It isn’t often that the stars of black contemporary art—Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas, Barkley L. Hendricks, Nick Cave, Lorna Simpson, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Carrie Mae Weems, Rashid Johnson, Mark Bradford, Wangechi Mutu, Hank Willis, Glenn Ligon, and Kehinde Wiley—have the works hung in the same show. But in 30 Americans at the Detroit Institute of Arts, three decades of painting, sculpture, installation, photography, and video, making up over 50 works by these artists, explore the full range of events and inspirations that have shaped both their individual practices and art history itself since the 1980s.
“The show first opened at the Rubell Family Collection, because all the work comes from that collection, and it has changed as the show has toured,” exhibition curator Valerie Mercer tells The Creators Project. “We organized this show around seven themes that we saw in the works—which have to do with the various artists approaches, ideas, and issues they are interest in” she adds. These themes include: "defying Western art traditions; portraying black subjects as real people as opposed to types; sampling multiple sources of inspiration, from historical material to found objects; freestyling by adopting improvisational and expressionistic styles to demonstrate creative and technical virtuosity; signifying through the use of symbols, materials and images that imply or trigger associations about gender, race, religion, class and sexuality; transforming the body’s appearance to examine the relationship between societal assumptions and identity; and confronting American history regarding race, racism and power in the United States.”
Barkley L. Hendricks’ Noir, 1978, oil and acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami
Using the themes to contextualize the work, 30 Americans at DIA collectively charts a history of how representational art has dramatically changed. The once ignored, artististic impulses of non-white artists in the Western canon have been given increasing credit for their contributions in shaping high and popular culture. On view is the monumental Sleep by Kehinde Wiley, whose work has appeared on the TV show Empire. Kerry James Marshall’s Vignette #10, Barkely L. Hendricks’ Noir, and Jeff Sonhouse’s Exhibit A: Cardinal Francis Arinze represent a class of painting that redefines who deserves to be painted. Hank Willis Thomas’ Branded Head photograph of a black male head embossed with the Nike swoosh logo, Nick Cave’s flowery Soundsuit sculpture, and Mickalene Thomas’ Baby I Am Ready, of a black woman powerfully sitting with a hand on her cheek staring undaunted into the distance, have widened the definitions of what portraiture can be.
30 Americans also showcases the evolution of abstraction in American art. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s wordy One Million Yen and Bird Money, both painted in the early 1980s, denote an earlier play on abstraction in the show, while Mark Bradford’s 2005 Whore in the Church House and Wangechi Mutu’s Non je ne regretted rien from 2007 show the sublime current heights black abstraction has reached. Glenn Ligon’s neon sign Untitled (I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance) and William Pope.L’s video The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 years, 1 street, also highlight how the exhibition is also a brilliant visual history of the politics of race.
“I want people to see this history and not forget it because we are always talking about having some kind of conversation—none of which I believe has happened yet,” says Mercer of what she would like the exhibition to achieve in Detroit. “The non-African-American audience has to learn that this is American history and you can’t just segregate it as being just African-American history,” she continues. “Everyone should know it.”
30 Americans continues through January 18, at the Detroit Institute of Arts. For more information, click here.