Hank Willis Thomas  /  AP
This undated handout image provided by the Corcoran Gallery of Art shows Hank Willis Thomas' digital image, "Basketball and Chain", part of the "30 Americans' exhibit at the museum.
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updated 9/30/2011 4:06:16 PM ET 2011-09-30T20:06:16

Works by leading black artists in the contemporary art realm go on view Saturday at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art to tackle issues of racial, sexual and historical identity.

The exhibit, "30 Americans," will be on view through February. It features 31 artists, including Jean-Michel Basquait, Hank Willis Thomas, Kehinde Wiley and others. The 76 works come from Miami-based collectors Don and Mera Rubell.

Corcoran Director Fred Bollerer said it marks an effort to undertake more daring exhibitions that examine serious issues and provoke debate. The Corcoran created two companion exhibits featuring 12 new, provocative works by Thomas called "Strange Fruit" that includes images harkening back to slavery and 25 photographs by Gordon Parks.

"It's a challenging show," Bollerer said. "It's meant to be a challenging show."

The images from Thomas are particularly striking. They include photographs of athletes playing basketball through a noose, instead of a hoop, and familiar logos like the Nike "swoosh" branded on the side of a black man's head.

The Nike image comes from Thomas' extensive "Branded" series of works. Thomas, who is based in New York and Paris, said he wanted to explore the word "branding" as it relates to advertising and focused in part on Nike because its logo is so often promoted by black men, such as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

"In what other contexts historically would branding exist?" he said. "So thinking about how slaves were branded as a sign of ownership and how today so many of us live in a state of branded consciousness."

Thomas explained that much of his work is focused on bringing history into the present. A gallery of works involving the noose and other images from slavery was commissioned by the Corcoran.

Thomas said the history of lynching is relatively recent but often is "shoved under the rug." He said he tied the theme to sports with images of a basketball hoop replaced by a noose because someone playing in the NBA now could be a descendant of someone who was lynched.

"When we have these conversations about wanting people to be over race ... that's also embedded in a denial of fairly recent history," he said. "Just like with the Holocaust, as a Jewish person, you can't help but to see this is what people are willing to do to me."

Another work targets the NCAA with an image of college football players facing slaves picking cotton to address the "absurdity" of not paying college athletes in a multimillion-dollar industry, Thomas said.

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Other works are lighter celebrations of bodies and lives in a vast survey that explores what it means to be black in America, said Corcoran Curator Sarah Newman.

The exhibit will travel to the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., in March.

Henry Thaggert, a new member of the Corcoran's board of directors, said the exhibit marks a new chapter in art history still being written by black artists. The museum has planned a series of events to allow the featured artists to discuss and explain their work over the months ahead.

"I'm just going to put it out there," Thaggert said, "I think it's rare that a major institution gives black artists that kind of forum."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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