The Joslyn Museum unveils new items in contemporary collection


Maria Nevada

Celeste Butler gazes at Kara Walker’s Resurrection Story with Patrons. Photo by Maria Nevada/the Gateway

What can new pieces of art and a rehanging of a gallery really do for a museum, it’s tempting to ask. The Joslyn Museum answers that question with what feels like a fresh new vision and new life for its contemporary and post-war collections.

On May 23, the museum unveiled its five new acquisitions now on display in the U.S. Bank/Rismillery Gallery. The five works are by contemporary American artists Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, Rashid Johnson, Kara Walker, and Omaha-based Therman Statom.

The acquisitions, on the heels of the recent 30 Americans exhibit which featured artists of color, are part of a broader initiative by the museum and Phil Willson curator of contemporary art Karin Campbell, to, as Campbell said, “get Joslyn looking more like what America looks like.”

Campbell adds laughingly, this means it “needs to be less white and less male.”

The new acquisitions certainly fill a void. Acquiring works of art isn’t just part of how a museum grows its collections, but it’s also how museums fill in narratives about art, culture and history. Artists of color have always existed, but their work has not always been recognized, especially American artists of color.

By placing the work of Wiley, Thomas, Johnson, Walker and Statom in the same contemporary gallery as Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, the Joslyn recognizes the place of these artists in the narrative of American contemporary art– and the stories these artists have to add to that narrative.

Kehinde Wiley, who is known for breathtakingly majestic portraits– and most notably the portrait of President Barack Obama that now hangs in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery–sought out subjects for his portraits on the streets of Ferguson and north St. Louis. Wiley sought to invite subjects from cities where people of color are often dehumanized and disempowered and then, through portraiture, elevate them to figures of power and beauty.

Wiley’s piece, Three Girls in a Wood, is inspired by a 1920 canvas by German expressionist Otto Müller. The subjects, three black women are bathed in a pink glow that seems to emanate from the piece. They seem to watch over the gallery below.

Across the gallery, the subject of Mickalene ThomasDin, une très belle négresse 1 also stares out into the gallery, a black woman with bold blue lips almost dripping with shining rhinestones and surrounded by colorful blooms. Thomas celebrates black femininity and the agency of her subjects, highlighting their beauty and sexuality, while rejecting the traditional role of women as passive objects of desire.

Johnson’s piece, Untitled Microphone Sculpture, is both contemplative and active. He, like Wiley and Thomas, explores the nuances and meanings behind black culture, incorporating black soap and shea butter as art material, as well as copies of Citizen: An American Lyric by poet Claudia Rankine.

One is invited to speak to the piece, through means of a microphone in the work connected to speakers in the gallery. The result is an amplification of voice, of power, of agency. You can choose to read passages from a copy of Rankine’s work, set down on a pedestal by the piece.

Walker’s Resurrection Story with Patrons, dwells on sacredness, violence, race and gender. The form of the work, a triptych, itself evokes an altarpiece. Walker created the piece while in a residency in Rome. The central figure, a black woman, arises from a shipwreck, pulled out of the water by others, a call to all to rally to the side of racial and social justice. She is flanked by “patrons” who come to her side, one with a candle, a symbol of hope.

Statom’s piece, Untitled, as it hangs, is a piece of our own city on the walls. Statom was drawn to Omaha by Jun Kaneko. His interest in glass, the main material in his work, was sparked by a workshop done under Dale Chihuly, whose own Chihuly: Inside and Out graces the upper level of the museum with a riot of colored glass tendrils.

Working at a museum that spans from the antiquities to contemporary art, allows you to “look forward and backward,” said Campbell.

It’s a narrative, a story, that can be read by walking through the museum’s halls. And now, people of color can see themselves in that narrative, as they should have always been able to.

Textile artist Celeste Butler, while standing under the gaze of Thomas’ subject, said, “now we’re seeing ourselves on these stark walls. The walls are stark, they’re pale in the dim lighting. But then you see all this color.”