‘30 Americans:’ Creating a Show of Heralded Contemporary Black Art

Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami.

Kehinde Wiley, Sleep, 2008. Oil on canvas, 132 x 300 inches.

The ongoing “30 Americans” exhibit that recently opened at the Corcoran Gallery of Art showcases work by some of most important African American artists of the past 30 years.

The 76 pieces of art are owned by Donald and Mera Rubell, who hold one of the world’s largest, private art collections. Mera Rubell tells WAMU’s Metro Connection that they noticed a trend in their collection about five years ago:

Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami.

Hank Willis Thomas, Basketball and Chain, 2003. Digital C-print, 99 x 55 inches.

“A disproportionate number of these exciting artists were these young African Americans,” she says. “Invariably we would ask them, ‘who was your inspiring force?’ Artists are always borrowing, they’re always being inspired by an older generation. And to our delight and surprise, many of those artists were already in our collection.

After realizing they were in possession of a huge web of interconnecting artistic influences — perfect material for an exhibit — they decided it would never work. “We certainly didn’t want it to come across as ghettoizing,” Mera says. “How would that be received?”

Turns out, the artists were totally fine with it. To them, an all-African-American show is a celebration.

The works are as diverse in style as they are in subject matter. Some of the pieces are haunting or provide pointed social commentary, such as Hank Willis Thomas’ “Basketball and Chain.” Others are celebratory.

So why is the show called “30 Americans” and not something that makes it obvious the show is all-black? Donald Rubell says that “the show did not exist because they were African American artists, the show existed because the work was so exciting and so good.”

A few local artists have work included in the show. Read their comments here, or listen to the audio piece here.