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Object of the Week: Portrait Drawing of Gwendolyn Knight

In this delicate drawing Henry Bannarn depicts 21-year-old artist Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence using soft graphite markings and subtle blending and shading. The sketch, folded and preserved by the sitter throughout her life, was gifted to the museum in 2006 as part of her estate. Bannarn’s drawing remained in Knight’s collection until the end of her life, and was stored among many of her own drawings and sketches. Knight moved to Harlem at the age of 13, and attended Howard University and took classes at the Harlem Community Art Center and the Black Mountain College before settling in Seattle with her husband, painter Jacob Lawrence.

Henry Bannarn, c. 1937

Although Bannarn created drawings and paintings throughout his career and taught drawing at the Wheatley House, Minneapolis, his best-known works are his sculptures. Born in Oklahoma and trained at the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts, Bannarn moved to New York City to study sculpture at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design. Bannarn’s sculptures were praised by Howard University art history professor James Porter and included in Porter’s 1943 publication Modern Negro Art. Porter praises Bannarn’s sculptures as daringly original.

The Family, 1955, Charles Henry Alston
 

While living in New York, Bannarn rented a studio with fellow artist Charles Alston in Harlem at 306 West 14st street. By 1940 Bannarn and Alston had turned their studio into an exhibition and artists’ space which they named the 306 Group. The 306 Group became a hub of African American artistic production in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The group focused on admitting members who “reflect[ed] and represent[ed] the African American community’s standards for Black American art.”1 Prominent members of the group included Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence.

The Studio, 1977, Jacob Lawrence

Bannarn met his subject Gwendolyn Knight when he was teaching at the Harlem Community Art Center, where Knight came to study sculpture with Augusta Savage in 1934. Savage was assigned as Project Supervisor for the Federal Art Project under the Works Project Administration (WPA) and taught a broad group of influential African American artists during that time. Many members of the 306 Group worked for the WPA in the 1930s including Bannarn, Knight, and Lawrence. Having grown up in a poor family in Florida as one of fourteen children, Savage went on to study in France, exhibit at the Salon d’Autumne, and Carnegie Foundation grant to travel through Europe. Savage’s longest lasting impact was in her role as director of the Harlem Community Art Center, where she shaped the careers of a whole generation of African American artists.

Gwendolyn Knight, 1934-35, Augusta Savage

SAM is lucky to have these two portraits of Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence by Bannarn and Savage as they illustrate not only the artist at the height of her youth, but also give a sampling of the broad artistic talent that came out of Harlem Community Art Center and the important role of the WPA as a support system for American artists in the 1930s. The discovery of Bannarn’s drawing illustrates the hidden depths of the rich collection at SAM.

Genevieve Hulley, SAM Curatorial Intern, American Art

Image: Portrait drawing of Gwendolyn Knight, 1934, Henry Wilmer Bannarn, pencil on paper, 16 x 10 1/2 in., Gift of Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, 2006.58 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Henry Bannarn, c. 1937, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington. Federal Art Project, Photographic Division Collection. The Family, 1955, Charles Henry Alston (American, 1907-1977), Whitney Museum of American Art. The Studio, 1977, Jacob Lawrence, gouache on paper, 30 x 22 in., Partial gift of Gull Industries; John H. and Ann Hauberg; Links, Seattle; and gift by exchange from the Estate of Mark Tobey, 90.27 ©️ Jacob Lawrence. Gwendolyn Knight, 1934-35, Augusta Savage, painted plaster, 18 1/2 x 8 1/2 x 9 in., Gift of Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, 2006.86.
1 Buick, Kirsten Pai. “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Sculpture of the Harlem Renaissance.” In A Companion to the Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, 317–336. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015, 327.

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: 400 Men of African Descent

Seattle-based artist Marita Dingus has two works in the Seattle Art Museum’s collection: 400 Men of African Descent, acquired in 1998, and 200 Women of African Descent, acquired in 2009. Both were completed in 1997 as companion installations. These works are described as a “Hail Mary, a visual prayer” by the artist, where repetition serves as a spiritual act of catharsis (the pieces took over a year to complete) and a mode of reflection on the horrific conditions of slavery that became clear during a visit to West Africa.  

Dingus was inspired to create these works after visiting Elmina Castle, a Ghanaian fort where for two centuries enslaved Africans were held captive. She walked into rooms where 400 men and 200 women were held in dungeons of extreme confinement, with little light and almost no air. There, they spent their last days before the Middle Passage––a term that fails to capture the atrocities of the slave trade and the conditions of being shipped over the Atlantic. Upon her return, Dingus made a man or woman each day to mark this memory. Each becomes a new form of monument to honor the 200 women and 400 men held captive in Elmina Castle, the aggregate total of figures a powerful and haunting reminder of the conditions of chattel slavery.

