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Object of the Week: As One III & IX

Historically, museums have been spaces of hegemony. My practice has often been about finding space for critique within that history. As an artist I believe that my role in museums can be to challenge our understanding of how museums and their powers operate.

– Brendan Fernandes

Many reading this post might recall the 2015 exhibition Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, co-curated by SAM’s curator of African and Oceanic Art, Pam McClusky, and Seattle-based curator Erika Dalya Massaquoi. The show traveled to the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles, and later on to the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Living in neither Seattle, Los Angeles, or Brooklyn at the time, I missed this celebrated show. However, luckily for me and others who missed it, there is a trove of reviews, writings, videos, images, and responses to the exhibition that continue to bring its resonant ideas and artists to life, five years later.

Such exhibition research provides a necessary foundation for contextualizing two recent acquisitions by Brendan Fernandes––photographs titled As One III and As One IX––who was one of twenty-five artists included in Disguise. Born in Nairobi, Kenya to a Goan, Indian family who later immigrated to Toronto, Canada, Fernandes is a truly transnational artist. Working at the intersection of dance and visual art, his work seeks to push against notions of a fixed or essential identity. Once a dancer himself, his current body of work uses movement and choreography (among other mediums) to examine issues of cultural displacement, migration, labor, and queer subjectivity.

For the video As One in Disguise––a precursor to As One III and As One IX––Fernandes selected masks from SAM’s collection and staged compositions in collaboration with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, as well as a live performance with Etienne Cakpo. He writes, “The Ballet and the Museum are pivots of Western culture that have greatly shaped our image of what counts as culture. When first placed in French museums, African culture was pictured as ‘other’––primitive, exotic, uncivilized, etc. . . . Using gestures derived from classical French ballet, two dancers address the masks with the formality and etiquette that is not how they have ever been approached before. Movements and bows in the French court were loaded with hierarchical order. Here they are offered to masks that observe these ritualized actions, but cannot dance themselves. Just as European countries like France removed masks and emptied out their meaning, these dancers now dance in a way that is deemed the epitome of elegance, but is also a representation of a power struggle.”[1]

As a direct extension of this work and line of thinking, As One III and As One IX were produced for a 2017 exhibition at the University of Buffalo Art Gallery, titled The Language of Objects. The conceit of the show was to push against Adorno’s claim that museums and mausoleums are innately connected and that, once objects enter a museum, they are removed from culture and, neutralized, cannot accrue new meanings. Fernandes deftly upends this notion, working with Lauren Post and Grayson Davis of the American Ballet Theater to animate and complicate the objects from the University of Buffalo collection.

Fernandes’s museological interventions facilitate important conversations surrounding cultural hegemony and colonial history, both within and outside of museum walls. Importantly, they also point to Fernandes’s aspirations for institutions such as SAM and the communities they serve. To quote once more from the artist, “There is a sense that as our world becomes increasingly privatized and profit-driven, and as artists make the ties between profit and violence more apparent, that [museums and galleries] should use their resources and influence to push back. I believe that one way these spaces can do this is to create space for artists and audiences to experience and experiment with new forms of agency and to imagine what future forms of freedom might look like. I think this is an important and political function of museums and galleries: imagining future freedoms, imagining future ways to show and consider art.”[2]

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

Images: As One IX, 2017, Brendan Fernandes (Canadian, born Kenya), 1979, digital print, 34 x 48 in., Gift of Christopher and Alida Latham, 2019.27.2 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. As One III, 2017, Brendan Fernandes (Canadian, born Kenya), 1979, digital print, 34 x 48 in., Gift of Christopher and Alida Latham, 2019.27.1 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Installation view of As One, 2015, Brendan Fernandes, Canadian, born Kenya, 1979, in the exhibition Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, June 18–Sept. 7, 2015, photo: Nathaniel Wilson. Brendan Fernandes on June 14, 2020, at the Drag March for Change in Chicago. Photo: Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune.
[1] Brendan Fernandes, Disguise: Masks and Global African Art label.
[2] “Artist Brendan Fernandes On the Dance Floor as a Space for Resistance and Resilience.” Interview with Saisha Grayson, Smithsonian American Art Museum, June 6, 2019, https://americanart.si.edu/blog/artist-brendan-fernandes-dance-floor-space-resistance-and-resilience.

Object of the Week: Day into Night

In 1945, the first work by a Black American artist entered the Seattle Art Museum’s collection. The watercolor, by Blanche Morgan Losey (1912–1981), is titled Day into Night. First exhibited in the museum’s 31st Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists, the work was purchased from the artist with funds from the Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, and officially entered the collection on October 3, 1945.

