Wednesday, February 22, 2017

30 Americans

Identity, triumph, tragedy, pride, prejudice, humor and wit. 30 Americans: An exhibition bound by one nation and divided by 30 experiences. A dynamic showcase of contemporary art by African American artists, this exhibition explores issues of racial, political, historical and gender identity in contemporary culture. See more than 50 paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs and video drawn from the Rubell Family Collection, created by many of the most important African American artists working over the past 30 years, including Kerry James Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kara Walker, Nick Cave, Kehinde Wiley, Carrie Mae Weems, Robert Colescott, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson. - See more at: http://www.dia.org/calendar/exhibition.aspx?id=4998&iid=#sthash.4OD1YWDz.dpuf
Identity, triumph, tragedy, pride, prejudice, humor and wit. 30 Americans: An exhibition bound by one nation and divided by 30 experiences. A dynamic showcase of contemporary art by African American artists, this exhibition explores issues of racial, political, historical and gender identity in contemporary culture. See more than 50 paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs and video drawn from the Rubell Family Collection, created by many of the most important African American artists working over the past 30 years, including Kerry James Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kara Walker, Nick Cave, Kehinde Wiley, Carrie Mae Weems, Robert Colescott, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson. - See more at: http://www.dia.org/calendar/exhibition.aspx?id=4998&iid=#sthash.CpxcUFq9.dpuf
Identity, triumph, tragedy, pride, prejudice, humor and wit. 30 Americans: An exhibition bound by one nation and divided by 30 experiences. A dynamic showcase of contemporary art by African American artists, this exhibition explores issues of racial, political, historical and gender identity in contemporary culture. See more than 50 paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs and video drawn from the Rubell Family Collection, created by many of the most important African American artists working over the past 30 years, including Kerry James Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kara Walker, Nick Cave, Kehinde Wiley, Carrie Mae Weems, Robert Colescott, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson. - See more at: http://www.dia.org/calendar/exhibition.aspx?id=4998&iid=#sthash.CpxcUFq9.dpuf

dentity, triumph, tragedy, pride, prejudice, humor and wit. 30 Americans: An exhibition bound by one nation and divided by 30 experiences. A dynamic showcase of contemporary art by African American artists, this exhibition explores issues of racial, political, historical and gender identity in contemporary culture. See more than 50 paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs and video drawn from the Rubell Family Collection, created by many of the most important African American artists working over the past 30 years, including Kerry James Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kara Walker, Nick Cave, Kehinde Wiley, Carrie Mae Weems, - See more at: http://www.dia.org/calendar/exhibition.aspx?id=4998&iid=#sthash.CpxcUFq9.dpuf
Identity, triumph, tragedy, pride, prejudice, humor and wit. 30 Americans: An exhibition bound by one nation and divided by 30 experiences. A dynamic showcase of contemporary art by African American artists, this exhibition explores issues of racial, political, historical and gender identity in contemporary culture. See more than 50 paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs and video drawn from the Rubell Family Collection, created by many of the most important African American artists working over the past 30 years, including Kerry James Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kara Walker, Nick Cave, Kehinde Wiley, Carrie Mae Weems, Robert Colescott, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson. - See more at: http://www.dia.org/calendar/exhibition.aspx?id=4998&iid=#sthash.CpxcUFq9.dpuf
Identity, triumph, tragedy, pride, prejudice, humor and wit. 30 Americans: An exhibition bound by one nation and divided by 30 experiences. A dynamic showcase of contemporary art by African American artists, this exhibition explores issues of racial, political, historical and gender identity in contemporary culture. See more than 50 paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs and video drawn from the Rubell Family Collection, created by many of the most important African American artists working over the past 30 years, including Kerry James Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kara Walker, Nick Cave, Kehinde Wiley, Carrie Mae Weems, Robert Colescott, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson. - See more at: http://www.dia.org/calendar/exhibition.aspx?id=4998&iid=#sthash.CpxcUFq9.dpuf
Identity, triumph, tragedy, pride, prejudice, humor and wit. 30 Americans: An exhibition bound by one nation and divided by 30 experiences. A dynamic showcase of contemporary art by African American artists, this exhibition explores issues of racial, political, historical and gender identity in contemporary culture. See more than 50 paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs and video drawn from the Rubell Family Collection, created by many of the most important African American artists working over the past 30 years, including Kerry James Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kara Walker, Nick Cave, Kehinde Wiley, Carrie Mae Weems, Robert Colescott, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson. - See more at: http://www.dia.org/calendar/exhibition.aspx?id=4998&iid=#sthash.CpxcUFq9.dpuf
Identity, triumph, tragedy, pride, prejudice, humor and wit. 30 Americans: An exhibition bound by one nation and divided by 30 experiences. A dynamic showcase of contemporary art by African American artists, this exhibition explores issues of racial, political, historical and gender identity in contemporary culture. See more than 50 paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs and videodrawn from the Rubell Family Collection, created by many of the most important African American artists working over the past 30 years, including Kerry James Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kara Walker, Nick Cave, Kehinde Wiley, Carrie Mae Weems, Robert Colescott, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson. - See more at: http://www.dia.org/calendar/exhibition.aspx?id=4998&iid=#sthash.4OD1YWDz.dpuf  
Fig 1.  Equestrian Portrait of the Count Duke Olivares, 2005  by Kehinde Wiley 
img source: https://rfc.museum/30a
I was fortunate to visit 30 Americans during its last weekend on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA.)  This compelling exhibition critically examines the quintessential American Dream, yet simultaneously embodies the rebellious underdog spirit upon which our country was founded.  While we stand on the cusp of another civil rights revolution, 30 Americans highlights the importance of such ongoing sociopolitical movements as Black Lives Matter.  It facilitates intelligent discussion about an uncomfortable subject too many of us avoid addressing:  the continued repercussions of institutionalized slavery and longstanding systematic oppression.  

