Art Curatorial Exhibitions

30 Encounters with 30 Americans: Conversations VII – IX

Kai Gardner-Mishlove, Bechane Tendai Cole and Jnana Martin. Photo by the author
Kai Gardner-Mishlove, Bechane Tendai Cole and Jnana Martin. Photo by the author

30 Encounters with 30 Americans is a ten week blog series showcasing the perspectives of thirty visitors to the Milwaukee Art Museum’s 30 Americans exhibition (June 14 – September 8, 2013).

Read about the experiences of these visitors–from couples to families, from students to scholars–and see how their thoughts compare to your own. What are visitors saying about this dynamic exhibition of paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs, video, and more made by African American artists since 1970?

From the well crafted thoughts of educators to the developing impressions of young students, this week’s 30 Encounters with 30 Americans is rich with engaging perspectives.

Conversation VII: Kai Gardner-Mishlove, Bechane Tendai Cole and Jnana Martin

Kai Gardner-Mishlove, Bechane Tendai Cole and Jnana Martin. Photo by the author
Kai Gardner-Mishlove, Bechane Tendai Cole and Jnana Martin. Photo by the author

Kai Gardner-Mishlove is a Marketing Director, residing in Glendale, Wisconsin.  Her son, Bechane Tendai Cole, is a recent graduate of Knox College, where he studied art and is now immersed in post-graduate job search.  Meanwhile his younger sister, Jnana Martin, lives with their mother.  She is a rising senior at Nicolet High School.  At Nicolet, Jnana founded the Multicultural Club, with the goal of getting a group of people together to discuss “the elephant in the room”: The club provides a platform for students to engage in discussion about subjects, which people would not normally have the opportunity to publicly consider. These topics are often directly relevant to the cultural dynamics of high school. Her own multicultural background as a Jewish African-American provides her with the unique ability to identify and begin to bridge the gaps between her follow students.  She is interested in pursuing a degree in marketing at universities such as Northwestern University and Boston University.

#1 What did you think of the exhibition?

Kai: I thought the exhibition… and placement… was wonderful.  To me, it highlights the diversity of art and of the experience of art in the United States, in general.  I’m very happy that they chose thirty Americans of African ancestry to represent this exhibition… I saw what I thought to be very diverse influences, some that appeared to be historical and other influences that appeared to be contemporary.  I saw a lot of different imagery that reminded me of Latin America as well… I think this exhibit is about race and identity.  I think the pieces of work highlight and actually cause people to rethink their notions of race and identity… What is it when you say, “black.”  What does it really mean?  It can mean so many different things that people don’t even realize.

Bechane: I enjoyed the exhibition.  I thought that… exposing the work of African-American contemporary artists working today is good… When you think about contemporary artists today, it is a good thing to highlight the strong non-representational black artists that are working in the market.  I’m glad that the Museum has this exhibition.  I found it enlightening and well thought out.

Jnana: I thought it was very thought provoking.  There were things that I wasn’t aware of and was sort of oblivious to.  To see these ideas made out into art, it is really in your face and makes you think about history, culture, identity… and who “I am” and who “I want to be.”  Also, the people that are around me and the different people in this world.

#2 What would you say to people who are considering coming to see the exhibition/artwork?

Kai: I would highly encourage folks to come and see this exhibit… It reflects the diversity of art, especially young artists… While these are folks of African ancestry that live in America, they may not be American born, they may practice various religions and be from various cultures.  I think it is important for folks to come in and hear these names–names which they may not ordinarily recognize off hand unless they are very much familiar with this type of art.  I think it is important to support this art, support this exhibit, and support the Museum that brought it here.

Bechane: This exhibition really highlights the diversity of expression in contemporary American art… All contemporary artists are working out of a historical framework.  I don’t think this [exhibition’s artwork] is just specifically about the African-American experience, but [also provides]… perspectives about the American experience.  I think if you are interested in American art, in general, this is a powerful and thought provoking example.

Jnana: I think it is very important to come see this exhibit.  To recognize and experience the little things such as the different textures within the art.  I found that it was interesting just to look at the differences within the actual art.  There were… oil paintings, structures, pieces with rhinestones… Just to see what you could do with art and – for any artists out there – you can grab a lot of ideas from the diverse art that is exposed here.

