The newly christened Sarah Ball Allis Museum in Milwaukee has a story to tell, one reclaimed from a too-familiar past.
The museum is a genteel residence housing an eclectic collection of art and furniture. Charles Allis was an industrialist at the turn of the century and became president of the newly formed Allis-Chalmers Company in 1905, which made farming equipment and tractors. One can see versions of this museum across the country, in museums with names like Frick or perhaps Glessner. Until now, this house museum bore the namesake of Charles Allis.
The museum has been co-opted by a new vision, at least temporarily. Curator Kate E. Schaffer has gathered a group of works by femme, women and nonbinary artists that interacts, intervenes and innovates with the museum’s permanent collection to reveal the life of the explorer, traveler, caretaker and collector Sarah Ball Allis. This is her place now—The Sarah Ball Allis Art Museum.
The museum and its objects, at first blush, are grand and familiar. Art, furniture and curios inform us of the life of this family and the changes the building has undergone. But as one wanders through the tiled kitchen, for example, among shelves of white porcelain diningware, sit a few metal plates painted in red and white gingham. Artist Michelle Grabner rearticulates vernacular patterns to observe their political possibility, to upend and subvert previously domesticated tropes in color and form. Grabner has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago since 1996, and is considered among the most influential players in the art world. Her tiny quotidian objects, set amongst other tiny, quotidian objects, offer a powerful counterpoint to traditional male narratives.
The house and its objects have always belonged to Ms. Allis as much as to her husband. Though documents of their personal life are scant, the couple traveled together, collected together and gave each other beautiful and sweet objects throughout their lives. But time and cultural norms created a glacial, cultural creep of forgetting that became, if unintentional, nonetheless certain. Sarah Ball Allis was slowly removed from the narrative of this story, and of this museum. Schaffer has reenergized and reimagined this space, and in doing so, brought her back to life.
A total of nineteen artists are interwoven within the Sarah Ball Allis Museum. Eleanor Neal interprets the spirit and women of the Gullah landscape in her stained and printed collage of dyed fabric and papers. It tells a multilayered story of sand, water and fauna, mixed, as Neal states, with the chants and narratives of the powerful women from this Southern region.
A bathroom that adjoins Ms. Allis’ bedroom and sitting room has been transformed by sculptor Melissa Dorn. The woven heads of mops, towels and tapestries, in white, magenta and silver, negotiate territory between the body and the objects that wrap or touch it. A bath mat leers out of the tub like a tongue from a gaping mouth. Wall hangings sprout hairy, hanging tendrils or display pop-pink orifices. The bathroom is an intimate space, deeply connected to the body and privacy, and Dorn has created an exciting, visceral response to it.
D. Denenge Duyst-Akpem projects what she calls a “Holographic High Priestess” in a dark corner. In many ways, this work becomes an apotheosis. The figure is regal, archetypal and yet new. Duyst-Akpem has created a resplendent Afrofuturist deity, an image of the forever possible. This celebratory work encapsulates the ethos of this exhibition, which ultimately uplifts the woman whose house you will enter if you visit. I hope you will.
“The Sarah Ball Allis Art Museum” exhibition is on view through June 11, 1801 North Prospect Avenue, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, (414)278-8295.