We don’t necessarily recognize the magnitude of an experience in the moment, until we get a chance to look back and realize how that experience or moment was pivotal in shaping how we see the world and ourselves in it. Having the opportunity to reflect on 2020 through this piece in the Seattle Times helped me recall what carried me through the past year.
There were some incredibly big moments, such as becoming the Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at SAM, but truly what carried me through the past year were the small moments. It was the simple gestures and findings that held space for me to breathe and discover untapped creativity as a coping mechanism, both for myself and for others in my community. Utilizing my passion to connect, convene, and build community took on a whole different meaning, as I needed to relearn how that would even translate in our new reality.
I wondered how I would continue to center my values of joy and optimism during a time filled with so much pain, grief, and reckoning. But those glimmers of hope—whether it came from my amazing colleague Rayna who built the Little Purple Library at The Station in Beacon Hill, my neighbor Rosie who gave me hand sanitizer in mid-March (basically gold!), and my friends who all rallied to join a car parade for my Mom who turned 70—those are the moments and events that will shape the way that I live my life, do my work, and hold myself in gratitude to the community I have the privilege of being a part of, and in service to.
I hope that all everyone who has found inspiration in art or community in the Seattle Art Museum while they stayed home with SAM is able to reflect on the stress and intensity of the last year in order to identify and act on the positive things that will influence and uplift the future.
– Priya Frank, SAM Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
Almost one year ago, the Seattle Asian Art Museum reopened its landmark building after a three-year restoration and redesign. On the north side of the museum, curators and education staff collaboratively designed the Community Learning Gallery, which includes works from SAM’s collection, interactive stations, and art-making activities focused on storytelling. One corner of the room asks the question: “What are masks for?” Anchoring this space is the exuberant and expansive circular painting Flower Ball by Takashi Murakami, hung adjacent to masks from Nepal, Korea, Indonesia, and Japan, and a creative-making activity by Romson Regarde Bustillo.
The Asian Art Museum opening weekend on February 8, 2020, welcomed more than 12,000 visitors in the first two weeks. One month later, we closed the museum in alignment with COVID-19 public safety recommendations. And, suddenly, the question on the Community Learning Gallery wall label: “What masks do you wear to disguise or protect yourself?” gained new and critical associations.
Seen in person, Flower Ball is magical and disorienting. Murakami uses spatial recession to create the illusion of a three-dimensional sphere coming towards you in space. The 98 ½-inch diameter circle is covered in flower faces, each wearing the mask of an emotional expression like a smiley face emoji. Flowers are Murakami’s self-described icon and appear as a recurring image in his colorful pop art. Trained at the Toyko National Museum of Fine Arts and Music, Murakami developed a trademark aesthetic—dubbed “Superflat” by the artist—that brings together the contemporary cultural penchant for cuteness (kawaii), the two-dimensional composition of traditional Japanese paintings such as Nihonga, and the illustrative styles of anime (animation) and manga (comic books).
When I imagine this painting hanging in the dark gallery of the closed museum, I picture each of the flower faces peacefully sleeping, eyes closed, a few mouths snoring, and the painting waiting patiently for us all to return. We hope to reopen the Asian Art Museum this spring, and as people come back to the gallery, I envision Murakami’s flower faces waking up in joy and smiling down at all the visitors who look back at them with their own masks on, everyone happily and safely reunited.
Bonus! You can find an art making activity in Chinese, Spanish, and English inspired by Flower Ballhere.
– Regan Pro, SAM Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Engagement
These days, people are wearing masks everywhere you look. Bandanas, medical paper masks, fashionable masks with elaborate designs, face shields—there are many ways to wear our masks while expressing ourselves. Me, I love my mask with sharp teeth on the front, for an extra bit of Halloween in December. SAM, too, has its fair share of masks, and one of my favorites in the collection is the Mask for tengu, a Japanese festival mask depicting the maliciously grinning face of a tengu.
