An influential New Orleans Instagram account has accused New Orleans celebrity artist Ashley Longshore of operating a hostile work environment and of using racist imagery in some of her pieces, including references to the infamous 1946 Disney movie “Song of the South.”

The controversy erupted on social media after the New Orleans Instagram account @MelAtMidnight raised questions about Longshore’s company and artwork. That scandal has prompted intense scrutiny online as well as a broader debate within the city’s art community over race and expression.

In an interview with Gambit, Longshore categorically denied all of the accusations. The controversy over Longshore’s art and the allegations about her employment practices come amidst a broader social reckoning over racism, the portrayal of Black people in popular culture, and social inequality that, over the last several months, has touched nearly every aspect of American culture, from corporate boardrooms to the film industry and journalism.

On August 30, chef and racial justice activist Melvin Rogers Stovall III published on his Instagram page an anonymous complaint he had received about Longshore’s company, alleging that Longshore allowed a hostile work environment and was unfair to her employees or workers.

In an interview, Stovall, who says he has used his Instagram to spotlight other instances of racism or hostile work environments, said he had never heard of Longshore before being approached by an anonymous person. Stovall said he investigated the claims, and eventually decided to make them public. Although he assumed the post would start a dialogue, “it opened up a whole can of worms.”

According to Stovall, the post prompted others in the art community to reach out about aspects of Longshore’s art, including allegations that some of her art projects included blackface and other allegedly problematic or even racist depictions of Black figures and the Black experience.

Stovall posted several examples of her work on his Instagram page, using the hashtag #ashleylongshoreexposed. The examples include Longshore’s reproductions of American Express black credit cards with the words “Black Amexes Matter” across them, in a style nearly identical to Black Lives Matter posters commonly used by activists.

Stovall also reprinted a 2018 email exchange between Longshore and a fan of her work. The fan was concerned with the fact that Longshore had significantly lightened the skin of Frida Kahlo, the revolutionary Mexican artist. “I am NOT TRYING TO MAKE EVERYONE WHITE!!!!! Are you insane??????!!!!!! … attacking a feminist and advocate of all women is just a waste of your energy,” Longshore wrote in response.

Stovall also cited two stylized Longshore portraits of what appears to be Louis Armstrong but is of “her friend,” according to Longshore’s New York-based public relations representative Leslie Sloane, in which the man is portrayed with a row of gold teeth. One includes the words, “Havin’ all the cake and eatin’ the mutha fucka too,” above his head. The second painting is emblazoned with the words “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah mutha fuckin blue bird on my shoulder.” The second piece appears to refer to the 1946 Disney film “Song of the South.” Disney long ago pulled the film from circulation amid complaints of its overtly racist depiction of Black people as minstrels.

Longshore is one of New Orleans’ relatively well-known artists who has cultivated her image and brand as a profane and edgy — but fun — artist.

Over the years, Longshore’s art has become something of a cottage industry. Hundreds of her paintings are available for sale on her site, which includes a page for fans to sign up for her “artgasm” gift box program, which promises patrons “some of my favorite custom, designed products four times a year, and have unique access to some special surprises only available to subscribers!” The site adds, “When your special ARTGASM gift box arrives quarterly on your doorstep, you will for sure have an ARTGASM!”

Much of Longshore’s work involves iconic images of famous people such as George Washington, Michelle Obama, Frida Kahlo and Lil Wayne, which she then adorns in bright outfits or flowers, or off color shirts with edgy phrases like, “I shaved my balls for this?”

Longshore has also produced more serious pieces, particularly a series of portraits over the years of prominent women like Kahlo, Michelle Obama, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and a recent portrait of Breonna Taylor. That painting, which was gifted to Taylor’s family, recently sold for $8,500, which Longshore donated to the ACLU’s Justice Lab project.

In speaking to Gambit, she flatly denied all allegations of fostering or allowing a hostile work environment at her company. Longshore says no current or former employee has ever lodged such complaints to her. She also says that she has continued to pay her staff full-time wages during the pandemic and has given non-commission employees nearly $10,000 each in bonuses recently because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Longshore also pointed to thousands of dollars in donations she has made to local charities in recent months, and said she believes she is being targeted. “I read something like that after killing myself to give back to my community … Does that sound like a sweatshop to you? It’s lies; somebody is trying to destroy me,” Longshore says.

When asked if she thought her work cited by Stovall might be considered racist, Longview said emphatically “No” and insisted she has used her work to highlight “strong Black women.”

“I’m not just somebody posting a black square with #blacklivesmatter” on it, she said. She did, however, acknowledge that several of her paintings — including the gold teeth portraits and the “Black AmExes Matter” painting — have had a negative impact on Black people, and that she would not make them today.

However, she stressed it was never her intention to cause harm, and that when she made them several years ago she didn’t understand the impact of the imagery.

“The last four years have proven to be years of education” on the power of art and the impact it can have on people, she said.

As for the accusation that she used blackface in her performance art, she says the photo Stovall is referring to is from an event she held at her gallery 18 years ago when her logo was a black background with red and white lettering.She said the two women painted in black paint were meant to depict the gallery’s logo, not Black people.

Meanwhile, on the day he posted his critique on Instagram, Stovall received a letter from “Paul James Smith,” Esq., of SW Associates. The letter accused Stovall of defaming Longshore and of “infring[ing] upon my client’s constitutional rights. We will therefore be filing a complaint on Monday the 31st of August listing a number of remedies. Including but not limited to … up to 6 months imprisonment.” Smith concluded the letter by writing, “I shall take any and all legal remedies available to rectify this situation.”

Smith, who did not respond to a request for comment, is not admitted — not yet, at least — to the practice of law in Louisiana. He is not listed in the Louisiana State Bar Association’s publicly accessible directory of lawyers licensed in the state. That could prove to be an issue for Smith: in response to Smith’s letter Stovall’s attorney William Most points out that state law “bars the unauthorized practice of law, including furnishing of ‘legal services or advice.’”

Longshore said Smith is a personal friend and had indicated to her that he is practicing law under the Louisiana Supreme Court’s recent decision to grant the “diploma privilege”—excusing the passing of the bar—to 2020 Louisiana law school graduates.

In another twist, Longshore says Smith isn’t her lawyer. “I did not pay him to write that,” she says, adding that Smith offered to write the letter after hearing about the posts, in an attempt to end the situation.

Furthermore, Most argued it is a breach of the lawyers’ ethics code for civil attorneys to threaten criminal action against an adverse party, as Smith’s letter appears to do. “This is a clear threat to press criminal charges to obtain an advantage in a civil matter. Unless you have some motivation other than advantage in a civil matter for that threat, your letter is a violation” of state rules, Most writes in his letter.

As for Stovall, he was nonplussed by the letter. “I saw it for what it was, strictly intimidation … I thought it was ridiculous,” he says.

Stovall also dismissed Longshore’s claim that she had not previously understood the harm her work could cause. “I believe that Ashley Longshore pretends not to know about the privilege she has as a white woman in America, but her very works [are] an example of racial capitalism,” he says, adding “I believe her justifications for doing those pieces is a cop-out.”


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