“30 Americans” makes its West Coast debut at Tacoma Art Museum on Sept. 24. Show runs until Jan. 15.

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Race is at the forefront of many Americans’ minds these days, and it’s in the foreground of many of the works of art in the exhibition “30 Americans,” which had its West Coast debut at the Tacoma Art Museum on Saturday, Sept. 24.

It’s an important show, full of great works by African-American artists who have reflected, in very different ways, on the experiences of being black in America. It’s an exhibition that can spark conversations about the history of injustice, the nuances of individual, racial and cultural identities, and the continuing inequalities in this country.

Consider the exhibition’s title, for instance. Mera and Don Rubell, the couple who had the vision to buy these works, explained in a written statement: “We decided to call [the exhibition] ‘30 Americans.’ ‘Americans,’ rather than ‘African Americans’ or ‘Black Americans’ because nationality is a statement of fact, while racial identity is a question each artist answers in his or her own way, or not at all.”

Exhibition preview

‘30 Americans’

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (5-8 p.m. Free Third Thursdays) Sept. 24-Jan. 15, Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; (253-272-4258 or tacomaartmuseum.org).

The show does not attempt a monolithic, uniform claim about racial identity. It is a varied collection of voices and modes of expression. In fact, as if proving there is no way to definitively pin down the exhibition, there are 31, not 30 artists, in the show.

At the same time, it is very much about institutional representation, about confronting the lack of exhibitions and art histories showcasing black artists.

“ ‘30 Americans’ has shown conclusively that each of these artists deserves to be in the canon of great American artists,” said TAM’s chief curator, Rock Hushka. “In fact, I would be so bold as to posit that 10 to 20 years in the future, when you pull out a textbook of American Art, these exact works would be in there. These are the very best works that some of these artists have ever done.”

A sneak peek of the show revealed three generations of brilliant artists. Works from the 1980s by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Robert Colescott are chock-full of personal and pop cultural references, announced in vivid colors and expressive brushwork. Critical works from the 1990s by Carrie Mae Weems and Kara Walker construct stark narratives of historical prejudice using photographic and silhouetted figures, respectively. Recent work by Noah Davis and Mickalene Thomas show how different artists approach figurative work today. Davis’ quiet oil paintings immerse us in personal scenes while Thomas adds rhinestones to her bold paintings to highlight ideas of beauty and ornamentation.

Alyce McNeil, TAM’s Interim Director of Marketing and Communications, said she is thrilled to see “an exhibition as complete at this, with contemporary artists like this, from my time and my culture. That’s very powerful to me. There are a lot of messages that speak to today. What does it mean to be an American?”

The answers to that question can vary, from artist to artist and from place to place as the exhibition travels across the country. While the show largely stays intact, as organized by the Rubell Foundation in 2008, it has changed over the years, as certain works of art are allowed “to rest.”

Individual curators at different venues can also make requests for certain works, to reflect specific logistical limits or curatorial goals. “I wanted to make sure there were a couple of additions to emphasize the Northwest,” Hushka said. “I asked for more works by Hank Willis Thomas because of his work with the Sound Transit project.” (Thomas is working on two outdoor, photo-based murals of Jimi Hendrix for the Judkins Park light-rail station.)

Other artists have Northwest connections: Carrie Mae Weems and Robert Colescott have ties to Portland, and Noah Davis was born in Seattle.

Hushka also nods to the timing — a presidential election year — with a grouping of political works by Basquiat, Glenn Ligon, Rashid Johnson and Kerry James Marshall. In front of this wall, in the middle of a gallery, stands a powerful installation by Gary Simmons titled “Duck, Duck, Noose.” Ku Klux Klan hoods perch on a circle of stools surrounding a noose.

Another potent addition to the TAM show is an enormous Kehinde Wiley painting titled “Sleep,” which was not part of the original configuration and was not part of the recent solo show of Wiley’s work at the Seattle Art Museum. The 25-foot-long canvas shows a reclining, sheet-draped man, evoking associations with martyrs in art history and the sacrificed, eroticized bodies of contemporary black men.

After its opening in Miami almost eight years ago, the exhibition has traveled to Washington D.C., Milwaukee, New Orleans and Detroit, among other cities. Its stop at the Tacoma Art Museum is the first time it has traveled west of the Mississippi, and there are no confirmed plans for other West Coast venues.