Art in Conversation: Nicole Woo on 30 Americans

Arminda Gandara, HoMA Public Programs Manager:

Welcome to Art in Conversation. Nicole Woo is a visual artist, activist and performer. Woo shares her impressions of the exhibition 30 Americans as a black woman, artist and global citizen.



Nicole Woo:

My name is Nicole Maileen Woo. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. It was a strange time growing up in New York City in the midst of the crack epidemic, police brutality, and corruption. I knew Yusef Salaam, of the Central Park Five, and I knew it in my heart he was innocent. But I was a kid, what could I do? The only thing that I could was to question. This questioning led me down the path of studying philosophy and spirituality. Which greatly informed my art. My calling to be an artist was birthed and nurtured as a student at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, as well as, New York City’s High School of the Arts, the Fame school.

This past February, I had the privilege to view the exhibit, 30 Americans in person. Nick Cave’s Soundsuit especially resonated with me. I found the life size figurative sculpture encased with huge, brightly colored flowers appealing. The merging of plant-life and human-life. It inspired me to see nature celebrated in the context of identity. Earth embodied as one. Harmoniously co-existing beyond the limitation of manmade identity.

After doing some research on Soundsuits I learned that Cave released his first Soundsuit in 1992. As demonstration against the police brutality that Rodney King endured. Cave states:

“It was a very hard year for me because of everything that came out of the Rodney beating. I started thinking about myself more and more as a black man. As someone who was discarded, devalued, viewed as less than. I started thinking about the role of identity. Being racially profiled, feeling devalued, less than, dismissed. And then I happened to be in the park this one particular day and looked down at the ground. And there was a twig and I just thought well, that’s discarded and it’s sort of insignificant. And so I just started then gathering the twigs and before I knew it, I was, had built a sculpture.”

Cave’s artistic response is a pattern seen throughout African-American history. The artists not only memorializing the inhumane acts, but also transforms the experience to reveal the heart of the matter. The black artist sees her own humanity, and therefore will always create art that centers the conversation around being seen or unseen as such. Unfortunately to this day, art created by us black folk is generally stigmatized because of the deeply engrained resistance to seeing all black people as human.

As James Baldwin states in the anthology The Price of the Ticket:

“The precise role of the artist then, is to illuminate that darkness, lays roads through that vast forest so that we will not in all our doing lose sight of it’s purpose which is after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”

Yes, the role of the artist is to illuminate that darkness. And for the black artist, it’s to bring light to the dark past and present times of America. And in closing, I encourage and implore everyone to open your hearts and minds and view the exhibit 30 Americans and to truly see the works of art as contributions to humanity and to our ultimate driving force. Our personal and global evolution. Thank you.