Having lived in the Pacific Northwest for only three years, I will be the first to admit my deficiencies when it comes to knowing the breadth of the region’s 20th-century artists. However, I imagine I am not alone in knowing little about Losey. In the dominant narratives of American art history, the household names of Northwest artists such as Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, and Guy Anderson have been canonized at the expense of the region’s vibrant communities of women artists, Indigenous artists, and artists of color.

Born in Los Angeles but raised in Olympia and Tacoma, Losey studied architecture and interior design at the University of Washington.[1] After graduating in the 1930s, she turned to art while working at Seattle’s Frederick & Nelson department store, going on to hold the position of Senior Interior Designer from 1939 to 1977. As if that weren’t enough, she maintained a consistent studio practice––producing crisp, precise watercolors such as Day into Night––and worked on design projects for the Seattle Opera House and, later, the Seattle World’s Fair. She was an active member of many associations: the Women Painters of Washington, the Northwest Watercolor Society, and the National Association for Women Artists, to name only a few.

The geometric precision and realism evidenced in Losey’s work was influenced by the rise of Cubism, and––known as Precisionism––quickly became integral to American Modernism, and a visual analog for the industrializing cities of the United States. In this work, the view looks west onto the Grand Pacific Hotel, a historic building located just blocks south of SAM at 1115 1st Avenue.[2] Not only does this watercolor capture part of the city’s architectural history, but connects to another aspect of Losey’s civic engagement and prominence within Seattle’s Black artistic community.

During the Great Depression, the Works Project Administration funded the Federal Theater Project and its Negro Reperatory Company, for which Losey designed sets and costumes. While a few Black theater companies operated in other cities through the Federal Theater Project, it was Seattle’s unit, along with New York’s, that gained national recognition and acclaim. Originally conceived as temporary (mounting two productions in five months), the Negro Repertory Company continued on until the end of the Federal Theater Project in 1939. As noted by one critic who reviewed the 1937 production Androcles and the Lion, “better mention goes to Blanche Morgan [Losey], who design[ed] colorful scenery and effective costumes” for the play. Like her set designs, such as the set for One Third of a Nation (1938), Day into Night evokes a strong sense of time and place.

It is important to reflect on this milestone acquisition for many reasons, not least of all for what it tells us about SAM’s past and Seattle’s history. This acquisition is just one example of Dr. Fuller’s commitment to supporting Seattle artists, but, as the first acquisition by a Black artist, it is disappointing that it was made twelve years into the museum’s operations.

As museums across the country contend with the structural racism that has shaped their collections and organizations––SAM included––it is time to seriously reflect on the individuals and communities represented in these collections, and who is not. In the decades since acquiring Day into Night, SAM has certainly collected more artworks by Black artists, Indigenous artists, and artists of color, but that is just the beginning of the anti-racist work that needs to be done. Structural changes are rightly being demanded of our institutions, but the least we can do to begin this anti-racist work can start here: by researching, sharing, and acknowledging the stories of artists in our collection whose biographies and artistic practices have been occluded by insidious forms of racism and white supremacy.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate


[1] The Blanche Morgan Drawings and Watercolors Collection is housed in the University of Washington’s Special Collections.

[2] The building was constructed in 1890 following the 1889 Seattle Fire. The hotel is a four-story building, constructed from brick and stone in a Richardsonian Romanesque style.

Images: Day into Night, ca. 1945, Blanche Morgan Losey, watercolor, 18 1/4 x 23 1/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 45.95 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. One-Third of a Nation, ca. 1938, Blanche Morgan Losey, ink and watercolor on paper

Object of the Week: I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle

In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated Black artists in SAM’s collection throughout the month of February.

Kara Walker’s particular mode of engaging with our attention spans—her visual and conceptual provocations—have often caused furor, first from the generation above her, now not infrequently from the generation below. For when it comes to the ruins of history, Walker neither simply represents nor reclaims. Instead she eroticizes, aestheticizes, fetishizes, and dramatizes.

Zadie Smith, What Do We Want History to Do to Us?, The New York Review of Books, February 2020

With a prolific and controversial career spanning decades, Kara Walker is perhaps best known for her use of cut-paper installations that give visual form to the histories of racism, violence, and subjugation in the antebellum South. Walker’s unsettling images mine eighteenth- and nineteenth-century stereotypes and ideologies and consider the legacies of slavery today.

