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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.

Amy Sherald’s Archetypes: In This Imperfect Present Moment

Unless you’re looking at this image on a gigantic screen with perfect resolution, you’re missing the impact of this Saint Woman. She’s slightly larger than life, which fits the premise of the artist who elevates her subjects to a status that goes beyond our normal vision. Amy Sherald paints portraits that are not trying to convince you they are a substitute for the actual person. Instead, she paints archetypes. She is taking the time to change our minds about what a portrait can be, an evocation of a saint whose name you do not know, but who is standing and waiting for you to recognize them.

This saint is surrounded by a halo of what may appear as bright yellow on your screen. If you’re just seeing a flat expanse of color, you’re missing the depth of a painted surface that is full of nuance, with swirling dimensions that activate this setting. The same nuances of color are true of the skin, which is in variations of gray. Amy Sherald chose this color shift for a reason, “to exclude the idea of color as race.” She also has this woman’s body face forward, while her head is turned in profile. What captures her attention is unknown, and it challenges you to wonder why she’s holding herself so still while her dress is blown in a breeze of urgency. It’s the stance of a saint who’s worth coming to see in person. Visit her with a trip to see In This Imperfect Present Moment, an installation of artworks by 15 artists conveying vibrant narratives that resonate across global boundaries.

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

Images: Saint Woman, 2015, Amy Sherald, American, b. 1973, Oil on canvas, 54 x 43 in., Private collection, photo courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. Installation view of In This Imperfect Present Moment at Seattle Art Museum. 2018, photo: Natali Wiseman.

Greetings from the Institute of Empathy

The Institute is glad to announce that their installation of lessons is on view at Seattle Art Museum. Three Empathics now oversee the production of  transformative vapors and invite you to sit with them in Lessons from the Institute of Empathy in the Seattle Art Museum’s African Art galleries, to invigorate your mental clarity.

Better yet, you are also invited to step into their restorative pool and partake of a mosaic shower from above. A 10 minute power point given by a representative from the Institute, Aurelia Wallace, is also available to explain the lessons on view.

The Institute wants to thank everyone who sticks their necks out to facilitate their work, and suggested a poem full of empathy to honor their efforts.

– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Installation view Lessons from the Institute of Empathy, 2018, Seattle Art Museum, photos: Natali Wiseman

Object of the Week: House of the Head

This summer, thousands of people are stepping into Infinity Mirror Rooms filled with lanterns, polka dots, pumpkins, and 115 mirrors. As of this week, 90,000 visitors in Seattle have seen infinity in Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors. Every Infinity Mirror Room makes the most of mirrors. What you may not realize is that mirrors have a long history in art and you can seen some of that history in SAM’s other galleries. The oldest mirror on view is from the 3rd century BC, an Etruscan bronze with an incised back depicting a woman who only wears a cap, necklace, and fancy shoes. Three figures stare at her, as if wondering if she forgot to put on a dress—but it happens to be a scene of seduction by Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love.  (48.36)

There are other small mirrors incorporated into sculptures on view: the Box of Daylight Raven Hat (91.1.124) on the 3rd floor and SAM’s very own mirrored room, which suspends 1,000 porcelains in a gilt rimmed infinity in the renowned Porcelain Room. On my walk through the galleries, however, one mirrored object calls out for attention. It only has four mirrors and is not an attention grabber—unless you happen to be tuned into art of the Yoruba culture of Nigeria. (93.157)

What looks like a small temple, or a crown, has an unusual name and concept to back it up. In Yoruba, it is called an ile ori, or House of the Head. One’s ori is not only your head, but your destiny. Before a person is born, he or she must visit the molder of spiritual heads to choose a destiny and personality which guide one’s character and fate. It is inside you, invisible to others, and is your “inner head,” which is embodied by a small abstract sculpture that is kept hidden in its own house. As seen in this house for the head, it has geometric shapes and numerical calculations, like any residence. Cowrie shells coat the entire surface, befitting the head of a wealthy person. Mirrors embellish the openings, flashing to signal the presence of a significant head held inside. When you want to “get your head together,” this house allows you to concentrate on how to align your thoughts with your destiny.

As I look at this quiet shrine, it leads me back to admire what the Yoruba Supreme Being, Odumare, stands for. He is the Prime Mover and Infinite Intelligence who created himself/herself and the universe. One Yoruba diviner and professor, Kola Abimbola, says the Yoruba have a GPS for life with a system and oracle known as Ifa. In search of more GPS and a dose of Yoruba confidence and creativity, I took a spring vacation in Nigeria. I was there to witness friends becoming chiefs and in the process, a spirit from the otherworld sat down to enact a hilarious conversation about the joys and pitfalls of raising children. Here she is making her point, offering her own version of Infinite Intelligence.

– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: House of the Head (Ile Ori), 20th century. Nigerian, Yoruba, cloth, mirrors, cowrie shells, leather, Gift of Mark Groudine and Cynthia Putnam, 93.157. Mirror with scene of the Judgement of Paris, 3rd century BC., Etruscan, Bronze, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 48.36. Sketch of scene on the mirror back Egungun Mother in Erin Osun, 2017, Photo: Pam McClusky.