Anthony of Padua by Kehinde Wiley

Object of the Week: Anthony of Padua

You simply can’t miss the eye-catching posters and banners all over Seattle advertising our next special exhibition, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic. When you come for the free opening celebration this week—and do come!—you’ll see huge paintings from private and public collections across the world, including a gem from SAM’s own collection.

Anthony of Padua, a painting in the very traditional method of oil on canvas, measures six feet tall by five feet wide. The figure is imposing, the decoration bright and busy. His is an empowering posture borrowed from the aristocratic patrons of art history and conferred to a young person of color. The rococo frills that surround him speak of the joy of excess.

He brings together, as Kehinde Wiley’s work often does, two worlds of swagger. The original swagger portrait (a real term in art history used even by stuffy academics) developed in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. At the time, those who had the funds to do so might pay an artist to paint them in a very flattering pose, wearing elegant and expensive dress, accompanied by symbols of their knowledge or power. The idea was to show off your status, wealth, and noble character. You wanted to impress those around you and those who would see your painting long after you were gone.

More recently, swagger has been mostly informed by looks, attitudes, and language developed in street culture. Kehinde Wiley’s work picks up on both points of reference, which, when we think about it, are not so different. Urban Dictionary’s top definition describes swagger as “How one presents him- or herself to the world. Swagger is shown from how the person handles a situation. It can also be shown in the person’s walk.” The way to attain it has changed across cultures and across time, but swagger has always been about getting respect by portraying self-confidence. It’s always played out through language, body language, and dress.

To build his new swagger portraits, Wiley has developed a practice of “street-casting” to choose the models for his portraits. Wherever he might find himself looking—and Wiley has taken subjects from places as diverse as Brooklyn and Brazil, India and Israel—he strolls the streets, more or less living his life, but also waiting for a moment of connection with another individual. He’s allowing chance to play a role in selecting who makes it into these paintings, and then onto the walls of a gallery or museum. The models come to the artist’s studio with the instruction to wear everyday clothing and express their personal style. That’s just how the model for Anthony of Padua posed and is portrayed here: with his own coat and patches, teal pants, and octopus necklace.

Anthony of Padua in Seattle Art Museum's European Galleries

Anthony of Padua arrived at SAM in 2013, shortly after he was painted. Here, he was not destined for the Modern and Contemporary galleries, but found his home right away in the European Baroque galleries, surrounded by the likes of Veronese and Anthony van Dyck—one of the most successful to ever do a flattering portrait.

The historical figure who informs the title of SAM’s Kehinde Wiley painting is Anthony of Padua, who lived 1195-1231, and who was canonized in 1232. I like to think that SAM’s painting, if only because it shares his name and a resemblance to another artist’s depiction of him, carries some of the presence and virtues of the saint. In life, Anthony of Padua became known as a devoted student, one with a remarkable memory, and as a convincing, charismatic orator. In the Catholic tradition, he cares for, and hears prayers from, the poor, the elderly, expectant mothers, travelers, and seekers of lost things. Fittingly for us here in Seattle, he is also the patron of fishermen, domestic animals, and mariners.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Anthony of Padua, 2013, Kehinde Wiley (American, born 1977), oil on canvas, 72 x 60 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Contemporary Collectors Forum, 2013.8, © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Robert Wade.
6 x 6 grid of gradated circles on natural ground. (Detail showing gradation and cloth.)
indigo dyed hemp kibira, paste resist
2006
72" x 72"

Rowland Ricketts: The Extended Interview

In our February-May 2016 issue of SAM Magazine, our member-only publication, we featured an interview with indigo textile artist Rowland Ricketts in anticipation of our upcoming exhibition Mood Indigo: Textiles From Around the World. Our space was limited in print, so we’re featuring the whole interview here on the SAM Blog.