This lithographic print in SAM’s collection, I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle, is a relatively modest work compared to larger installations and sculptures since realized by Walker. However, the print is an early work, dating to 1995-96—one year after receiving her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and two years before receiving the MacArthur “Genius” award at just 27 years old. Walker has since gone on to produce major sculptural works, such as Fons Americanus (2019-20) in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, and A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014) sited in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory. 

In this graphic work, a woman holds a dripping rope or do-rag[1] before a monkey—a recurring figure in Walker’s work and, together with the title, often read as an allusion to the scientific racism used to justify the enslavement of African women, men, and children. Regarding her use of the silhouette figure, Walker explains:

The silhouette technique announced itself to me as I was researching the cultural identity of early America. In many ways as a form it succeeded in being both a minimal reduction and a means to cover a lot of territory. With the technique one is talking both about the shadow as a form by making a paper cut, but also shadow as the subconscious in psychology. I surprised myself, actually, when I began working [by] how well it…seemed to exemplify the experience of women and blacks as second class citizens. This was a craft form that was (and is) everywhere, but rarely attains a high status. Silhouette cutting, for me, was my rebellion against high art and painting, and to me a way of undermining the patriarchal tendency in Western art.[2]

Producing work that has received praise and criticism in equal parts, Walker is a provocative and challenging contemporary figure who offers a challenging portrait of American history. Probing the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and power, Walker intends to make work where, as she describes, “viewer[s]…get pulled into history, into fiction, into something totally demeaning and possibly very beautiful.”[3]

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate


[1] Julia Szabo, “Kara Walker’s Shock Art,” The New York Times, March 23, 1997, https://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/23/magazine/kara-walker-s-shock-art.html
[2] Kara Walker, “Art Talk with Kara Walker,” interview by Paulette Beete, National Endowment for the Arts, February 1, 2012, https://www.arts.gov/art-works/2012/art-talk-kara-walker
[3] “Kara Walker,” ArtNet, accessed February 12, 2020, http://www.artnet.com/artists/kara-walker/
I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle, 1995-96, Kara Walker, lithograph, 39 1/2 x 35 in., Print Acquisition Fund and gift of P. Raaze Garrison, 99.61 1995-96 © Kara Walker

Object of the Week: Wounded Eagle No. 10

In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated Black artists in SAM’s permanent collection throughout the month of February.

“I wait until intuition moves me, and then I begin.”

– James Washington, Jr.

Though born and raised in Mississippi, James Washington, Jr. is proudly remembered as a seminal Northwest artist and member of the Northwest School. Close to other notable artists from the region, like George Tsutakawa, Mark Tobey, and Morris Graves, Washington shared an affinity for the natural world. Surely informed by his upbringing—his father was a Baptist minister—Washington’s work also possessed spiritual elements, further connecting him to his cohort of Northwest artists. In Washington’s words, “art is a holy land where initiates seek to reveal the spirituality of matter.”

Before moving to Seattle in 1944, Washington taught as a WPA artist in Mississippi. Upon his arrival in the Pacific Northwest, he worked in the Bremerton Naval Yard as an electrician. Then a painter, he was soon introduced to Mark Tobey, who would become a lifelong friend and mentor. As Washington continued to navigate Seattle’s arts community, he also traveled and, in 1951, visited the famed social realist painters Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros in Mexico. Although this meeting was the impetus for the trip, it was another experience altogether that altered Washington’s artistic trajectory: when visiting the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacán, he was drawn to a piece of volcanic rock which he couldn’t leave behind—this stone would be the first of many sculptures Washington would carve, and the reason for his move away from painting.

Wounded Eagle No. 10 (1963) is just one of seven stone sculptures by Washington in SAM’s collection. It is a tender and sorrowful image, rendered delicately by the artist despite its granite medium. And while Washington would carve a variety of animals and humans, birds were a recurring subject—the eagle, in particular, for its symbolism of salvation and ascension. Guided by a self-described ‘spiritual force’ intrinsic to his geologic materials, Washington would alter his stones only slightly, preferring instead to let their natural form, shape, and coloration determine the subject matter. Moved by intuition, he considered himself a conduit through which art would reveal itself.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Wounded Eagle No. 10, 1963, James Washington, Jr., granite, 8 x 10 5/8 x 13 1/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 68.159 © James W. Washington

Object of the Week: Rat water dropper

Made from ceramic, bronze, copper, or even jade, water droppers are small vessels used in calligraphy and brush painting. Designed with two small holes, one for adding water and one for dispensing water, only a few drops fall out at a time—a crucial feature when preparing liquid ink, which involves grinding a stick of ink against an inkstone with water.

