Marketing people are known for their ability to “spin.” To position, to promote, and to posture about things they care about (and admittedly, things they don’t). After all, that’s the job. However, it was with complete sincerity that I spoke to my team about the 30 Americans exhibition. I told them I was taking my marketing hat off to give them a glimpse of the show through my eyes, not as a marketing person but as an African American woman. When I finished several of them said, “Blog post!” and so I share some of those thoughts now, not to sell you on seeing the show, but to invite you into a relevant conversation for our world today. It is not the world in black or white—though I write about our pride—it is about seeing works of art as mirrors of our existence.
I view the 30 Americans exhibition with immense gratification because from my perspective, our culture—and its range of experiences—is rarely put on view and valued as art without a qualifier. Not “black” art or dance or theater, simply creative expressions to be celebrated (or critiqued).
Growing up in New York made me a lover of the arts, and I am passionate about sharing cultural experiences. My parents (and grandparents) were college-educated professionals; I had a comfortable life. The lone searing memory of my childhood is of being on a school bus when I was six years old, headed to first grade (gleeful in my pretty red dress and matching shoes!). As we approached the school, I looked down and saw angry faces, mouths shouting words I didn’t understand. When I arrived home, I asked my mother why the people were so mad at us. Her reply: “It is not you; sometimes people fear what they don’t understand.” (You’re probably wondering how my recollection is so distinct; that’s extraordinarily philosophical for a six-year-old! Well, it was the first, but not the last, time I heard that particular reminder.) I grew up with integration, discrimination, the Black Power Movement, women’s liberation . . . a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s. As a result, race is a fact, not a definition, of my life, yet I am profoundly aware of the struggles that got us to where we are today and the obstacles we still face. It is our reality.
These issues of race, gender, and perception are eloquently addressed by many of the artists in 30 Americans. I am proud of the North Carolina Museum of Art for the decision to mount such an important exhibition. I relish walking through the galleries and seeing work by artists collected and assessed, as Mera Rubell said, “not by their race but by their exceptional talents.”
Last week I had a conversation with one of the security guards, who inquired, “Have you seen our new exhibition?” When I assured her I had, she said, “I wore my Afro puff today because I saw an expression of our beauty in some of those paintings and felt proud!” I do too. As on the day of President Obama’s election, perhaps we are standing a little tallerbecause in these moments, our rightful place in history—and in contemporary society—is indisputable. 30 Americans is filled with everything from breathtakingly beautiful works to hauntingly troubling images, affirming there’s no single way to be African American, or for that matter, American. Whoever you are, however you identify yourself, it is an exhibition that will make you think, make you smile, make you wonder . . . and after all, isn’t that what great art is all about?
This post is one of a series on staff perspectives of 30 Americans. Melanie Davis-Jones is Director of Marketing at the NCMA.