Tengu are one of the more famous youkai, or mythical creatures, in Japanese lore. Depicted as bird-men either with beaks or long noses, they are figures of dangerous cleverness that will either teach you magical secrets or abduct and torment you. They have an array of abilities including fire and wind manipulation, flight, and otherworldly swordsmanship. They are said to live deep within the mountains and forests of Japan, and many shrines that worship tengu are similarly placed. Interestingly, these are one of the few youkai to have come about with Buddhism, as they often tempted Buddhist priests and posed as mountain ascetics in old tales.
The tengu mask in SAM’s collection is one that would have been worn during festival processions. Festivals in Japan are often lively and bright affairs with elaborate costumes and parades, with dancers balanced on floats. It’s likely that someone in the past wore this mask as they pretended to be a fearsome tengu, playfully frightening the children watching. It’s equally likely that in Japan today, someone is wearing another tengu mask and doing the same. There are tengu festivals held all over Japan, from Tengu Matsuri on Mt. Tengu in Hokkaido, to the Shimokitazawa Tengu Festival in Tokyo. While the tengu Matsuri is a more traditional affair, the Shimokitazawa festival is a modern take on setsubun, where beans are thrown to ward away evil. People dressed as tengu take to the streets, visiting shops and homes to throw their beans of evil’s bane to bring good luck and fortune.
Although SAM and the Asian Art Museum are temporarily closed, when they reopen, head on over to see the Mask for tengu on view. It, and many other masks and youkai-depicting items will be on display! In the meantime, everybody continue to mask up, and stay safe.
– Kennedy Simpson, Former SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art
Image: Mask for tengu, 18th-19th century, Japanese, wood and brass, 10 1/8 x 7 1/2 x 13 1/2 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 45.104
–Vi Hilbert (1918-2008), Upper Skagit elder, storyteller, and language expert
‘Tis the season of thanks-giving and, as we acknowledge the suffering and bewilderment of our time, we also recognize the importance of gratitude for our families and friends, and for Mother Earth. According to Indigenous philosophies, Earth is the First Teacher. From her body come the gifts of food and medicine that nourish our bodies and souls. Many Native practices, old and ongoing, like the First Foods ceremony and the Salmon ceremony, celebrate these gifts and teachings of gratitude and giving. For generations, Coast Salish Peoples have respectfully shaped wild spaces and harvested the natural materials and foods of the Pacific landscape and waters, practices that renew their living link with the land.
Puget Sound Native Peoples make many kinds of baskets—the materials, shape, and technique used are determined by their purposes—which were critical to the gathering, storage, and preparation of roots, bulbs, berries, shellfish, and other traditional foods. Moving across the foodscape during the seasons, elders impart knowledge to younger generations, thus perpetuating Indigenous memory.
Worn with a strap around the neck or attached to a belt to keep hands free to collect, this well-used berry basket is of a practical size for children to harvest fruit from the bush. Such coiled baskets are created by coiling a foundation material, like split roots, then piercing the coils with an awl and stitching them together with another material. Nimble fingers wove sturdy cedar roots to create the body of this basket. The decorative elements—a checkerboard pattern arranged in large diamond shapes—are overlapped with beargrass (yellow color) and horsetail root (dark color). Basket makers have an intimate connection to nature, knowing where and when to gather and just how much material to take so that the plant can continue to thrive.
“. . .promoting the visibility of traditions, and culture, and history is the work of decolonizing.”
– Valerie Segrest, tribal foods educator and coordinator of the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project
The provenance of this basket sheds light on the colonial history that suppressed Native traditions and culture. Although the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott guaranteed rights to continue customary practices of hunting, fishing, and harvesting, central Puget Sound tribes were denied access to such resources. Through unabated resistance, tribes have regained some of these rights in modern court cases.
This Muckleshoot basket was one of many Native artworks acquired by James Wickersham (in 1899), a member of the Washington State House of Representatives and, later, Territorial Governor of Alaska. Settlers and officials availed themselves—through purchase and confiscation—of “Indian relics” in the belief that such items, and the people themselves, would disappear. However, baskets continued to be made and used traditionally; enterprising Native women created a new genre of basket to sell to outsiders, forging an outlet to experiment with new shapes and sizes, as well as to financially support their families.
