’30 Americans’ and the Meaning of Black Art

The artists whose works are displayed in the "30 Americans" exhibit prove that our art can mean anything.

"Sleep," by Kehinde Wiley
"Sleep," by Kehinde Wiley

The other half of Colescott’s painting is a dreamy morass of red, black and white — cartoon figures and algebra figures, a man studying hard while scantily clad women and a skeleton look on. What is the sphinx saying? Beats me. But Colescott’s subversive art is breathtaking to look at.

Kara Walker’s cut-paper tableaux, Compton Ladies, stretching out on a giant wall opposite Colescott’s painting, is equally subversive. But where Colescott’s work is all bright colors and gleeful satire, Walker’s work, with its stark, black-and-white silhouettes, gets under the skin, poking and prodding. It is profoundly disturbing with its depictions of plantation life: A jockey rides a young black girl, a carrot on a stick in one hand, a whip in the other.

In another scene, a girl in too-big shoes grabs a man by the crotch, teeth bared, leaning toward his belly as if she’s about to take a bite. Next to her, a woman in antebellum dress kneels, pleading as a topless woman — a slave? — holds a baby aloft. Two children watch the action: one in rags holds a carrot, while another child in hoop skirts and a bonnet brandishes a slingshot. Yet another woman runs from the action, naked, a carrot shoved firmly up her plump behind. Next to her, the words, “The End.”

Others convey their message with quiet conviction. There is Kerry James Marshall’s collage, a replica of the sign for the 16th Street Baptist church, the site of the Birmingham bombings that killed four little girls. On top of the sign rests a big bouquet of plastic funeral flowers. Below the collage is a tiny sign: “as seen on TV.”

Then there’s Ligon’s gorgeously abstract painting, Stranger, a vertical stretch of canvas covered in glittery black coal dust, gesso and oil. Look closely, and you’ll see that the coal sparkles are made up of letters, but it’s impossible to read the words. It’s haunting, beautiful and just beyond comprehension, a moving meditation on blackness.

“30 Americans” opens Oct. 1, 2011, and runs through Feb. 12, 2012. Check out The Root’s ’30 Americans’ Exhibit Sneak Peek.

Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior editor. Follow her on Twitter.

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