Setting the Mood

The upcoming exhibition heading to the Asian Art Museum, Mood Indigo, honors the unique ability of the color blue to create many moods in cloth. Drawn primarily from the Seattle Art Museum’s global textile collection, Mood Indigo illuminates the historic scope of this vibrant pigment. The exhibition features a set of tapestries from Belgium, a silk court robe from China, a vast array of kimonos from Japan, batiks and ikats from Indonesia and Africa, and ancient fragments from Peru and Egypt. An immersive contemporary installation devoted to indigo by Rowland Ricketts will be accompanied by a soundtrack by sound artist Nobert Herber that unveils the musical nuances indigo can suggest. From the sultry darkness of midnight to the vitality of a bright sky, come let the myriad blues in their multiple forms surround you.

Fields of Indigo by Rowland Ricketts

Rowland Ricketts’s Historical Processes For Creating Contemporary Textiles

Artist Rowland Ricketts adapts historical processes to create contemporary textiles. He came to indigo by way of a two-year apprenticeship in 1996. Today, Ricketts works with his wife and fellow artist, Chinami, as they handle indigo in all the stages of its inception: growing, processing, vatting, and dyeing. Read on to learn about this artist’s journey with indigo, from seed to cloth.

SAM: Hi Rowland! Thanks for speaking with us.

Rowland Ricketts: No problem!

SAM: What would you say your work is about at the heart? What are the central themes inherent in it?

Ricketts: On some level, it’s awe and wonder. That is a huge, meta-interest for me. Indigo is imbued with mystery. It’s an enigma of sorts in that it is a dye found throughout the world, and a dye found in synthetic forms. People have been drawn to it for millennia, working with it for millennia, and the end of the day, the color is immaterial, a wavelength of light. There are myriad connections indigo, from history, to plants and the environment, to art, time, etc. We (indigo makers) create these connections and at the end of the day, we’re making something immaterial. Part of the human condition is the drive to create beauty, and yet it is so immaterial. It’s all part of the bigger picture. On a smaller scale, planting, harvesting, and dye-making are all central to what I do.

Installation by Rowland Ricketts, Sound by Norbert Herber Museum of Fine Arts Boston August 28, 2015 - January 8, 2016. Dried indigo plants, indigo dyed hemp, interactive sound.

SAM: What inspired you to work with indigo? When did you start?

Ricketts: In 1996 I did a two-year apprenticeship in Japan, and spent one year working with a farmer and one with a dyer making indigo out of composted leaves. What inspired me was that I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet. I did photography, taught high school, and was developing black and white photos. I stopped eventually, pre-digital photography. I thought that there’s got to be more ways to create. I met people who were very conscious of their environment, very direct with it. I met them folks who dyed indigo, and worked with them on plants. They first told me about indigo and said to visit the Folk Art Museum in Osaka. When I went, there happened to be an indigo dyer exhibit up. I just started gardening and thought, “Wow, this is what I want to do.” It brought together my interests: working in a sustainable way with the environment, gardening, and farming.

SAM: Tell us about the work that you’ll have on view as a part of Mood Indigo.

Ricketts: The installation was a part of an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (Crafted: Objects in Flux, which was on view through January 10, 2016) and it will be reconfigured to fit the space. It’s coming SAM’s way next. It’s called “Mobile Sections.” For it, I collaborated with a sound artist, Norbert Herber, for an audio component. It’s made up of a large, indigo-dyed textile, 11½ ft. tall by 30 ft. circumference, dried indigo plants, and possibly a video projection. The inspiration for it was drawn from the process: field recordings of the harvesting, planting, drying, and positions of sound. It is playing with materiality and immateriality and it’s a thing that’s so much bigger in person.

SAM: For those of us who have yet to dye things with indigo, can you walk us through your indigo-making process?

Ricketts: Sure. There are four main steps:

STEP 1: GROWING
I plants seeds in late March, and transplant seedlings in early May and tend them, then harvest them in early July by cutting at the base to allow the leaves to dry.

Growing Indigo

STEP 2: PROCESSING

In the fall, these dry indigo leaves are put in a special shed, mixed with water, and composted for one hundred days to make the traditional Japanese indigo dye-stuff known as sukumo.