The right of a community to define its diet and shape its food system—known as “food sovereignty”—is at the heart of tribal sovereignty, according to Valerie Segrest (who you can watch talk about the topic here). Programs such as the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project revive ancient relationships to the land and to food, promote the healthy cultivation and consuming of Indigenous foods, and advocate for environmental action to nurture and protect food sources.
“When we take better care of our land, we are taking better care of ourselves.”
– Valerie Segrest
Berries are important Indigenous foods and are high in nutrition and medicine. Many types of berries inhabit our coastal and mountain landscapes, including elderberry, huckleberry, blackcap raspberry, cranberry, salal, salmonberry, service berry, soapberry, thimbleberry, wild blackberry, wild strawberry, and wild cherry. Berries are used in salad, pemmican, fruit leathers, as a sauce for venison, teas, and soup. Huckleberries are much desired by the elders because they are sweet but don’t elevate blood sugar and are rich in antioxidants. For other locally sourced foods, you can visit this website.
Try Valerie Segrest’s mountain huckleberry pie recipe
2 pie shells (basic pie crust recipe or store bought)
5 cups of huckleberries
1/2 cup of sugar
4 tablespoons tapioca or 3 tablespoons cornstarch
Juice of half a lemon (optional)
Mix all the ingredients together and pour into the bottom pie shell and top with the second pie shell. Snip any excess off of the edge of the top pie shell and then crimp the entire edge with a fork. Don’t forget to cut a few slits in the top to allow the steam to escape. Put the pie into a 350° oven for 35-40 minutes. When the huckleberry filling is bubbling through slightly and the crust looks golden brown, the pie is ready. Allow the pie to cool completely before serving.
– Barbara Brotherton, SAM Curator of Native American Art
Images: Coiled basket, 19th century, Muckleshoot, coiled cedar root; imbricated with bear grass, horsetail root, and leather, 5 1/2 x 6 3/4 in., Gift of the Native American and Oceanic Arts Council and friends in memory of John Putnam, 2001.1048. Edward S. Curtis, Puget Sound Baskets, 1912, photogravure. Northwestern University Digital Library Collections. http://curtis.library.northwestern.edu/curtis/info.cgi?id=nai.09.port.00000018.p. Muckleshoot tribe’s Valerie Segrest’s fresh huckleberry pie, photo courtesy of Valerie Segrest.
 Valerie Segrest is a nutrition educator focusing on indigenous foods. She received a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition from Bastyr University and a Masters in Environment and Community from Antioch University. She is an enrolled member of the Muckleshoot Indian tribe and serves as coordinator of the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project and is also an instructor for the Northwest Indian College’s Traditional Pants Program. With Elise Krohn, Segrest is the co-author of the book Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit: Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food Culture.
The safety and well-being of our staff, volunteers, and visitors are always our highest priorities. In alignment with Governor Inslee’s Healthy Washington—Roadmap to Recovery, SAM is preparing a reopening timeline for the downtown museum dependent on the latest guidance for Puget Sound area. At this time, Seattle Art Museum’s downtown location remains closed until advised otherwise by government officials.
What SAM is Doing In light of the most recent directives issued by the Governor’s office to continue to limit the spread of coronavirus, and because the safety and well-being of our staff, volunteers, and visitors are always our highest priorities, Seattle Art Museum’s downtown location is closed until advised otherwise by government officials. The Seattle Art Museum, the Asian Art Museum, and the PACCAR Pavilion at the Olympic Sculpture Park will be closed.
The Olympic Sculpture Park remains open, consistent with Governor Jay Inslee’s proclamation noting that walks, bike rides, and similar activities are considered essential for everyone’s physical and mental health and are not prohibited during this time. We will continue to monitor and follow the guidance of city and public health officials and we will align with any decision to close major Seattle city parks. When the park is open, we ask that visitors keep moving through the park and closely follow physical distancing guidelines, staying six feet away from other park visitors. We strongly encourage park visitors to wear masks. Please note that no groups or gatherings are currently allowed in the park. TASTE Café, the Education Resource Center, and all libraries are also closed.
