Living History

‘30 Americans’ conveys an ambitious story of race, image and identity

October 6, 2011

Glenn Ligon, “America, 2008"

African-American art is American art. It’s an obvious concept but a complex relationship to explore. And the works in “30 Americans” offer an excellent starting point.

The traveling show, on view through Feb. 12 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, draws from works owned by the Rubell family, a Florida-based couple with one of the world’s largest private collections of contemporary art. This iteration of “30 Americans” brings together 71 works by African-American artists — 31, to be exact, since the collection continues to grow.

Donald and Mera Rubell — who also own the ultra-hip Capitol Skyline Hotel in Southwest and recently purchased the nearby Randall School building with plans to open a gallery space — began assembling “30 Americans” in 2005. A series of buzzed-about shows spotlighting emerging African-American artists piqued the pair’s interest. The Rubells had long collected works by major African-American artists (Robert Colescott, Jean-Michel Basquiat) and wanted to bring newer talent into the mix.

The Rubells chose the simple title “30 Americans” because, they write in the exhibition’s catalog, “nationality is a statement of fact, while racial identity is a question each artists answers in his or her own way, or not at all.”

This statement — and the show itself — is a blunt and powerful refutation of the inference that the experience of African-Americans is somehow separate from that of larger America.

“If we’re all Americans, our history overlaps,” explains D.C.-born, New York-based painter Iona Rozeal Brown, whose Japanese-inspired portraits appear in the show. “A depiction of someone being lynched — that’s very specifically American. Slaves were brought here. Malcolm X was here. Martin Luther King Jr. was here.

“Maybe that’s the [show’s] call,” she says, “for people to look at it for what it is: 30 Americans.”

Shinique Smith

Shinique Smith uses uncommon mediums in her abstract sculptures. For works such as “Menagerie, 2007,” Smith, 40 — who grew up in Baltimore and earned undergrad and master’s degrees at MICA — uses found materials imbued with personal significance, topping wads of patterned fabrics with swaths of graffiti and tucking secret messages into folds.

“Most of my florals are my grandmother’s sheets,” she says. “She’d mix florals and brocades in her home, this sort of beautiful, mismatched aesthetic.”

Smith often overlays her sculptures with painted words, stylized somewhere between shodo (Japanese calligraphy) and street art. The former she studied in college; the latter she practiced as a teenager.

“There’s a relationship between those traditions as far as speed and the need for something to be correct the first time, because there’s no erasing,” Smith says. “It’s about knowing when to go slow and when to go quick.”

Iona Rozeal Brown

On a 2005 trip to Japan, a teenage fad grabbed the attention of Iona Rozeal Brown. Young fans of American hip-hop were dreadlocking their hair and tanning their skin to emulate African-American rappers.

“Anyone who blackens their face, I take an interest in,” explains Brown, who was born in D.C. in 1966 and lived in Maryland before attending Yale University, from which she received her MFA in 2002.

Brown decided to investigate the line between appropriation and homage, experimenting with the highly formal structure of a 17th- and 18th-century Japanese portraiture style called ukiyo-e.

She threw herself into the art form, tweaking traditional ukiyo-e to reference American pop culture: A bottle of sake became a bottle of Cristal. In “Sacrifice #2: It Has to Last,” her subject lounges in a head wrap and sports colorful acrylic fingernails.

Brown likens her work to that of a DJ, sampling disparate elements to create something new, while honoring the integrity of the originals.

“You’re not trying to hide [the primary source] or steal it. That happens a lot in consumer culture — take it, use it, toss it. My hope was to keep the work as close to reverence for an art form that I really appreciated.”

Kara Walker

Silhouettes are traditionally family heirlooms and cliché baby-shower gifts. New York artist Kara Walker tweaks the innocuous format to depict lynchings and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in intricate cut-paper tableaux. In 1998’s “Camptown Ladies,” Walker dissects the 1850s song “Camptown Races,” which is set in a frontier camp that black laborers lived in — but here, a jockey rides a woman rather than a horse.

Barkley L. Hendricks

Barkley L. Hendricks, 66, has been painting for longer than some of the younger artists in “30 Americans” have been alive. “Noir,” painted in 1978, is trademark Hendricks: His work at that time depicted unflappable, ultra-hip subjects on life-size canvasses in an accessible Pop Art-realism style. Though bell-bottoms and “Superfly” have passed into the realm of dated self-parody, Hendricks’ everyday subjects retain their dignity — no small feat for a man in a leisure suit. His portraits don’t trade in caricatures of ’70s cool; they capture the indestructible grace that comes with self-possession and pride.

Hank Willis Thomas

At 35, Hank Willis Thomas is one of the younger artists in “30 Americans,” and his work is heavy with imagery from his childhood. Thomas’ playful, arresting photographs and digitally manipulated works take on the world of advertising. His 2003 photograph “Branded Head” references the African ritual practice of scarification in the Nike “swoosh” marking its subject — a comment on the fetishization of African-American identity in sports marketing. His 2008 “Unbranded” series strips vintage advertisements of their text, adding commentary through sly titles to examine the archetypes and caricatures of African-Americans enforced by corporate America.

Carrie Mae Weems

Through snapshots, staged portraits and collage, Carrie Mae Weems explores the divide between representation and reality in depictions of African-American life. Throughout the 1980s, Weems pointed her lens at neighborhood teens and her own family, capturing the relationships around her to fill in the gaps left by popular culture. In the ’90s, she turned to collage. The 1995-96 series “Descending the Throne” — six frames of which appear in “30 Americans” — shows how images of African-Americans have historically been filtered through a white gaze. Crimson-saturated archival photos smolder under heavy white type.

 Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW; to Feb. 12, 2012, $10; 202-639-1700. (Farragut West)
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