Processing Indigo

STEP 3: VATTING

By January, a concentrated compost with dye is left behind.

Vatting Indigo

STEP 4: DYEING

To dye cloth, I take the composed leaves, add wood ash lye, and mix them. Indigo bacteria removes oxygen to make the dyeing possible. The dye lasts from four months to a year, and the leaves used to make the dye are returned to the fields to nurture the next planting. With this process, the only thing taken from the leaves is the dye.

Dyeing Indigo

SAM: Okay, last question: What do you think people should know about indigo?

Ricketts: One connection people should definitely make: that the color they’re seeing comes from plants. I grew up in suburban America, and was driven by cars. I only became interested in plants after living abroad. People have been making indigo for millennia! I hope that after they leave the installation visitors think about what the color is, where it came from, and how it got there.

Mood Indigo will be on view at the Asian Art Museum April 9–October 9, 2016. Don’t miss it!

Images: Photos: Rowland Ricketts.
The Judgment of Paris

Object of the Week: The Judgment of Paris

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique,
like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see.
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
a functioning cog in some great machinery,
serving something beyond me.

– “Helplessness Blues,” Fleet Foxes

Why do I visit museums and what do I hope to encounter there?

There are as many answers to that question as there are people to answer it, and actually more, because I would respond differently depending on the day. I might want something challenging and make it my goal to find something like that, or I might want to be awed by something made with otherworldly skill. But why would I go to the museum? What’s so significant about what’s here, and does it matter that I have to be here—and nowhere else—to see it? On some days I make the case for the museum by saying that the art in our galleries tells important stories in the history of the world, including ones that are still unfolding today.

Standing face-to-face with an original and unique artwork can be a deeply moving experience. I remember vividly when I “met” Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence and Picasso’s Guernica at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. I would argue, though, that the uniqueness—the idea that this thing is one-of-a-kind, and that only when I am standing with my two feet here, at this specific spot in the world, can I know it this way—is only part of the specialness of the museum. What completes it is the network of art-making across the whole of human history. It wouldn’t matter much to us if this were the only David by Michelangelo if not for the artist’s role in shaping the visual art of his time and managing to influence artists hundreds of years after his death. That entire conversation is what makes this moment of emphatic punctuation so gripping.

SAM’s painting of The Judgment of Paris by Lucas Cranach the Elder is not exactly notable for its uniqueness (though it is a pristine original). It’s a great painting because of its place in the story.

A highly productive artist and one who was especially drawn to this theme, Cranach produced at least ten similar paintings. There are wonderful examples in the collections of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the St. Louis Art Museum; and several European museums. Cranach has sometimes been criticized for the very fact that he was so productive. He established a studio and could be seen—from one perspective—as churning out pretty pictures, maybe investing less in the paintings, and making the artworks less remarkable.

The Judgment of Paris (detail)

From another perspective, he was a trailblazer: a skilled and highly successful artist. Cranach was a pioneer for the nude painting in Northern Renaissance art. In The Judgment of Paris, he’s couching his sexy idea in a scene from classical mythology that made it culturally acceptable. He paints the goddesses in three different, seductive poses. As the story goes, Paris, who is represented in the picture by the dozing fellow in armor, was on a hunting trip in the woods when he got lost, tied up his horse, and fell asleep. Mercury, here shown as an older man with an elaborate plumed costume, came to him in a dream to present him with Juno, Minerva, and Venus. His task: to choose the fairest. Maybe Cranach was remarking on the difficulty of rating goddesses when he painted these three almost indistinguishable nudes. That they are anatomically a bit awkward reflects the newness of the nude in Northern European art when Cranach was working.