The SAM Shop & Gallery is open during museum closure. Capacity will be monitored and masks are mandatory. Shop in store Friday–Sunday, 10 am–5 pm or shop online anytime. Online order shipments may experience slight delays due to reduced hours. Curbside pickup is also available for online orders. Online order shipments may
Stay Home with SAM while we are closed by attending live virtual events featuring artist interviews, curator talks, and art activities for the whole family. Explore SAM Blog for videos, art news, object spotlights from our collections, and more to keep you connected to art. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram for live streamed events and updates on the museum. If you would like to continue to help support SAM’s efforts to connect art to life while we are closed, we would be most appreciative. Please visit our website to make a donation.
We are monitoring the evolving situation closely and will announce any further program or operational changes through our regular channels, including our website and social media.
Thank you for your understanding and support as we work together to help our community stay safe and healthy.
What You Can Do For the safety of everyone in our community we ask that you:
Stay home if you are feeling unwell and practice social distancing when out.
Wash your hands. Do so often. Use soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
If opportunity for hand washing is not available, use hand sanitizers.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
Avoid close contact with people who are sick
Cover your coughs and sneezes. Hold a tissue over your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Throw that tissue away and, again, wash your hands.
No handshakes or hugs, please. A wave is acceptable for greeting others.
Public Health Seattle & King County is strongly recommending that people at higher risk of severe illness should stay home and away from large groups of people as much as possible, including public places with lots of people and large gatherings where there will be close contact with others. People at higher risk include:
People 60 and older.
People with underlying health conditions including heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes.
People who have weakened immune systems.
People who are pregnant.
We encourage you to stay
informed and to follow the guidance provided by public health officials.
Here are some links to resources that can provide more details on these and other recommendations:
Family festivals at the Seattle Asian Art Museum connect families with performances, art activities, and other programming related to SAM’s Asian art collection. While our Asian Art Museum remains closed, families at home can make art and learn more about Asian art, as well as our wonderful community partners.
Diwali is the Indian festival of lights, celebrated by many people throughout South Asia, as well as in Seattle. For the past 10 years, in collaboration with our community partner, Junior Asha, SAM has organized a Diwali celebration for families held at the Seattle Asian Art Museum each November. Junior Asha is the youth chapter of the Asha for Education – Seattle Chapter. Asha is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to bringing about socio-economic change in India primarily through education. In addition to raising funds for education, Junior Asha members also support the local community by volunteering at events such as the Diwali Family Festival at the Asian Art Museum.
Each year members of Junior Asha have dedicated their time to creating programming for the festival. This has included dance performances showcasing different types of Indian dance. Festivities performed by members of Junior Asha. One component that has remained constant across many celebrations is the youth and Tiny Tots fashion show led by Junior Asha. Members also spent time in the months leading up to the event learning about the art on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum and working with SAM docents to create their own My Favorite Things tour of the museum. Members presented their tours at the Diwali Family Festival sharing their own unique opinions on artwork with the community.
Although we won’t be gathering in person this year, we’re happy to highlight our incredible partnership with Junior Asha and to share an art activity from last year’s Diwali Family Festival for families to create at home. We’re looking forward to once again gathering together in celebration in the future.
ART ACTIVITY: LUMINOUS LANTERNS
For ages 6-10+
Add a bit of color and light as you celebrate Diwali from home! Design and decorate a paper lantern with cutouts, tissue paper, and more. You can then place a light source inside when it gets dark out and see your creation come to life.
Tea light candle or flameless LED candle (optional)
Cut a piece of square construction paper in the shape of a plus-sign, with four equal sides surrounding a square in the middle. If your piece of construction paper is rectangular, you can make it a square by folding over a corner and cutting off the extra paper on the bottom.
The middle of the plus-sign will be the bottom of your lantern, so you can leave that alone for now. With pencil, sketch out a design or pattern on each of the other four sides that you can easily cut out or trace later. This can be inspired by something you see in your home or an artwork in the Asian Art Museum.
Using scissors, a hole punch, push pins, or an X-acto knife, cut out or trace the design that you created. You can bend the sides of the paper over and cut out symmetrical shapes using scissors. Remember to have a grownup help you if you are using push pins or an X-acto knife. If you like, you can tape pieces of tissue paper over the cutouts to add different colors to your lantern.
