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Object of the Week: Pomponne II de Bellièvre

One international diplomat has left the museum, but another is waiting to be seen in the galleries.  Monday, August 3 was Chiyo Ishikawa’s last day as the Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art. This ended her 30-year career as a curator of European Painting and Sculpture whose diplomacy was legendary. With great language skills, knowledge of art history, and an exemplary way with people, she made projects flow. To learn of her accomplishments, this press release offers a summary.

The label for this portrait offers evidence of her patience in collecting. Check out the extraordinarily long credit line under the detail below. Just imagine all the donors lining up next to this remarkable portrait. It took a crowd of supporters to acquire this diplomat from another time and place. Pomponne II de Bellièvre served as the French ambassador to the English Court of Charles I. When seen in person, his portrait has the allure of a meeting with an actual personality. This was the hallmark of the painter, Anthony van Dyck, who knew how to flatter royal and wealthy subjects, partly by creating portraits that appear so alive and real that they seem ready to speak. The studied elegance of this diplomat is seen in his dark silk suit with a tactile sheen, and his facial expression implying that he is about to introduce himself.    

Pomponne II de Bellièvre (detail), 1638-39, Anthony van Dyck, oil on canvas
54 x 43 1/2 in., Purchased with a major grant from an anonymous donor; additional funds provided by Louise Raymond Owens; Norman and Amelia Davis; Oliver T. and Carol Erickson; Seattle Art Museum Guild; Pauline Ederer Bolster and Arthur F. Ederer in memory of their sister, Milli Ederer Kastner; Mr. and Mrs. James D. Burns; gift in memory of Andrew Price by Mrs. Mary Price and their family; bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Archibald Stewart Downey; bequest of Charles Moseley Clark; Max R. Schweitzer; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Stimson, Thomas D. Stimson Memorial Collection; Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection; Silver Anniversary Fund; Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund; Seattle Art Museum Purchase Fund, by exchange, 98.15.

If De Bellièvre could talk, he’d have plenty of stories about court intrigues around Charles I. This English monarch married the sister of the French King Louis XIII and was an avid art collector who made ceremonies and dinners wait so he could show off his expensive holdings. He brought Van Dyck to the court in 1632, and nurtured his rise to success. However, not long after painting this ambassador’s portrait, Van Dyck died at the age of 42, from a long illness that may connect his life to ours.   

Van Dyck lived at a time when waves of the plague known as the Black Death overtook populations in Europe from 1347 to the late 17th century—throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods. When Van Dyck arrived in Palermo, Sicily in 1624, one such wave took hold, and he was quarantined. While there, he painted numerous portraits of the city’s patroness, Saint Rosalie, trying to intercede for those stricken by the plague. One of these paintings is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is suspected that Van Dyck’s illness may have begun during this time.   

It has been hard for the staff to honor Chiyo Ishikawa remotely, but pandemics do require new forms of diplomacy. Luckily, she will open her final exhibition, Monet at Étretat in May 2021, yet another example of her leadership in international artistic persuasion. We certainly hope by then that we’ll all be together in the galleries and can pay our respects to the French ambassador who waits there patiently for us to return. 

Pam McClusky, SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Pomponne II de Bellièvre, 1638-39, Anthony van Dyck, oil on canvas
54 x 43 1/2 in., Purchased with a major grant from an anonymous donor; additional funds provided by Louise Raymond Owens; Norman and Amelia Davis; Oliver T. and Carol Erickson; Seattle Art Museum Guild; Pauline Ederer Bolster and Arthur F. Ederer in memory of their sister, Milli Ederer Kastner; Mr. and Mrs. James D. Burns; gift in memory of Andrew Price by Mrs. Mary Price and their family; bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Archibald Stewart Downey; bequest of Charles Moseley Clark; Max R. Schweitzer; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Stimson, Thomas D. Stimson Memorial Collection; Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection; Silver Anniversary Fund; Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund; Seattle Art Museum Purchase Fund, by exchange, 98.15. Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-Stricken of Palermo, 1624, Anthony van Dyck, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum, 71.41. Chiyo Ishikawa, photo: Robert Wade.

Object of the Week: Male Farming Animal headdress (Ci Wara)

Is it possible that a scaly mammal may have caused our current worldwide pandemic? Evidence suggests it may be. COVID-19 jumped species as part of a pattern set by several fatal pathogens: HIV, SARS, MERS, and Ebola. Trackers look back to a market in 2019 where pangolins were being sold for their scales and meat, which may have led to the transmission of the virus. Unfortunately, pangolins have been hunted and slaughtered to near extinction. Are we blind to their abuse, and now suffering the consequences? If you are less familiar with this creature, here is a tale of two ways of treating them—in art and in life.  