The Judgment of Paris (detail)

While there are others like it, there are certain charms to this painting one can only enjoy in person. Cranach painted it on an unusually thick piece of oak that has gone back to its original curvature, as panels tend to do over time. The flat frame around the curved panel creates a quirky and interesting viewing experience. The intimate size of the painting and the precision of its detail are other features one can really only appreciate in the gallery. Apparently the painting is also magnetic to fingers: SAM conservators have had to care for it multiple times after folks put their grubby paws on it. If you feel so compelled, just think: it might be your last opportunity to see the original.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: The Judgment of Paris, ca. 1516-1518, Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, Wittenberg, 1472-1553), oil on wood, 25 x 16 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, LeRoy M. Backus Collection, 52.38.

Artist Yee Sookyung on embracing the imperfect

Beauty is often associated with symmetry; Order, even lines, and pleasing color palettes are all indicative qualities of something that aims to catch the eye. The earliest Western theory of beauty can be found in the works of Greek philosophers from the pre-Socratic period, such as Pythagoras. The Pythagorean school saw a strong connection between mathematics and beauty. Notably, they believed that objects proportioned to meet the golden ratio (two objects are in the golden ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities) were more attractive. Many greats including Da Vinci and Dali have incorporated the number in their works. Artist Yee Sookyung—currently showing work in the exhibition Paradox of Place: Contemporary Korean Art at the Asian Art Museum—does not.

Rather than create pieces that follow this long-held belief, she takes existing pieces of art as well as broken shards, bits, and pieces of work made by traditional Korean master ceramicists (what she calls “ceramic trash”) and turns them into gold—literally.

“My concern is not about the history of Korean ceramics, but it is to play with the fragments which exist now, and this is different from the ceramics masters who produce all of the ceramics adhering to traditional methodology,” Yee said. “Korean traditional ceramic masters break almost 70% of the product that don’t reach up to the standards of masterpieces. So I put the broken bits and pieces of ceramic trash together, one by one, as if putting together a jigsaw puzzle. I covered them with 24k gold leaf, and I wanted to emphasize the crack. In Korean, the word for crack is also the same for gold.”

She describes the process of the pieces coming together in a rather romantic, predetermined way:

“A broken ceramic piece finds another piece, and they rely on each other,” Yee said.

The result is ultimately sculptural, anthropomorphic, and universally beautiful.

Watch the artist describe this process, the act of combining histories, and the many layered metaphors buried in her large-scale work. Experience Thousand and all of its perfect imperfections in Paradox of Place at the Asian Art Museum.

Sea Bear Crest Hat

Object of the Week: Sea Bear Crest hat

An encounter with a sea bear would not be easily forgotten. Among the Haida people, oral histories sustain the memory of this imposing, magical spirit, with its origins at the beginning of the world. A hybrid animal with features of the whale and bear, the sea bear had all the subtle swiftness of the whale and the predatory power of the bear, carrying the mass and presence of both. Traversing land and sea freely, it commanded respect in all domains. Rows of intimidating teeth, set in powerful jaws, made it so. On the back of its neck, a dorsal fin gave him stability and agility in the water, and when he emerged from its surface, as we see him do here, whomever he encountered would take notice.

Before I learned a little bit about this Haida Sea Bear Crest hat, I might have called it (adjective) animated, pointing out that I see a quality of life and energy reflected in it. Turns out that its maker also intended it to be actively (verb) animated, or even danced. It’s a hat, after all, and it was worn as part of a ceremonial costume. The sea bear marked the crest of a particular family or lineage, so displaying it was a show of family pride. Carved wooden hats—for me, even worse to think about wearing something wooden on your head than wearing something wooden on your feet, so gimme clogs—were common in the art of the Northwest Coast Native peoples. In literature, they’re sometimes called “helmets,” and that is maybe a term we would have an easier time connecting to the sea bear.

Sea Bear Crest Hat (detail)

Over 150 years, wear to the paint and wood has made the hat’s features much more quiet than they would have been. Both carving and painted design were meant to contribute to a striking figure. Today, the red pigment that once animated the lips, tongue, and ears of the sea bear is only barely visible. Without looking closely, one might even miss his serious front claws.

