dynamic unfold without commentary, though by the last reel, much of it devoted to Traylor’s descendants and their memories of the man, the director brings home the story behind the story. Traylor was originally buried in an unmarked grave, and at the unveiling of a memorial headstone, it’s a little strange to see Umberger, a white woman, seeming to explain the work to Traylor’s own family. One is reluctant to question the art world’s interest in Traylor; given the fragile materials he tended to use, it’s a miracle any of it still exists at all, and it’s thanks to professional intervention that the existing work is now preserved. But there are thorny questions about the process, and Wolf subtly addresses them. Chasing Ghosts is a terrific introduction to a remarkable artist; it’s also a thought-provoking look at racial dynamics in the art world.

A terrific introduction to a remarkable artist and a thought-provoking look at race in the art world.
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