30 Americans: A Story Told Well

Glenn Ligon, Stranger #21, 2005, acrylic, coal dust, silkscreen, gesso. and oil stick on canvas, 96 x 72 in.

When I first heard the title I thought, OK, what is this about? The answer came, 30 contemporary African American artists. My next thought was, OK, contemporary art. I am sure that I, like many others, have my personal favorite periods of art, favorite styles of art, and even favorite artists making art. I will admit that contemporary art is an area about which I am the most unfamiliar.

When I walked through the show, I was intrigued to find names I recognized from ARTnews. This show was full of the contemporary artists I had read about—Nick Cave (ARTnews, November 2010), Wangechi Mutu (ARTnews, February 2011) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (ARTnews, March 2010), to name a few.

Perhaps I should look more closely …

I think it is a wonderful thing how our minds can take an unfamiliar image and in a flash link it to something familiar that we have seen somewhere along the way. This happened over and over as I walked through the installation of 30 Americans.

From afar Glenn Ligon’s Stranger #21 reads as a modernist color-field work reminiscent of the Ellsworth Kelly in West Building. As I got closer to the Ligon, texture came into focus. Move in even closer, and it becomes actual text. One is physically drawn into the message and the words of James Baldwin’s 1953 essay Stranger in the Village,” which Ligon uses to tell his own story.

Kara Walker’s use of Victorian-silhouette-style cutout paper catches the unsuspecting eye and tells a story not of idyllic Victorian life but of something entirely different. Rashid Johnson creates assemblage works that recall Louise Nevelson’s Black Zag CC, also in West Building. Kehinde Wiley refers to his style as “urban-meets-classical.” His paintings beautifully integrate contemporary figures with images from Velázquez and van Dyck and others. The links in this exhibition are not limited to the past or other styles of art but also to literature and music.

The links move us forward to present-day advertising with the Nike swoosh in Branded Head by Hank Willis Thomas and social media video that can be viewed in the City Block. As I walked through the City Block I saw a video of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits in action. These full-body art pieces are worn by the artist, who twirls and swirls, truly making the art come to life. Many of the movements are similar to those used in the Egungun ceremony dance of the Yoruba people. Yes, there is an Egungun costume in West Building.

I was honestly surprised and delighted by how many different ways I could connect with the art in 30 Americans. There is something about people telling a story. Whether it is my story or their story or someone else’s story, a story told well through art is a beautiful thing.

This post is one of a series on staff perspectives of 30 Americans. Kathryn Briggs works in exhibition design at the NCMA.


  1. Karen
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    I hadn’t thought of the Nick Cave costumes in the context of the Yoruba dance masquerades. Cool connection!

  2. jim cargin
    Posted July 30, 2011 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    I was wondering if you know if this exhibit (30 Americans) is traveling elsewhere? We live in southern , Ontario, Canada and would be curious if the exhibit is coming to the northern United States or Canada anywhere.

    It looks very interesting.

    Thankyou, Jim Cargin

  3. Chad
    Posted July 30, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Jim. The next venue for 30 Americans is the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Here are details.

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