As in Dingus’s larger sculptural practice, the miniature figures in 400 Men and 200 Women are comprised of discarded materials, in this case elements such as zipper pulls, Christmas light bulbs, and textile fragments. As articulated in Dingus’s artist statement, “My art draws upon relics from the African Diaspora. The discarded materials represent how people of African descent were used during the institution of slavery and colonialism then discarded, but who found ways to repurpose themselves and thrive in a hostile world.”[1]

400 Men of African Descent came into the museum through an unusual museum experiment.  In 1997, the installation was included in a unique exhibition in which museum visitors chose, via ballot, the acquisition of a work of art featured in the show. The options ranged from photographs and sculptures by contemporary African artists, to installations like this one by a  contemporary Black American artist.

Knowing that the Seattle community chose for this work to enter the collection is an important and, perhaps today, lesser-known element of the work’s history. More than twenty years later, 400 Men and 200 Women of African Descent continue to alert viewers to questions and ignite conversations about slavery, colonialism, and systemic racism. Hopefully, they might also be seen as an offering, an emblem of a community’s support for important dialogue and change.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate


[1] Marita Dingus, Artist’s Statement, https://www.travergallery.com/artists/marita-dingus/
Image: 400 Men of African Descent, 1997, Marita Dingus, cloth and mixed media, African Art Acquisition Fund, 98.43 © Marita Dingus. 200 Women of African Descent, 1997, Marita Dingus, cloth and mixed media, Gift of the artist and Francine Seders Gallery, 2009.54 © Marita Dingus.

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: 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.

Juneteenth: A Rededication to Freedom

“Words of Emancipation didn’t arrive until the middle of June so they called it Juneteenth. So that was it, the night of Juneteenth celebration, his mind went on. The celebration of a gaudy illusion.

―Ralph Ellison, “Juneteenth”

Two and half years. 400 years. 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

Two and a half years. That’s how much time passed between January 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all enslaved people in the Confederacy, and June 19, 1865, when the Union Army’s Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and announced the end of both the Civil War and slavery. (The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, formally abolishing slavery in the United States, would not be fully ratified until December 6, 1865.)

On that June night, celebrations broke out. Historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner documents an heir recalling, “…my daddy told me that they whooped and hollered and bored holes in trees with augers and stopped it up with [gun]powder and light and that would be their blast for the celebration.” Juneteenth was celebrated the following year, and among many other emancipation holidays, has endured. Local traditions feature everything from readings, lectures, songs, voter registration efforts, cookouts, street fairs, rodeos, and more. It’s a day to reflect on the promises of freedom and the bloody costs of its continuous delay. It’s a day to celebrate the genius of Black joy and resilience. It’s a day to gather at the table and eat delicious food.

400 years. 2019 marked the 400th year since enslaved Africans arrived in what would become the United States. And in 2020, eight minutes and 46 seconds——the amount of time a police officer named Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck of George Floyd, killing him—has set off an uprising against the present and past of racism in America. On the eve of the 155th celebration of Juneteenth, a different future again seems possible.

Juneteenth is not currently a federal holiday, but it is commemorated or observed in most states and the District of Columbia. In Washington State, the holiday was officially recognized in 2007, and a bill (HB 2312)  to make it a legal state holiday, proposed by Representative Melanie Morgan, is currently in front of the state legislature. The Seattle Art Museum is happy to announce that it has instituted Juneteenth as an official paid holiday for its employees, as a gesture within its broader commitment to creating racial equity and structural change within its walls. On this holiday, we encourage SAM staff to commemorate this inflection point in American history, as we live through another.

SUGGESTED EVENTS

BLKFREEDOM.org: Juneteenth digital commemoration
Presented by six Black museums and historical institutions, including Northwest African American Museum (NAAM)

Juneteenth Freedom March & Celebration
Led by King County Equity Now from DeCharlene’s Boutique to Jimi Hendrix Park

Juneteenth Week 2020
Presented by Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, Black Lives Matter – Seattle/King County, Tabor 100 and FW Black Collective.

Juneteenth: Ijeoma Oluo in conversation with Ahamefule Oluo
Live webcast hosted by King County Library System

Miss Juneteenth
Film directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples and starring Nicole Beharie

FURTHER RESOURCES

Juneteenth.com
Resource site founded by Cliff Robinson in 1997

Seattle Public Library Juneteenth Resources
A community-generated list of books and other media

King County Library System Reading List
A great list of reads for all ages

Nicole Taylor for the New York Times with reflections from Black chefs
Including James Beard award-winning chef Eduardo Jordan of Seattle

Chef Lazarus Lynch in the Washington Post
Shares his complicated feelings on the holiday

SAM Book Club: Empathy Lives On in Parable of the Sower

We’ve finished reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler for SAM Book Club and our final reflection takes us inside an immersive installation by Saya Woolfalk at SAM to consider how change and empathy are intertwined. Our colleagues at the Northwest African American Museum are also reading Parable of the Sower for their June Book Club and and we will be joining NAAM’s live discussion on June 26. Join us by registering here! Please read along and share your thoughts with us while you stay home with SAM!