Many people have played a part in the life of this piece, from its maker to its performers, and later, collectors. Two figures from this last category are especially significant to us. John H. Hauberg, who donated the piece in December of 1983, has been a hugely influential contributor to SAM. His foundational gifts established the Native art collection as a strength of the museum and placed it on a level of national regard. Interestingly, Hauberg actually acquired the piece from another well-known figure in this corner of the art world: Northwest Modern painter Mark Tobey.

Sea Bear Crest Hat (detail)

The Sea Bear Crest hat features in the display Pacific Currents, on view now in our third floor galleries. If you find him, peer under the brim of the “hat” to get a better sense for how this artwork would have been worn and performed (and to see the fine work of our world-class mount-makers).

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Sea Bear Crest hat (Tsa.an Xuu.ujee Dajangee), ca. 1870, Haida, red cedar and paint, 10 1/2 x 15 3/4 in. Gift of John H. Hauberg, 83.228. Photos by Natali Wiseman.

Meet Multidimensional Artist & Prizewinner Brenna Youngblood

We’re honored to share that the 2015 Gwendolyn Knight | Jacob Lawrence Prize Winner is Los Angeles-based visual artist, Brenna Youngblood, who incorporates symbols and elements—with strong but not-so-obvious references to everyday life—into her sculptures and atmospheric paintings. The Gwendolyn Knight | Jacob Lawrence Prize is awarded bi-annually to an early career black artist—an individual who has been producing mature work for less than 10 years.

Youngblood is a prolific artist with a rigorous studio practice where she experiments deeply with aspects of formalism, materials, and processes. Rooted in photomontage, she builds the surfaces of many paintings at once while contemplating the relationships between each object in formation. Mixed with humor, satire, and pure creative freedom, she embraces her intuition fully as she makes decisions about composition, line, form, and content. Abstract with a nod to conceptualism, figuration, and the real, Youngblood makes painterly work that is visually grounded by architectural, social, and political cues. She often refers to many of these beautifully messaged works as landscapes.

Her solo exhibition abstracted realities, which was guest curated by Sandra Jackson-Dumont, SAM’s former Kayla Skinner Deputy Director of Education and Public Programs and Adjunct Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) is on view now through April 17, 2016.

Watch the artist discuss how her pieces explore the iconography of public and private experiences, as well as issues surrounding identity, ethics, and representation. And be sure to visit abstracted realities next time you’re at SAM!

"Gwendolyn Knight" by Augusta Savage

Object of the Week: Gwendolyn Knight

When Jacob Lawrence was just a teenager in Harlem beginning to explore visual art as a way of commenting on the world around him, a local art teacher walked him straight into the local offices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to apply for an art project. The boy was too young, they were told, but he would be welcome to re-apply when he met the age requirement. Lawrence himself all but forgot about that invitation. His teacher, though, made sure he followed through, and one imagines the two were almost equally excited when Lawrence secured a project—his first paying art job, painting in the easel division of the Federal Arts Project.

The teacher was Augusta Savage, a well-known sculptor who had studied in Europe and in New York City, with Hermon MacNeil of the National Sculpture Society, among others. Her name carried a large amount of respect in the art community of Harlem, because she had talent and because she had settled back among her people after gaining education and exposure. She achieved a “professional” status that made her the admiration of students and local artists. There were moments in Savage’s career when her skill and grit brought financial and critical success: She earned commissions for portraits of race activists W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, and also for a monumental piece displayed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

"Gwendolyn Knight" by Augusta Savage

Partly by her choice, and partly for the difficulty of her time, which was marked by economic depression and racial discrimination, Augusta Savage’s legacy would be her students. Through her Harlem Art Workshop, affiliated with the State University of New York, Savage directed one of the largest free art instruction programs in New York City. Her efforts earned her an appointment as director of the Harlem Community Art Center, supported by the WPA. Through these programs, Savage’s Harlem students were offered a rare technical training and art education.