Among the Bamana of Mali, pangolins are admired for their stamina in pursuit of nourishment in a dry savannah homeland. These solitary, mostly nocturnal mammals look a lot like miniature dinosaurs, and use clawed hands to dig and extraordinarily long tongues to lick ants and termites out from hiding. Their main defense is a coat of scales, and whenever they are touched, they curl up into a ball. Other species who model survival skills in the savannah are the antelope and aardvark. Bamana carvers merge their features in headdresses, which appear in performances where young farmers are praised and encouraged by symbols signaling the need for awareness of the forces that their agriculture depends upon. Visually, Ci Wara headdresses depict an imaginative interspecies union, with animals flowing together to form a striking silhouette.  

Many artists have been inspired by Ci Wara’s inventive form. Willie Cole has looked carefully at examples at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and narrates a video that offers a step-by-step appreciation of their abstract geometries. He has also created his own version in Next Kent tji wara, 2007, now in the Met’s collection.

From the honoring of a pangolin in art, now we come to their treatment in life. Four species of pangolin are found in Africa and four are found in Asia. In parts of Asia, their meat is considered a wild delicacy and their scales are ground up and taken as a medical treatment. Over the last century, pangolin populations have been decimated by constriction of their habitats and the slaughter of their populations for trade to wildlife markets. Such actions open the path for pathogens to be transmitted to susceptible humans. Studies are now underway to also consider whether the pangolin has an evolutionary advantage that could lead to a possible treatment option. 

But, we return to the original question: if pangolins set off the virus that has overtaken the world, what is it a sign of? Will it happen again? Author Elizabeth Kolbert has written about how there is a “sort of intercontinental reshuffling…which is unprecedented in the three-and-a-half billion-year history of life.”  As we reshuffle, the pangolin reminds us of the need to be careful in how we treat the lives of other species.  

– Pam McClusky, SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Male Farming Animal headdress (Ci Wara), Bamana, Kenedougou region, Malian, Wood, 37 1/2 × 15 × 2 1/4 in. Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.24. Ci Wara performance, Eliot Elisofon archives, 1971. Illustration of hybrid animals in Ci Wara masks. Storefront sign painting, University District, Seattle, photo: Simba Mafundikwa, 2020. 

Object of the Week: Country Ball 1989–2012

Summer 2020 is here. The list of what hasn’t, can’t, or won’t, happen is long. No solstice gatherings, no gay pride parades, no powwows, or large family reunions. Instead, we are a stay-at-home culture with hypochondriac tendencies, trying to make it through a pandemic that demands change and suffering, and thrives on confusion. We watch the world largely through our screens, shaking our heads at the horrifying news of an escalating death count due to the virus and to brutality. We fill up on visions of those who are losing loved ones, or Zoom together to process the despair of losing our own. In the face of such turmoil, what art makes sense? I’d like to offer my vote for an artist who offers constant revelations.

Jacolby Satterwhite was introduced to me by Erika Dalya Massaquoi when we teamed up in a search for artists to feature in an exhibition called Disguise: Masks and Global African Art. I was hooked the instant I saw his video work, which relies on an aesthetic of immersion in a multimedia cavalcade of images that take hold of your imagination in a very different way than a canvas on the wall or a sculpture on a pedestal. His screens swallow you up and turn you upside down in a chaos of people dancing and transforming while strange structures jiggle and shapeshift. This was an immediate trigger, reminding me of being in the middle of a masquerade or a carnival procession, where all your navigational skills are put to the test and you get to share moments of complete disorientation with others. I’ve always been convinced that such art is woefully underrepresented in museums, as paintings and sculptures prevail. Mr. Satterwhite is a champion of screens that challenge your mind to suspend belief in what is real, and encourage you to reconsider what about life is important to understand.

So an expedition to get to know what he is doing began. You can do it too. Thankfully, I’m not alone in my fascination with his talent and intellect. He’s got more online interviews than many artists several times his age. Partly, this is because there isn’t a dull minute when he’s on camera. A list of a few interviews to watch follows, and if you want to start with art first, there’s Country Ball––a 12 minute tour of a family gathering in North Carolina that becomes completely reinvented for reasons that the artist can best explain. In this summer of 2020, when we’re recalibrating what matters, Jacolby Satterwhite is a visionary for our time.    

ART21 Videos

March 16, 2012, Jacolby Satterwhite interviewed by Charlie Rose, 4:33.