Though an unassuming instrument, water droppers have a long history. The earliest known examples of Chinese water droppers can be dated to the 5th and 6th centuries, while Japanese water droppers date to the 8th century. Centuries later, during the Edo period (1603-1868) and into the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan saw the emergence of more complicated water droppers in various shapes and sizes, ranging from plants and deities to animals and fruits.

Such decorative droppers became popular accessories for the nobility and literati, and were often inscribed or made in auspicious forms. The zodiac animals are a set of calendar symbols that came to Japan from ancient China, and their representation served to invoke good luck and prosperity. This 19th-century dropper in SAM’s collection, modeled in the shape of an undeniably expressive and charming rat (the first animal in the zodiac), was likely intended to symbolize success, creativity, and intelligence.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Image: Water dropper modeled as a rat, 19th century, Japanese, bronze, 1 5/8 x 3 1/2 x 1 7/8 in., Gift of Frank D. Stout, 92.47.119

Object of the Week: Confrontation at the Bridge

This 1975 screenprint by Jacob Lawrence was commissioned on the occasion of the United States’ bicentennial. The prompt: to create a print that reflects an aspect of American history since 1776. Lawrence, one of 33 artists to contribute to the portfolio An American Portrait, 1776-1976, chose to depict the infamous incident in Alabama known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, hundreds of unarmed protesters—led by civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis—organized a 54-mile march from Selma to the state’s capitol, Montgomery, advocating for the voting rights of African Americans. As demonstrators began their route out of Selma, they were met by a barrage of state troopers at Edmund Pettus Bridge. With orders from Alabama Governor George Wallace “to use whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march,” the state troopers attacked the activists—resulting in the death of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson—using clubs and tear gas. Though the march dissipated due to this senseless violence, two days later the protesters safely reached Montgomery (thanks to court-ordered protection) and numbered nearly 25,000.

As horrible as these events were, what took place on March 7—publicized nationally and internationally—helped galvanize public opinion and finally mobilize Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson five months later.

In Lawrence’s screenprint, the troopers’ brutal actions are represented through the presence of a vicious, snarling dog. To its right, we see African American men and women of various ages clustered together, their political solidarity conveyed through their visual unity. A tumultuous sky surrounds them, whose jagged cloud forms find likeness in the choppy waters below.

This horrible event would leave an indelible mark on our nation’s history and is remembered today for the courage shown by the thousands of activists who marched for a more equitable world. When articulating his choice to depict this important moment, Lawrence recalled: “I thought [the Selma-to-Montgomery march] was part of the history of the country, part of the history of our progress; not of just the black progress, but of the progress of the people.”

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Image: Confrontation at the Bridge, 1975, Jacob Lawrence, serigraph; ink on paper, 19 1/2 x 25 15/16 in., Anonymous gift in honor of Jacob Lawrence and Gwen Knight, 92.10 © Jacob Lawrence

Object of the Week: The Important an Unimportant

Since John Baldessari’s death last week, there has been a commensurate stream of articles recounting his outsized influence as a pioneering artist and educator, with a prolific career spanning decades.

With beginnings as a painter, Baldessari, like many artists of the 1960s and 70s, eventually gravitated toward conceptual art and the pre-eminence of ideas over objects. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Baldessari imbued his conceptual art practice with humor and wit, employing “a sort of Dada irony and sometimes colorful Pop Art splashes . . . to rescue conceptual art from what he saw as its high-minded self-seriousness.”[1]

Baldessari’s enduring interests included the relationship between text and image—which often meant pitting them against one another to challenge their assumed accuracy—and the appropriation of images from photography and film. His 1999 painting, The Important an Unimportant (from the Tetrad Series), in SAM’s collection is an exemplar work in this regard, a combination of digital printing, hand lettering, and acrylic paint on canvas.

The composition, made up of quadrants, juxtaposes square images—a glass with red daisies, a woman’s finger pointing down, and two skeleton hands playing an organ—with a textual element that reads, “the important an unimportant.” If these sequences appear heterogeneous and somewhat anachronistic, it is because they are. For example, the excerpt in the upper right is lifted from Goya’s 1797 painting The Duchess of Alba, painted while the duchess mourned her husband’s death. In the lower left, a still from Erich von Stroheim’s 1928 silent film, The Wedding March, is a not-so-subtle harbinger of the fate which befalls the romance and aristocratic aspirations of the film’s protagonist lovers. The text in the lower right, even, is an excerpt from Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), “for whom nullity was a muse.”[2]

Taken together, these citations enrich our understanding of Baldessari’s wide range of influences. And whether we know the exact origins of his chosen references or not, the appropriated images and texts are here imbued with new meaning. We are invited—and, importantly, required—to participate as viewers to consider their relationship to one another and the history of visual representation more broadly.