You can turn your plus-sign around and add decorative tape or other designs in marker. Once you have finished with what you want to cut out and add, fold the four sides of the plus-sign up to create a box without a top. You can add more decorations by cutting out and folding smaller pieces of paper, then taping them on the sides.
Once you’re happy with your lantern, wait until the sun sets and place a light source inside. How do the colors and shapes change when there’s a light inside? During Diwali, people put up many lights to celebrate the special day. You can make even more lanterns in different colors, shapes, and sizes too!
Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence, which will be on view for a year at SAM, centers Black youth in a series of all-new artworks at once delicate and resilient. This Seattle-based artist uses cut-paper and glass portraits and transforms an entire gallery into a luminaria. A place for reflection, the works cut to the core of the fundamental values we assign to light and dark. The disarming expressions of children in Thomas’ portraits ask us to consider how we see each other and how we internalize and project innocence and guilt. Drawn from a community of family and friends, The Geography of Innocence celebrates young lives and their futures in full consciousness of the pervasive violence against Black children. SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Catharina Manchanda interview this important artist in anticipation of the upcoming exhibition. Tickets to visit the galleries will be available starting November 1!
Catharina Manchanda: Biblical narratives form the backdrop of many of your works, and you bring the symbolism of light and shadow to bear on the political situation in this country. What narratives do you explore in The Geography of Innocence?
Barbara Earl Thomas: It’s the two-way mirror through which I see the world. It’s narrated to me in my grandmother Phoebe’s voice with whom I often spent the weekends and summers; where at each exit to the bathroom, kitchen, or bedroom, she’d say, “I’ll be right back, God willing.” This set a tone for the temporality of each moment of this life as she moved through her day. Her God ruled every moment and was the reason for everything good. The devil, his dark wily opposite, was the root of all evil. She loved and admonished us in those terms. Everything was literal. When I misbehaved, the devil had gotten into me. This meant I was not quite responsible for my misdeeds, but in some moment of inattention, I’d let down my guard, and admitted the demon who caused me to climb that tree and fall out, or say some bad words to my cousins who were also full of devils. She reminded me that hell was paved with hot stones, filled with fire, and it came out of your eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. I saw this, clear as day. My grandfather admonished her because he knew by nightfall, I’d be so crazed with this idea of the devil, that instead of sleeping on the couch, I might have to sleep with them. These were some of my first stories heard, sung, and repeated. They formed the backdrop of beauty and mystery of my world.
As a young person I was drawn to the oratorical language of the sermon and its talk of miracles and prophecy—none of which I’d seen. It was the music I listened to, the silences from the adults as I entered the room, and the ladies who prayed over me when I was sick. The ritual and the shape of sanctuary no matter the denomination—Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, Lutheran and Evangelical—was all the same to me. I’d wander into Holy Names Cathedral just off Union Street, or accompany a friend to one of the many Pentecostal churches often set up in temporary store fronts, fleeting in their residence. During these services accompanied by full bands, there were people who sang as each member became possessed by a holy spirit. There were the Jewish people walking to synagogue on Saturday. All these places in my small world were little fires of community where deep emotion and imagination converged. There were stories, food, songs, candles, holy water, and scenes of strange happenings from some mythical past about some next world.
I was intrigued by the language and cultural references around how we describe victims when we think and speak about the violence so prevalent in our country. There is something of heaven and hell to this: violence spirals down from police shootings of young Black men, to nightclub massacres, to random sniper killings of the oldest and then to the youngest among us, our children. I thought, this is where it will stop, with the children. Certainly every adult will draw the line when it comes to the wholesale slaughter of children. Sadly, that was not the case, but what emerged for me from the myriad mass shootings—with Sandy Hook most notably—was the language around sympathy, guilt, and innocence. In thinking about why we as adults couldn’t put children first, I was drawn to studies that demonstrated how we, as a culture, see our children. Here young Black children are seen as less innocent and, therefore, less worthy of public grief than white children.
