Washington DC does not lack world-class museums: There are fine art institutions all over the Mall and surrounding neighborhoods. The newest, the Rubell Museum in SW, is the latest outpost from the beloved Rubell Museum in Miami, and one of the few showcasing living artists in a building steeped in DC history. We spoke with museum director Caitlin Berry about the must-see works in the inaugural presentation.
InsideHook: I recently visited the museum and had a very good time.
Caitlin Berry: What was your favorite work?
Big Black Rainbow by Vaughn Spann. I know it’s kind of hacky because it’s one of the first things you see, but it just makes you feel good. And it’s something so large you could never hang it in your home.
Your answer really touches on a lot of the things that I would tell anyone who hasn’t been to the museum. The work here, you’re not going to see anywhere else in Washington. And Vaughn Spann’s Big Black Rainbow is something we all sort of need spiritually, at this moment in time.
I don’t know if you were able to get close enough to the work to see the materials that he used on the surface, [but] they’re actually terry cloth towels. [Spann] is drawing tactile memories of tradition and ritual and his own family into his work. On Sundays at his grandmother’s house, they would do laundry and fold towels together. He incorporates these materials into his work [and] what that means for his past, what that may mean for many families and ties to family and tradition, and particularly thinking about the horrific and tragic loss of Trayvon Martin, who was found with a pack of Skittles in his pocket after he was killed. [Skittles’] tagline is “Taste the rainbow.” So he’s painting this rainbow. He’s honoring Trayvon Martin’s life and also pulling in his own identity as a Black man — those similar fears and realities that he’s encountered. But he’s also incorporating the color black into the rainbow, which doesn’t exist in a naturally occurring rainbow. It’s a call, I think, for us to unite and to find peace.
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One of my other favorites is the Unbranded series by Hank Willis Thomas [a series of advertisements with all text removed]. I loved that series, and I did not feel good looking at it.
Hank is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, one of the most emotionally intelligent. He’s using images that were advertisements in Ebony and Jet magazines. He’s bookended this period of time, from 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated to 2008 when Barack Obama was inaugurated president, considering the use of the Black figure in contemporary advertising. Some of them were sinister, using the Black body as a commodity. The interesting thing about this work is it speaks multi-generationally to our audience. It’s easy for a family, with young kids, parents in their 40s with grandparents in their 70s or 80s, to come in and say, “Oh, my God, I remember this advertisement! This is what it was like at that time.”
I enjoyed the first floor because it is a multigenerational space. And like you said, someone with kids could come. The basement is a different story. This is one of the only times I’ve ever seen a content advisory that I completely agree with: “The content may or may not be suitable for all audiences, viewer discretion is advised.”
It is emotionally weighty. One of the most poignant pieces in the lower level is the work by Josh Klein, who has an incredible solo show at the Whitney Museum. I think it’s the only other place in the country to see his work on view right now. You walk in and it’s dimly lit. There’s a figure in a plastic bag, and you’re immediately put on your heels. Upon further investigation, you’re seeing this kind of virus bubble suspended from the ceiling, a banker’s box full of items and thinking, “Is this related to COVID?” But it was actually made in 2016. Josh is saying, imagine it’s 2031 and artificial intelligence has taken over. And there’s this mass epidemic of unemployment that ensues because all of these middle America positions are being eliminated. He had this amazing, prophetic ability to foresee what’s happening in real time right now. We do have guests who emerge from that gallery thinking, “Oh my God, what does the future hold for us?”
We should talk about the building itself, because the DC area has no shortage of great museums. The difference is the Rubell is not on the Mall, and the building itself is a part of DC history.
It sure is. In 1906, this building opened as Cardozo Elementary School and expanded to become Randall Junior High School in 1927. It was a historically Black public school serving the Southwest community until the late ’70s. The Vaughn Spann work you mentioned hangs in what was the former auditorium, where Marvin Gaye would have been singing on the stage with the Glee Club. Everyone worked to restore this building and bring it back to life in this way that honored its history. It maintains these beautiful original materials and textures. You’ll see a lot of the original brickwork, a lot of the original floors. Our gallery benches are made from reclaimed ceiling beams from the old part of the building.
The alumni community from Randall Junior High School has such a strong tie to this building, and for the most part have been absolutely thrilled to walk in the museum to see this painting by Kehinde Wiley, “Sleep.” I think for them to have gone to school here during a time when Washington was experiencing this real social reckoning, maybe not so dissimilar from what was happening in 2020, to walk in and to see that work by an African-American man depicting a Black man on the wall here and celebrating this history is particularly meaningful. We’ve been honored to be able to interact with them and hear their stories about what it was like here and in the community. The building is very special and always in conversation with the artwork.
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