On Saturday, September 7, I spent several hours on what would be my last visit to the 30 Americans exhibit on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM). While I do not have official numbers of visitors that day, it was wall-to-wall. I personally knew several people who were going this weekend to see it just one last time—the exhibit closed today, September 8. As one of the Wisconsin 30, I have gone often to participate in the related events, listen to speakers, et cetera—but it’s been so much more than this privilege afforded me. Like many others I was drawn back to it over and over again—each time attempting to absorb the magnitude and wealth of knowledge and information it had to offer. It’s hard to believe that it is over.
Even before the thought of the exhibition’s last showing loomed into view I was aware of what would soon take place. The reality slap came when I received the email from MAM staff giving instructions for the retrieval of my artwork. Many emotions have begun to manifest and I find myself asking, “Is this exhibit the beginning of many things to come (meaning, will similar provocative work find its way to MAM’s doors)? “Was this just another ‘one-of-a-kind’ event that comes once in your lifetime similar to Halley’s Comet?” “Will the timeless historical, cultural, societal, and political relevancy of this exhibit continue to reverberate throughout the hearts, minds, and souls of those who experienced it first-hand?” “Will it just remain ‘colorful eye candy’ to the shallow and simple-minded who wonder how did they (a particular ’30 American’ artist they admired) make it (the piece they were particularly drawn to)? “Is the significance and timing of 30 Americans coming to Milwaukee meant to be esoteric?” “What effect will it have on me and my work?” “What will the youth that visited the exhibit learn from it?”
As I ponder possible answers to these questions my belief that whether you have taken a panoramic or microscopic view of 30 Americans you will admit you are not the same you were before attending. Will you allow that changed person to move you to do something more—to be something more?
Most artists attempt to communicate to the viewer in their work—that’s what we do. It might sound crude, but whether you get it doesn’t really matter—we still has to get it out. The 30 Americans artists were not just speaking loudly—they were shouting!! Did you get it?
Sankofa is an Akan word that means,
“We must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward;
to understand why and how we came to be who we are today.”
Mutope J. Johnson, is one of the distinguished artists included in the Wisconsin 30. The “thirty” make up the complementary exhibition being held in conjunction with 30 Americans–the nationally-acclaimed documentary of works that address issues of racial, sexual, and identity–and its powerful influence on contemporary culture.
I have been blessed to work with Mutope over the last several years. He is an exceptional artist, my great mentor, and friend. I have included excerpts from his artist statement here because it provides insight on the “what” and “why” of his current works and also serves as an introduction to my upcoming poetry page.
Poet Blanche, by Mutope
“The current narrative centered around my work focuses on the contributions of the poet and how collaborations with literary artists can help to inform art work in a more interesting way. The works in progress feature drawings, paintings and relief print studies predominately including the use of the color Indigo. The investigation of the color blue not only allows me the opportunity to respond to the issues around pigment as metaphor, it also becomes an artistic strategy for presenting painting and drawings in a format that promotes the conversation of history and culture.”
“Many of these memories have been revisited because of recent conversations about an area of Milwaukee known as The Bronzeville District, a North side neighborhood where I grew up as a youth. The neighborhood was labeled blighted property where it was targeted and destroyed through the city government’s eminent domain policies. This once vibrant cultural district was replaced with the I-43 freeway which cut right through the heart of Bronzeville, tearing down homes and businesses and displacing families.”
“I understand that my paintings and drawings may not solve any problems long or short term, and what I advocate through my work only represent a small part of a much larger conversation. However, through collaboration and helping to amplify the voice of the poet through visual art, I may be able to contribute to the debate in a positive way, and in the process, grow personally as an artist and strengthen my own creative commentary on subjects like the Bronzeville District controversy through my work as an artist.” Mutope Johnson
In June, the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) opened a spectacular survey of contemporary art: 30 Americans (www.rfc.museum/past-exhibitions/3-30-americans). This exhibition taken from the Rubell Foundation, is one of the finest private collections of contemporary art in the country. All of the artists in the exhibition are African American. Donald and Mera Rubell spent about four decades working with these artists to create an exhibition that is powerful and relevant today. Here are the artists in the exhibition:
In conjunction with this exhibition, the Milwaukee Art Museum presents Wisconsin 30, a parallel exhibition featuring paintings, photographs, prints, drawings, and sculpture by thirty Wisconsin African American artists. This exhibition presents a complementary overview of the themes of race and identity explored in 30 Americans, focusing on Wisconsin. I have been chosen to be part of the Wisconsin 30!! Here’s my piece that is part of the show:
Ringin’ Round the Rosie
The other artists included in Wisconsin 30 are: Dave Anderson, Marlon Banks, Kevin Boatright, Reggie Baylor, Trenton Baylor, Brad Anthony Bernard, Tyanna Buie, Larry Chatman, Portia Cobb, Jamal Currie, Paul Davis, Anwar Floyd-Pruitt, Mikal Floyd-Pruitt, Freida High-Tesfagiorgis, Vedale Hill, Sonji Hunt, Mutope Johnson, Sharon Kerry-Harlan, Richard Lewis, Charly Palmer, Christopher McIntyre, Ras Ammar Nsaroma, Sherman Pitts, Leslie Smith, Evelyn Patricia Terry, Babette Wainright, Della Wells, Iverson White, George Williams.
Wisconsin 30 is organized by the MAM, in coordination with Sande Robinson, president, Milwaukee Art Museum’s African American Art Alliance (Quad A), and Lynne Shumow, curator of education, Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University. Kudos and more kudos go to these women for a stellar job in bringing it all together!