First Lady to Bestow State Department Medal of Arts
On September 13, the U.S Department of State’s Office of Art in Embassies will honor Tony Abeyta, Sheila Hicks, Robert Pruitt, Hank Willis Thomas, and Suling Wang with the 2023 U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts. First Lady Dr. Jill Biden will present the medals at a White House ceremony.
The Medal of Arts award was created by Art in Embassies, in partnership with the Secretary of State, in 2012 to formally acknowledge artists who have played an exemplary role in advancing the U.S. Department of State’s mission to promote cultural diplomacy. Their achievements represent those of thousands of artists who make art diplomacy possible at U.S. embassies around the world. 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.
Previous Medal of Arts recipients include: Jeff Koons (2013), Sam Gilliam (2015), Maya Lin (2015), and Jenny Holzer (2017).
“This year’s honorees, like those before them, selflessly offer their creative talents to the mission of American cultural diplomacy,” said Megan Beyer, Director of Art in Embassies. “Artworks on display in embassies and residences are potent soft power tools of diplomacy.”
Tony Abeyta (b. 1965, Gallup, New Mexico) is a Diné (Navajo) contemporary artist working in mixed media paintings and sculpture, exploring nature and the environment. He was born into a distinguished family of Diné artists that includes his late sisters, Pablita and Elizabeth, and his late parents, Narciso and Sylvia Shipley Abeyta. Together, his relatives have excelled in painting, pottery, weaving, and silversmithing. This important family legacy and history was recently examined and celebrated through the 2022-23 art exhibition “Abeyta: To’Hajiilee K’é” at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. Abeyta is a previous recipient of the New Mexico Governor’s Excellence in the Arts award and has been recognized as a Native Treasure by the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture along with an Honorary Doctorate in the arts from The Institute of American Indian Arts. His artwork has been featured in numerous Art in Embassies exhibitions, and his lithograph Infinite Wisdom, 2015, was created as part of a collaboration between Art in Embassies and the Institute of American Indian Arts to highlight the diversity
and vitality of Native American contemporary art. Infinite Wisdom is included in the permanent art collections of the U.S. embassies in Ankara, Türkiye; Oslo, Norway; and Niamey, Niger.
Sheila Hicks (b. 1934, Hastings, Nebraska) studied at Yale School of Art with painter Josef Albers and art historian George Kubler. She received a Fulbright scholarship in 1957-58 to paint in Chile which enabled her to travel through twelve countries in South America where she documented archeological sites and indigenous craftspeople. Pre-Columbian weaving techniques influenced her to explore fiber as an artistic medium. Completing her master’s degree in painting at Yale in1959, she worked in rural Mexico until 1964. She then moved to Paris where she continues to work today. Widely exhibited internationally, her practice has been informed by global textile traditions and pioneering creations in sculpture and installation art. Hicks was awarded the title of Chevalier by the Legion d’Honneur in 2023 and received an Honorary Doctorate from Yale University in 2019. She has two artworks—Lares and Penates, 1990-2013, and After the Rain, 2013—on permanent display in the U.S embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Robert Pruitt (b. 1975, Houston, Texas) received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Texas Southern University (2000) and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Texas at Austin (2003). His life-size portraits of Black figures incorporate material references to hip hop, science fiction, comic books, African artistic forms, and African American culture, in order to explore identity and further disclose a radical past, present, and future for his subjects. Pruitt was awarded Studio Museum in Harlem’s Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize in 2022, which recognizes and honors the artistic achievements of an African American artist who demonstrates great innovation, promise, and creativity. Additionally, in 2022, Venus Williams selected Pruitt to create her portrait for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., as part of the institution’s Portrait of a Nation Award. Art in Embassies worked with Pruitt as he created Forever’s People, a four-panel drawing, seven feet high by twenty feet long, for permanent display in the U.S. Embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe. His drawing Be of Our Space World is part of the Art in Embassies permanent collection at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria. Additionally, he participated in artist panel discussions in Pretoria, Johannesburg, and Cape Town, South Africa.
Hank Willis Thomas
Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976, Plainfield, New Jersey) is a conceptual artist who focuses on themes of perspective, identity, commodity, media, and popular culture. His practice is often collaborative and engaged in public art. Thomas’s The Embrace, 2022 is a 19-ton monument to Civil Rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King on Boston Common. He co-founded the artist collective For Freedoms with artists Eric Gottesman, Michelle Woo, and Wyatt Gallery in 2016 as a platform for creative civic engagement in the United States. Through Thomas, For Freedoms donated a set of four impactful photographs to Art in Embassies’
Democracy Collection traveling exhibition and collection, on display at the Acropolis Museum, Athens Greece; Xippas Gallery, Geneva, Switzerland; Universidade Católica Portuguesa (UCP), Lisbon, Portugal; and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C. Referencing American artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (1941) These newly realized 2018 photographs—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—were created by Thomas, Emily Shur, Gottesman, and Wyatt Gallery to highlight a much more inclusive America than what was originally styled in Rockwell’s iconic scenes. His artwork has been featured in numerous Art in Embassies exhibitions, and he has participated in artist panel discussions in Lisbon, Portugal, and Pretoria, Johannesburg, and Cape Town, South Africa.
Suling Wang (b. 1963, Taichung City, Taiwan) is known primarily for her large-scale, abstract paintings that explore the artist’s sense of location and distance between Eastern and Western cultures. She completed her Bachelor of Arts degree at Central Saint Martins in London in 1997 and then received her Master of Arts degree from the Royal College of Art in 1999. After living and working abroad, Wang returned to her childhood home in a small rural village outside of Taichung and now spends most of her time there. She was a 2019 Artist x Artist Gala Honoree of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. Art in Embassies commissioned Wang to realize one of her largest oil and acrylic on canvas paintings to date for the American Institute in Taipei, Taiwan. The Singing River 2, 2016, is over seven feet high and almost thirty feet long; its motifs are influenced by the landscape of her childhood in Taiwan, the changes that followed, and the cross-cultural dialogue between the histories of Eastern and Western art.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Art in Embassies. The U.S. Department of State established the office in 1963, adapting a program started ten years earlier at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibitions and collections created by the office play a vital role in our nation’s public diplomacy. The works are carefully selected to reflect the pride and innovation of America’s cultural sector and to make cross-cultural connections in the regions and countries in which they are displayed. Art in Embassies curates permanent and temporary exhibitions for over 200 U.S. embassies and official residences across the globe.