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Object of the Week: War

Art has always played a key role in the work of protest and social reform. Artists’ reactions to our current moment, filled with social unrest and calls for social change, echo the works of revolutionary artists working during the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920). Amelio Amero, like his contemporaries Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, created murals for the public art projects supported by the Revolutionary government of Mexico.

Rivera’s 1932 lithographic print depicting Emiliano Zapata, the leader of the peasant revolution who became a symbol for agrarian rights, showcases the naturalist style that the Mexican muralists used. These socialist artists were aptly committed to public art and they were committed to creating art that was accessible to the general public. As a member of the Estridentistas artist group, he followed the Italian Futurist groups and believed in non-elitist art. In addition to large public murals, these artists also created prints which could be quickly and cheaply made and disseminated widely. Although highly skilled in the case of Rivera, the lithograph—made using a stone and a crayon—didn’t require the artist to make their image in reverse, nor did it require specialized training. Additionally, the prints could easily be transported and would reach a broader audience.

In War (1944), Amero uses the same lithographic printing technique in an image that combines a critique of violence and militarized conflict with a promise that violence can end through the hands of brave citizens. As the booted, helmeted soldier prepares to thrash a citizen who has been literally brought to her knees, with a hungry child beside her, she raises her face to the sky, closes her eyes, and holds up a strong, oversized hand in an act of faith and protest. The hand reaches out from the shadows to provide hope for those struggling through the unjust times.

Born in Ixtlahuaca, Mexico in 1901, Amero came to the United States in 1925 via Cuba to work in New York, which is where he became interested in Lithography. In 1940 Amero returned to the United States to teach art in Seattle at the University of Washington and the Cornish College of the Arts. During his time teaching in Seattle, Washington, and Norman, Oklahoma, where he taught at the University of Oklahoma from 1946 until the end of his career. Amero continued to create works that depicted Mexico, and worked in the Mexican muralist style, favoring realistic, hyper-cylindrical figures depicted in tempera and lithography, over the abstract and oil paint heavy styles gaining popularity in the mid-century.

As we all confront issues of violence and oppression in our current society, Amero’s work is a reminder for us to support artists calling for change.

– Genevieve Hulley, SAM Curatorial Intern, American Art

Images: War, 1944, Emilio Amero, lithograph, 23 1/8 x 19 3/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 44.84 © Estate of Emilio Amero. Zapata, 1932, Diego Rivera, lithograph, 16 1/4 x 13 3/16 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 44.623 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Stele of Chaywet

On Labor Day 2020, I cast a vote for one profession to be given special recognition: farmers and food providers. This Egyptian stele in SAM’s collection points out how we eat to thrive, now and into eternity. It also reminds us that perhaps we should give more credit to those who make that possible.    

Chaywet lived over 4000 years ago and wanted people to know he was a man of means. He carries a staff and scepter, wears a large necklace, and inscriptions tell us he had the title of Treasurer of Lower Egypt. His wealth enabled him to commission a stele to provide what he needs for his afterlife. He needs food, and lots of it, as noted in hieroglyphs in the middle of the right side: “A thousand of bread, a thousand of beer, a thousand of oxen, a thousand of birds, and a thousand of every good and pure thing.”

In the relief carving, there are two offering tables loaded with long bread loaves, cow haunches, fruits and vegetables, a dead bird, and jars of beer. Underneath the top table is a stand where Chaywet could wash his hands before and after eating. Learn more about Chaywet’s status and the stele’s inscriptions.

Today, Chaywet’s desire to be well fed is evident. Yet it is his position as a bureaucrat most celebrated in his attire and inscriptions, not who supplied him with his meals. In many parts of the world, the labor of farmers, bakers, brewers, cattle herders, and hunters is rarely celebrated in art. This overlooked credit to food providers is noted in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Before you finish eating breakfast this morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world.  This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality.”

In this year of pandemic change, awareness of food sovereignty has spawned new attention for farmers around Seattle. Nyema Clark, founder of Nuturing Roots on Beacon Hill says, “In times like these, small farmers truly are becoming superheroes.”  Marcus Henderson, leader of Black Star Farmers, has spoken of “a garden as a healing space.” For more about their efforts, and how Black farmers have been finding ways to increase access to healthy foods, here are a few references:

– Pam McClusky, SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Stele of Chaywet, ca. 2250 – 2000 BCE, Egyptian, limestone and pigment, 22 x 27 x 5 3/4 in., Thomas D. Stimson Memorial Collection and partial gift of Hagop Kevorkian, 47.64. Nyema Clark, photo by Sharon H. Chang, South Seattle Emerald.

