30 Americans at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans

Published on Daily Serving on Feb. 25, 2014

In a nod to Linda Nochlin’s famous query, Michele Wallace asked, “Why are there no great black artists?”[1]30 Americans is the response to this question, a beautiful, rambunctious show that gathers the work of 31 African American artists. Unfortunately, 30 Americans, similar to Thelma Golden’s Freestyle in 2001, is not about a specific curatorial theory or thought, but rather a placing of African American artists, who have been historically and systematically marginalized in the world of art, directly into the center of the machine.

Kehinde Wiley, Equestrian Portrait of Count Duke Olivares, 2005; Oil on Canvas; 108 x 108 in. Courtesy of CAC & Rubell Family Collection.

Kehinde Wiley. Equestrian Portrait of Count Duke Olivares, 2005; oil on canvas; 108 x 108 in. Courtesy of CAC & Rubell Family Collection.

30 Americans opened at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, but originated from the Rubell Family Collection in Miami.[2] There is a pure, assertive joy in 30 Americans. The CAC begins with Kehinde Wiley’s rococo-esque paintings in the entrance. Wiley’s large paintings place contemporary black men into the rich tradition of European royal portraiture. Recalling Velázquez’s painting of the same name,Equestrian Portrait of Count Duke Olivares (2005), Wiley depicts a white steed rearing while the Count, wearing Nikes and a red hoodie, holds a staff into the air. While looking at mug shots, Wiley realized that contemporary portraits of black men were stripped of symbols of power and stature. By inserting contemporary men into grand, gilt-framed traditions, Wiley emphasizes a dichotomy between historical systems of power and elite status. Decorative gold textile patterns adorn the background, abstracting the space and highlighting the fact that this scene does not exist in the real world.

Robert Colescott. Pygmalion, 1987; Acrylic on Canvas; 90 x 114 in. Courtesy of CAC & Rubell Family Collection.

Robert Colescott. Pygmalion, 1987; acrylic on canvas; 90 x 114 in. Courtesy of CAC & Rubell Family Collection.

Paintings are the predominant medium in this show. In order to point to a historical precedent, three beautiful paintings and one charcoal drawing by Robert Colescott hang on the second floor. Colescott is most noted as the first African American with a solo exhibit at the Venice Biennale, (unjustly) late in his career, in 1997. Colescott’s painting Pygmalion (1987) commands attention. In the center, an elderly white male, presumably Pygmalion, surveys the face of a black woman whose chin he is holding. In the words of Ovid: “Pleas’d with his idol, he commends, admires/Adores; and last, the thing ador’d, desires.”[3]Colescott emphasizes that historical myths and images are derived from white perception of the Other, rather than a reflection of black identity. A statue of Venus de Milo is to the left of the couple, and a portrait of Mona Lisa as a black woman hangs over his right shoulder. Colescott reworks the canon of art, swapping the white casts of characters for black and pointing out the racist repertoire of history.

Wangechi Mutu. Non je ne regrette rien, 2007; Ink, acrylic, glitter, cloth, paper collage, plastic, plant material and mixed media on mylar; 54.5 x 92.5 in. Courtesy of CAC & Rubell Family Collection.

Wangechi Mutu. Non Je Ne Regrette Rien, 2007; ink, acrylic, glitter, cloth, paper collage, plastic, plant material, and mixed media on mylar; 54.5 x 92.5 in. Courtesy of CAC & Rubell Family Collection.

While Colescott points to the vast lack of black artists in the art-history canon, ironically, there are many works in this show that can exist only with historical depictions of black bodies. Wangechi Mutu’s Non Je Ne Regrette Rien (2007) amalgamates snake-like forms with glitter, cloth, tentacles, and a woman’s leg. Unsettling and violent, Mutu’s work still manages to maintain a ripe and alluring aesthetic. Collage, which unites these dissonant parts into disquieting harmony, seduces the viewer with visual pleasure and suggests the violent consumption of African bodies found in news sources across the world. Mutu’s work is stunning, a reinterpretation of bodies and images from magazines like National Geographic and Vogue that blurs boundaries of gender and race.

In the catalog that accompanies 30 AmericansRobert Hobbs notes, “[Thelma] Golden developed the termpost-black, which she views as characterized by artists who were adamant about not being labeled as “black” artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness.”[4] The downfall of 30 Americans is that it simply places each of these artists together because of their race. 30 Americans is an assemblage of artists, styles, and mediums, a compilation of different ways of self-identifying, some intuitive, some ironic, and others irate. There is a pointed and very admitted lack of cohesion within the show. The Rubells, in fact, state in the introduction: “As the show evolved, we decided to call it 30 Americans. ‘Americans’ rather than ‘African Americans’ or ‘Black Americans’ because nationality is a statement of fact, while racial identity is a question each artist answers in his or her own way, or not at all.”[5]

What I hoped for 30 Americans is that it would act as a barometer to the shifting winds of race and power in America. Does placing these artists in another racially defined museum exhibition do the artists or the viewer any honor or justice? Instead of this staid technique, how can we look in nuanced, unprecedented ways at issues surrounding race, racism, cultural appropriation, white privilege, and multiple methods of identifying? That is a show I someday hope to see.

30 Americans is on view at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans, through June 15, 2014.

[1] Michele Wallace, “Afterword: Why Are There No Great Black Artists? The Problem of Visuality in African American Culture,” in Black Popular Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1992).

[2] Interestingly, on their website, the Rubell Family Collection applauds itself as “[a] recognized…pioneer in what has been referred to as the “Miami model,” whereby private collectors create a new, independent form of public institution.” One could easily argue that this new model is also a way to increase the net worth of the collected artists by touring works to museums across the country.

[3] MIT Internet Classics Archive. Accessed Feb 17, 2014.http://classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.10.tenth.html#373

[4] Robert Hobbs, “Looking B[l]ack: Reflections of White Racism,” 30 Americans; Third Edition, 2013.

[5] “Inside Our Process,” 30 Americans; Third Edition, 2013.

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