In a nod to Linda Nochlin’s famous query, Michele Wallace asked, “Why are there no great black artists?” 30 Americans is the response to this question, a beautiful, rambunctious show that gathers the work of 31 African American artists. Unfortunately, 30 Americans, similar to Thelma Golden’s Freestyle in 2001, is not about a specific curatorial theory or thought, but rather a placing of African American artists, who have been historically and systematically marginalized in the world of art, directly into the center of the machine.
30 Americans opened at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, but originated from the Rubell Family Collection in Miami. There is a pure, assertive joy in 30 Americans. The CAC begins with Kehinde Wiley’s rococo-esque paintings in the entrance. Wiley’s large paintings place contemporary black men into the rich tradition of European royal portraiture. Recalling Velázquez’s painting of the same name, Equestrian Portrait of Count Duke Olivares (2005), Wiley depicts a white steed rearing while the Count, wearing Nikes and a red hoodie, holds a staff into the air. While looking at mug shots, Wiley realized that contemporary portraits of black men were stripped of symbols of power and stature. By inserting contemporary men into grand, gilt-framed traditions, Wiley emphasizes a dichotomy between historical systems of power and elite status. Decorative gold textile patterns adorn the background, abstracting the space and highlighting the fact that this scene does not exist in the real world.