Visitors walking into the Barnes’s Roberts Gallery pass a gate flanked by lawn jockeys wearing Klan hoods, which makes clear that 30 Americans is an important art exhibition with something to say. The Gary Simmons piece in the entryway is one of many powerful works from the past four decades by some of the most influential African American artists.
Drawn from the acclaimed Rubell Family Collection, 30 Americans has been shown around the country in various forms over the past ten years. However, it has not been on view in the area since the 2011 exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. 30 Americans is a force for change that works to transform the reception of African American art and challenge viewers to consider multiple perspectives.
Through sculpture, painting, drawing, photography, and video, 30 Americans presents diverse experiences. Its exploration of identity and stereotypes feel remarkably relevant as works of art call attention to seen and unseen aspects of American life and identity. For instance, the silhouetted figures in Kara Walker’s “Camptown Ladies” suggest a narrative, one involving sexuality, exploitation, and race and gender violence. Yet the “story” raises more questions than it answers, inviting viewers to fill in the gaps and to connect the work’s antebellum aesthetics to 21st-century America.
30 Americans features some famous names, including Kehinde Wiley, who painted the official portrait of President Barack Obama, and the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose groundbreaking work from the 1980s currently fetches the highest prices of any American artist. But the works of less-familiar artists are equally compelling, including Nina Chanel Abney’s gender-, role- and race-swapping MFA piece that draws visual contrasts between the art world and the prison industrial complex.
At the Barnes, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw is organizing curator of 30 Americans as well as the curator of the presentation. An art history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Shaw was appointed senior historian and director of history, research, and scholarship at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in May 2019. She is the first woman and the first African American in this role. On November 3, Shaw will host a discussion with David Driskell, artist and emeritus professor at the University of Maryland, about creating, collecting, and curating art about African American life and culture. This discussion is part of PECO Free First Sunday Family Day.
What, When, Where:
30 Americans will be on view at the Barnes Foundation from October 27, 2019, through January 12, 2020 at the Barnes Foundation. Tickets can be purchased on-site, online, or by calling 215-278-7200. For more information, visit the Barnes online. The Barnes Foundation’s Philadelphia facility is accessible to individuals using standard-size wheelchairs. All floors are accessible by elevator, and restrooms are wheelchair accessible.