It is unusual to walk into a dimly lit museum gallery confronted by a noose dangling from the ceiling to depict a Ku Klux Klan lynching. A noose surrounded by wooden stools covered with the white headwear of Klansmen.
More unusual is the playful name of the artwork — “Duck, Duck, Noose,” after the children’s game “Duck, Duck, Goose.”
This lynching piece has angered some viewers at the Honolulu Museum of Art’s new exhibition called “30 Americans.” According to guards in the gallery, a few visitors have edged out the door, refusing to see any more and calling the lynching piece “inappropriate.”
But to turn away from this showing is to deny an experience that’s extremely rare in Hawaii — the opportunity to see assembled in a single venue the works of some of the most famous contemporary artists working in America today, all of them African American.
“It is an unusual opportunity to witness how the black artists identify themselves and their lived reality of how they perceive the way that others see them,” says Honolulu resident Jill MacMillian, who attended the opening of the exhibition.
The show’s title, “30 Americans,” does not point out the artists’ race “because nationality is a statement of fact, while racial identity is a question each artist answers in his or her way or not at all,” according to the book written about the exhibit.
Many of the works by the 30 artists have been purchased for millions of dollars by major museums and private art collectors around the world.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Untitled (Self-portrait)” is one of the works featured in the exhibition here.
In 2017, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa bought Basquiat’s painting of a skull called “Untitled” for $110.5 million, the highest price ever recorded for purchase of a painting by any American artist, a sale that put the deceased former graffiti painter on equal revenue footing with Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso.
Basquiat died at age 27 in 1988 at his New York studio from an accidental overdose of drugs only a month after he’d returned from Hana, Maui, where he had headed in desperation, hoping to kick his heroin addiction.
Basquiat’s friends blogged that he loved Hana and had returned there repeatedly after a visit in 1984 with his father, stepmother and sister.
The “30 Americans” exhibition has been traveling to cities across the United States for the last 10 years. Honolulu is its 17th venue.
Katherine Love, the museum’s assistant curator of contemporary art, selected 40 pieces for the Honolulu exhibition from the Rubell Family Collection in Miami where the exhibition was first displayed.
Don and Mera Rubell began buying art in 1964 when he was in medical school studying to be an obstetrician and she was working as a preschool teacher in New York, helping him pay his way through school.
They budgeted 25% of Mera’s $100 weekly paycheck to buy paintings, most often from artists who were unknown at the time.
“We want to be part of the global conversation of what is happening now.” — Katherine Love, museum curator
The Rubells now have one of the most extensive and valuable collections of contemporary art in the United States. They say they have always collected African American artists “as part of our broader mission to collect the most interesting art of our time.”
One of the artists in the Rubell’s collection, also featured in the exhibition here, is Kehinde Wiley. Wiley is the artist former president Barack Obama selected to do his official portrait for inclusion in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
“30 Americans” is in Hawaii at a particularly impactful time when racial strain is in the news frequently in major cities, racism is strongly felt by immigrants on the Mexican border, and a U.S. president is frequently criticized as racist.
Curator Love says: “We want to be part of the global conversation of what is happening now. Hawaii is an important place that needs to be included in issues of concern in the 21st century.”
Some wonder how impactful an exhibition of black artists can be in Hawaii where African Americans number a little over 3% of the population, about 21,000 people.
But Nanci Amaka, who helps coordinate the museum’s public programs says, “You don’t have to be black to have these works resonate with you. We want people to come to the exhibition with their own point of view … to explore deeply the methods the artists have used to express themselves and to consider the themes that are important to them.”
Amaka, a Nigerian-born artist, has helped put together a series of programs by experts in Honolulu to enhance local visitors’ experience of the art works. The goal is to make the exhibit more meaningful than just the chance to see all the great African American artists.
“We want people to come to experience the art and walk out with a personal experience that has changed the way they look at the world and the way they look at themselves,” says Arminda Gandara, the museum’s public program manager.
One of the works that perhaps failed to change the way I look at the world but certainly gave me pause was “Sound Suit” by artist Nick Cave.
After police beat Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, sparking massive riots, Cave became concerned about violence and his own public safety and began creating what he called sound suits.
The suits are full body masks that cover a wearer from head to ankles, to disguise and protect the wearer, hiding the person’s race, gender and social class.
Jamaican-born Jameil Clarke, who was on a tour I was on at the museum, mused as we stood by one of the sound suits about the need for masking for African Americans today, when police stop them for even small traffic infractions.
Clarke, who is always aware of racial profiling, says he gets through such ordeals by donning a mask of meekness and subservience.
Artist Cave says his masking sound suits in their A-frame shape “have many connotations that reference power, such as a bishop’s mitre, a Ku Klux Klan uniform, a condom or the head of a missile.”
For me, they referenced with beautiful artistic forms the ugly fact that on a daily basis many blacks in America walk out their front doors worried about bodily harm.
And back to that noose-lynching scene at the portal to the exhibition. It captures the imaginations of the viewers and often leaves them speechless, according to a museum guard with whom I spoke. She says people are unusually quiet in the gallery.
Museum educator Amaka says that is the way it should be. “It is very powerful. I encourage visitors to take a moment to absorb it.”
If there is a single sentence to describe viewing the “30 Americans” exhibition that is it: take a moment to absorb it.
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