30 Americans

Works From the Nation’s Most Vital African-American Artists On Display

Photography provided by Cincinnati Art Museum

The Cincinnati Art Museum takes a dramatic leap into the world of racial identity and African-American culture with a stirring and provocative exhibition that features works by many of the most important black artists of the last three decades, most of them still living. 

“30 Americans” features about 60 pieces drawn primarily from the famed Rubell Family Collection of Miami, supplemented by works from the Cincinnati Art Museum’s permanent collection. 

The exhibit, which was on display last year at the Detroit Institute of Arts and previously at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., features such contemporary artists as Nick Cave, Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mickalene Thomas and Glenn Ligon. 

Although the exhibition showcases African-American artists, it revels in the diversity among these artists in style, subject matter and perspective. 

“If there is one big takeaway from the show it is that black culture is not monolithic,” says Brian Sholis, curator of photography at the Cincinnati Art Museum and co-curator of the exhibit. 

“Just like any other culture, there are different life experiences and modes of expression, seen here through paintings, sculpture, multimedia, drawings and photographs. It runs the gamut of what is contemporary. The social issues, identity issues and national and historical events these artists choose to engage in is equally broad.”

Exhibit organizers are sensitive to the fact that it can be intellectually dodgy to lump together any ethnic, racial or gender identity, not only in art, but in the larger culture. As the Rubells point out in a statement on the exhibit: “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.”

“It’s why the show is entitled ‘30 Americans,’ not ‘30 African-Americans,’ ” Sholis says. “It’s simultaneously important that it is a show of African-American artists and, at the same time, incidental. Their experience is ultimately the American experience.” 

The exhibit actually features 31 artists, which Sholis sees as a bit of sly symbolism on the part of exhibit organizers. 

“I think they want to make the point that while there is a cutoff at 30, there are many more who could be included. The extra number is sort of the wild card in the pack that stands in for the many talented and worthy African-American artists who could be included
in the show.” 

One of the more exciting aspects is that each museum is allowed to curate the exhibition to its own space. Most touring exhibits have a precise checklist on how the display is to be mounted. But the Rubell institution permits curators to look through all of its 280 art holdings of their African-American artists to pick the pieces they want and integrate other pieces they may have. 

“We get to choose the pieces, frame the show and explain it rhetorically to our visitors however we want,” Sholis says.

The CAM exhibit will have some gallery rooms with loose themes, such as how economic structure has determined what people create, and the “commodification of black culture,” as Sholis puts it. Other themes include caricatures people put on blacks and how the artists respond to the roles they are expected to play. 

Another section will include a room with images of slavery and forms of racial violence. The centerpiece of that is Kara Walker’s 50-foot-long mural, “Camptown Ladies,” with silhouette cutouts drawing on the minstrel images of the 19th century. But Walker’s cutouts often depict horrific scenes of sexually charged brutality and racial violence.  

One of the more powerful statements is Kehinde Wiley’s 25-foot oil painting, “Sleep,” of a black man in an image reminiscent of Christ after being taken down from the cross. It is representative of Wiley’s acclaimed work where he puts realistic black people in heroic poses from the old European, baroque canon. To drive home the point, Sholis has displayed this and other paintings among the museum’s permanent collection of renaissance works. “There will be opportunity to view some of the works next to a masterpiece painting in our collection. It’s a way to contrast and compare,” Sholis says. “In Wiley’s case, it is a very deliberate attempt to make a political statement about art history.”

The exhibit is co-curated by Rehema C. Barber, director and chief curator, Tarble Arts Center at Eastern Illinois University. 

Sholis is well suited to work on this exhibit. While his job at CAM involves photography curating, he spent 12 years working in the New York City art world, including three years at a Chelsea gallery and five years as an editor of Artforum magazine, the leading trade publication on contemporary art.He often worked with and came to know many of these black artists. 

Sholis says there is a trend among art museums to finally start collecting in earnest important African-American artists. As a New York Times article last fall pointed out: “After decades of spotty acquisitions, undernourished scholarship and token exhibitions, American museums are rewriting the history of 20th-century art to include black artists in a more visible and meaningful way than ever before, playing historical catch-up at full tilt …”

“African-American artists are finally getting the big mainstream art museum recognition that they deserve,” Sholis says. “A lot of museums around the country are working very assiduously to make sure their exhibitions, programs and collections more accurately reflect the populations of their communities and become more diverse.” 

Although exhibition organizers are careful not to overplay the extent to which all the artists in “30 Americans” deal with racial identity issues, Sholis says it is important to be mindful of the social climate in which the exhibit comes to town. 

“Race is never far from people’s lips in this country. From what happened in Cincinnati with Samuel DuBose (shot and killed by a University of Cincinnati police officer) and the Black Lives Matter movement, to how race is playing out in the presidential campaign, it is an apt moment to have conversations about these issues through the power of art. We hope the museum can frame those discussions as a space for reflection, contemplation and conversation.” 

The art museum is partnering with several organizations and arts groups that serve the African-American community to stage a series of weekly Sunday afternoon workshops and lectures during the exhibit. Starting in May, a community resource room will open as a space for repose and reflection, containing books, artist videos and other materials for those who wish to further learn about the art and the social issues addressed.

The Cincinnati Art Museum is located 953 Eden Park Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45202. You can reach them at 513.721.2787 or visit their website at www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org.

“30 Americans” is on display through Aug. 28. Admission is free. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.