30 Americans: A Story of Humanity

I have been a visitor to the North Carolina Museum of Art from childhood and joined the Museum staff five years ago. During my visits to Morgan Street and up to recently, I always gravitated to the more known and traditional—Copley, Giotto, Monet, Rubens, and other masters. The abstract and contemporary seemed too strange and sometimes made me wonder if I was actually looking at art—and why in the world was this in an art museum?

What I failed to recognize was this was exactly the type of reaction these works seek to elicit from the viewer. Now spending my working hours in the Museum and having more opportunity to learn about contemporary art, I see its place in the art experience.

The best example of this is our current exhibition, 30 Americans. When I went through this exhibition, I was amazed by its power. Every human emotion is represented, and the art demands a reaction. It seems to vibrate. Some of the art is beautiful and lovely to look at, and some made me cry with its message of human failings. There are works that made me shake my head because, on the surface, they seem ridiculous—a piece of carpet, a pile of cotton bales—and some that made me hang my head from the injustice man causes man. And some works will even made me laugh with their humor and irony.

One of my favorites in the exhibition is Camptown Ladies by Kara Walker. This is a large series of cutouts depicting the Stephen Foster song, but as you look closer at the figures in the work, you begin to see disturbing things. A theme of dominance and cruelty emerges—representing not only the era in which the song was popular but also the story of human civilization—one culture or group having dominion over another.

This exhibition is one not to be missed. I love it. It speaks to everyone with insights into the human soul, humor, sadness, and beauty. To paraphrase artist Kehinde Wiley, it is a story about power—who has it, who doesn’t have it, and how telling about it can bring about change. I hope more people come to experience what these artists have created. It is something quite important and potent. Don’t miss it.

This post is one of a series on staff perspectives of 30 Americans. Kathryn Yandell is a major gifts officer at the NCMA.

Image: Kara Walker, Camptown Ladies, 1998, paper and adhesive on wall, variable dimensions, Rubell Family Collection, Miami, © 2010 Kara Walker

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