Object of the Week: Mandala: Zone of Zero

I witnessed 9/11, and was very much shocked and affected by the traumatizing and violent terrorism. This terrorism made me contemplate a lot on dogma of religion and its extreme violence against humanity, and at the same time, on peace for the world. I wish for a harmonized society: a Utopia.

– Kimsooja

In the inaugural exhibition Be/Longing: Contemporary Asian Art at the transformed Seattle Asian Art Museum, Mandala: Zone of Zero by globally acclaimed artist Kimsooja triggers memories of a recent past—9/11—but also sadly echoes what is happening in our even more divided world today. Displayed in its own dark room, the mixed media installation consists of three circular jukeboxes spinning in mesmerizing circles, each casting its own dimly-colored glow. Playing simultaneously from the jukeboxes’ speakers are Tibetan, Islamic, and Gregorian chants, all three hymns mixing and blurring until they are indistinguishable from one another.

Kimsooja was first inspired to create this work when she came across a gambling shop on New York City’s bustling Broadway. The circular jukebox, which she saw in the shop’s window, struck her as astonishingly similar to traditional Tibetan Mandalas—intricate designs meant to symbolize the universe and aid deep meditation. From its Obangsaek color scheme (the five traditional Korean colors of white, black, blue, yellow, and red), to its circular movement mimicking the cycle of life, to the speaker at the center symbolizing the completion of the self as an awakened being, for Kimsooja “all the elements of this kitsch jukebox speaker that matched with the sacred and religious Mandala system were ironical and intriguing to me, and that urged me to create a piece of art.” The subsequent combination of American pop culture and Buddhist symbolism is even expressed in the title: Mandala: Zone of Zero. However, what makes us ponder further is the meaning of “zone of zero.” Does it refer to the spiritual unification of mind and body, creating a perfect state of “zero”? Or does it simply express an emptiness—a sense of “zero”— that comes with the commercialization of religion?

The work is further enriched by the three chants, which surround the viewer in an almost dream-like fashion. Each recording was sourced at a different religious location. Most notably, the Buddhist Monks’ “Mandala” chant was recorded by Kimsooja’s brother in the same Tibetan temple that is home to the Dalai Lama.

Mandala: Zone of Zero’s call for religious tolerance was particularly topical at the time of its creation in the years following 9/11. Kimsooja herself was in New York on the day and bore witness to the tragedy, as well as to the years of violence and war that followed between the United States and the Islamic world. But the catastrophic event also made Kimsooja long for peace in the world, wishing for “a Utopia.” This duality between discord and harmony can be heard quite literally in the entrancing chants that Kimsooja sources in her piece. At times, the different hymns seem to clash against one another harshly and, in other moments, blend lullingly together, mingling and merging until they approach a sound of unity, a feeling of tranquility, a sweeping state of zero.

— Isabelle Qian, former SAM Curatorial Intern; Xiaojin Wu, Curator of Japanese and Korean Art

Image: Mandala: Zone of Zero, 2003, Kimsooja, Three-channel sound installation with three jukeboxes, 9 min., 50 sec., Gift of William and Ruth True in honor of Chiyo Ishikawa and the reopening of the Seattle Asian Art Museum, 2020.13 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

Object of the Week: Trial of Tears

Kwagu’l artist David Neel, who comes from a long line of Northwest Native artists, distills generations of grief into a single moment with his silkscreen Trial of Tears. The central figure is Native elder Mary Johnson, pictured in 1991 as she learned that the Supreme Court of British Columbia dismissed the Gitksan and Wet’suet’en nations’ legal claim to their ancestral lands. After decades of disputes with British Columbia, the Gitksan and Wet’suet’en first filed a joint suit for land title (i.e. ownership) in 1984, hoping to protect their homelands from logging and receive compensation for their loss.[1] The trial began in 1987 and lasted three years; it was labor-intensive, financially draining, and culminated in this artwork’s heartbreaking scene.

The images framing Johnson’s face are rich in Indigenous symbolism, which Neel describes on his studio website: two Trees of Life represent the contested land and its resources, while four white ravens symbolize the Canadian legal system as the ever-changing trickster. The shield-shaped coppers traditionally stand for wealth, and a chief may “break a copper” during a dispute, so four of the coppers in this composition are broken to represent the prolonged legal battle.[2] Neel’s choice of this border around Mary Johnson’s photographic likeness is powerful. He shows one moment of despair on March 8, 1991, but the symbols make it eternal, stretching back to the beginning of Indigenous relations with colonizers and into the future of governmental power.

