'We have to talk about these things': LINC students confront race, identity in '30 Americans' exhibition
This was challenging. Scary even.
“Beauty,” said Nelson-Atkins Museum educator Jackie Niekamp to the startled children from LINC’s summer program at Wendell Phillips Elementary School, “is in everything we see . . .”
And here, at the museum’s fierce “30 Americans” exhibition, beauty was in scarred human figures, mesmerizing portraits, stacked cotton bales, exotic sculptures, iron shackles, a gun victim’s funeral and Klansmen hoods.
LINC site coordinator Jamie Braden couldn’t know, when she took the group of 5th and 6th graders into the museum June 18, how they would react.
She only knew, after she had first seen the exhibit herself earlier in June, that she wanted to give them what was a stunning opportunity to engage their world.
“It offered them depth,” Braden said. “It offered them the identity . . . the history . . . to talk about culture, and talk about race.”
“Whether you like it or not, young people have to understand,” she said. “The only way our children can gain more knowledge is to give them new experiences.”
The “30 Americans” show qualifies as a provocative learning experience for sure.
Braden wondered, as the adult leaders took their group of 10 children inside, if the kids would have the patience to absorb the special exhibit.
The showcase of more than 80 artworks created over the past four decades by celebrated African American artists offers “a powerful combination of art and community discussion” said Julian Zugazagoitia, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
The Wendell Phillips students were instantly enamored with the works of art — drawn from the Rubell Family Collection of works by artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Carrie Mae Weems, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, Rashid Johnson, Kara Walker, Hank Willis Thomas, and Kehinde Wiley.
They saw a black man posed in a painting amid a field of flowers in an evocative Renaissance style as Christ was portrayed in the tomb.
They saw a ball and chain that shackled a basketball to an air-born Nike shoe.
They saw walls fashioned out of cotton bales.
They pondered a photograph that took MasterCard’s “Priceless” ad campaign of whimsical things Americans charge and layered it over a grieving family at the casket of a shooting victim.
They faced the installation of a ring of wooden chairs, each holding up a white Klansman’s hood, circling a noose hanging from the ceiling — titled, “Duck, Duck, Noose.”
“The way they received the art, even if it was really heavy, was amazing,” Niekamp said. Sometimes they didn’t understand the context. Sometimes they wanted to know more and asked.
The students became eager to explore more, at one point spying art nearby in the museum’s standing African art collection, and asking their adult chaperones, “Can we go in there?”
Braden walked them through their afternoon journey, letting them experience it as much as they were comfortable. She remembered how her mother took her to see challenging art. She remembered the history she experienced —like the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. and the rioting in Kansas City. And she thought of the history she didn’t experience — like the terror of lynchings.
From generation to generation, history must not be forgotten, Braden said. Convention must be challenged.
“People say we don’t need to talk about these things,” she said. But she nodded emphatically and said, “Yes, we do. “
She doesn’t know how long the students would have stayed. They only left because their two hours were up and she told them, “I’ve got to get you back.”
The exhibition runs through August 25. Admission is free for members and children 12 and under, $18 for adults, $16 for seniors, $10 for students.
The “30 Americans'“ webpage includes information about special events connected to the exhibition, as well as suggested readings, conversation starters, and a Spotify music playlist.
Each year LINC along with its partners the Kansas City Public Library and the Black Archives of Mid-America produces an annual Black History educational poster set and booklets featuring accomplished African Americans from the Kansas City region. Artists featured over the years include photographer/filmmaker Gordon Parks, photographer William L. Fambrough, and fashion designer Cloteele T. Raspberry.
By Joe Robertson, LINC writer