#3 Please choose a particular artist or artwork that stands out in your mind.  Comments or thoughts? 

Kai: Shinique Smith‘s pieces that highlight how we are a throwaway culture.  She had a piece where it was a bundle of bags, clothing and shoes that almost looked brand new that are being shipped to Africa and the Caribbean by different charities.  [People in Africa] are actually going to purchase it.  I read years ago about how they are selling barrels of clothing… to these countries and I’m thinking, “what a throwaway society we are” because these are items that can still be used.  Yet, we’d rather throw them away and buy something else.  It is massive consumerism.

Bechane: I really liked the Glenn Ligon works on legibility.  His layering of… the coal dust on top of… the text to play with the legibility and illegibility… It’s always hard for me to work out what I think people are saying. It is more of an emotional reaction that I have to [artwork]… Perhaps he is saying something about historical documents and the history of reading… I think there are multiple things he’s talking about. I also liked the Mark Bradford collage piece and how he plays with the ad image and the scale of the billboard.  He tries to make some kind of construction out of all the different information we are fed on the streets.  He plays out… the life of the ad image… Ads don’t just mean what the message is reported to mean, they mean a lot of things.

JnanaRobert Colescott‘s painting, Pygmalion, really made an impression on me because… it was a visual portrayal of what I’m personally going through as a seventeen-year-old girl living in Glendale and going to Nicolet.  [Dealing with] identity issues and living in America, and the thought of beauty is here.  This [painting] really brings it to the surface.  I’m not alone with what I’m struggling with and how I don’t think the portrayal of beauty in the media is actually correct.  It is also quite damaging to young girls who are looking at this portrayal of beauty and saying, “Well I’m not that.” Having this [issue] brought to the surface and seeing it really made me feel like I wasn’t so alone in this struggle.

Conversation VIII: Susanne Pelikan, Kaleigh Pelikan, Lisa Davis and Jackson Crain

Susanne Pelikan, Kaleigh Pelikan, Lisa Davis and Jackson Crain
Susanne Pelikan, Kaleigh Pelikan, Lisa Davis and Jackson Crain. Photo by the author

Visiting from Cedarburg, Wisconsin, Susanne Pelikan has worked as a landscape architect and is currently a stay-at-home mom to four children, including Kaleigh Pelikan.  Kaleigh will be in fourth grade this fall and often spends her time playing soccer, dancing, and swimming.  Joining them in their visit to the Museum is Lisa Davis a part-time paediatric physical therapist and full-time mother. Jackson Crain (on her lap) will be entering the fifth grade and, like Kaleigh, loves playing sports.  He is especially fond of soccer and hockey.

#1 What did you think of the exhibition?

Susanne: I actually really enjoyed the exhibition.  We came down [to Milwaukee] on a rainy day, so we originally didn’t come to see the exhibition… I found it very revealing and disturbing. I also thought it had a lot to say… I think the works that stood out to me were the ones that had a historical precedent [Kehinde Wiley].  I loved the background and the detail that was put into that, and I love the idea of interjecting the everyday person into a piece of art that was meant for wealthy, basically white people.

Kaleigh: The Nick Cave stuff – they were dressed in weird stuff… how all the different colors and… patterns [mixed together].

Lisa: I liked it very much. I thought it was interesting.  I liked the very elaborate mannequins [by Nick Cave] and I very much liked the historical perspective of the youth from now put into those elaborate painting [by Kehinde Wiley].

Jackson: It was cool and it was weird!

#2 What would you say to people who are considering coming to see the exhibition/artwork?

Susanne: I thought the one about the branding was interesting [Hank Willis Thomas].  The modern take on branding.  Mainly because I never thought about it that way and I doubt many people do–branding as a comparison to the historical branding of slaves and how that was used by the owner to identify people.  The modern day athlete is branded by his sport, or his corporation in the same fashion.  So, maybe, he is not as free as he thought.

Kaleigh: I liked the Nick Cave [works] because I liked the colors and the designs on them.  I liked the furry one the most because of all the hair and how he dyed it, so it wasn’t just one color.

Lisa: Other than the two that I mentioned, I also thought the Ku Klux Klan [Duck, Duck, Noose by Gary Simmons] work… was pretty moving… it was sad, really sad.

