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30 Americans at NCMA

Hank Willis Thomas, ''Branded Head,'' 2003
Rubell Family Collection, Miami.

  The North Carolina Museum of Art continues to celebrate an exhibit where at least three generations of African American artists boldly explore history, culture and pop culture.  The “30 Americans” exhibit is said to be the largest contemporary African American art exhibit in the country.  All of the pieces in the show come from the Rubell Family of Miami who established their collection in the mid-1960s.  
The “30 Americans” exhibit has been called breathtaking – and some have even called it a breath of fresh air.  Don and Mera Rubell – and their children – have been building their collection of African American contemporary art for almost 50 years. Still – when Mera Rubell walked into the “30 Americans” exhibit at the Museum of Art in Raleigh – she had to catch her breath.

Mera Rubell:  "This is really – sorry I have goose bumps because for me, this is like I’m seeing it for the first time in the context of this show."

You see, Mera Rubell has only seen this work at home in Miami – with florescent lights, mixed in with hundreds of other pieces of art,

Mera Rubell:  "Our museum is in a former drug and weapon confiscation center so – the mood is very different you know.  And to have this work in a whole different context, it’s really spectacular, wow.  Oh my God."

Don Rubell:  "Our exhibits occur sort of on a spontaneous basis."

Don Rubell of Miami.


Don Rubell:  "What we look at is what has been interesting us and then from that we build an exhibition.  I think the thing that has been the most striking for us in the last 10 to 15 years, is that many of the most exciting artist that we’re seeing are African American artists."



And the Rubells have an eye for what’s about to take off. There are pieces by Yale educated artist Kehinde Wiley that are already considered priceless:

Linda Dougherty is the Contemporary Arts curator.  Mouths dropped open when a tour followed her into the gallery. Wiley’s oil paintings blanketed the walls. Dougherty says Wiley recruits young African American men for his work, allowing them to search through art history books and choosing who they want to be. She says his work is about power and who has it.

Linda Dougherty: " And if you look at the art history books, if you walk into any art museum’s collection of European and old master paintings, the portraits you see are of rich, important, wealthy white men. They are the kings, the politicians, the counts the dukes. They are the ones who have power."

That’s the Step Team at Peace College. The North Carolina Art Museum staff implemented an entire cultural and educational side-bar to go along with “30 Americans.”  A designated area called The City Block has already entertained lectures and jazz performances. 
Naeemah Powell is a student at St. Augustine’s and she came out to see the exhibit on college night.

Naeemah Powell: "I absolutely loved that picture, that picture stuck out to me, because it’s so true, the image is so true."

Powell is talking about a photograph by photo conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas. It’s a gigantic photo he took at a cousin’s funeral. Words on the picture read – Three-piece suit $250, New Socks $2, Gold Chain $400, 9mm Pistol $80, Bullet 60 cents – Picking the perfect casket for your son – Priceless. The MasterCard logo is in the bottom right-hand corner.

Powell:  "Me and my friend, we discussed this when we were up there, a couple of friends, we were walking around. And she said that, I should give this to my little brother. This would be a good thing to put on somebody’s desk inside their college room. The guys can go in their room and look at it and, oh yeah, I need to recognize this and change the image of myself ."

Thomas says he wants people to think when they see his work. The collection also includes a profile photograph of an African American man with a Nike swoosh branded to his head.

Hank Willis Thomas:  "I mean I have no explicit problem with any given corporation, but I was really advertising in kind of how advertising in general kind of helped shape our identities in probably unhealthy ways and wanted to kind of comment on how history could be repeating itself in a different way."

30 Americans” also includes established artists like Barkley Hendricks, Kara Walker and Robert Colescott. The show runs through September 4th.

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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