When genius is discovered later in life, it’s rarely celebrated on the same terms as those who live in the spotlight. Yet, we should recognize the near-impossible nature of going one’s entire life without earning their just reward. For Nellie Mae Rowe, a local folk artist, success came in the waning years of her life. From the early 1970s until her death in 1982, Rowe became a rising star in the American art scene. Yet, This World is Not My Own elegantly documents her influence and talent came from a lifelong pursuit of art.
Documentarians Petter Ringbom and Marquise Stillwell track down the friends and family of Nellie Mae Rowe to tell her story. A truly eclectic structure allows the story to flow between archival footage, talking head interviews, and surprisingly exceptional animation. Actress Uzo Aduba lends her voice to the film, bringing Rowe to life in spectacular fashion. Running parallel to Rowe’s story, an avid art collector and dealer named Judith Alexander (voiced by Amy Warren) elevates Rowe’s work from curiosity to the top of the art world.
Ringbom and Stillwell face a difficult task in This World is Not My Own partly because of Rowe’s unknown qualities. The artist has become a far more popular figure in the last thirty years as an understanding of American, specifically Black, folk art has become celebrated in mainstream culture. Yet, that is still a recent phenomenon. Rowe struggles for celebration because we are only just now recognizing this art form in a way that feels consummate to its influence on culture. Using a documentary to introduce a mass audience to an individual means we have to dig into bio-doc tropes to communicate basic information about the subject.
Simultaneously, This World is Not My Own has big questions on its mind. Intersectionality plays a large role in the story, especially in understanding the Rowe/Alexander relationship. While Rowe always possessed talent (even her raw works are stunning), it was only when a white woman from an affluent family elevated her works that Rowe received acclaim. One wonders if Rowe’s works would have been lost to time without Alexander. Yet Rowe’s unique vision of the world, and her experiences alone, led to the creation of each incredible piece.
Beyond its complicated understanding of the artist versus publicity, Stillwell and Ringbom embrace a bohemian approach. This, perhaps more than any other aspect, helps This World is Not My Own escape basic biographical documentary tropes. We’ve long seen actors and actresses lend their voices to their heroes, bringing them to life. Yet the animation here allows us to visit a world that no longer exists. As we traverse the Rowe house with the artist, the stunning recreation feels tactile. Additionally, the motion-capture performance from Adoba provides the animated Rowe with some of the actress’s charm. The artistic stylings of the animated sequences bring the world to life.
Combining the traditional biographical documentary with experimental animation pushes This World is Not My Own to another level. Some of these elements limit its ceiling, but the film sticks with you and engrains Rowe’s style into your brain. It’s hard to watch the film and not feel extremely connected and excited about Rowe’s body of work. She earns her place among the great American artists of the last fifty years. Hopefully, the world will know her name as this wonderful encapsulation of her work finds its audience.