Art in Conversation: Mari Matsuda on 30 Americans

Arminda Gandara, HoMA Public Programs Manager:

Welcome to art in conversation. Mari Matsuda is a professor of law at the William S. Richardson School of Law, at the University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa. She relates topics of activism, race, and history to the exhibition 30 Americans. Located in Galleries 27 and 28 [Contemporary and Temporary Gallery].


Mari Matsuda:

After 500 years of dehumanization, 2 million deaths from middle passage, a river of bloodletting, slavery, lynching and state sanctioned violence, the Black body emerges, re-humanized in 30 Americans. The exhibit’s title suggests this relentless theme – we are human, we are American despite everything you have done to debase us. These images are a call to repair, echoing the political demand made by Black Americans and the reparations movement and Kanaka Maoli in the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.


What history brings us here? What obligation does that history create?


Asserting an embodied humanity in the ages of abstraction of the conceptual, the post object is a decidedly Black American move. In this exhibit we see the assertion of the Black body into the space of the museum. The Black body in action, in repose, in glory, in love. The Black body threatened, pursued, degraded. The Black body ultimately surviving. Triumphant survival is the message of these works. A representation of Black humanity in the space of a museum telegraphs survival.


Survival alone, however, is not the full message of Black presence, the exuberance, joy and invention within that survival, emanates from the Soundsuits. Begging to dance as they hang inert. Confronting the internalization of racism, generates raw text in portrait form, odes to Black masculinity. Celebrating maleness is not my thing as a feminist but glorious peacocking in a wide lapelled 70s suit reads differently against the history of police killings and mass incarceration.


What do I make of 30 Americans? As a non-black, female viewer situated in a colonized Hawai‘i. Black Americans survival is ultimately a human story. We, as a species are formed inventive, resilient, and cagey. We will survive the corona virus, global warming, hurricane, fire and flood. Just as Africans survived the middle passage. Whether we do this with enough knowledge of history to work carefully at repair is our challenge. Will I react at this as an ally when Hawaiian’s call me a settler? Or will I join, however unintentionally, that hooded circle of dread and violence from which we all want to advert our eyes.