November 7, 2017, Jacolby Satterwhite excerpt reel, 19:55.

November 6, 2019, Visions of Utopia: Performance in Progress 2017, 6:22.

And most recently:

Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Image: Country Ball 1989–2012, 2012, Jacolby Satterwhite, HD digital video with color 3D animation, sound, 12 min., 39 sec., Modern Art Acquisition Fund, 2013.2

Object of the Week: Caterpillar Suit I

I wrote Walter Oltmann this morning to let him know I missed seeing his suit. Whenever I walk through the galleries, it always lures me in with its gleaming corona of gold bristles. Who dares to wear a suit that merges their identity with a caterpillar? We know Spider-Man and Batman embody the superhuman strength of hybrid gene pools, but the fuzzy caterpillar is not in that realm. The courage of the artist to envision this unheard of combination inspires new thinking––about how we relate to bugs, to defensive barriers, and to “other” identities. Of course, today, the word corona sticks out. 

Walter writes back from Johannesburg, a city filled with lots of wire barriers. He, on the other hand, is a very calm and careful man who doesn’t bristle at all. He let me know that South Africans are now on total house confinement, no walks allowed. Everyone is concerned about the potential spread to communities that are ill equipped to handle this pandemic. At the moment, he’s busy working and has a new exhibition coming up. So many artists savor isolation, the chance to let their minds move freely, and focus on what to create. One upside of this time is the reminder that being quiet and alone is not to be feared. 

But back to why this caterpillar stands out. It has a most unusual point of inspiration, conveyed in the opening line of a book, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect-like creature.” Franz Kafka wrote this to begin The Metamorphosis, published in 1915, a novella that tells the story of Gregor, a travelling salesman who is trapped by the tensions of not fitting into any social world. He works tirelessly for an oppressive firm, his family exploits his income, and he’s filled with tormented anxieties. So he wakes up and can’t move, and has been turned into an outcast insect. Right now, we are also waking up and unable to move in our usual routine.  The new normal is lock down.  We don’t have an insect body to contend with, but we do have the constant surrounding of the unknown keeping us on edge. 

Illustration of Gregor Samsa, 2013

Meanwhile, Walter continues to weave wire, a medium he chose deliberately. He recalled seeing it used to create barriers for Johannesburg gold mine dumps and road embankments, and thought about how it was inexpensive, but underestimated, as he first wove carpets out of it. He also cites the way women of the KwaZulu-Natal region have woven with wire, and particularly colorful telephone wire that continues to be made into baskets. For this caterpillar, Walter chose gold anodized wire to elevate the insect to new heights. Gold has luminous and enduring allure, both as monetary wealth, and as a choice for the making of holy relics with images of saints and gods. Can a caterpillar be a new version of a very different kind of saint?

Close-up image of salt marsh moth caterpillar. Photo: Alexey Sergeev. http://www.asergeev.com/pictures/archives/compress/2012/1064/01.htm

The 2015 PBS documentary Of Ants and Men highlights the life and work of famed American biologist E.O. Wilson, and highlights the often-overlooked value of insects in our ecosystem.

As Walter once said, “Spending an inordinate amount of time on making something that is usually considered insignificant, like an insect, does make us look differently at them. Observing misunderstood insects closely and interpreting them on a magnified scale throws up their particular adaptations and plays with our perspective that is fixed on their mechanical features and alien behavior and the threat they pose to us.” So here is a caterpillar that is inviting us to wear its suit, as we’re in the midst of an unprecedented metamorphosis, and ideas that encourage new awareness of the species on the planet, beyond human control, who are bound to be part of our transformation. 

Pam McClusky, SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Image: Caterpillar Suit I, 2007, Walter Oltmann, anodized aluminum and brass wire, 46 7/16 x 23 1/4 x 16 9/16 in., Gift of Josef Vascovitz and Lisa Goodman in honor of Kimerly Rorschach, 2019.25.1, © Walter Oltmann.

Igshaan Adams’s tapestry

In This Imperfect Present Moment closes Sunday, June 16! Don’t miss this chance to see works across a wide array of media by artists hailing from Cape Town, Johannesburg, Cotonou/Rotterdam, Luanda/Lisbon, Baltimore, to Los Angeles, and New York. These works have been brought to Seattle by local collectors who are intrigued by how these artists convey vibrant narratives that resonate across global boundaries. While you’re here take a close look at Surah al-Fatiha (the Opening), by Capetown artist Igshaan Adams.