Jackson: Nick Cave – because he had a person and then he decorated it.  I wanted to touch it… because it seemed cool.  One was furry and that looked interesting.

#3 Please choose a particular artist or artwork that stands out in your mind.  Comments or thoughts?

Susanne: I thought it was interesting that we were having a discussion about the Trayvon Martincase on the way down here.  Then, here we are hitting that whole cultural issue in the artwork and seeing how it is expressed by a different viewpoint than we might typically have in our little Cedarburg. Which I thought was really important for everyone to see.

Kaleigh: I would tell them [visitors] to read [the museum labels] because it [the artwork] might be more interesting than they thought.

Lisa: I would recommend coming.  It is very interesting and colorful with lots of different kinds of things to look at.

Jackson: Read the words that explain the art.

Conversation IX: Ruth Beerman and Phil Rippke

Ruth Beerman and Phil Rippke. Photo by the author
Ruth Beerman and Phil Rippke. Photo by the author

Returning to the “30 Americans” exhibit for a second time, Ruth Beerman brought Phil Rippke along for the experience.  Ruth and Phil are educators from Shorewood, Wisconsin.  Soon, Ruth will be moving to Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, where she will be teaching Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University.  Ruth has returned one more time to view the exhibition as well as the rest of the Museum prior to her move.  Meanwhile, Phil will continue to enjoy his weekly bike rides by the Museum.

#1 What did you think of the exhibition?

Ruth: It stays with you. This is my second time coming and I wanted to come back because it just gets you to see things in a different way.  I like the different juxtapositions of styles, textures… the sensory element of the exhibit and who was there [visiting the exhibition] that day also then has different influences on your understanding. So, I like how it [the exhibition] is so complex; it’s not simple.

Phil: I thought it was terrific.

Why did you decide to return to the Milwaukee Art Museum to view the exhibit for a second time?

Ruth: When I first came to it [the 30 Americans exhibition] was really overwhelming in terms of how different it was from other kinds of exhibits… This time, I was able to focus on what was unique about the different pieces: the ones I really liked, why I liked them and then how they critiqued, or challenged different assumptions about nineteenth century and twentieth century art, politics, race relations, history and social interactions.

#2 What would you say to people who are considering coming to see the exhibition/artwork?

Ruth: You definitely have to come – it’s awesome! When I came the first time, it was during the free weekend [in honor of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s 125th anniversary] so I was like, “this is really interesting” and decided I wanted to go. It is the first time it [30 Americans] is here in the Midwest so that is a big draw.  It is something that only we have here [at the Milwaukee Art Museum]…  [The exhibition] pushes you.  If you want art to push you and to think differently, then you have to come.

Phil: It’s an excellent exhibition – it really is.

#3 Please choose a particular artist or artwork that stands out in your mind.  Comments or thoughts?

Ruth: Two really stood out to me.  Carrie Mae Weems–her different photographs.  I’ve been working with images of black women in history and thinking about then taking these nineteenth century ones and turning them on their head.  The way in which she displayed them, I thought was really fascinating. Kehinde Wiley – I loved his explosion of color and how then your taking something European-styled and putting it into the… urban meets classical… It is the blending of culture and artistic style.  It is a sort of low and high culture intertwined all at once.  I loved the frames too. They looked so nice in their frames.

Phil: There are way too many.  When I turned the corner into the room with the Ku Klux Klan hoods [Duck, Duck, Noose]… it’s shocking, but in a good way.  It makes you think about all the historical racism in America, but also how we currently have racism – maybe in a less overt form. The racists may not wear white hoods anymore or carry around nooses, but they are still around.  I thought reading the different comments were fascinating too. The different post-it notes of people’s reactions… For some of the pieces you are able to write down comments and post them on the wall for other people to see.  Almost like a facebook page, where people can then reply to one another… someone wrote, “Desegregate Milwaukee.”

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Check back next week for 30 Encounters with 30 Americans: Conversations X – XII. 30 Americans is at the Milwaukee Art Museum from June 14 through September 8, 2013. For more information, please click here.

Sarah Rabinowe is a summer Curatorial Intern at the Museum.  Sarah is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, and this autumn she will be moving to England to complete her Masters degree in History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of Oxford.

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