30 American artists share a national identity, American; however, they fracture to create their personal identity within the central themes of race and gender. These personal manifestations are shaped and molded into objects of art, which merge personal with national identity. This exceptional exhibit allows the participant to look into the eyes, souls and nightmare of these 30 Americans.
The 30 Americans exhibit is made possible through the Rubell Family. The Rubell family has been collecting publicly minded art for over 50 years. Auspiciously, the non-profit group shares their collection with other museums. 30 Americans has exhibited at: North Carolina Museum of Art; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA.; Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI; First Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, TN; Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI, and is currently on display in the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Sleep, by artist Kehinde Wiley is the first piece on display for the 30 Americans. Sleep is a prodigious piece with dynamic dimensions of 335.3 x 762 cm. The stately subject is reminiscent of the Renaissance era; however, the deep rich skin tones are not the typical foreground for a Renaissance portrait. Such deeply hued skin tones are typically reserved for the subservient subject who remains in the background. “Wiley, engages the signs and visual rhetoric of the heroic, powerful, majestic and the sublime in his representation of urban, black and brown men found throughout the world” (Kehindewiley.com).
The first floor of the Cincinnati Art Museum has a room dedicated to the 30 Americans. This display contains various mediums that juxtapose the following themes: science, economics and social-political emergence of America. First, You Became a Scientific Profile/An Anthropological Debate/ A Negroid Type/ & A Photographic Subject. This is one of the photo-graphical presentations by artist Carrie Mae Weems from her series, From Here I saw What Happened, and I Cried. Ms. Weems employs the photography of J.T. Zealy. These 1850, photographs were commissioned by Harvard’s scientist Louis Agassiz. The images were originally used to document Agassiz’s supremacist ideology, “…the human race was derived from separate biological origins” (qtd. In Cincinnati Art Museum). Ms. Weems interpreted these photos as dehumanizing; she breathed life back into the photos with etched texts of positive affirmations and infused them with blood-red tint to humanize those once labeled and manipulated specimens.
Second, Untitled #25 situates the center of the room, a cotton bale nearly as large as Wiley’s Sleep. Leonardo Drew created Untitled #25, a cotton and wax three-dimensional structure that reflects two important facets of American economics. The obvious factor that cotton was the primary product of exploitative labor; furthermore, the enormity of the art piece represents the impediment of systematic inequities of American economics. This enormous cotton bale expounds the broken backs, broken dreams, and broken spirits of the women, men and children who were enslaved and stripped of humanity while patriarchal oppressors profited.
Thirdly, across from the bail of cotton, shadows cast the interplay of the social-political dynamics of America. Artist Kara Walker, a MacArthur Fellow, exposes Camptown Ladies. Upon the stark white wall, the shadows of Americas’ systemic racism, cyclical violence, and sexuality yield the search for identity. The black silhouettes demonstrate the complicated social structures that evolved during colonization. The 55 foot Victorian style silhouette comes alive if you pay attention; you can hear the children play, witness the constraints of slavery and feel the violence, sexuality and confusion as the shadows struggle to find their identity. This room intersects the science, economics, and social-political history of America.
Ascension to the third floor of the 30 Americans invites the viewer to enter through a rod iron gate with brick pillars. The entryway feels warm and inviting until you gaze upon the statuettes; the gate keepers are Ku Klux Klan hooded forms. Gary Simmons is the creator of the Klan Gate as well as Duck, Duck, Noose. This second piece expands on the entrenched racism of America. This fervent installation encompasses its own room; it has wooden stools placed within a circle; each seat contains a Ku Klux Klan hood which resembles a dunce cap. In the center of the circle a noose hangs from the ceiling. This is an example of inter-generational racism; the title alludes to a game for children yet, entwined with an adult action.
Wangechi Mutu, searches for the black female identity within mainstream media; however, the search is extraneous due to the lack of subject matter. Nonetheless, when she does find inspiration, it reflects her version of female identity. “Her women become amalgam that transcends cultural, social and racial hierarchies. So it is a collection that she striped, chopped and woven together from different sources” (qtd. In Cincinnati Art Museum). This is evident throughout her work and can be seen in her mixed media piece non je ne regretted rien. Another artist who works with fashion and fabrics is Nick Cave. While his art can be whimsical on the outside it creates a place for the identity to be muted. These pieces demonstrate beauty and lightheartedness; the identity of race, gender and other personal spaces remain autonomous and therefore, cannot be easily judged or objectified. Artist Hank Willis Thomas, a photographer makes a fashion statement regarding commodity. In his piece Branded Head, this photo speaks of the identity of black athletes and their relationship with corporations. Slave owners branded their property and traded and sold slaves as a commodity. Similarly, athletes are traded, marketed and become a commodity for the owner of the team. However, today the athletes are compensated, some very well, but at what cost to their personal identity?
The remainder of the exhibit displays a variety of mediums; photography, paintings, collages, sculptures, and multimedia which shape the personal identity of these 30 American artists. 30 Americans exhibit is educational and visceral and for a bonus, the Cincinnati Art Museum does not charge an admission. So, if you are in the area do stop by before the show ends August 28, 2016.
Cave, Nick. Soundsuit. 2008. Fabric, fiberglass, mixed media. Rubell Family Collection, Florida.
Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Drew, Leonardo. Untitled #25. Cotton and Wax. 1982. Rubell Family Collection, Florida.
Kehindewiley.com. Web. 30 Jun. 2016/2016.
Mutu, Wangechi. Non je ne regretted rien. 2007. Mixed media. Rubell Family Collection, Florida.
Simmons, Gary. Klan Gate. 1992. Concrete, wood, iron, mix media. Rubell Family Collection, Florida.
Simmons, Gary. Duck, Duck, Noose. 1992. Installation mix media. Rubell Family Collection, Florida.
Thomas, Hank Willis. Branded Head. 2003. Digital C- Print. Rubell Family Collection, Florida.
Walker, Kara. Camptown Ladies. 1998. Paper and adhesive on wall. Rubell Family Collection, Florida.
Wiley, Kehinde. Sleep. 2008. Oil on canvas. Rubell Family Collection, Florida.
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