The title is a tip-off.
Opening at the Albuquerque Museum on Saturday, Oct. 3, “30 Americans” showcases art from three generations of African American artists collected by Miami’s Rubell Museum. Being American is only one part of their identities.
The show offers a sampling of important paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos and installations revealing some of the complexities of African American culture as well as the societal, cultural and economic tension impacting that freedom of expression.
“It was intentional,” Albuquerque Museum Curator Josie Lopez said of the enigmatic title. “While it does touch on a lot of the history of African Americans in the United States, it’s not meant to be a comprehensive history. It’s a cross-section of amazing work.
“There is not a single African American art,” she continued. “There is not a single voice.”
Perhaps the most glittering name in the exhibition, onetime graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat confronts issues of identity in his homage to the jazz great Charlie Parker in “Bird on Money,” 1981.
“You can see the expressiveness of his work and the way he is improvising in the painting,” Lopez said.
Awash in repeated symbols and arrows, the canvas includes the words “para morir” (for death) in the lower right hand corner. On the bottom left, Basquiat penned “Greenwood,” the name of the cemetery near his New York birthplace. The painting finds Basquiat lamenting the loss of normalcy that came with success.
“He had a critical view of the commercialization of the art world,” Lopez said. “He was ambivalent about being put in a category as an African American artist.”
Famed for painting Barack Obama’s portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Kehinde Wiley asks who has the opportunity to have their portrait painted. He reimagines Old Master paintings using Black protagonists.
In “Equestrian Portrait of the Count Duke Olivares,” 2005, Wiley lavishes ornate textile detail in an opulent background. A Black man sporting a hoodie straddles a rearing white horse worthy of Napoleon.
“He pushes against this idea by getting people to wear their own clothes,” Lopez said. “He wants to feature his sitters with the same attention to detail as the most important people in European history.”
Mickalene Thomas challenges the depiction of African American women in history through the heavily patterned and rhinestone-flecked “Baby I Am Ready Now,” 2007.
The composition confronts images of slavery, as well as the sexual politics of the male gaze; of women’s bodies objectified.
In contrast, “There’s this incredibly strong African American woman who is in full possession of her space and her self,” Lopez said.
In his photograph “Basketball and Chain,” 2003, Hank Willis Thomas presents the success of all-star athleticism as a burden to bear for assimilation into white society.
“He’s challenging how the African American body gets commodified,” Lopez said. “It also becomes one of the few ways people become successful.”
In her collage “Non je ne regrette rien, (I regret nothing),” 2007, Kenyan American artist Wangechi Mutu scatters body parts and tendrilled serpents suspended between dimensions, reality and dreams.
“She is redefining how a body gets painted,” Lopez said. “What you see is a swirl of body parts, plant life and imagery. Women are carrying the experiences they have on a daily basis that impacts how they feel about themselves and their bodies.”
“Non je ne regrette rien, (I regret nothing)” was a song recorded by the French chanteuse Edith Piaf.
In “Class of 2007,” the painter Nina Chanel Abney reverses the racial makeup of her Pratt Institute graduating class.
“Most of her class were not African American,” Lopez said. “She switched everybody’s race just to show the disparity in art school. The only white figure is an armed security person; she’s not only switching skin color but power structure.”
“30 Americans” seems especially poignant as the U.S. wrestles with systemic racism through Black Lives Matter and mass demonstrations against police violence.
“It wasn’t deliberate, but we do acknowledge it,” Lopez said. “Obviously, this is not a response to current racial tensions. But it does offer an opportunity for discussions about race and equality.”