The contemporary artist
was once wandering around an antiques market in Louisiana when he found a deck of “Sutherland’s Circular Coon Cards” from the late 19th century. The playing cards depicted a series of flamboyantly dressed African-American men with dramatically darkened skin and exaggerated features—caricatures known by the derogatory term “coons.” Lovell bought the cards and used them to create “The Card Series II: The Rounds” (2006-2011), a series that juxtaposes each coon card with a carefully drawn charcoal studio portrait of an anonymous black woman, man, or child who lived between the 1863 “Emancipation Proclamation” and the Civil Rights Movement. Lovell’s 54 portraits can currently be found in the “Visual Arts and the American Experience” exhibition at D.C.’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
The 400,000-square-foot museum, which exists under the auspices of the Smithsonian, will open to the public on Saturday, September 24th. It’s a monumental, bronze-colored, corona-shaped testament to the experience of Black America. Across numerous galleries, it records and institutionalizes a wide breadth of black history, collectively reframing the recherché African-American story as America’s own. Its principal architect, David Adjaye, designed the building to be experienced from the three below-ground galleries (where an exhibition entitled “Slavery and Freedom” is located) up to the four above-ground galleries (the highest of which shows the cultural influence of African Americans). This trajectory is intended to evoke the progress of a people and their country. NMAAHC has all the heft of a national museum, leveraged to display an essential, progressive history. It succeeds in broadly tracing black American life over the course of the last 500 years.