Savage once said “I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting”—and we might debate her on this point—“but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work.” We can safely say she accomplished what she set out to do: Jacob Lawrence, for one, listed her first among the people who encouraged him as a young artist. We might also like to thank Augusta for bringing together, through her studio, Jacob and the woman who would become his wife and muse, Gwendolyn Knight. It might have been Gwen’s sense of self-assuredness that inspired Augusta to create the memorable portrait we are looking at today.

Newspaper clipping featuring "Gwendolyn Knight" by Augusta Savage

SAM’s painted plaster portrait of Gwendolyn Knight perfectly illustrates Augusta Savage’s devotion to Gwen and all of her students. Masterfully made, it captures the nuances of Gwen’s facial features and exudes the grace and dignity for which the subject was known. Savage’s training in classical realism shines through in the portrait. It’s moving to consider that Savage had shown her work in such a hallowed space as the Grand Palais in Paris, but she debuted this portrait of Gwendolyn Knight in an exhibition of student work, held at the Harlem Y.W.C.A. in February, 1935. Not only that, but it was cast in fragile plaster and then painted; with few exceptions, Savage never had the funds to cast her works in lasting, costly bronze.

The students’ art at the 1935 Y.W.C.A. show, like Savage’s, drew on the culture and experiences of African Americans. It was a celebration of their solidarity. Augusta Savage’s lasting achievement was to create a place where aspiring artists could learn the skills of their craft while proudly exploring who they were, where they could be built up and encouraged, and made to believe in their value. Hers is a legacy worth considering as we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this weekend.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Gwendolyn Knight, 1934-1935, Augusta Savage (born Green Cove Springs, Florida, 1892; died New York City, 1962), painted plaster, 18 1/2 x 8 1/2 x 9 in. Gift of Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, 2006.86, Photo: Natali Wiseman. Gwendolyn Knight detail, Photo: Natali Wiseman. “Negro Students Hold Their Own Art Exhibition,” New York Herald Tribune, February 15, 1935, Reproduced from the Collections of the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Honor MLK at Art & Social Justice Tours

SAM is celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. with a week of spotlight tours, focusing on works on view in the galleries that relate to themes of race and social justice. We invite you to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy here at SAM.

Visit the galleries at noon today through Monday to participate in a different tour each day, led by members of SAM’s curatorial and educational staff:

Jan 13: Carrie Dedon, Modern and Contemporary Art Curatorial Assistant & David Rue, Education and Curatorial Intern

Jan 14: Marcus Ramirez, Coordinator for Education & Public Programs, and Lindsay Huse Kestin, Museum Educator for Teen, Family & Community Programs

Jan 15: Jeffrey Carlson, Collections Coordinator

Jan 16: Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Jan 18: Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture

All tours are free and open to all. Participants will need to purchase a gallery ticket, but no special exhibition ticket is required. We invite you to join the conversation.

Image: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “Martin Luther King, Jr. (left) and Eslanda Goode Robeson (right).” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed January 13, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/a7d0e925-f8b7-eff6-e040-e00a18060357
The Art of Storytelling

The Art of Storytelling

Storytelling is an essential tool for expressing our beliefs, culture, and creativity. We spend our lives collecting and sharing stories. Whether we’re recounting a childhood memory or teaching others about a historical event, stories help us make sense of, and connect to, the world around us.

Visual art and storytelling are closely associated. When we view a work of art with narrative potential, we are naturally inclined to interpret it. To understand an object, we think about what we see as well as what the object and its artist are communicating. Questions like “Who are the figures?” or “What is happening in this scene?” prompt us to construct stories to explain the object. With their stories, we might see artists sustaining, subverting, or expanding on traditions they’ve inherited.

