Artists including Sheila Hicks and Hank Willis Thomas receive US State Department’s Medal of Arts

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On 13 September, the US Department of State’s Office of Art in Embassies gave its Medal of Arts awards to artists Tony Abeyta, Sheila Hicks, Robert Pruitt, Hank Willis Thomas and Suling Wang. The medals were presented by First Lady Jill Biden at the White House.

The recognised artists represent a broad swathe of US visual culture. Tony Abeyta, a Diné (Navajo) artist from New Mexico, explores themes of family legacy and material heritage and recently had a solo show at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe. Sheila Hicks, who traveled through 12 countries in South America in the 1950s and 60s to learn about Pre-Columbian fiber and crafting techniques, is best known for her experimental weaving and sculptural textile art. Robert Pruitt’s life-sized drawings of Black figures incorporate references to hip-hop, comics, science fiction and multiple facets of African American culture; last year, he was commissioned to make a portrait of Venus Williams for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Hank Willis Thomas, known for creating a 19-ton monument to Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King on the Boston Common, co-founded the artist collective For Freedoms in 2016. Suling Wang, who was born in Taiwan, creates large-scale abstract paintings that articulate both the distances and overlaps between Eastern and Western cultures.

The Medal of Arts, created by the Art in Embassies programme in partnership with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012, acknowledges artists whose work promotes cultural diplomacy. “Art serves as a bridge with other nations, encourages discussion and expression and highlights the communal experience of people from countries, cultures and backgrounds worldwide,” representatives for the State Department said In a statement.

“This year’s honorees, like those before them, selflessly offer their creative talents to the mission of American cultural diplomacy,” said Megan Beyer, the director of Art in Embassies. “Artworks on display in embassies and residences are potent soft-power tools of diplomacy.”

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Art in Embassies, established in 1963 as an extension of a pre-existing program at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The exhibitions and collections created as a result “reflect the pride and innovation of America’s cultural sector” and have been shown in more than 200 US embassies and official residencies around the world.

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