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“30 Americans”: Black Artistic Power Inspires

The Arkansas Arts Center (AAC) is hosting until June 21 an inspiring overview of African-American art covering over 40 years: 30 Americans. The exhibit includes established artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nick Cave, Robert Colescott and Barkley L. Hendricks, as well as younger talents like Wangechi Mutu, Shinique Smith and Kehinde Wiley.


In describing the exhibition, the AAC website states:

Often provocative and challenging, 30 Americans explores what it means to be a contemporary artist and an African American today. Whether addressing issues of race, gender, sexuality, politics, or history—or the seeming lack thereof—the works in the exhibition offer powerful interpretations of cultural identity and artistic legacy…

Drawn from the collection of Mera and Don Rubell, 30 Americans contains forty-one works in a variety of media—paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, digital videos, and photographs… a pattern of intergenerational influence… Works that comprise the exhibition afford viewers the opportunity to observe a stylistic dialogue among artists working throughout the past four decades.

Particularly impressive in our Thursday, June 4 tour:

Kehinde Wiley’s pair of large, highly detailed oil-on-canvas portraits reframing cultural depictions by master artists: e.g. his mimicking Diego Velázquez’s Equestrian Portrait of Count-Duke of Olivares, but replacing the white nobleman on brown steed with a modern African-American man on a white horse and substituting the nature background with an intricate tapestry.

Nick Cave’s bright selection from his Soundsuits, created from various materials ranging from synthetic hair and fiberglass to fabrics and sequins – subjects with bodies covered completely from head to patterned-stocking shins and feet.

Nina Chanel Abney’s acrylic on canvas Class of 2007, a “class portrait” of young African Americans in handcuffs, watched over by a white, blond-haired armed guard with bloody knuckles.

Hank Willis Thomas’s digital C-print Branded Head, the cleanly shaved head of an African American startlingly branded with the Nike “Swoosh” logo — a condemning comparison between the inhumane branding of 19th-century slaves to the greedy advertising branding of athletes today.

The artwork’s intensity ranges not only from social comments about the human condition in general to the plight of African-Americans in particular, but to abstract work as well.

You’ve just over two more weeks to view this colorful, energetic display of talented African-American artists’ interpretations of their culture and society as a whole. It’s an insightful tour. See some examples below.


kehindeportraitKehinde Wiley, Equestrian Portrait of the Count Duke Olivares


30-americansA Nick Cave Soundsuit in foreground


class2007_30americansNina Chanel Abney’s Class of 2007

BrandedHead_RubellFamilyCollectionHank Willis Thomas’s digital C-print Branded Head


Roger Armbrust

Roger Armbrust's articles and columns have covered labor and management, Congressional legislation, and federal court cases, including appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. He formerly served as national news editor of Back Stage in New York City, where he also taught a professional writing course at New York University. His recent book of sonnets -- oh, touch me there: Love Sonnets -- is available from Amazon and other book sites. He is an associate curator of The Clyde Fitch Report. He is also co-founder and co-curator of reality: a world of views.

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