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‘30 Americans’: Art Works to Confront Racism

Tacoma Art Museum exhibit features works by contemporary African-American artists.

November 11, 2016

A unique traveling art exhibit is putting the focus on the issue of race and justice in America. Called 30 Americans, the exhibit is comprised of works by prominent African-American artists.

“The works in 30 Americans are some of the most iconic works of contemporary American art,” says Rock Hushka, chief curator of Tacoma Art Museum, where the exhibit is currently on display. It is the reason that Huskha was eager to bring the collection to the Pacific Northwest.

“The first evocative thing about this exhibit is its title,” says Seattle-based painter and writer Barbara Earl Thomas. “To have a collection that is [comprised of] African-American artists but title it 30 American artists [as opposed to 30 African-American artists], says something very important for our present,” says Thomas. For her, it is empowering. “What it says to me is that we are having these many views of American culture from the eyes of these artists.” Thirty-one of them to be exact.

The exhibit is packed with remarkably powerful pieces that challenge our perceptions and examine issues of systematic racial discrimination in American society. The works described here offer only a small glimpse of what’s on display at the museum. Included are two of Kehinde Wiley’s magnificent paintings Sleep (2008) and Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke Olivares (2005); Kara Walker’s wall-sized black-and-white silhouette Camptown Ladies (1998), depicting fantastical scenes based on images of slavery in America; Robert Colescott’s Pygmalion (1987) based on a Greek myth with images of all the beautiful women depicted as black women, and disturbingly moving installation piece called Duck, Duck, Noose by Gary Simmons.

Also included in the collection is Nina Chanel Abney’s striking painting Class of 2007 (2007), which she based on her art school class where she was the only African-American student. Abney takes the group of students and reverses the races of everyone, painting her classmates in orange prison garb and herself as a white prison guard. “The artists takes material — whether it’s visual, whether it’s auditory, whether it’s something theatrical — and they use the subject of their world,” says Thomas. “The fact that it is done as art, we are hoping that the experience is transformative [for the viewers].”

Included in the collection are works by Portland-based artist Carrie Mae Weems and Seattle-born Noah Davis.

As to the question of what role art can play in a conversation on race and identity in America, “it’s additive to the conversation,” says Thomas. “But I would hate to think that we would expect the art on the wall to be the change agent… or black artists to be the fix for the racial problems in the country.” Instead, emphasizes Thomas, it is a collective responsibility for all of us, regardless of race.

Thomas, who had previously seen some of the pieces in 30 Americans in exhibitions around the country, is excited to see them in one collection in her region.  “To be able to come and stand in front of a Kehinde Wiley, or a Kara Walker, or a Lorna Simpson, or Noah Davis, I feel very grateful.” 

Top image: Glenn Ligon, America, 2008. Neon sign and paint, ed. of 1 plus AP, 24 × 168 inches. Courtesy of the Rubell Family Collection.  A group of 30 Americans artists, left to right: Rashid Johnson, Nick Cave, Kalup Linzy, Jeff Sonhouse, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Barkley L. Hendricks, Hank Willis Thomas (front row), Xaviera Simmons, Purvis Young, John Bankston, Nina Chanel Abney, Henry Taylor, Mickalene Thomas (front row), Kerry James Marshall, and Shinique Smith. Photo credit: Kwaku Alston, 2008.



Made possible in part by

Laila Kazmi

@Lailakaz — Laila Kazmi is a Northwest Emmy award-winning senior producer and writer at KCTS 9. Her first love is discovering and telling stories of diverse people, places and history. She has lived in Karachi, Bahrain, Chicago, and Seattle. At KCTS 9, Laila produces the series Borders & Heritage, featuring stories of immigrant and refugee experiences in the Pacific Northwest and has produced Reel NW, featuring independent films from and about the Pacific Northwest. Her video-stories have appeared on KCTS 9PBS NewsHour Art Beat, World Channel at WGBH, and KPBS in San Diego. Her articles have been published in PBS NewsHour Art BeatThe Seattle Times, Seattle PI, COLORLINES and Pakistan’s daily Dawn. Laila has a Master of Communication from the University of Washington.

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