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Kansas City's Version Of '30 Americans' Offers A View Of Society 'You May Never Have Known Before'

Copyright Nina Chanel Abney
Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami
Nina Chanel Abney's 'Class of 2007,' an acrylic on canvas from 2007, is part of '30 Americans' at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

In the middle of June, Patricia MacHolmes travelled from Chicago to Kansas City for the baseball, the wine, the food and the museums — in particular, the "30 Americans" exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins.

As she walked around the exhibition on a Wednesday afternoon, MacHolmes said she was taken by how 90 pieces of art tell a story about African Americans.

She stopped at Barkley L. Hendricks' "Fast Eddie Jive Niggah," a 4-by-3-foot oil and acrylic painting of a nude man with his arms crossed over his chest.

"I like the way he looks. He could be a good guy, he could be a bad guy, whatever you perceive," MacHolmes said. "I perceive him as a good guy. I like the chain, I like the bracelet, I like his whole profile."

Adrienne Walker Hoard has spent nearly two years thinking about how visitors to the Nelson will perceive "30 Americans," which has traveled across the country for a decade. A fine art and black history professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Walker Hoard led a Community Advisory Group formed by the Nelson to work with the museum in the planning process that led up to the exhibition's opening in Kansas City.

Walker Hoard and 13 other Kansas Citians — teachers, spiritual leaders, artists, librarians and activists — sorted through hundreds of photographs of artwork in the Rubell Family Collection, from which the exhibition is drawn.

Credit Dana Anderson / The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
The '30 Americans' Community Advisory Group. Front, left to right: Heinrich Toh, Adrienne Walker Hoard, Sofia Khan, Nicole Gomez, Consuelo Cruz. Back, left to right: Michael A. Friends, Mona Cliff, Glyneisha Johnson. Not pictured: John Brooks, Scott Curtis, Merrique Jensen, Josephine Njoroge, Brenda Pelofsky, Angel Tucker.

Each member of the group offered his or her reactions to the pieces, and the museum staff took those responses into account during the selection process. The group's conversations also led to several programs and events, such as book clubs hosted by the Kansas City Public Libraryand an upcoming artist talk at Macedonia Baptist Church, in an effort to cultivate a larger conversation about race.

The 90 pieces ultimately selected by the Nelson and the advisory board are, Walker Hoard said, more than have been shown in other places.

"I think the people (in the advisory group) looked at this and took it personally," she said. "They felt this whole sense of identity and race, but clearly they felt the beauty of it."

The artists, Walker Hoard said, created all the pieces out of their life experiences or their personal interests in African American life, history and society.

"You're viewing American society from a picture or window that you may never have known before," she said.

Credit Copyright Hank Willis Thomas / Courtesy Rubell Family Collection, Miami
Courtesy Rubell Family Collection, Miami
Hank Willis Thomas's 'Priceless,' a digital chromogenic print from 2004.

Glyneisha Johnson, an artist who’s lived in Kansas City since 2013, was part of the advisory group. In her own work, she said, she's concerned with creating a safe, healing space for black people beyond "the public face of stereotype and limited imagination" — words she took from a poem by Elizabeth Alexander.

She said it was apparent to her that "30 Americans" achieved that safe, healing space during the museum's Juneteenth celebration over the weekend of June 8.

"Seeing kids, older generations, millennials coming into the space, black beautiful faces, it was an experience I hadn’t had before," Johnson said. "Just a sense of family and home and community."

Credit Copyright Lorna Simpson / Courtesy Rubell Family Collection, Miami
Courtesy Rubell Family Collection, Miami
Lorna Simpson's 'Wigs (Portfolio),' 21 lithographs on felt, with 17 lithographed felt text panels, from 1994.

Johnson said she was especially touched thinking about black children who could see themselves in the paintings, unlike when they tour the Nelson's European exhibitions.

"It takes work like this and representation like this for kids to be able say, 'I can do that, I can be a visual artist,'" Johnson said.

Some of the stories in the exhibition are painful, or "triggering" as Johnson said, like the installation "Duck Duck Noose" by Gary Simmons: eight white hoods atop eight stools arranged in a circle around a dangling noose.

"The reality is, it's painful to see that, but it did happen," said MacHolmes, of Chicago, on the day of her visit to the Nelson. "When people have hate, when they don't be taught love and respect and everything else, this can happen again in a different way. There's a lot of good things about the United States, but also a lot of things we've got to change. It's all our responsibility."

She said the show is like the door of a jazz club thrown open to the night, beckoning passersby to come in.

"When you start playing that horn, everybody comes in," MacHolmes said. "Art tells a story. It's up for you to perceive that. Some things, you don’t like what you see, but that’s the way it is."

"30 Americans," through August 25 at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64111; 816-751-1278.

Listen to Stephanie Fox Knappe, Samuel Sosland Curator of American Art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, speak with KCUR's Central Standard about "30 Americans."

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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