A serial creator, Baldessari always adhered to his now-famous maxim to “not make any more boring art.” A simple enough credo, such a motivation directly impacts us as viewers, who are on the receiving end—simultaneously empowered and challenged by his work. Perhaps best articulated by New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, “[Baldessari’s] work amuses, unsettles, questions and makes you look twice and think thrice; laugh out loud; and in general gain a sharpened awareness of the overlapping processes of art making, art viewing, and art thinking.”[3]

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: The Important an Unimportant, 1999, John Baldessari, digital printing, hand lettering, and acrylic paint on canvas, 94 x 94 in., Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2014.25.6 ©️ Artist or Artist’s Estate
[1] Jori Finkel, “John Baldessari, Who Gave Conceptual Art a Dose of Wit, Is Dead at 88,” The New York Times, Jan. 5, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/05/arts/john-baldessari-dead.html.
[2] Adam Kirsch, “Fernando Pessoa’s Disappearing Act,” The New Yorker, Aug. 28, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/09/04/fernando-pessoas-disappearing-act.
[3] Roberta Smith, “Tweaking Tradition, Even in Its Temple,” The New York Times, Oct. 21, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/22/arts/design/22baldessari.html.

Object of the Week: Cedar Bark Mat

While this Haida cedar bark mat from ca. 1900 reads like a painting—mounted and viewed two-dimensionally—its function was primarily utilitarian. This mat, meticulously woven from cedar bark, and others like it would serve a multitude of purposes: such mats could be found on walls or in doorways to prevent cold drafts and rain, or used as room dividers. Other times they might be used when foraging and drying berries, or for comfort when digging clams and cleaning fish. On more special occasions, these mats would be presented as potlatch gifts or as ceremonial ground cover.

A number of things can be fashioned from cedar—its bark is especially versatile, processed and turned into what is in essence a thread. Cedar tree people appear throughout Haida oral tradition, and cedar bark, essential to everyday life, is known as “every woman’s elder sister.” Like an older sister, cedar bark deserves respect and helps its younger sister by providing material for clothing, baskets, and other important items. The mat itself, with its overlapping bands and geometric gridding, was also woven by a Haida woman. (The painting on the mat was likely added by another—male—Haida artist.)

Yaqui poet Richard Walker wrote a poem, The Cedar Tree (excerpted below), which celebrates the importance of the cedar tree for First Nations and Northwest Coast peoples, and the wide-ranging activities and traditions that are passed on from one generation to the next as a result:

And what else do we know, but that

This tree continued the life,

growing to great heights,

providing shelter for birds and

other animals,

providing bark fiber for clothing,

and for fishing nets,

providing bark fiber for baskets

in which to collect berries or cook shellfish,

fine woven baskets that are passed from

mother to daughter, and from grandmother

to granddaughter?

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: Cedar bark mat, ca. 1900, Haida, painted cedar bark mat mounted on burlap and panel board, 70 x 35 in., Gift of R. Bruce and Mary-Louise Colwell, 2019.3.7

Object of the Week: Bulul

Hailing from the Philippines, bulul figures are perhaps the most common and well-known of Ifugao sculptural traditions. An isolated and landlocked province surrounded by rugged and precipitous terrain, Ifugao and its people long resisted Spanish colonization, which left much of their culture, religion, and artistic traditions intact.

For the Ifugao people, known for their elaborate terrace farms and complex irrigation systems, rice is a cornerstone of daily life. Representing a rice deity, bulul are highly stylized and carved from a single piece of wood. Standing bulul figures are often depicted with hands resting on their knees, slightly bent, while the arms of seated bulul figures are typically folded. Most often carved in male and female pairs, figures could also be androgynous.

The figures are understood as fundamental in ensuring a good harvest, as well as guarding the season’s crop from thieves. They also represent the harmonious union of oppositional elements and the promise of good fortune. Every harvest, bulul would be brought out to share in the bounty of rice, chicken, pig, and rice wine. The rich, mottled patina of the bulul in SAM’s collection demonstrates its use in various rituals and ceremonies, which would include smoke and grease from food offerings.

Bulul can be venerated and passed down for generations, ultimately overseeing many harvest seasons, as well as a number of ceremonies celebrating the abundance and generosity of the earth.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: Bulul, late 19th, early 20th century, Philippines, wood, 22 x 6 x 6in., Gift of Georgia Schwartz Sales, 2003.96