Visiting Igshaan Adams in his studio in Capetown is to step into a zone of transformation. He works with a group of weavers who wander in and out as he shows you mounds of materials that are being upgraded to carry stories and interpretations of Sufism, the mystical sect of Islam, which offers alternative ways of looking at the world. He speaks of his love of the mysticism of Islamic texts, and how they provide guidance for the realities of daily life. Learning about his family provides further insight for his development as an artist; he was raised by Christian grandparents who were supportive of his faith, fasted with him during Ramadan, and invited imams over to the family home. As you trip over ropes and nearly stumble into a massive maze of beads that are being arranged in a spiral with a mystic rationale, you try to keep track of the mesmerizing pull of the artist’s sincerity. His descriptions of involving the sacred to encourage humankind’s capacity for good and nobility set a tone of deep introspection.

In the instsallation, you’ll see a tapestry named after the first chapter of the Quran. Adams has added beads to convey the opening line, which is meant to be recited and contemplated every time a believer begins to establish a direct connection with Allah. About this, Adams has said, “As an artist, I think I can give a person one moment of reflection or one moment with a different perspective.” So goes this imperfect present description of his effort, which is worth so many more words that you are encouraged to seek out online.

– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Image: Surah al-Fatiha (the Opening), 2016, Igshaan Adams, South African, b. 1982, woven nylon rope, beads, 94 1/2 x 94 1/2 in., Private collection, photo courtesy of Blank Projects, Cape Town.

Welcome Home, Ancestral Modern!

Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan-Levi Collection recently concluded a tour to four museums where it opened thousands of eyes to the visionary innovations of a new chapter of art history. When this exhibition first opened in 2012 in Seattle, one critic described it as:

National and international visitors came to Seattle and paid attention to this gathering of art which led to a connection with the American Federation for the Arts through their board member, Kimerley Rorchach. The AFA took on the responsibility for finding other museums and organizing the logistics for traveling the exhibition. During three years, it was seen at the Frist Center for the Arts in Nashville, the Chazen Art Museum in Madison, the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, and the Audain Museum in Whistler. 

Amazingly enough, the entrance to the exhibition often focused on a painting that has the startling quality of a stop sign, by painter Ngilpirr Spider Snell, who is warning you not to get too close to a sacred body of water that is being guarded by a snake. 

That warning leads into looking at dots, mazes and linear patterns that may not always be what they seem. In Australian Aboriginal art, dots can trace the journey of a creative ancestor.

Or dots can punish a boy who has stolen an emu’s heart by turning him into a colorful whirlwind

A maze can be a map of an artist’s homeland filled with sandhills.

And linear dashes of paint may conjure up leaves full of medicinal strength blown across a windswept desert. 

This art constantly offers many new visual experiences—peering underground to see yams grow; trekking over vast salt lakes; following the trail of a blue-tongued lizard or encountering a lightning-spitting serpent in swirling water. It is endowed with the vision of the world’s oldest living cultures whose artists have ushered in an indigenous renaissance since the 1970s. They focus our attention on the remarkable continent these communities have managed for centuries.    

At each venue, the exhibition was accompanied by texts written by SAM, and designers put the art in interpretive themes also established by SAM.  Throughout the tour, the couple whose collection was being featured made their way to the openings to speak with the press, educators, staffs, and members of each museum. Thanks to Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi for making this extraordinary tour possible, and to all the artists whose creativity continues to challenge our eyes to adjust to what they consider significant. 

– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Installation view of Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan-Levi Collection, Seattle Art Museum, 2012, photo: Nathaniel Wilson. Kurtal, 2005, Ngilperr Ngalyaku Spider Snell, © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VISCOPY, Australia. Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming (detail), 1996, Kathleen Petyarre, © Kathleen Petyarre. Walu (detail), 2008, Tommy Mitchell, © Tommy Mitchell. Yunarla (detail), 2010, Yukultji Napangati, © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VISCOPY, Australia. Leaves (detail), 2002, Gloria Tamerr Petyarre, © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VISCOPY, Australia, photo: Paul Macapia. Audain Art Museum, Whistler, BC, Canada, photo: Pamela McClusky. Audain Art Museum opening with Bob Kaplan and Margaret Levi, and Director, Curtis Collins.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Postures: In This Imperfect Present Moment

We read each other’s body language all day, every day. In the museum, surrounded by artworks depicting a variety of figures and movements, this instinct can be put to an international test of how well we understand gestures and postures. A walk through the galleries can simulate what it’s like to be in another country, where you don’t know the verbal language and need to navigate based on reading bodies.

