"As the show evolved, we decided to call it 30 Americans. 'Americans,' rather than 'African Americans' or 'Black Americans,' because nationality is a statement of fact, while racial identity is a question each artist answers in his or her own way, or not at all. And the number 30 because we acknowledge...that this show does not include everyone who could be in it."
— Mera and Donald Rubell
30 Americans is the first major exhibition at Joslyn to survey the work of contemporary African Americans artists. Drawn from the Miami-based Rubell Family Collection, this exhibition features paintings, works on paper, sculptures, installations, and videos created over the past three decades. Since 1964, Mera and Donald Rubell have built one of the world’s largest privately-owned, yet publicly-accessible collections of contemporary art. 30 Americans was first staged in 2008 at the Rubell’s warehouse in Miami and has traveled to museums throughout the United States, with each venue given the opportunity to curate a unique exhibition from the collection’s extensive holdings.
30 Americans explores the evolving roles of black subjects in art since the 1970s and highlights some of the most pressing social and political issues facing our country today, including ongoing narratives of racial inequality; the construction of racial, gender, and sexual identity; and the pernicious underpinnings and effects of stereotyping. Many of the artists in this exhibition interrogate how African Americans are represented, politicized, and contested in the arts, media, and popular culture. Driven by the exclusion of black subjects in art throughout much of history, Barkley L. Hendricks dedicated his career to creating a space for black bodies in painting. Kerry James Marshall, Kehinde Wiley, and Mickalene Thomas have embraced this mission, celebrating and glorifying black subjects through pictorial traditions including genre painting and portraiture.
Kehinde Wiley’s elaborate and grand canvases call attention to the absence of black bodies in the history of painting. Flowers are a recurring motif in his work, suspending sitters in time and space and countering the stereotype that black masculinity is threatening, a pressing concern for Wiley, who has noted that his only model for portraits of black men when he began painting were mug shots. Modeled after German artist Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, 1520–1522, Sleep is one of several canvases featuring prone bodies that Wiley created to elevate his subjects to the realm of heroism.