My ideas for this exhibit surfaced after several readings of Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows and a subsequent re-reading of a mid-1980’s James Hillman essay, Notes on White Supremacy. Prescient in its content, Hillman explores the deep-seated world of mythology around the concepts of light and dark, black and white. As I’d read the essay so long ago, I’d forgotten Hillman’s reference to Tanizaki’s book. It was a happy connection. Both the book and essay deal with how deeply imprinted our associations with language and its usage of the words and concepts are associated with darkness and light. From guilt to innocence they hold a deep well of our associated fears of the unclean and besmirched. Conversely, we associate light and white with all that is pure, clear, clean, and, therefore, innocent and unblemished.
Light and dark. Light and shadow. What is seen and unseen. What is clear and what is mystery—these kinds of experiences are part of my story in addition to my formal education. This is the base that provided the vocabulary and shaped my narrative of the world. As a Black person, I can’t help but see myself in the landscape and imagine how others might experience me based on how I appear to them. I search myself to see how I react to and employ my thoughts and opinions, because aside from being Black I’m also human and subject to the world’s influences.
In this new body of work, I use multiple images of Black children: bold, frontal, and almost life size, so that their faces engage the viewer. In my cuts, I explore youth and its innocence imprinted in and on the subjects’ expressions. I purposefully insist on this particular view and stance because it’s not the one most given to us often in the media or popular culture. The backgrounds may hold contrasting stories that compete with the figures and their stance—the push and pull of the opposites; the yin and yang.
CM: Elsewhere you noted: “I create stories from the apocalypse we live in now and narrate how life goes on in the midst of chaos.” This statement is acutely felt right now—can you talk about it in relationship to the work that will be on view at SAM?
BET: As a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, now as then, there was much ado and action around issues of inequity. The utopian movements that sprang up were numerous. Like formal religion, these communities and/or cults were created as foils to the many disasters life holds. We are afraid and terrified; there is nothing new in that. We construct magic circles and ritual movements to distract and protect ourselves from floods, storms, fires, famines, diseases and yes, now plagues. It is my observations and my experiences that interest me, so like a good witness I note, record, and echo back to my viewer my literal experience of the world through visual stories.
CM: You call yourself “artist, writer, thinker.” We also know that you are an engaged reader. How does your reading and writing practice inform your visual work?
BET: Reading is life. As an active reader I’ve always used literature and all of my reading to inform my world. I read and write to get at truth and to clarify my own thought process. It’s easy for me to talk about my thoughts and correct or rephrase as I go. There is something about being in a room and engaging in a conversation that can make even confused thought processes sound plausible. But when I write I am forced to create clear sentences and connect thoughts and see if they hold water. When I read, I’m looking for the rigor and willingness in the author to think things all the way through. Writers like James Baldwin, August Wilson, and John Edgar Widman are American writers who do that for me. Poets like Pablo Neruda and Rilke capture truth in a nonlinear image condensed. Most recently, I’ve been reading Colin Thurbron’s travel writing, Pico Iyer, and rereading Robert D. Kaplan. I love good travel writing as it is a way to see the world through others’ eyes and be in other parts of this world without traveling. What all these authors share is clear thinking and hard truth telling, which is something I demand of myself in my own work.
CM: You are making a lot of new work for the exhibition, which include different kinds of processes. Would you tell us about the use of the negative space in your paper cuts (you say you draw with the knife!) compared to the wall hangings?
BET: The negative space allows the light to shine in contrast. It heightens the experience. When paired with the positive it creates shadows and mystery. The concept demonstrates that both are needed to create the particular magic that is this story. Both positive and negative space are needed to create a world that exists as sculpture in the round—one that is not flat or one-dimensional. Both are needed to create the emotional response that I seek. When people are surrounded, they are forced to surrender their senses for a moment.
CM: You are pairing your cut paper works with illuminated glass panels for the installation at SAM, what prompted you to pair these in the two adjacent galleries?
BET: I think of this exhibition as one installation made up of several parts. Each separate element has its role in the installation of the paper-cut portraits. Most of the figures are inspired by children of friends and neighbors, some are random portraits I’ve found. All are chosen because there is a way for me to show the part that I think is missing in many of our depictions of the innocence that lives in and marks the dark face of a child. I’m creating a space that holds the viewer in light and shadow to demonstrate something about illusion and how our imagination creates the monsters in the shadows even when there is nothing there. In this case I’m cutting the beautiful from the darkness and placing viewers in the shadows to make them a part of the world they observe. The portraits are cast as precious objects, surrounded by what feels like sacred objects—my candelabras. The hand-cut wallpaper is designed to create fountains of movement as the viewer is invited to the suspended centerpiece, Bodies in the Matrix.
