sam gilliam - bamako


THE COLOR-INFUSED CANVASES of Sam Gilliam, un-stretched and un-framed, are suspended from the ceiling of the American embassy in Bamako, Mali. Across the globe, visitors to America’s diplomatic outposts in more than 20 countries have been greeted by the innovative work of the Washington Color School artist. On view from Lima and Rabat to Kingston and Seoul, Gilliam’s work has appeared in both temporary exhibitions and permanent installations, such as the one in Bamako (above), as a part of the U.S. Department of State’s Art in Embassies (AIE) program.

Calling Gilliam “a patron and passionate believer” in the diplomatic iniitiative, Secretary of State John Kerry presented the artist with the State Department’s first-ever Medal of Arts Lifetime Achievement Award on Jan. 21 (below). The ceremony was the government agency’s second Medal of Arts tribute recognizing artists for their commitment to AIE and contributions to international cultural exchange. Gilliam was among seven artists honored, including Xu Bing, Mark Bradford, Maya Lin, Julie Mehretu, Pedro Reyes and Kehinde Wiley.

The State Department’s formal announcement of the event and list of honorees was released the day before the ceremony. Advance news of the artists to be celebrated came a week prior, beginning Jan. 14 as Roberts & Tilton (Wiley), Hauser & Wirth (Bradford), White Cube (Mehretu), Marian Goodman (Mehretu) and David Kordansky (Gilliam) galleries took to Twitter and distributed email releases congratulating the artists under their representation who would receive the medal.


Secretary of State John Kerry honors Sam Gilliam with first-ever Medal of Arts LIfetime Achievement Award. | Courtesy U.S. State Department


The luncheon ceremony was held at the State Department in its historic Benjamin Franklin Room. Ellen Susman, director of AIE, opened the program and introduced Secretary Kerry who gave remarks and presented the medals. He said artists “contribute immeasurably, really, to America’s cultural diplomacy. And nobody should ever underestimate the power, the importance of cultural diplomacy.”

“Artists ‘contribute immeasurably to America’s cultural diplomacy. Nobody should ever underestimate the power, the importance of cultural diplomacy.’” — John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State

As Kerry awarded the medals, he noted the accomplishments of each artist. Kehinde Wiley, whose World Stage portrait series has taken him to countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, was congratulated for his work in the Dominican Republic, Britain and Jamaica. “A New Republic,” a survey of Wiley’s career since 2001 opens next month at the Brooklyn Museum.

As a part of the AIE program, Los Angeles-based Mark Bradford’s work has been displayed in Stockholm and Berlin. Kerry mentioned that Gilliam has paintings in more than 20 countries including Morocco, Cyprus and South Korea.

“Julie Mehretu’s acrylic paintings are made with the accumulation of thousands of strokes and numerous layers of paint,” Kerry said. “The effect is a complex, dynamic body of work which we are proud to display at our embassies in Madrid and Julie’s own birthplace of Addis Ababa.” Mehretu also participated in the embassy program’s American Artist Lecture Series in London last year.


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (center) with recipients of the second U.S. Department of State-Medal of Arts, from left Kehinde Wiley, Julie Mehretu, Sam Gilliam, Mark Bradford, Xu Bing, Pedro Reyes and Maya Lin, before ceremony at Department of State in Washington, D.C., on January 21, 2015. | Courtesy U.S. State Department


AIE was initiated by the Museum of Modern Art in 1953, and was officially established at the Department of State by the Kennedy Administration in 1963. The public-private partnership has engaged more than 20,000 individuals and institutions in 190 countries. (View extensive list of participating artists) Held in 2012, the inaugural Medal of Arts ceremony honored Cai Guo-Qiang, Jeff Koons, Shahzia Sikander, Kiki Smith and Carrie Mae Weems.

Kerry closed this year’s tribute by emphasizing the positive role artists can play in global relations.

“Today we honor our artists. We honor them because of the mirror they hold up to who we are and what we hope to be, and because they have the ability to astonish and to surprise, to inspire and to make us think in new and hopefully liberating ways. Art enriches life; and when you consider the concrete barriers and other architectural handicaps which many of our embassies are saddled with, that enrichment is the counter to all of that; it lifts not only morale of our visitors, but believe me, also of our employees. And for that we are extremely grateful,” Kerry said.

“All this goes to underscore what everybody in this room really knows very well: Art can be a transformational force across the globe.” CT


Watch the State Department Medal of Arts Ceremony.


sam gilliam - rabat
On temporary exhibition at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in Rabat: SAM GILLIAM, “Architectural Notions for a New Nursery,” 1980 (acrylic on canvas). Courtesy the artist. | via U.S. State Department


mark bradford - berlin
On temporary exhibition at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in Berlin: MARK BRADFORD, “Amendment #2,” 2013 (mixed media on canvas). Courtesy of the artist and Allan DiCastro, Los Angeles, Calif.


Secretary of State John Kerry awards Medal of Arts to Julie Mehretu. | Courtesy U.S. State Department


mehretu - addis ababa
On permanent exhibition at the U.S. Embassy Addis Ababa: JULIE MEHRETU, “Treatise Drawing (to Axum, part one),” 2010 (graphite on paper). Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York. | via U.S. State Department


kehinde wiley - london
On temporary exhibition to the U.S. Ambassador’s residence London: KEHINDE WILEY, “Santos Dumont – The Father of Aviation III,” 2009 (pil on canvas). Collection of Dan and Jeanne Fauci, Los Angeles California. Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, Calif. | via U.S. State Department


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