The Columbia (South Carolina) Museum of Art was intended to be the curtain call for “30 Americans,” a dynamic showcase of contemporary art featuring many of the most acclaimed African American artists of the last four decades. After 14 years on the road, originating in Miami with artworks drawn from the collection of the Rubell Museum, “30 Americans” went to Hawaii and Washington state, crisscrossing the nation to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.–21 museum stops total.
The exhibition, dubbed “this century’s most impactful exhibition of work by contemporary artists of African descent,” would finally head back home to South Florida after closing in Columbia on January 17, 2022.
Along the way–tragically–the necessity for the exhibition focused on issues of racial, sexual and historical identity in contemporary culture became even more urgent than in 2008 when it first hit the road.
A shocking resurgence of white supremacy in America–one of the worst tragedies occurring in South Carolina in 2015. A white nationalist ascending to the presidency in 2016. A black man lynched in broad daylight in Georgia 2020. Ongoing police violence against Black people turning millions out into the streets in 2020. White nationalists attempting to overthrow the U.S. government 2021. A broad effort to restrict voting rights targeted at Black citizens in 2021.
“We couldn’t fathom how our city would be dramatically impacted by the worldwide events we see today—we just knew this show has the immense potential to inspire and challenge people,” Jackie Adams, Columbia Museum of Art Director of Art and Learning, told Forbes.com of her decision to invite “30 Americans” to Columbia years before the racial upheavals of 2020 and 2021. “Fast forward to today and so much of our world needs opportunities to engage in constructive discussion. Exhibitions like ‘30 Americans’ help us examine issues in a deep and meaningful way, both together and within ourselves. We have an opportunity to move the conversation forward and seek diverse narratives on what it means to be an American, which is pretty exciting work to do through art and programming.”
“30 Americans” delves into the triumph, tragedy, pride and prejudice of the Black experience in this country, 30 individual perspectives united by race and nationhood. The 54 works on view range in scale, theme and medium, from painting, drawing and sculpture to photography, video and mixed media.
The artists, a dream team.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mark Bradford, Robert Colescott, Nick Cave, Leonardo Drew, David Hammons, Rashid Johnson, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Wangechi Mutu, William Pope.L, Lorna Simpson, Hank Willis Thomas, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Kehinde Wiley and Purvis Young to name a few.
Contemporary art standard bearers. Essentials.
Crucially, “30 Americans” brought these iconic artist-storytellers beyond the nation’s largest cities and museums to destinations like Columbia outside the contemporary art mainstream. Tacoma, WA. Little Rock, AR. Charleston, WV. Omaha, NE. Tucson, AZ. From these locales, residents would have to travel hundreds of miles to find singular works by the megawatt makers “30 Americans” brings together under one roof.
In Columbia, with its 40% Black population, this cultural barnstorming takes on additional importance, bringing diverse audiences into revered artistic space they may not have felt previously welcome to attend for any number of reasons.
“A strategic part of our work means striving to be a consistently reflective and inclusive museum—our communities are asking this of us, and we are listening and responding through exhibitions like ‘30 Americans,’” Adams said.
The effect of bringing this kind of work into the museum has been apparent from guest reactions.
“We had a visitor who upon entering the second gallery became emotionally overwhelmed. This gallery, entitled ‘Through the Looking Glass,’ reckons with Black history, especially the history of enslavement in America and its aftermath,” Adams said. “At some point in taking in the works, the visitor seated herself within this space and began to cry. Our gallery attendants made sure she wasn’t in distress, but rather that she was so moved by the works that they brought her to tears. People say art can move us and this kind of response makes that idea very real.”
The Columbia Art Museum will follow-up its commitment to Black artists and diverse audiences with future exhibitions including an Elizabeth Catlett solo show in the fall of 2022 and a group show the following spring featuring Alma Thomas.
More work to do–both as an exhibition and a nation–“30 Americans” has been extended. Next up, the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, Connecticut with additional locations planned to take the show into its 15th year.
Beyond “30 Americans,” Columbia offers another rare opportunity to think deeply about prejudice, this one permanent.
Opened in September of 2021, the University of South Carolina is now home to a permanent exhibition and educational program in partnership with the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, becoming one of only four partner sites in the world and the only one in North America.
The Anne Frank Center, located in the Barringer House on the UofSC campus, tells the story of the young Jewish girl who documented her family’s two years of hiding in Nazi German-occupied Amsterdam during World War II.
Romare Bearden in Charleston, S.C.
120 miles southeast of Columbia on the South Carolina coast, Charleston’s Gibbes Museum of Art presents the work of a heavyweight Black contemporary artist not included in “30 Americans,” Romare Bearden (b. Charlotte, N.C. 1911, d. 1988). The aim of this presentation centers artistic scholarship, not social justice.
“Romare Bearden: Abstraction,” through January 9, 2022, presents important yet rarely seen works from his prolific career. The exhibition provides the first substantive and scholarly examination of his extraordinary non-representational, large-scale stain paintings and mixed media collages that predate the figurative paintings he became famous for.
“Scholarship on mid-twentieth-century abstraction by artists of color produced in the last twenty years or so has teased out the issue of the whiteness of our knowledge of Abstract Expressionism and color field painting,” Tracy Fitzpatrick, Director of the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, SUNY, and “Romare Bearden: Abstraction” curator, told Forbes.com. “Bearden, however, continues to be absent from that conversation. ‘Romare Bearden: Abstraction’ has brought to light many of the abstractions the artist produced between 1952 and 1963, most of which had either never been exhibited or not been exhibited since they were first shown during the middle of the twentieth century.”
The Gibbes’ exhibition includes pieces on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The Guggenheim Museum and the private collection of Walter O. Evans.
With some 55 paintings, works on paper and collages, “Romare Bearden: Abstraction” is the first exhibition to fully examine and contextualize the artist’s significant body of abstract work. The abstractions are striking in their variety and scale, with the artist freely employing diverse techniques to realize his unique vision and creating works ranging from under three inches tall to nearly six feet tall.
So, why did Bearden abandon his abstractions?
“My own theory is based on my scholarship and my reading of Bearden’s own words (and) that he moved from abstraction to figuration at a moment in time when he began to thread together his artistic practice with his political beliefs,” Fitzpatrick explained. “As he put it, “I did the new work out of a response and need to redefine the image of man in the term of the Negro experience I know best. I felt that the Negro was becoming too much of an abstraction, rather than the reality that art can give a subject. James Baldwin and other intellectuals were defining the Negro sociologically, but not artistically. What I’ve attempted to do is establish a world through art in which the validity of my Negro experience could live and make its own logic.’”
“Romare Bearden: Abstraction” will be on view at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, MI from February 5–May 15, 2022 and then at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle June 25–September 18, 2022.