By Madeline Brown
Until Jan. 15, 2017, the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) is hosting the “30 Americans” exhibit, which showcases the culture of African Americans by 31 African American artists.
“One reason it’s called “30 Americans” —I mean it is 31 African American artists— [is because] there was a desire to focus on the fact that these are American artists who are telling an American story. [They] are some of the most influential and important American artists living today and they are African American artists. They are telling their own stories that intersect with the legacy of slavery and deal with issues of identity and inclusion,” Elise Richman, Associate Professor of Art at Puget Sound as well as advisory board member for the “30 Americans” exhibit, said.
Richman was invited to be on the advisory board for this exhibit along with other community members with the goal of brainstorming ways to get the community involved in the “30 Americans” exhibit. The board programmed events regarding the exhibit such as a slam poetry night taking place Nov. 17, a film screening Dec. 15, and a community festival Jan. 8. “We are… thinking about what might be helpful or specific to the local community that might make [the exhibit] all the more powerful in its impact,” Richman said.
While the “30 Americans” exhibit has been showcased along the east coast, this is the first time that the exhibit will be on the west coast, and for it to debut in the TAM is very noteworthy, Richman said.
The exhibit is very modern, utilizing many mediums ranging from media, photography, paintings, and lighting. To name a few important and influential artists on display at the exhibit include Mark Bradford, Carol Walker, Lorna Simpson, and Kehinde Wiley. Each artist brings a unique and intriguing element to their artwork.
Wiley’s artwork on display is a 25-foot long painting, making it the largest painting that the TAM has ever had on display. “[Wiley] references famous oil paintings but he replaces the mostly white male subject with African American subjects often with a sort of hip-hop sensibility. It’s his way of expanding the representation of the more diverse people in this oil painting tradition. And also the people represented in oil paintings have always historically been people of power. So it’s also a way of elevating the sort of cultural status of the types of people that he’s representing,” Richman said.
Deviating from traditional artwork mediums, Simpson uses felt to make images of different hairstyles in her piece, “Wigs,” to add a new dimension to her artwork. “There’s something very tactile about the images and they use different hairstyles as identity markers, so they’re sort of surrogates for different people, different styles,” Richman explained.
The exhibit also has a wall dedicated to sharing the voices and opinions of community members’ regarding the exhibit after their visit. Cards with the inscription, “This work of art is unforgettable because…” are available to all visitors and can be placed under images of each piece of art.
The artwork, “Duck, Duck, Noose” by Gary Simmons received the most comment cards. A haunting three-dimensional piece set up in the middle of the exhibit is composed of white hoods worn by the Klu Klux Klan members perched on stools forming a circle around a noose hanging from the ceiling. Anonymous comment cards from community members read, “Raw emotion,” “I got this eerie feeling like I needed to run out of the room because I was scared,” and “It made my heart jump. The closest I’ve ever been to real race hate.”
Other anonymous responses to the same piece by Simmons included “I could use one of these,” and “I would like to see this game.” When asked why such comments were left on the wall for other viewers to see, a TAM employee explained that they believed it important to leave every person’s opinion and reaction up, as it was a real emotion felt and therefore authorized to remain on the wall. While certain comments could be considered insensitive, TAM is allowing unfiltered comments to be posted on the wall, respecting the opinions of each visitor.
The impact of the exhibit was evident to many viewers, including Alfredo Tapia, a first-year student at the University. Tapia recounts that the most impactful piece of artwork that he saw was “Souvenir: Composition in Three Parts” by Kerry James Marshall. This piece was a replica of the cross that hung outside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that was bombed by the Klu Klux Klan as a hate crime, killing four girls. Accompanying the cross is a small note card that reads, “as seen on TV.”
“[Hate crimes are] happening today even in 2016. All of these people are getting murdered and there’s just nothing new on TV… Nothing has really changed, and I think that that’s something that America as a whole needs to work on. And it’s something that shouldn’t still be happening,” Tapia said.
Tapia encourages all community members and Puget Sound students to visit the exhibit: “I think students should definitely check out the exhibit because it’s something that’s almost hard to look at… It makes your stomach churn, because you thought these things were just in textbooks and something from the past but you can still see that it’s something that’s relevant today.”