The group exhibition “30 Americans” at Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) not only brings together some of the biggest names in art, it also challenges viewers to think critically about race and reflect on their own experiences. The traveling show is composed of art from the private contemporary collection of the Rubell family in Miami. Among the paintings, sculptures and mixed-media work, visitors will see a noose, family reflections and Black men reimagined in classical portraiture in the show’s West Coast debut.
“We are really excited because these are iconic works of American art,” said Rock Hushka, Tacoma Art Museum chief curator. “Some of the very best works these artists have created and we are thrilled to share them with people in the Northwest.”
Six of the of the 31 artists in the show — Robert Colescott, Noah Davis, Lorna Simpson, Hank Willis Thomas, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems — have varying ties to the Northwest. The road to bringing the exhibition to tam was four years long and paved with determination, perseverance and negotiation.
The show consists of 45 pieces of art spread across two galleries. Many of the pieces are towering productions. Kehinde Wiley’s “Sleep” is a finely tuned oil on canvas that commands the wall it hangs from. The massive piece depicts a physically fit, nude Black man with a white cloth draped across the lower portion of his body. He’s resting peacefully, surrounded by flowers and the word “leader” is tattooed on his upper arm. The figure is comparable to Jesus. Wiley’s “Sleep” is a reinterpretation of Jean Bernard Restout’s “Sleep,” a 1771 portrait featuring a White man in a similar pose. Wiley is well known for placing Black people in the traditional role of European heroes, aristocrats and religious figures in his realistic paintings.
On the opposite wall of “Sleep” is “Camptown Ladies” by Kara Walker. It’s a narrative series of silhouetted figures that begins with a man riding the back of a Black woman while dangling a carrot in front of her. The images are jarring and provocative. Walker utilizes her signature style of stereotypical racial features to distinguish between White and Black people. The title refers to the minstrel song, “Camptown Races,” written by Stephen Foster in 1850.
“This scene that explores and reminds us about the racial violence and the horrors of slavery in her vocabulary of this sort of narrative image,” Hushka said. “It’s pretty challenging.”
Also in the room is “Untitled #25,” by Leonardo Drew. The sculpture is a 9 x 15 foot wall of raw cotton blocks stacked on top of one another.
“What’s so compelling to me about this is that the artist makes us think about cotton and the history of the cotton industry, and the plantation system and slavery and the fact that our nation’s wealth was extracted on slave labor in the 19th century and the fact that we never talk about that,” Hushka said. “By this really esoteric and elegant gesture we can start to have that conversation in a safe kind of way and begin to understand the legacy of slavery.”
Those works are balanced with pieces like “Baby I Am Ready Now,” by Mickalene Thomas, a large bejeweled diptych. The rhinestones glinting in the light create another dimension for the woman sitting on a couch with a knowing look in her eyes.
“Souvenir: Composition in Three Parts,” by Kerry James Marshall, is one of the more subtle pieces of art in the show. It’s a replica of the sign from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, adorned with a floral bouquet that is a replica of the original memorial. Next to it, a small placard simply states “As seen on TV.” The piece is clever, ironic and emotional all at once. In 1963 four little girls died after the Ku Klux Klan placed a bomb under the front steps of the church. The image of the destruction made national headlines and further galvanized the Civil Rights movement. It’s reminiscent of the shooting deaths last year of nine parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church. While 50 years apart, it’s yet another example of a sacred gathering space for Black people marred by racially motivated violence. Sadly, the scenes are still playing out on television screens and mobile devices across the country.
Just a few feet away is a display of nine stools arranged in a circle. White KKK hoods sit atop each one and a noose hangs in the center from the ceiling. Gary Simmons’ work is titled “Duck, Duck, Noose.” The title is a play on words of the childhood game “Duck, Duck, Goose.” “We all know that the Klan incites this horrific violence and has this ideology of hate,” Hushka said. “That’s not something visitors usually expect to have to think about when they come to a museum.”
To help visitors understand why the work is on display Hushka said they worked closely with staff and docents. Hushka also reached out to Northwest African American Museum Community Director Serenity Wise for input on the language used on the labels. She offered edits to ensure they were centered on Blackness rather than written specifically for a White audience who may not understand all of the references.
“I would center the artwork and I would center the artist’s voice and establish that as the central character, the central point or the central focus. So that’s how I would center Blackness,” Wise said. “We want the art to encourage people to dig deeper. We’re not going to present it as if ‘well no one will understand this.’” She went on to say proper context allows for a “growing experience and an educational experience and instead of just a triggering experience.”
Not all of the work is intense. Cultural appropriation, consumerism and beauty are also addressed by the artists. In between the two rooms is a space for visitors to take a physical and mental break from the show. In one area, index-sized white cards hang from pegs in the wall under miniature pictures of artwork in the show. Visitors are encouraged to write down why any given piece is unforgettable. Visitors can also fill out a postcard explaining what personal action they’ll take to eliminate racism. Later, the museum will mail the cards back to them.
To further facilitate conversations about race, tam is also holding a series of events during the show including a panel discussion on racism, a poetry slam and a free screening of the film “Colored Frames.” The exhibition runs until January 15, 2017.
“It spans the full spectrum of moments of triumph and victory in Black culture and moments of pain and feelings of defeat in Black culture,” Wise said. “You look to one side and there’s this glorious Kehinde Wiley, which is elegant and beautiful and regal. Then you look to the other side and there’s a reminder of terrorism against Black people.”
“30 Americans” is a show of captivating, stirring and striking art constructed by talented Black artists. The title of the show is fitting because it serves as a reminder that Black people are not an “other.” The Black experience is a part of American life even though some would rather not think about the harsh realities that come with it.