Landmark acquisitions reflect the Hirshhorn's expansive curatorial mission and programming

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Landmark acquisitions reflect the Hirshhorn's expansive curatorial mission and programming
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Photo: Smithsonian.

WASHINGTON, DC.- The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has confirmed the acquisition of artworks proposed by curators and approved by its board that help evolve the understanding of contemporary art history. Since November 2019, the museum has acquired works by more than 60 boundary-breaking contemporary artists—such seminal artists as John Akomfrah, Deana Lawson, James Luna, Sondra Perry, Christina Quarles, Tschabalala Self and Lee Ufan. The works span a broad mix of art-making media, including painting, sculpture, photography, film, installation and mixed-media assemblage. These curatorially guided recent additions represent continuity with the past by honoring Joseph H. Hirshhorn’s foundational 1966 gift while addressing the museum’s mission to acknowledge global and diverse perspectives.

“Acquiring work for the national museum of modern and contemporary art is an honor,” said Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. “Through these recent acquisitions, we hope to showcase the international through-lines and diverse range of art by the artists who are shaping the course of art history and identify future needs of the permanent collection to accurately represent the 21st century.”

Joseph H. Hirshhorn’s 1966 gift laid the foundation for a national museum of modern art, which opened on the National Mall in 1974 with treasures by respected artists, including Alberto Giacometti, Barbara Hepworth, Jacob Lawrence, Louise Nevelson and Isamu Noguchi. The Hirshhorn builds on this legacy by broadening its holdings of late-20th- and 21st-century art to reflect a more expansive and inclusive global art narrative, highlighting voices that have long argued for greater visibility.
Artists whose works have entered the Hirshhorn’s permanent collection since November 2019 include:

• Saudi artist Dana Awartani grounds her work in traditional Islamic art forms, incorporating ritual, sacred geometry and historic techniques into her practice as a means of connecting to the past, particularly her family’s Palestinian roots, and preserving traditional practices in the present. “I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I’d forgotten you. I was dreaming” (2017) is a dual installation that incorporates Awartani’s first video work.

• Alluring and vibrant, Amoako Boafo’s paintings are characterized for their rich color and texture. His striking portrayals of Black subjects challenge conventional notions of Blackness and gender. “Cobalt Blue Dress” (2020) is the Ghanaian artist’s first painting to enter the Hirshhorn collection.

• Hong Kong-born American artist and activist Paul Chan works in a variety of modes including sculpture, animation and performance. “3rd Light” (2006) constitutes one element in Chan’s “7 Lights,” a lauded series of early work. Produced between 2005–2007, each chapter “hallucinates” one of the seven days of creation using video projection. Chan’s explicit engagement with light places him in dialogue with predecessors such as Robert Irwin and Doug Wheeler who are also represented in the Hirshhorn collection.

• Jeffrey Gibson is a citizen of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. The artist is half-Cherokee but was not raised in a traditional tribal environment. Instead, he grew up in major cities in the United States, Germany, Korea and England, where he developed an interest in mixing Native American culture with global pop culture. The acquisition of “TO FEEL MYSELF BELOVED ON THE EARTH” (2020), from Gibson’s Everlast Series, adds to the representation of Indigenous artists in the collection, joining the likes of James Luna, Kent Monkman and Rose B. Simpson.

• Rachel Jones is best known for her vibrant abstractions of the body that center her experiences as a Black artist circulating in a predominantly white space. “SMIIILLLLEEEE” (2021) is a work where Jones translates through oil on canvas experiences that are as visceral as they are intangible, often focusing on the metaphor of the self as a struggling inner landscape. Her bold palette, expressively brushed textures and experiments with abstract forms offer a surrogate for language and identity politics as experienced on an individual level. The first work by Jones to enter the Hirshhorn’s collection is an exceptional example of contemporary artists who employ abstraction to engage with identity issues.

• Zanele Muholi refers to themselves as a visual activist, a term that acknowledges their work to empower queer and youth communities in their native South Africa. Muholi’s social awareness is visible within their photography practice. In 2006, the artist initiated the series “Faces and Phases” as an attempt to correct the invisibility of the Black queer communities in South Africa. The works acquired are part of the artist’s most iconic series to date, “Somnyama Ngonyama or Hail the Dark Lioness” (2014–ongoing). The series began with an impulse to respond to significant incidents tied to race; some were highly personal, while others, such as the 2012 Marikana Massacre, the artist experienced through the news.

• A mixed-media artist from the Santa Clara Pueblo, Rose B. Simpson considers her work as a type of self-portraiture, in that it both develops and testifies to her personal growth through labor. One of the artist’s largest sculptures to date, “Countdown 1,” is the first in a group of four ceramic works that Simpson conceptualized during a year of extreme anxiety as the country struggled with climate disaster, a global pandemic, charged moments of racial reckonings, as well as increasing partisanship in the lead-up (or “countdown”) to the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The impact of this work is particularly significant in that it represents the first work by a female Native American artist to enter the museum’s collection.

• Working in drawing, sculpture, video and performance, Kemang Wa Lehulere’s practice draws upon the cultural and political memory of apartheid South Africa, weaving together references to the artist’s personal history with that of his country and its political upheaval. Wa Lehulere’s work “Flaming Doors” (2018) epitomizes the artist’s practice in both its physicality and its references as it presents a semicircular formation of wooden seats built from repurposed elements of old school desks. The acquisition of Wa Lehulere’s work, featured in the 2019 Venice Biennale, augments the Hirshhorn’s holdings of contemporary Sub-Saharan African art.

• Kiyan Williams is a New York-based multidisciplinary artist who draws upon autoenthnography, archival research and queer ecology to explore Black diasporic experience and trans/gressive subjectivity. In 2019, Williams was selected by The Shed in New York to contribute to their inaugural program. For this commission, Williams used soil to create an image of the contiguous United States on canvas hung on a wall. The creation of the work was a performance in which Williams flung and smeared soil at the wall, at times using their body and braids to apply the soil to the canvas. Williams describes this work as a portrait of America that lays bare the violence and exploitation of Black bodies and land on which the country is built. “Meditation on the Making of America, Study” (2019) resonates strongly with works in the collection that share an interest in performative gestures between the body and the earth. The work also interrogates identity politics—with specific focus on Black and/or trans identity. Williams’ work is featured in the Hirshhorn’s current exhibition “Put It This Way: Re(Visions) of the Hirshhorn Collection” alongside recent acquisitions by Zarouhie Abdalian, Dana Awartani, Jones, Sondra Perry and Emily Mae Smith.

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