Empathy is a word that can buzz through the air, or be embedded in one’s mind and body. Octavia Butler and Saya Woolfalk make this word come alive in characters who try to keep humanity on track. 

Right now, 2020 is bringing dystopia right to our doorstep every day. If you pick up Parable of the Sower, a 15-year-old girl who has a condition of hyper empathy becomes your guide. Lauren Olamina’s vision of 2024 is not far away, and you join people running from an apocalypse. They follow Olamina, who calls her empathic abilities a disorder. By the end, you realize it is her super power, as she formulates an entirely new vision that ultimately offers hope to all around her. If you haven’t read it, now’s the best time ever. It’s an omen of the future we’ve got to figure out together. 

Unfortunately, Octavia Butler died in Seattle on February 24, 2006.  Four months later, on June 22, a young senator gave a commencement speech at Northwestern University, and said, “I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit. . . . it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential”. Barack Obama’s references to empathy kept coming while he was President. So did discoveries in neuroscience, which identified circuits in our brains that are wired to give us an ability to understand what other people are feeling. However, at the same time, the empathic deficit disorder continued to be seen in a rise of Hyper Individualism based on self-absorption, chronic loneliness, and a lack of curiosity about strangers or others. 

Artist Saya Woolfalk steps into this era and establishes an Institute of Empathy.  She cites Octavia Butler’s writings as a source of constant inspiration, helping her take leaps of imagination. In 2010–11, Woolfalk reaches out to biologists and theorists to consider the possibilities of interspecies hybridization as a factor for human improvement. One scholar, Ed Cohen offered a prophetic observation, “Unbeknownst to us, our futures may depend on the ways we learn to live with the viruses that take place within and among us—though the referent of this “us” would then be up for grabs. Yet this coincidence . . . troubles us both physiologically and conceptually.”[1]

Unafraid of complexity and troubling concepts, Woolfalk creates a species of Empathics that are conceived to assist our evolution. By 2012, they are entering museums and offering evidence and research about how human beings can find ways to increase their empathic abilities. This Institute has presented solutions through guided dreams, role playing in cyber space, hybrid cosmologies in planetariums, performances and projections that have gained attention across the planet. 

Only the Seattle Art Museum has offered The Institute of Empathy a permanent home. Three Empathics reside on the fourth floor and offer their suggestions for enhancing self-transformation. Theirs is not an immediate quick fix installation, as becoming empathic is not a sudden pit stop. It takes time to figure out what these alternative beings are about. They invite you to see their virtual chimeric space where healing gases are being downloaded, and you are welcome to walk into their mosaic shower which sends a flow of imagery down into a sacred pond full of insight. The Empathics also selected art from other cultures in the museum’s collection that can help enhance your ethical disposition and state of mind. Just as Octavia Butler’s novel ends with a glimmer of hope for a new philosophy called Earthseed, so these empathics reinforce a conviction that we can create the change we need. 

– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Photo: Chelsea Werner-Jatzke. Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at Seattle Art Museum, 2018, © Seattle Art Museum, photo: Nathaniel Willson.
[1] “The Paradoxical Politics of Viral Containment; or, How Scale Undoes Us One and All”, by Ed Cohen, Professor at Rutgers University, published in Social Text 106, Spring 2011, p.27.

Art & Justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, & Ahmaud Arbery

The young girl gazes directly into the camera: serene, open, determined. Her arms cross in front of her; her hands reach for those of the other children beside her. Together, they form a chain that cannot be broken.

She is 11-year-old Quintella Harrell, as the photo’s caption notes, and she’s participating in the campaign for voting rights for Black people in Selma, Alabama, that took place in the early months of 1965. The photo was taken by Dan Budnik, who uses documentary photography as a tool for activism and to bear witness to the battle for equality. A few weeks before this photo was taken, a 26-year-old church deacon from Marion named Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by a state trooper as he tried to shield his mother from the trooper’s nightstick, dying eight days later. Days after this photo was taken, the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, led by civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis, would begin. The images of state troopers attacking the activists during what came to be called “Bloody Sunday” galvanized public opinion, eventually leading to the march’s safe completion on March 21—and to the passing of the Voting Rights Act.

