Racial identity sometimes unspoken in CAC show

Despite its brevity, the title of a new show at the Contemporary Arts Center raises some important questions.

“30 Americans,” which originated with the Rubell Family Collection of Miami in 2008 and has appeared in slightly different iterations in a handful of other cities before coming to New Orleans, is a survey of work by 30 of the most important African-American artists.

Yet the “African-American” part, while an integral part of how show was conceived, isn’t included in the title — a deliberate decision on the part of the Rubell Family, who assembled the exhibition using works from their collection.

“We decided to call (the exhibition) ‘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,” said Don and Mera Rubell in a statement about the show.

According to CAC Executive Director Neil Barclay, racial identity is just one of the themes that the artists in “30 Americans” choose to explore — or not.

“Once you get past their shared racial background, you will see that the artists are dealing with a wide variety of subject matter in an equally wide range of media and styles,” Barclay said. “So there’s a tremendous variety of work in the show. Some of the artists in the show couldn’t be more different from one another.

“A lot of the work is provocative in nature. It’s meant to be engaged with, not just looked at.”

Although “30 Americans” comes to New Orleans after several other stops in arts institutions around the country, it won’t be the same show that first opened in Miami six years ago — or even the one that some viewers might have seen in Milwaukee or Nashville just last year.

Barclay explained that the Rubell Collection owns hundreds of different works by the artists represented in the show and that institutions hosting the exhibition can to some extent choose the works they want to display.

The CAC installation of “30 Americans” will include more than a dozen pieces that have not been included in its previous editions. Barclay mentioned works by influential veteran painter Robert Colescott and multimedia artist Rashid Johnson as particularly notable examples.

“We wanted to include work that had a special significance in the context of New Orleans,” he said.

Many of the artists in “30 Americans” will be familiar to local audiences, several from previous installments of the Prospect New Orleans biennial. Some of them include Mark Bradford, whose monumental “Mithra” boat sculpture occupied a deserted lot in the Lower 9th Ward during Prospect.1 in 2008, and Nick Cave, whose whimsically unsettling “Soundsuits” were displayed at the Newcomb Art Gallery during Prospect.2 in 2011.

Barclay said several of the artists in the show also went on to achieve greater general acclaim in the years since “30 Americans” debuted in 2008. Glenn Ligon, for example, had a mid-career retrospective in 2011 at the Whitney Museum in New York, while Wangechi Mutu is the subject of a major show at the Brooklyn Museum.

“So (‘30 Americans’) is also a chance for New Orleans audiences to get to know many of these artists better and appreciate how incredible their work is,” Barclay said. “I’m hoping that people come away from the show inspired to learn more about them and understand how much they’ve impacted the course of contemporary art.”

And of course, audiences will be invited to consider the different ways artists express their racial identity through their work — or even whether it needs to be expressed at all.

“Ultimately, the work is about notions of identity and how individuals aren’t always defined by race,” Barclay said. “I hope people use the show as a means of learning how race is just one part of an artist’s identity.”