San Juana Paramo
A blinking “America” neon sign greets museum attendees–a calm, ominous welcome. They mill around the exhibition silently, eyes glued to paintings and installations that shatter the misconception of Black Americans. “30 Americans” is the first exhibition at the Joslyn Art Museum focused exclusively on the work of African-American contemporary artists.
The show features work by artists casual art fans may recognize including: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Carrie Mae Weems and Kehinde Wiley, who painted former President Barack Obama’s presidential portrait.
The show is exhilarating, unsettling and shocking. The exhibition presents challenging themes that reflect the complexities of life in America for Black Americans. The exhibit includes rhinestone-studded paintings by artist Mickalene Thomas (who painted former first lady Michelle Obama’s portrait) that address ideas of beauty and a painting by Henry Taylor depicting Carl Lewis long jumping from a prison yard.
The exhibition is supposed to make one think, to question how we talk about race, how we see people and how people see us. Much of the art depicts Black people as powerful, graceful and beautiful. Such as Kehinde Wileys’ Sleep, a piece that counters the stereotype that Black masculinity is threatening by depicting a Black man suspended in time with an elaborate floral background, similar to paintings that glorified white Europeans long ago.
Every piece in the exhibit requires attendees to keep in mind the ideas related to race, culture and identity. Nick Caves’ Soundsuits in Untitled hide race, gender and class, while Lona Simpsons’Wigs examine the challenges of enhancing one’s physical appearance including beauty and femininity.
The first half of the exhibition leaves one speechless and in awe of the beauty the artists were able to capture. However, the second half angers and astonishes the viewer, the paintings and installations no longer depict beauty but a sobering reality of how things used to be.
“Duck Duck Noose” by Gary Simmons features a circle of Ku Klux Klan hoods surrounding a noose that knocks the breath out of you. The instillation demands the viewer to think about the lynching of African-Americans and the current state of racial politics today. It is both art and history, meant to be thought-provoking, scary and heartbreaking.
Next to the instillation, Carrie Mae Weems monochromatic prints from the series “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” are displayed. The photographs examine how photography was used to perpetuate racial prejudice and social injustice with inscribed phrases that imagines how society would have perceived the depicted individuals then.
“30 Americans” makes people question their own prejudices and how they view race, culture and identity. It is difficult, challenging and disconcerting, it shows how history continues to shape how we interact and engage with each other. It leaves you both full of hope and completely cut open, raw and filled with emotion. As I walk out of the exhibit, the large neon sign is ingrained in my brain blinking on and off and again and again-America. America. This is America.
“30 Americans” is on display at the Joslyn until May 5, tickets are $5 for students with school ID. For museum hours and prices, visit http://www.joslyn.org/visit/.