This moment of a young girl’s perseverance is captured forever in this black-and-white photo, but it’s far from the distant past. Today, Dr. Quintella Harrell is 65 years old. How much has changed?

SAM expresses deep compassion for those seeking justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. We share in the grief, anger, and frustration that their friends, families, and Black communities are feeling, which has spread across the country and the world. SAM is committed to doing our part in the necessary work of creating racial equity. Art can play a critical role in creating structural change and equity; it deepens empathy, asks tough questions, and offers new visions for collective responses to our world. We must create that new world together.

Image: Quintella Harrell, 11 Years Old, With Other Young Voting Rights Protestors, Dallas County Courthouse, Selma, Alabama, 4 March 1965, 1965, Dan Budnik, gelatin silver photograph, 11 x 14 in. Gift of Getty Images, 2000.38 ©️ Artist or Artist’s Estate.

SAM Book Club: Afrofuturism & Octavia Butler

This is the fourth of five reflections on Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, SAM’s Book Club selection. SAM Staff is reading and thinking about some of the themes in John Akomfrah: Future History, which we hope you will be able to come see on view through September 7 once the museum can reopen. Our final book club reflection will be shared here on the blog June 16. Our colleagues at the Northwest African American Museum are reading Parable of the Sower for their June Book Club and SAM has decided to cancel our Zoom Book Club discussion, previously taking place June 16, to join NAAM’s live discussion on June 26. Join us by registering here! Please read along and share your thoughts with us while you stay home with SAM!

“Back when Ronald Regan had just become president, people were talking about winnable nuclear wars. And I thought, ‘If people were falling for this kind of thing, there must be something basically wrong with the human species.’ So . . . . I had [my alien characters] arrive right after a nuclear war so that I could make my point and I had them tell my [main] character that human beings had two characteristics that didn’t work well together. One, they were intelligent, and that was good, no problem. And two, they were hierarchical. And unfortunately, the hierarchical tendencies were older and so sometimes the intelligence was put at the service of the hierarchical behavior.”

– Octavia Butler interviewed in The Last Angel of History

Octavia Butler is talking about her Xenogenesis series, also known as Lilith’s Brood, in the above quote from John Akomfrah’s 1996 video essay The Last Angel of History on view in John Akomfrah: Future History. Compared to the Xenogenesis trilogy, the Parable series delivers a more subtle version of sci-fi and Afrofuturism, presenting Earth in the not too distant future suffering from more extreme versions of our current issues.

Octavia Butler

In the third quarter of the book, Parable of the Sower finds Lauren Olamina, Harry Balter, and Zahra Moss continuing north, the unlikely companions brought together by the destruction of their neighborhood. As they walk, they slowly begin to absorb new travelers into their party. Lauren has realized that she should not only be watchful for threats on the freeway, but also for potential allies. The situation on the road gets more precarious after an earthquake. Scavengers are quick to descend on vulnerable communities in the aftermath. After the group rescues two girls from a collapsed house, a new member of the party, Bankole, observes, “I was surprised to see that anyone else cared what happened to a couple of strangers.” Though there is risk in inviting new people into Earthseed, the group is now as strong as ever, and there is a larger audience for Lauren’s teachings.

Octavia Butler’s work helped to shape the burgeoning genre of Afrofuturism, where the culture of the African diaspora merges with futuristic technology and settings. John Akomfrah’s video essay The Last Angel of History features conversations that elaborate on this theme.

In Akomfrah’s film, author Greg Tate says that he has “always contended that the Black existence and science fiction are one and the same.” The poet Ishmael Reed credits Tate with first drawing the parallels between the Black experience and science fiction, saying “[…] all those things that you read about alien abduction and genetic transformation, they already happened. How much more alien do you think it gets than slavery, than entire mass populations moved and genetically altered, forcibly dematerialized?”

Themes of outer space and of being alien are hallmarks of Afrofuturism. Butler’s protagonist Lauren tells us that “The destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.” By settling the community on another planet, Earthseed would gain freedom from its current earthly threats, allowing the movement to grow and hopefully thrive.

All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you.”What changes us, we change in return. The dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism threaten to overwhelm us, too big for any individual to confront. Our best hope for salvation is through collective action. With each new person that joins Earthseed, Lauren lets us know that they are now stronger than they were before. More bodies, more voices, more strength. With actions big and small, we can take agency over the communities we live in and help shape what comes next. Afrofuturism is not simply an escape into the fantastical, rather it often recognizes a cruel reality, then offers a symbol of hope, of imagining and shaping a better future.

– Ilona Davis, SAM Individual Giving Manager

Photo: Jonathan Vanderweit. Photo: Patti Perret.