Images: Siblings, 2020, Barbara Earl Thomas, American, cut paper and hand-printed color backing, 40 x 26 in., Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, photo: Spike Mafford. Color Wheel, 2020, Barbara Earl Thomas, American, cut paper and hand-printed color backing, 40 x 26 in., Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, photo: Spike Mafford.
I would like to acknowledge that the museum sits on the Indigenous land of the Coast Salish People in and around the city of dᶻidᶻəlalič (renamed Seattle for Chief siʔaɫ).
My work is a response to the ways in which photography has been used as a mechanism of colonization. Decolonizing photography for the use of American Indians has to occur through the articulation of a Native representational subjectivity. In the place of colonizing representation, I want to produce images and sensory experiences that convey representation of, by, and for American Indians.
– Will Wilson
Since 2012, Will Wilson has put cultural sovereignty at the root of image-making events he calls the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange (CIPX). The thousands of images created over the course of this project now comprise the largest Indigenous created archive of images of Native peoples. These photo sessions—in which Wilson uses an old wet-plate technology to produce tintypes—are held in tribal communities and at urban institutions such as museums. Wilson’s CIPX event at the Seattle Art Museum, which took place in November 2017, centered on capturing the rich complexity of Native peoples living in the environs of Seattle, members of local reservation-based tribes, and “urban Indians” who came to Seattle from other places. Wilson invites anyone who wants to be photographed to present themselves however they want—wearing what they choose, holding objects that are important to them, and posing to their liking. As part of the exchange, he gives the tintype to the sitter while asking for permission to digitize the image for use in large-scale prints, like the work in SAM’s collection, K’ómoks Imperial Stormtrooper (Andy Everson). It is an amazing process to witness and reminds us that, for those who take authority over the processes of representation, methodologies and interpersonal exchanges matter.1
The sitter in this portrait is K’ómoks First Nation’s artist Andy Everson. His recent work draws from his two passions: Indigenous art and Star Wars. He transformed the stormtrooper into a positive figure by doing away with the uniform’s whiteness and covering it with formline designs. Everson wanted to change the stormtrooper from someone who blindly follows instructions from his higher-ups to someone who is able to take action for himself and for his own people. And so began this idea of the West Coast warrior, a defender of the land.2
Chilkat weavers were the inspiration for Everson when he created the Northern Warrior (2015), with its distinctive yellow, blue, white, and black colors. He also replaced the stormtrooper’s helmet with a traditional conical hat, made out of maple wood that his ancestors in Alaska would have worn.3 Many of his ancestors were warriors, and when their territory was threatened they did not hesitate to defend themselves. When they entered battle, they wore slatted armor suits and hard wooden helmets carved with their crest, proudly representing their ancestral lineage. The hat on this helmet displays the Kwakwaka’wakw crest of the sisiyutł—the double-headed serpent. This symbol of the warrior reminds us of the dichotomies in life—good and evil, right and wrong—and puts a human face in the middle to teach us that we must choose where we stand.4
Everson’s stormtroopers tell a story to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples about the importance of a warrior spirit. The works speak to the histories of Indigenous resistance and defiance in opposition to colonizing forces, and the importance of remaining steadfast in the face of adaptation and change.5 Like Wilson’s CIPX series, Everson’s stormtroopers draw people in with its familiar figure and invite people to engage with an art form, perhaps unfamiliar to some, that ultimately fosters a new kind of cultural exchange.
Speaking of stormtroopers, don’t miss the premiere of The Mandalorian season two on October 30. Will we find out Baby Yoda’s origin? Are there more of them? I hope so, and I hope you all have a safe and happy Halloween!