Black-Figured Amphora with Herakles and Athena

The proliferation of narrative content in Greek art, particularly vase-painting, began at the turn of the sixth century B.C.[i] Without any text to explain what’s happening in these vases, our familiarity with the actions or attributes of the figures depicted is crucial in identifying the characters, and through them, the story in which they are involved. The 6th-century B.C. black-figured storage jar, or amphora, depicts a mythological battle scene. The lion skin worn by one of the figures tells us that the figure is Herakles and refers to the circumstances of its acquisition, the Twelve Labors. With his foot mid-air, Herakles steps forward to charge at his opponents. Athena, armed with her helmet and spear, stands either in front of Herakles on one side of the vase and behind him on the reverse side of the vase. Two of the three hoplites hasten away but look back, indicating their retreat mode and an impending victory for Herakles and Athena. The alliance between Herakles and Athena alludes to Athena’s role as a divine comrade to great heroes in mythology and art. The nature of narrative art like this amphora requires the viewer to access prior knowledge of visual cues and iconography to read the content. As the viewer begins to study the meaningful features, the story unfolds.

Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper

Whereas the Greek vase was a propagation of an established narrative, Some Living American Women Artists/ Last Supper is a challenge to powerful narratives in the history of art and religion that have excluded women. The artist, Mary Beth Edelson, takes a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and replaces the heads of Jesus and his disciples with photographs of women artists. “The most negative aspect of organized religion, for me,” says Edelson, “was the positioning of power and authority in the hands of a male hierarchy that intentionally excluded women from access to these positions…[The work] gave me a double pleasure of presenting the names and faces of the many women artists who were seldom seen in the art world of 1972 as ‘the grand subject’—while spoofing male exclusivity in the patriarchy.”[ii] The resulting work showcases women in a male context and connects art with religion. The poster not only commemorates women artists but also highlights the struggles women have confronted in their professions. The act of women taking the place of men in an important historical painting overturns gender constructs. By appropriating the message of the male-dominated Last Supper painting, Edelson effectively asserts the voices of women and their place at the table.

Nnada Okumkpa (Senior Leader’s Mask)

The narrative content of objects is not necessarily fixed. Objects can convey different and new stories depending on their environment, use, and audience. Masks, for example, are not simply static images; they are imbued with social relationships and act as vehicles for powerful storytelling. Wooden masks were one of the many elements used in okumkpa, a masquerade tradition of the Afikpo of southeastern Nigeria.[iii] The play essentially functions as a community theater, touching on issues exclusively known to the people of the village. Although the play primarily ridicules and satirizes community members and relevant events, it offers moral commentary on how residents have behaved, establishing a standard for how they should behave. The masked players embody mma, a type of spirit intended to protect the players and provide them the freedom to perform without restraint. The senior leader of the performance would wear the Nnada Okumkpa, direct the skit, and narrate the action. When the masks became animated, they interacted with the viewer and situated him as a participant in a performance. While admiring the staging of the masquerade performance on the fourth floor gallery, I overheard a visitor commenting to her friend, “I’m waiting for one of them to start moving.” Though still and silent, the mask in the museum is a suggestive remnant of the movement, sound, and drama of performance.

Visual storytelling involves an intimate interaction between an object and its audience. When we choose to become immersed in the objects, they bring out very personal responses. We may laugh, cry, or even critique the story we believe we see in the objects. Our engagement with art ultimately keeps the stories alive. I hope you will find a good story during your next visit to SAM!

—Fiona Dang, SAM Curatorial Intern

[i] Mertens, Joan R. How to Read Greek Vases. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010.
[ii] “Mary Beth Edelson.” Avalanche. 1973.
[iii] Ottenberg, Simon. Masked Rituals of Afikpo: The Context of an African Art. Seattle: The University of Washington Press, 1975.
Images: Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Work with schools : a librarian’s assistant telling a story to a group of Russian children in their native language, ca. 1910s.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed January 8, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-e5f7-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99. Black-Figured Amphora with Herakles and Athena, Greek, 6th C., B.C. Gift of Norma and Amelia Davis, 82.83, Photo:Natali Wiseman. Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper, Mary Beth Edelson, 1971. Purchased from artist by Seattle Art Museum, 98.14, Photo: Mark Woods. Nnada Okumkpa (Senior Leader’s Mask), Chukwu Okoro, Gift of Simon Ottenberg, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2005.42, Photo: Natali Wiseman.