When a person wears one of Nick Cave’s famous sound suits, which cover a body from head to toe, no one can tell what their race is. Many, including their creator, find this liberating, an opportunity to escape stereotypical expectations. Other artists prefer to show their black faces, and the faces and bodies of other black people, in the foreground, to claim their rightful place in society, in history and in art.
Two of Cave’s Soundsuits and 68 other works by contemporary black artists make up a new exhibit at the New Britain Museum of American Art. Portraiture and human representation dominate ’30 Americans’ as 30 artists affirm their right to be in a medium – art museums – that has historically excluded them or allowed only white artists to interpret their existence.
One of the artists, Kerry James Marshall, writes in his statement: “Presence is a prelude to power.
“Figure representation is crucial to my purpose because a critical mass of multinational and multiracial images in museums and art history, produced by artists of color, can correct an imbalance that suggests only white artists produce important and meaningful work,” writes Marshall.
Marshall’s artwork, from his “Vignette” series, places a black couple in a romantic setting. The two hold hands surrounded by roses, hearts and a ray of sunshine, their love carved into the bark of a tree, a house in the background. Is this their house? We like to think so, considering that in the real world, redlining would have prevented a real black couple from living in such an idyllic place.
Perhaps the most well-known contemporary black artist, Kehinde Wiley, also places black people where they have previously been excluded, much like his most famous portrait subject, President Obama. One of Wiley’s “Rumors of War” paintings shows a handsome young black man in a red hoodie and Nikes on a charging white horse, brandishing a spear. Wiley’s massive and stately painting, in an ornate gilt frame, is a reworking of “Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke of Olivares” by 17th-century Spanish royal court painter Diego Velázquez.
Another Wiley, three different views of the same young man, was inspired by a mugshot. Mugshots could be interpreted as the ultimate example of how white gaze distorts interpretations of black people. Wiley reverses the situation by placing his young man against the sumptuous background of the artist, in three different poses, all respecting the dignity of this young man.
Classic odalisque painting—an almost entirely white art subgenre that has reflected standards of beauty for centuries—is reinterpreted in Mickalene Thomas’ “Baby I Am Ready Now” diptych. A sequined black woman dressed in bright colors gazes into the distance contemplatively while lounging on a sofa piled high with patterned blankets and pillows. It hangs alongside Thomas’ ‘Portraits of Quanikah’, a grid of 15 sparkling interpretations of a woman, showing a wide range of emotions: joy, concern, defiance, ferocity, sadness, anger.
It’s not just white artists whose work is reinterpreted through the paintings, sculptures, photos, videos and assemblages of “30 Americans.” Rozeal’s works reinterpret classic Japanese ukiyo-e images of beautiful women, fierce warriors and noble men. Rozeal changes skin color and inserts references to African-American and hip-hop culture.
In his photographs, Rashid Johnson creates an alternate universe where black people have their own secret society, “New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club”. Johnson casts himself as one of the members of this club, who dresses in tennis duds like “the Black Jimmy Connors” and gazes through a haze of smoke, emphasizing the fantastical unreality of Johnson’s world.
Xaviera Simmons also places herself at the center of her photographs. Four plays by her “One Day and Back Then” and “American Book Covers” show her, sometimes in blackface, in places where black subjects are rarely seen: rural pastoral settings.
“Who historically and traditionally happens to exist in the sublime with respect to landscape photography and landscape painting?” Simmons asks in his artist statement. “How could our whole history have been different if America had fulfilled its promises of emancipation to its freed slaves and their descendants instead of commemorating its defeated Confederate planters?”
The artwork in the series doesn’t just celebrate black identity. Some tell of the grief of black people. Hank Willis Thomas, whose work references advertising and marketing and its effects on self-image, has created a tragic parody of MasterCard’s old “Priceless” advertising campaign. The photographic image of the grieving black people is captioned “Suit $250. New socks $2. Gold chain $400. 9mm pistol $80. Ball 60 cents. Choosing the perfect casket for your son: Priceless.
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Noah Davis’ painting “For My Father” was created after the death of Davis’ father. A young black man, with his back to the artist, gazes into a dark, starry sky holding a fading lantern. Davis himself died young, succumbing to cancer at age 32.
An entire wall in a gallery is occupied by one of Kara Walker’s famous silhouettes. Walker’s black cutouts reimagine Victorian era imagery to reflect black existence and experience. This work, “Camptown Ladies”, takes up the absurd old minstrel song, which was originally written to be performed by white performers in blackface. Walker reinterprets the lyrics as a series of characters. The collection of images can be viewed in a variety of ways, as can the lyrics of the melody by Stephen Foster, a 19th-century composer known for his stereotypical portrayals of black people.
Other performing artists are Nina Chanel Abney, John Bankston, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mark Bradford, Robert Colescott, Leonardo Drew, Renée Green, David Hammons, Barkley L. Hendricks, Glenn Ligon, Kalup Linzy, Rodney McMillian, Wangechi Mutu, William Pope.L, Gary Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Shinique Smith, Henry Taylor, Carrie Mae Weems and Purvis Young.
All works are on loan from the Rubell Museum in Miami. The show has been on the road nationwide since 2006, but this is its first stop in the Northeast.
The exhibit’s guest curators are Dann J. Broyld, associate professor of African-American history at UMass Lowell; Nicole Stanton, senior vice president and vice president for academic affairs and professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown; and Dr. Brittney Yancy, assistant professor of humanities at Goodwin University in East Hartford.
30 AMERICANS is at the New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., until October 30. Hours of operation are Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $15, seniors $12, members and children under 18 are free. Admission on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. is free. On Thursdays, the museum is open until 8 p.m. and admission after 5 p.m. is $5. nbmaa.org.
Susan Dunne can be contacted at [email protected].