Portraying the ghosts of inequality

A haunting ring of chairs greets guests at the entrance of “30 Americans.”

On each chair sits a white hat with slit holes for eyes, resembling the Ku Klux Klans’ unnerving costumes. Hanging from the ceiling is a noose.

The provocative display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art centers around sexuality, racism and self-identity in contemporary culture, featuring 31 prominent African American artists. The title, “30 Americans,” comes from the initial inclusion of 30 artists, but as works were added, the title became a reflection of the intent of the display instead of its description.

Comprised of 76 visually dynamic paintings, sculptures, photographs and videos, the exhibit is a partial sampling of the Miami-based Rubell Family Foundation’s permanent collection.

The intergenerational artwork focuses on bridging relationships between African American artists across decades.

“’30 Americans’ explores how each artist reckons with the notion of identity in America, navigating such concerns as the struggle for civil rights, sexuality, popular culture and media imagery,” Sarah Newman, curator of contemporary art and the presentation at the Corcoran, said . “By focusing on the way that individuals carve out their own place in the world, it speaks to the American experience more generally.”

Media Credit: Ana Cvetkovic
‘Sleep’ by Kehinde Wiley is the face of the exhibit.

Each gallery within the exhibit follows a theme, whether it is the racial struggles of African Americans or the challenges of homosexuality, where a central piece of the gallery highlights the overall message of the collection.

At the center of one gallery room hangs “Sleep,” by Kehinde Wiley. The 11-by-25-foot oil painting depicts an African American man sprawled across a cloth-draped surface, covered in nothing but a white sheet, his anguish juxtaposed against a rosy floral background.

The thought provoking exhibit stirs the audience from their own experiences.

“It’s supposed to be challenging,” Melanie Kimmelman, coordinator of public relations for the gallery, said. “It really connects the contemporary to the history. It challenges the status quo and brings the questions forefront for you to really think about it. It forces the audience to really engage in these topics. Really, you can start up a conversation with anyone while looking through this exhibit, and I’m sure they’ll have a plenty to say.”

Continuing the conversation, the Corcoran invites users to virtually respond to what they are seeing. The museum has left iPads outside of the exhibit, soliciting reactions as viewers exit. There is also a hashtag and twitter handle for the museum and exhibit, #sayitloud and @CorcoranDC.

Other works challenging stereotypes and opinions include a photograph of a basketball player’s calf chained to a basketball, by Hank Willis Thomas. The basketball player’s legs and feet are the only body parts visible, but the mid-air flight encourages reactions as to what is tying them down.

A steely-eyed portrait of a well-dressed African American man engulfed in smoke is the photographic work titled, “The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club,” by Rashid Johnson. The subject stares back hauntingly at the viewer with an intense yet weary expression.

Selective artists in the collection have also scheduled events, gallery talks and workshops associated with the exhibit to further connect with the audience.

“30 Americans” is open from Oct. 1 to Feb. 12, 2012.

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