African American Perspectives
A trio of exhibits at the Milwaukee Art Museum showcase accomplished black artists
exhibitions offer viewers a fresh look into contemporary American life as seen
from the perspectives of an exceptionally talented gathering of black artists.
Not since “Songs of My People” (1993) and “Watts: Art and Social Change in Los
Angeles” (2003) at the Haggerty Museum have black artists received so much
attention in Milwaukee.
then, are we to take away from viewing this art? When I first saw “30
Americans” in Washington, D.C., last year, I was struck by the range and visual
power of the works, much of it unfamiliar. This probably means that
accomplished black artists are still under-represented in mainstream museum
exhibitions and collections today.
exhibitions invite discussion of important questions facing all Americans. For
example, what counts as black identity in relation to a society of increasing
diversity and complexity? As expected, individual artists approach this
question from different perspectives. Kara Walker’s Camptown Ladies references a 19th-century song by Stephen Foster
used in concert with blackface minstrels. Walker’s life cycle narrative is
expressed in elegant black silhouettes spread across a large wall in the
gallery. Gary Simmons’ installation, Duck,
Duck, Noose, employs white Ku Klux Klan hoods seated on randomly placed
chairs with a hanging rope in their midst to invoke memories of an ominous
threat from the past. Moving beyond these historic references, Hank Willis
Thomas’s digital print Basketball and
Chain explores the manipulative uses of contemporary advertisements that
exploit iconic dreams of fame and success linked to a career in basketball. Overall,
direct references to African heritage are few, apart from Sharon Kerry-Harlan’s
Woman with Roses.
Other artists among the “30 Americans,” including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Colescott, David Hammons, Gary Simmons, Carrie Mae Weems and Kehinde Wiley, raise questions concerning race, religion and sexuality. Artists from the “Wisconsin 30” group reference social commentary, environment and images drawn from literary or other personal experiences. Among them: Reginald Baylor, Tyanna Buie, Larry Chatman, Richard O. Lewis, Christopher McIntyre, Ras ‘Ammar Nsoroma, Mikal Floyd-Pruitt, Evelyn Patricia Terry and Iverson White.
Bridge: Black Males” invites men in a variety of life situations to explore
black male identity; the artists accomplished this by posing questions and obtaining
responses from interviewees. The results are framed in video dialogue for
viewers to experience in a separate gallery.
One important outcome of these exhibitions is to inform our community of the contributions of contemporary African American artists both in the global art world and in Wisconsin. Judging from the excitement shared by artists and guests at the opening previews, this project promises to be a special opportunity for the Milwaukee community to explore and appreciate the contributions of black artists to our understanding of American art and culture.