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at the CAC Generates Excitement
about African-American Artists

The 30 Americans exhibition was selected from the Rubell Family Collection, Miami
and was originally displayed at their foundation there. It opened to the public here
in New Orleans in early Feb. 8 and will be on view through June 15.

by Dr. Sara Hollis

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, December 5, 2008
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, December 5, 2008

The “30 Americans” exhibition on view at the CAC until June 15 is attracting attention from those who usually follow the visual arts; and it is also generating excitement among those who follow all other areas of the arts. It presents an exciting broad span of styles and subject matter in contemporary art. And in spite of the general-sounding title, all artists in the exhibition are of African descent. Just as one goes to Jazz Fest or the Essence Festival to hear musicians whose talent they follow, visitors are attending “30 Americans” to see artists they admire. And in going, discover artists they may not have heard of yet, but are intensely drawn to upon encountering their work. This one exhibition fills the entire Contemporary Arts Center—all three floors. The catalog, a hardback book, is available for $39.95, and it is a treasure and only part of the educational outreach that the CAC is making into the community and to students from public schools through universities.

Amazing about this fine arts event is the fact that the entire exhibition is part of the private collection of one family, the Rubell family. The artists in the show, actually 31 in all, are: Nina Chanel Abney, John Bankston, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mark Bradford, Iona Rozeal Brown, Nick Cave, Robert Colescott, Noah Davis, Leonardo Drew, Renee Green, David Hammons, Barkley L. Hendricks, Rashid Johnson, Glenn Ligon, Kalup Linzy, Kerry James Marshall, Rodney McMillian, Wangechi Mutu, William Pope. L, Gary Simmons, Xaviera Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Shinique Smith, Jeff Sonhouse, Henry Taylor, Hank Willis Thomas, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Kehinde Wiley, and Purvis Young. Some of them have shown in various galleries or museums here in New Orleans, some have not. A few have been widely published in fine arts publications, some have not. All attracted the attention of this serious collecting family, whose overall philosophy has been to collect “ the most interesting art of their time.” Explaining the title of the exhibition in the catalog, they say, “As the show evolved, we decided to call it “30 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.”

The exhibition began at the Rubell Family Foundation, in Miami. It then traveled to Milwaukee, Nashville, and Washington, D.C.

Jennifer Williams, director of the McKenna Museum of African-American Art in New Orleans could not wait to see the exhibition here, so she traveled to Nashville to preview it. She has remarked on the differences between how it was installed there and here. She notes that there are 15 additional pieces that the Rubells have added to the exhibition here. There are over seventy works in the exhibition as it appears at the Contemporary Arts Center.

The Educator’s Guide includes many ideas for teachers, as well as images of 16 works in the exhibition. All the educational materials and activities available at the CAC in connection with “30 Americans” support the National Standards for the Arts as well as national Common Core Standards. The guide is the work of Freddi W. Evans, the CAC’s director of education and public programs and Mariana Sheppard, coordinator of education and public programs. The orientation for educators was presented by CAC Executive Director Neil Barclay, along with Evans and Sheppard.

CAC Education and Public Programs support comes from the city of New Orleans, Edward Wisner Donation, Cox Communications, The Hearst Foundation, The Helis Foundation, James R. Moffett Family Foundation, The Joe W. and Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation, Kinder Morgan Foundation; The Selley Foundation, and the Zemurray Foundation.

Barclay exudes enthusiasm for this exhibition, in this place, saying that “the exhibition is amazing, and shows off what an appropriate space the Contemporary Arts Center is. It is a wonderful fit. We are so happy to get the exhibition here.”

Not all of the dates for the education programs that will be held in connection with the “30 Americans” exhibition have been set, but programs will include the “30 Americans” Artist Exchange and “30 Americans” guided tours. Public programs will include The Art of Collecting Part I: New Orleans Collectors; The Art of Collecting, Part II: An Evening with the Rubells and Franklin Simans; a poetry slam entitled, Literally Speaking: Do You Feel Me? with Junebug Productions; In the Name of Street Art; as well as planned Conversation at the Contemporary: “30 Americans” Artist, Art + Film Screening. Updates and details can be found at: http://cacno.org/exhibitions/30-americans. You can subscribe to the CAC’s newsletter; and of course to visit the exhibition repeatedly, joining the CAC is a great idea.

Local love for African-American art is no secret

There are a number of resources in New Orleans that focus on exposing the community to African-American artists and their work. The McKenna family has provided local and visitors with an opportunity to study the works of numerous African-American artists at the McKenna Museum of African American Art on Carondelet as well as art and historical documents and artifacts at Le Musee de f.p.c. on Esplanade. Stella Jones Gallery on St. Charles Avenue, has for over two decades now brought to New Orleans contemporary African and African-American artists and their works of the highest quality. The Amistad Research Center, besides being an important archive, also preserves and displays a collection of African and African-American art. La Belle Gallery is a resource for a wide range of African and African-American images. The New Orleans African American Museum of Art, Culture and History on North Villere Street has a long record of art exhibitions. The Ashe Cultural Center on Oretha Castle Haley is a rich source for art, artifacts, performance and celebrations of African Diaspora culture. The Jazz and Heritage Foundation Gallery on Rampart Street has mounted a number of African-American art exhibitions. The Backstreet Museum and the Donald Harrison, Sr. Museum provide opportunities to learn more about the rich Black Indian culture here in the city; and a wonderful meal at Dookey Chase Restaurant surrounds you with the African-American art collection amassed over the years by the restaurant’s owners.