In the exhibition In This Imperfect Present Moment, a person’s body is telling you to stop and recognize that their moment has come, and you are a vital participant. They are ready to talk. Which language are they likely to speak? Toyin Ojih Odutola was born in Nigeria, grew up in Alabama, went to art school in San Francisco, and now lives in New York. She’s given many insightful interviews that provide a sense of the conversation you might have with her about her work. For now, here’s just one quote: “I’m attracted to the understated in art: moments that can be quickly passed over, but are complex and layered. There’s nothing wrong with bombast, and the maximalist in aesthetic and presentation, and I often exploit those very qualities. But nothing beats the underwhelming, the quiet, the subtle. When you see the economy of line used so effortlessly—that always gets me, because it isn’t easy.”

– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: In This Imperfect Present Moment, 2016, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Nigerian, b. 1985, charcoal, pastel, pencil on paper, 83 x 24 in., Private collection, © Toyin Ojih Odutola, photo courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. You are welcome, 2012, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Nigerian, b. 1985, pen, ink on paper, 11 x 11 in., Private collection, © Toyin Ojih Odutola, photo courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Athi-Patra Ruga’s Utopian Vision: In This Imperfect Present Moment

Utopian visionaries are rare these days. If Black Panther moved you to consider what might be possible in the future, there’s an artist who is opening a new portal into the world of possibilities to come and you can see their work at SAM right now as part of In This Imperfect Present Moment. Athi-Patra Ruga introduces characters from a mythical metaverse. You can see what this means in his performances, which are available online. His avatars wear high heels and balloons, ride zebras, walk down dirt roads or city streets, and occasionally swim upside down. He knows how to turn heads and get people to stare at unexpected visions. For this sculpture, he covers a neoclassical bust with beads, flowers, and gems to mock the usual stagnancy of a bronze-cast monument. He has stated that “our statues are an indictment of our poor imagination.” Calling this sculpture The Ever Promised Erection, Ruga says, “The humorous tone of the title points to the fallacy and impotence of the posturing of the nation-state.”

Ruga replaces the failed state with an ideal femme-centric futurist nation called Azania, inspired by rumors of an ideal Africa described in ancient American myths. You can get to know Azania and see their queens and territories by looking at his large-scale tapestries and videos. His tapestry maps record an Ocean of Repentance, where cleansing waters protect and surround islands inhabited by women. It takes a distinctive rigor to create and carry an entire nation in your mind. When meeting Athi-Patra Ruga, you sense him as someone dedicated to keeping his alternative world alive and well. He’s now about to open his first one-person exhibition in London at the Somerset House, and for those who crave utopian universes, Ruga can take you there.

– Pam McClusky, SAM’s Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Installation view of In This Imperfect Present Moment at Seattle Art Museum. 2018, photos: Natali Wiseman.

Lawrence Lemaoana’s Cloth Banners: In This Imperfect Present Moment

Laughing at leaders in public can be a welcome release. Lawrence Lemaoana created banners to shout back at the powerful president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma. Zuma, who was a controversial leader, had many annoying traits. One of his most despised public maneuvers was a tendency to dance as if there were no problems in his midst, and then add the antagonism of raising his fist as a sign of victory. Observers groaned. Lemaoana said of this, “Once the raised fist was a symbol used to motivate the people for a public cause, but here Zuma uses it as a tool to enrich himself, to bolster himself against any criticism or interference.”

In another cloth banner, the artist mimics a newspaper announcing “Things Fall Apart.” As the artist said, “You get hit by those headlines on the side of the road. On the one hand, it’s informative, but it’s also dangerous; there’s almost a propagandistic element to it. It shapes the way we live.” His choice of a cloth known as kanga is another obvious clue of disapproval. When Jacob Zuma went on trial for rape in 2006, he claimed that the young woman wearing a kanga cloth wrapped around her was signaling an invitation to assault her. Lemaoana turned that assault right back at Zuma by making his banners from that cloth, and by offering a chance to laugh or express outrage at Zuma’s dangerous absurdity. See Lemaona’s work as part of In This Imperfect Present Moment at SAM through June 16, 2019, and experience this welcome release.

– Pam McClusky, SAM’s Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Newsmaker of the Year, 2008, Lawrence Lemaoana, South African, b. 1982, Cloth applique, 42 1/8 x 31 1/2 in., Private collection, © Lawrence Lemaoana, photo courtesy AFRONOVA GALLERY. Installation view of In This Imperfect Present Moment at Seattle Art Museum. 2018, photo: Natali Wiseman.