30 Americans: The Impact Of African Art (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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'30 Americans' And The Impact Of African-American Art

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:02
As Paul Tetreault points out, art can be a challenging thing. It can make us think outside our own box, you know, see a new perspective, perhaps even make us change our minds. Well, up next we'll visit a visual art exhibit that offers its own challenges. All the works in the exhibit come from Donald and Mera Rubell, who've made it a practice to spend a quarter of their income on art.

MR. DONALD RUBELL

00:00:25
And we consider a quarter to be a very good controlled number and sometimes it become -- it's worse than that.

SHEIR

00:00:32
Piece by piece, the Rubell's have amassed one of the largest private art collections in the world. They have more than 5,000 contemporary works, 76 of which are now at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in a show called, "30 Americans." Emily Friedman has more.

MS. EMILY FRIEDMAN

00:00:47
All of the artists in "30 Americans," are African-American, but there's a reason the Rubell's didn't point that out in the title.

RUBELL

00:00:54
This show did not exist because they were African-American artists. The show existed because their work was so exciting and so good.

FRIEDMAN

00:01:03
Mera Rubell says it was about five years ago that they took note of a trend going on in their own collection.

MRS. MERA RUBELL

00:01:08
With this proportion number of these exciting artists, who were these young African-Americans, and invariably we would ask them, Well, who was your inspiring force in your work? And to our delight and surprise, many of those artists were already in our collection.

FRIEDMAN

00:01:23
After realizing they were in possession of a huge web of interconnecting artistic influences, perfect material for an exhibit, they decided it would never work.

RUBELL

00:01:35
We certainly didn't want it to come across as ghetto-izing. How would that be received?

FRIEDMAN

00:01:39
Turns out the artists were totally fine with it. To them, an all African-American show is a celebration. A celebration sure, but the work itself deals with some complex topics. Picture opening night, more than 800 people are waiting to climb the grand staircase in the Corcoran's Gallery. And if you look up the stairs, the only thing you can see is a bright glimmering noose.

MS. SARAH NEWMAN

00:02:02
When we put it up, we were like, oh my gosh, what have we done to make that so central?

FRIEDMAN

00:02:07
This is Sarah Newman, the show's curator. She's talking about a sculpture called, "Duck, Duck, Noose" by Gary Simmons.

NEWMAN

00:02:14
It's a haunting work, it's a chilling work. It's really hard to take, but we thought that that is a huge part of the conversation.

FRIEDMAN

00:02:20
Newman counterbalances the piece with what you see next, Nick Cave's "Soundsuits."

NEWMAN

00:02:25
They're these elaborate, ornate costumes that are meant to be worn so they refer to African ceremonial costumes and Mardi Gras costumes and they are the strangest things. They look like alien visitors that have just landed into the galleries.

FRIEDMAN

00:02:39
These costumes bring lightness to the show that at times forces some tough questions on the viewer. Photographs by Hank Willis Thomas show a black basketball player's ankles shackled to a ball and chain, only the ball is a basketball. Another photo shows a man's head branded with the Nike swoosh. Most of the artists in the show work and live in New York, though there are a few with roots in this neck of the woods, such as D.C. native Iona Rozeal Brown.

MS. IONA ROZEAL BROWN

00:03:07
I am indebted to this town. My mom -- we always went to the museum. Like, we were always in the museum. I didn't know anything but the museum.

FRIEDMAN

00:03:15
Her painting explores how hip-hop culture spread around the culture, specifically to Japan. In her painting, "Sacrifice," she draws an African-American woman sleeping on a bed of Japanese textiles and she has this gorgeous hairdo that's piled on top of her head.

BROWN

00:03:31
And you can't get it messed up because you've paid all this money and so you, you know, you kind of have to sleep like this, you know, with your head resting on your hand.

FRIEDMAN

00:03:39
To keep her hairstyle from getting messed up, the woman is sacrificing a good night's sleep. This is something Brown researched in geisha culture and in something she recognized in her own culture.

BROWN

00:03:49
And I found that this was similar and I thought, well, that's really funny.

FRIEDMAN

00:03:52
Baltimore native, Shinique Smith, has two sculptures in the show, both of which use everyday objects like jerseys, rugs and cut up linoleum flooring to get it how material goods can connect us to one another.

MS. SHINIQUE SMITH

00:04:04
I never experienced Jim Crow. I wasn't alive during the civil rights movement. They're not of my experience. For me to make work with that as the overt theme, I would feel inauthentic.

FRIEDMAN

00:04:17
Smith says she's thrilled to see a show that is full-on contemporary African-American art.

SMITH

00:04:23
I bet many people come and many school tours will come and, you know, just like when I was a kid, you know, I'm tearing up right now. I just realized that when school tours and young people come to the museum to see the show, there will be kids who have experience like me of going to the MoMa and seeing Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems...

FRIEDMAN

00:04:47
Who are both older, black female artists.

SMITH

00:04:50
You know, feeling like I could be in this museum and now we're together in this one. So I think it's an amazing thing.

FRIEDMAN

00:04:58
Both for her, she says, and for the emerging artists of the next generation, I'm Emily Friedman.

SHEIR

00:05:06
30 Americans opens October 1st and runs through the middle of February. You can see some of the artwork you just heard about on our website, metroconnection.org.