“I would like to see the baby.” – The Client, The Mandalorian
– Tina Lee, SAM Exhibitions and Publications Manager
In 1995 Carlos Contreras, an artist and staff member at the Seattle Art Museum invited Fulgencio Lazo to create a tapete to accompany his traditional altar for Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. What began 25 years ago as an effort to share a Oaxacan-style installation made from sand and pigments (a tapete) in Seattle turned out to be a much-revered tradition at the Seattle Art Museum, spreading throughout the city and beyond.
Unfortunately due to COVID-19, we are not able to have a tapete nor gather in person at SAM for the annual Dia de los Muertos celebration to pay homage to those whom we have lost, in a way that feels so very personal to all of us in 2020. There is no replacing this in-person experience, but we want to mark this 25th anniversary to reflect and honor our partnership through a series of photos tracing back to 1995. We also want to recognize, with deep gratitude, the many, many hands that have prepared the tapete each year with so much care and love. To work with artist Fulgencio Lazo and Erin Fanning has been a lesson in what true and authentic community building looks like, and we are overwhelmed by their generosity of heart and talent.
Lazo and Fanning express that remembering those who have passed away “. . . gives us strength in 2020, a year of monumental loss for so many around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands within the United States alone, disproportionately affecting Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. This pandemic, coupled with the continuing humanitarian crisis at our southern border and the ongoing police violence directed at our African American siblings, has resulted in so many unnecessary deaths. The toll of all this loss is overwhelming and can cause numbness. In the face of this, we look to Day of the Dead for solace, to remember those who have passed away. It is our hope that we can remember our dead, celebrate their lives and gather our collective strength.”
This beautiful installation launched a partnership with Lazo and his wife, Erin Fanning, that has continued for the past 24 years, inviting thousands of visitors to experience these remarkable pieces and what they represent.
Dia de los Muertos is a time to remember and honor those who have passed away. It is believed that the spirits of the dead return to visit with their living family. Through Day of the Dead, we express a myriad of conflicting emotions: fear, love, mourning, joy, beauty, and anger, among others. These powerful personal emotions are brought to a very public space in the Seattle Art Museum’s annual installations. And with great skill, experience, and an extraordinary sense of artistic vision, Lazo seemingly effortlessly, creates art that engages.
Each October during the last few years, artist Fulgencio Lazo and his team of collaborators have crisscrossed Washington State, making scores of sand paintings—some years using as much as two tons of sand!
Lazo has been a full-time, professional artist for 30 years, working predominantly in acrylic on canvas and printmaking in his studios in Seattle and in his hometown of Oaxaca, Mexico. He often incorporates wooden sculptures within the tapetes.
This installation from 2015, depicting a boat full of women textile workers and weavers, was dedicated to the thousands of men, women and children who have died while attempting to immigrate. Throughout the years, Lazo has worked closely with (from right to left) Jesús Mena, José Orantes, Víctor y Mirtha González and Amaranta Ibarra (not pictured above).
Additionally, hundreds of young people have participated in the making of the tapetes. Community volunteers, as young as three and four years old, have molded the sand and applied pigments. Over the years, thousands have helped to make this celebration their own. The communal spirit of the tapete and the annual Dia de los Muertos celebration is truly palpable.
In his own practice as an artist, Lazo aims to create warm, vibrant, whimsical images that celebrate family and community. His artwork depicts elements characteristic of his Oaxacan and Mexican heritage, like masks and human figures in an exploration of themes of identity. Color and graceful lines evoking free movement are ever-present in his pieces, bringing joy to the viewer.
Lazo explains “I paint musical instruments, unicycles, birds, children’s toys, flowers, buttons and other elements of everyday life to create a sense of community and playfulness. Whether at a wedding, at an outdoor market, or on the street corner where neighbors gather, these shared experiences strengthen and define a culture. I take these experiences in and with my brush I try to synthesize them, thus rendering them universal. Using iconographic motifs and symbolic representations, I strive to recreate and celebrate the life cycle of my Zapotec indigenous heritage. In a tangible way I express the resilience of my own identity. With joy, through color and synthesis, I show the possibilities for any who care to embark on this path.”
– Priya Frank, SAM Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion & Erin Fanning, Community Collaborator
Photo: Mia McNeal. Photo: Robert Wade. Photos courtesy Erin Fanning.