Not to be overlooked are Xavier University, Dillard University and Southern University in New Orleans, which own and display the art of artists throughout the African Diaspora. The New Orleans Museum of Art has had major exhibitions of African and African-American art over the years and has a highly regarded permanent collection of African art. All of these institutions provide additional resources for those who are introduced to African-American art at 30 Americans and wish to see more.

Something to Talk About

When it comes to response and reaction to the 30 Americans exhibition from the cross-section of persons who have attended the exhibition, some sum up their visits in a few words. Others have much more to say regarding their enthusiasm for this exhibition.

“The exhibition is a formidable offering to our city,” Freddi Evans says. “Those who experience it will not soon forget it.”

Ira A. Neighbors, a social work professor at SUNO, says “I found several things exciting about (the exhibit)—particularly, “Duck, Duck, Noose,” “Basketball and Chain,” and “untitled @25.” Each of these had significance in various ways for me. As an African American these were really touching and also the neon sign of “America” held and solidified the motley experience of the 30 Americans.”

Lana Watson, a graduate student in SUNO’s museum studies program and boutique manager at The Blues Jean Bar, said, “30 Americans excited my artistic spirit. The exhibition exuded talent, provoked thought, sparked conversation and enlightened minds amongst people of all races.” ,

Another SUNO museum studies student Erika Witt, who now works the desk at the CAC on weekends, is also really excited about the exhibition. She had this to say about 30 Americans: “My first visit to the Contemporary Arts Center occurred during the SweetArts Ball for the 30 Americans exhibition. The architecture of the building was spectacular, but what the building held inside was more spectacular. Among a predominantly Caucasian crowd, there stood regal pieces of art depicting African-American faces. Never before had I been around such spectacular art, especially in an exhibition specifically comprised of art solely done by African Americans and that was unapologetically Black. Each piece of art causes the viewer to consider issues that plague African Americans, such as racial injustice, homophobia, identity, etc. The exhibition starts off as mild on the first floor, moderate on the second floor, and intense on the third floor. Art by Hank Willis Thomas or Kara Walker causes the audience to take a closer look of their work; but once they fully observe it and understand the context behind the art, strong emotions are invoked. From the first moment I walked into the CAC to ultimately getting a position working at the front desk, it has been interesting to watch how people from different nationalities interact with the exhibition. I always tend to warn people to be cautious of the intensity of the third floor, but I always inquire on their personal views once the visitor finished their walk-through. People from other countries are afraid to own that dialogue, especially with an African American, while European Americans simply state that the exhibition was “good” and they “just enjoyed it”, but when engaging in conversation with the African and African American visitors, there are always long extended discussions about interpretations and experiences. It is truly an interesting dynamic.”

Kimberly Coleman, also in the museum studies program at SUNO shares that the works in the show are still on her mind.

She says: “Three weeks ago, I had the privilege of viewing (what at the time I believed) to be one of the most racially-charged shows that I would ever see. 30 Americans, produced by an all-Black artistic ensemble. Through closer inspection and introspection, you realize that 30 Americans is a cultural critique, and that is what stuns the audience. The first floor of the CAC is pretty tame, but as you work your way to the second floor and begin to walk past work such as “Passing” by Robert Colescott, “Class of 2007” by Nina Chanel Abney or “Gold Nobody Knew Me” and “Gold Nobody Knew Me #1” by Glenn Ligon, you’re shocked at this open display of racial credibility and cultural acceptance. Then from there you work your way to the third floor where all these artists are assaulting you with images of what it is to be Black in America, and again you know this is about racial hardships and stereotypes, when in actuality, it isn’t. It wasn’t until I was able to appraise the exhibition away from the pieces did I realize that it was a cultural assessment. These (artists) aren’t simply displaying Black culture in America, they are displaying America’s obsessions. This exhibition brings to light America’s biggest guilty pleasures, and calls into question what we find so important about our way of life or way of thinking. Daunting us with its blatant critique on how superficial society has become and the opiates we take to endure everyday life, this exhibition is so good because it is honest in its pop-culture critique, irrespective of the cultural identity of the artists themselves, making this exhibition not just “Black” art but American.”

Beryl Johns, who has been with the Stella Jones Gallery for almost a decade, was especially pleased to see work by an artist she has long admired.

“I was fascinated by the Basquiat self-portrait and found his brush strokes spoke volumes not only about the way he worked, but also the way he lived. His great editing eye was evident as he presented more of a feeling of himself rather than a completed rendered image.”

Gallery owner Arthur Rogers summed up his reaction to the exhibition saying, “This is my favorite show ever at the CAC. It is beautifully installed!”

Adjunct professor at Xavier and SUNO Sarah Clunis said, “I think that this exhibition really shows there is a school of thought among African-American artists that indicates African American artists are mining international sources.”

Dr. Sara Hollis is a Professor in the Master of Arts in Museum Studies Program at Southern University at New Orleans. Her doctoral dissertation, supervised by Dr. Richard Long at Clark-Atlanta University is: African American Artists—A Handbook. She can be reached at: shollis@suno.edu.

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