Children are the most easily impressionable victims of indoctrination.  Gary Simmon's 1992 installment piece, Duck, Duck, Noose, offers a haunting reminder that childhood is no exception to the violence permeating every aspect of segregated society.  A circle of small desk chairs evokes memories of the classic schoolyard game, Duck, Duck Goose.  Rather than a figure in each chair, child-size Klan hoods stare blankly from the wooden seats.  A noose, the titular twist referencing lynchings, hangs down into the middle of the scene.

I found Kara Walker's 1998 Camptown Ladies to be particularly educational.  Having grown up with the titular--seemingly innocent--campfire song myself, I was horrified to learn of its sinister implications.  As a viewer, I was confronted by two full walls of black silhouetted figures and scenery, illustrating the depravity within the lyrics.  Among the more disturbing portrayals are a caricatured man being ridden like a horse, and a woman running with a carrot in her anus.  Considering the outline-only nature of silhouettes, Walker makes a point to ask her viewers why we continue to interpret some figures as white people and some as black people.

Fig. 2  Fast Eddie by Barkley L. Hendricks
img source: https://rfc.museum/30a
In order to reclaim historical visibility, several artists reinvent "classical" Western art with Black protagonists.  Barkley L. Hendricks' 1975 portrait, Fast Eddie, perfectly parallels Michelangelo's David (fig. 2.)  Kehinde Wiley's 2005 painting, Equestrian Portrait of the Count Duke Olivares (fig. 1,) features a modern Black man atop a white steed, brandishing his sword and shield.  Proud Black men are inserted as Renaissance knights, Greek gods and other traditional hero figures.  

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of first-wave feminism is its lack of minority representation.  Women of Color struggled to find empathy for their unique concerns, let alone an adequate platform upon which to express themselves.  Amid the quest to empower "the fairer sex," even the language used perpetuated Western ideology.  From the fight for women's suffrage through the popularized images of Rosie the Riveter, the feminist movement's politicized fight for "equality" consistently failed to recognize, and actively excluded, Women of Color.  

The 60s Civil Rights Movement challenged the West's outdated, ethnocentric beauty ideals.  Innovative campaigns, including "Black is Beautiful," fought against the damaging psychological effects of centuries of internalized racism by promoting self-love and cultural pride within the Black Community.  Mickalene Thomas' 2005 portrait, Hotter than July, bejewels the subject's full lips, natural hair and dark areolas.  By emphasizing physical traits we view as traditionally African, Thomas draws appreciation to the uniquely feminine aesthetic of African American women.  

Lorna Simpson's 1994 serigraph, Wigs, deconstructs a long and painful history of forced conformity to Western ideology.  I stood beneath a staggering display of hairstyles, reading testament after testament to the intense societal pressures placed on Women of Color to alter their appearance according to their surroundings.  I tried to imagine the anxiety of selecting a wig for every occasion and realize a glaring absence.  

Not among the wide range of styles detailed as situationally appropriate for Women of Color were any representations of natural hair, revealing the depths of our country's determination to separate the Black community from definitions of "beautiful."  A lifetime of criticism--nuanced and explicit--must take an unimaginable toll on a person's self-esteem.  I lament that even today, the less African a person looks--whether referring to skin color, hair texture or other physical features--the "easier" his or her life will be in our biased society.  30 Americans brilliantly encourages us to journey together, beyond the precipice and toward a new Enlightenment, in which we are all truly equals.

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