'30 Americans': African American experience on display in Tacoma

Gary Sminnon's installation, "Duck, Duck, Noose," foreground, with Henry Taylor's "The Long Jump by Carl Lewis." Credit: David Guest / TDI
Gary Simmons’ installation, “Duck, Duck, Noose,” foreground, with Henry Taylor’s “The Long Jump by Carl Lewis.” Credit: David Guest / TDI

30 Americans

Through Jan. 15, 2017

 Tacoma Art Museum

1701 Pacific Ave.



 Museum hours – Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Day

Free third Thursdays – Oct. 20, Nov. 17, Dec. 15, 5 p.m.-8 p.m.

 Admission: Members, free; Adults, $15; Students/military/seniors, $13; 5-under, free. 




By David Guest

Tacoma Daily Index editor

The artists worked independently in different studios, different years and at different places in the personal development of their lives. Yet the connection between them is obvious, and together, the impact of their message is magnified.

The paintings, photos, sculpture video and other presentations that make up the “30 Americans” exhibit express an individual perspective on life as an African American in the United States. Each artist’s individual take on race, society, their personal experiences and their views on the history of their culture creates a transition to the next artist, setting the viewer up for an experience that continually changes as they weave their way through the gallery.

The Tacoma Art Museum opened “30 Americans” on Sept. 24, a nationally acclaimed exhibition of artwork by African American artists. The 45 pieces of work are a collection taken from the (Don and Mera) Rubell Family Collection in Miami, which debuted eight years ago in its home city and has since appeared in 10 other U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C., Detroit, New Orleans, and Cincinnati.

Tacoma is the exhibit’s first (and so-far-only) West Coast stop. “30 Americans” will be on display at TAM through Jan. 15, 2017.

The Rubells began collecting art in 1964 on a shoestring budget when Don was in the early years of his career as a physician and Mara worked as a teacher in New York. It was in 2005 when they found a greater awareness of what they called a “critical mass of emerging African American artists” and began the process of assembling what would become “30 Americans.”

“We have always collected African American artists as part of our broader mission to collect the most interesting art of our time,” the Rubells said in a statement issued to the Tacoma Art Museum. “We had been collecting almost all of this older generation (artists) for decades. Perfect conditions for a new exhibition.”

Viewers at the gallery are greeted with Mickalene Thomas’ “Baby I Am Ready Now (2007)”, a vibrantly colorful acrylic, enamel and rhinestone portrait on two large wooden panels that depicts a black women, sitting on the couch, waiting to head out on the town for the evening (“I’ve always been interested in dressing up and beautifying and what that means to black women,” Thomas is quoted as saying).

Pass around the corner of the display and the beauty of Thomas’ use of color turns to a depiction of an ugly era of black and white history in the U.S. – Gary Simmons’ installation, “Duck, Duck, Noose (1992).”

Simmons perched white Ku Klux Klan hoods on stools placed in a circle, using a child’s game (duck, duck, goose) to make a statement about the innocence of youth giving way to a learned cultural trait: racism. Simmons punctuates the work with a noose hanging from the ceiling at eye level in the center of the circle of stools.

Inadvertent or not, a view through the loop in the noose from different angles allows visitors to frame other pieces in the gallery, adding a layer of perspective to other artist’s work that they couldn’t have anticipated when they conceived and created their art.

TAM’s chief curator, Rock Hushka said that the size and scale of many of the pieces created special challenges for the museum. It took three weeks to set up the exhibit.

“The Kehinde Wiley (“Sleep (2008),” a wall-dominating oil painting measuring 11-by-25 feet) had to be taken off of it’s stretcher bars. It comes rolled and each time they show it, it’s restretched and hung, Hushka explained. “It’s a big roll. It didn’t even fit in our elevator.”

While installations like Simmons’ and Leonardo Drew’s “Untitled #25 (1992)” – a monolithic wall of bales of cotton – make clear statements on racism in America, “30 Americans” isn’t just a collective focus on race. Many stories told are intensely personal and explore human struggles and achievements that are relatable to all.

Born in 1983 in Seattle to prominent lawyer and talent agent Keven Davis and educator Faith Childs-Davis, artist Noah Davis has a pair of paintings on display that drew on his family for inspiration. “Basic Training 4 (2008)” is a collection of four paintings inspired by Polaroid photos taken by his aunt while she was in Army basic training.

“Painting For My Dad (2011)” is an oil on canvas painting that depicts a man holding a lantern, staring off into a black night sky filled with pinhole stars. Davis painted it as a tribute to his 53-year-old father who died in 2011 from brain cancer.

“He made this painting the week his father passed away,” Hushka said. “It’s a very tender homage to his father.”

Davis’ work was added by the Rubells to “30 Americans” after the original opening of the show in Miami. Four years after his father’s death, Noah Davis died from a rare form of cancer last year at his home in Ojai, Calif. He was 32.