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Art Show Explores African American Identity

  • Deborah Block

A new exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington is showcasing the work of African-American artists working over the past three decades. The exhibit of paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures is called “30 Americans” and examines black identity in the United States. The idea is that African Americans are simply Americans.

Sarah Newman, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Corcoran, says the show is as diverse as the artists themselves.

"This exhibit is just so remarkable because it gives a sense of the last 30 years really, not only in contemporary African American art but in contemporary art in general." she said. "And you really get a sense on how generations interact with each other and you get a sense of the way identity has been figured throughout time."

The pieces come from the Rubell Family Collection in Miami. Donald Rubell says the show examines themes such as slavery, civil rights, and the representation of blacks in popular culture.

“A lot of the artworks here deal with very specific points in time - sometimes very difficult times in history, sometimes very joyous times in history,” he said.

“Branded Head"

“Branded Head"

Photographer Hank Willis Thomas combines advertising photography with images that refer to slavery. One is called “Branded Head.”

“And ‘Branded Head' to me speaks to me about how African-American slaves were branded as a sign of ownership and how today so many of their decendents brand themselves with corporate brands that we wear,” he said.

Thomas has a separate exhibit at the Corcoran with more of his photographs.

“Basketball and sports are a major American spectacle," he said. "A major American spectacle of the early 20th century was lynching.”

Baronhawk Williams came to see the artwork. He was impressed by a painting from artist Kahinde Wiley.

“You normally wouldn’t see a beautiful painting of a black male. Thank you. I’ve been waiting to see something like this for 23 years,” he said.

Painter Nina Chanel Abney created portraits.

“Rubber gloves are typically something I use throughout my work, and I initially started to use them to identify figures who are maybe protecting themselves from harm, or maybe being involved in some type of dirty work that they don’t want to take responsibility for,” she said.

Shinique Smith, a sculptor, says she finds inspiration in the urban landscape. She uses trash as treasure, recycling used clothing, old magazines, even garbage she finds on the street. She used a variety of materials to create her female fantasy warrior.

“Plastic tablecloths, there’s designer clothing mixed with old futon covers," she said. "So in some sense we're all connected by the things we purchase and discard through consumerism."

The exhibit is on the second stop of a three-city tour in the United States and will be at the Corcoran through mid-February 2012.

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