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‘30 Americans’ at the Barnes Foundation brings a stellar lineup of black artists to Philadelphia

The acclaimed traveling show debuted in 2008, just after Barack Obama was elected president. It arrives in Philadelphia at a very different moment in race, politics, and art.

Penn professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw curated "30 Americans" for the Barnes Foundation, where it opens Sunday. Behind her is the work "Baby I Am Ready Now" by Mickalene Thomas.
Penn professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw curated "30 Americans" for the Barnes Foundation, where it opens Sunday. Behind her is the work "Baby I Am Ready Now" by Mickalene Thomas.Read moreMIGUEL MARTINEZ / Staff Photographer

When “30 Americans,” a traveling exhibition of art drawn from the vast Rubell Family Collection in Miami, first hit the road at the end of 2008, it seemed to auger a shape-shifting moment — three centuries of racial hostility were being shed and a new America with an eloquent black president was taking its place.

A notice for the show appeared in November 2008 in ArtReview, a venerable journal of news and reviews of contemporary art.

"30 Americans,” it said, consists of “new and older works culled from several decades of collecting, and looks at artists addressing concerns central to American identity today. What the show’s title doesn’t make explicit in this post-black art era, set against the wider backdrop of Barack Obama’s post-racial presidential campaign, is that the 30 are all African Americans.”

Post-black. Post-racial. Only a decade ago, in a land far, far away.

“30 Americans” has been on the road ever since, through the end of the Obama presidency and into the era of Trump and Charlottesville. The notion of post-racial these days may seem so much wishful or cynical hypothesizing, but the power of the artists, a group that includes some of contemporary art’s strongest voices, is as apparent as ever.

The exhibition opens at the Barnes Foundation on Sunday for a run through Jan. 12, 2020, and it comes when African American art is making the historically white world of galleries and museums pay serious attention.

The artists featured are not “stars burning out,” said Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, associate professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania and curator of “30 Americans” at the Barnes. Rather, these artists are “solidly meteoric.”

Mark Bradford represented the United States at the 2017 Venice Biennale and Henry Taylor has “some of his strongest work” in the current Biennale, she said, adding that the work of Mickalene Thomas “is all over the cover of magazines.”

Magazines and websites have jostled to display the work of Nick Cave, Purvis Young, Glenn Ligon, and others.

A virtually unknown work by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for more than $110 million in 2017, a record price for an American at auction.

“Then, of course, there is Kara Walker and her Fons Americanus at [London’s Tate Modern museum] and Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War, which is up in Times Square right now," Shaw said. The heroic equestrian statue Rumors, whose rider is a black man in street clothes, will eventually move to Richmond, Va.

“Like, Wow! It is amazing how much presence these artists have in the contemporary scene. They’re really dominant in a lot of ways that we probably could not have expected" in 2008, Shaw said. “Just as we could not have expected to be in the present political moment where we have a different president on the verge of impeachment proceedings, right? A president who’s been linked to a very different racial politics than the one whose election happened at basically the same time as ’30 Americans’ opened in Miami" in December 2008.

» READ MORE: These are the big shows to see in Philadelphia this fall art season

Shaw is deeply familiar with the work of many of the artists in the exhibition. Her first book, Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker (2004), sets the stage. She served as consulting curator for 2015′s “Represent: 200 Years of African American Art" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and wrote the exhibition’s catalog, the first scholarly take on the museum’s African American collection.

Shaw also wrote a 2017 essay focusing on Andrew Wyeth’s black subjects in connection with a Wyeth retrospective at the Brandywine River Museum of Art.

Shaw sees the Barnes’ presentation of African American art as something different from previous, largely historical exhibitions. Yes, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts mounted an extensive retrospective in 2009 of alumnus Barkley Hendricks, whose work is included in “30 Americans."

Woodmere Art Museum mounted “We Speak: Black Artists in Philadelphia, 1920s-1970s” in 2015. And the African American Museum in Philadelphia has featured shows by photographer John Dowell, sculptor Stephen Hayes, and others working today.

“30 Americans," though, has a broad, wholly contemporary agenda. It is about the art and the artists and the often interrelated worlds they inhabit. Shaw and Barnes executive director and president Thomas Collins selected the specific works for the Barnes show. (The mix varies by venue, but each of the 30 artists is always represented.) Shaw wrote the Philadelphia catalog essay.

Among other connections, the “30 American” artists are familiar with each other’s work, and draw inspiration from it, Shaw said. Henry Taylor, for instance, knows and admires David Hammons and has painted him in performance, a snowball in hand. Taylor also had “a very strong relationship with Noah Davis” and eulogized him when he died, she said.

“Mickalene Thomas, as a photographer, is very connected with Carrie Mae Weems,” Shaw continued. “She photographed Weems for the New York Times.”

The connections go well beyond the personal.

The history of slavery, for instance, is engaged by Weems, Walker, and Leonardo Drew.

“Leonardo Drew’s interest in detritus and things from the street corresponds … to the way Mark Bradford engages with street signs and posters and that sort of thing,” said Shaw.

“The issues that Wiley looks at with young black male representation [are] also engaged in by Nick Cave in his Soundsuit." Cave began making the famous Soundsuits — sculptural costumes fashioned from all manner of textiles and other materials — in response to the police beating of Rodney King in 1991.

When worn, the suits form a kind of second skin, masking race, gender, and other identifiers.

Cave’s Soundsuits, in turn, relate directly to Pope L.'s performances, said Shaw. eRacism, for instance, features the artist in a Superman costume crawling through Tompkins Square Park in the East Village.

“I think these artists, while the work is in all different media and materials, so much of it is intersected and related, one to the other,” said Shaw.

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since 2008. There is little talk of post-black and post-racial America. And that has had a strong impact on the artists.

“Wiley would not have done Rumors of War had there not been Charlottesville, right?” Shaw said. “He would not have done that had there not been the kind of climate and controversies around white supremacist, Jim Crow-era monumental sculpture. He would not have done it.

"So while it’s really great that his career has taken off and that he made that incredible portrait of President Obama, a lot of the other things that have shaped his career are due to these changes that have happened in the larger world.”