While this work justifiably evokes a never-ending cycle of loss, relations between Indigenous people and settler-colonial governments in North America are still evolving. The Gitksan and Wet’suet’en repeatedly appealed their case, and although the Court of Appeal of British Columbia supported the 1991 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1997 that the government could not extinguish First Nations’ rights to their ancestral territories. This ruling set legal criteria Indigenous nations can use to claim land title, which clarified the path forward for other First Nations’ claims, including the Tsilhqot’in people’s successful case in 2014. (It also affirmed oral histories as valid legal testimony, a small step towards dismantling white supremacy culture in the legal system.)[3] However, treaty negotiations between the Gitksan and Wet’suet’en and British Columbia are still ongoing, and the Gitksan have yet to benefit from the ruling.[4]

Recent headlines have shed light on a similarly complex situation here in the United States. On July 9, 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Muscogee (Creek) Reservation in Oklahoma did not cease to exist when Oklahoma became a state in 1907, as Oklahoma asserted, because Congress did not enact this.[5] Following this decision’s logic, about half of Oklahoma is now recognized as treaty-promised reservation for five different tribes. The ruling granted Native jurisdiction, not ownership, over the land, but it nonetheless represents an all-too-rare case of the United States government honoring treaty agreements with a Native group.[6] On the investigative podcast series This Land (which I recommend for a deep dive into the history that led to this Supreme Court ruling), Cherokee journalist Rebecca Nagle and Muscogee journalist Angel Ellis discuss what the decision means to them. Ellis’s voice shakes with emotion: “[Displacement] has been the standard all over the world for Indigenous people; it’s been ‘stomp, trod, move over’ and just railroading, and to finally have just a little bit of affirmation to go our way has made all the difference. In the way you carry yourself, you know?”[7]

Like much of the history of North American settler-colonialism, Neel’s Trial of Tears is difficult, but absolutely crucial, to confront. The exhibition featuring this work, YOU ARE ON INDIGENOUS LAND: Places/Displaces, provides an opportunity to keep learning about Indigenous land justice. It will be on view when SAM reopens.

– Linnea Hodge, Curatorial Coordinator

Image: Trial of Tears, 1991, David Neel, Silkscreen, 28 x 22 in., Gift of Simon Ottenberg, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2005.123 © David Neel.
[1] “The Delgamuukw Case,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, updated 2019, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/delgamuukw-case
[2] “Trial of Tears,” David Neel Studio, https://davidneelstudio.com/dns_single.php?ID=323
[3] “The Delgamuukw Case”
[4] “Recent History,” Gitxsan, http://www.gitxsan.com/about/our-history/recent-history
[5] Laurel Wamsley, “Supreme Court Rules That About Half Of Oklahoma Is Native American Land,” NPR, July 9, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/07/09/889562040/supreme-court-rules-that-about-half-of-oklahoma-is-indian-land
[6] Angel Ellis, “SCOTUS Opinion Upholds Tribal Treaties Promises,” MVSKOKE Media, July 9, 2020, https://www.mvskokemedia.com/2020/07/09/scotus-opinion-upholds-tribal-treaties-promises/
[7] Podcast episode “The Ruling”, This Land, Rebecca Nagle with Crooked Media

Documenting Diversity in SAM’s Permanent Collections

Museums across the country are contending with the structural racism that shapes their collections and organizations. One component of this process, in striving for transparency, is assessing the individuals and communities who are—and who are not—represented in these collections.

In the summer of 2019, SAM’s Curatorial Department began the challenging—and ongoing—work of collecting data to better understand the diversity of the museum’s permanent collection. While I helped initiate this research, it was carried forward by one amazing and dedicated curatorial intern, Rachel Kim, whose time, energy, and care laid essential groundwork for future initiatives to increase the representation of artists of color at SAM.

The methodology that guides this undertaking is shaped by a study titled “Diversity of Artists in Major U.S. Museums,” published in March 2019 by a cross-departmental group of colleagues at Williams College in the departments of Statistics, Mathematics, Art, and Art History. The study used crowdsourcing to mine the online databases of 18 major American museums, inferring data related to artists’ ethnicities, genders, and geographic origins. As in the Williams College study, we focused our attention on artists whose identities are known to us, first conducting research to manually calculate representation by gender and, later on, ethnicity, within SAM’s permanent collection. The Williams College study relied on the crowdsourcing platform Amazon Mechanical Turk to gather data and, like much of such data collection, is subject to human error. Still, the study found that 85% of works in major U.S. museum collections are by white artists, and that 87% are by men. Works by Black artists make up just 1% of collections; works by Asian artists, 9%; and works by Latinx artists, 3%.[1]

I should pause here and note that the complexities and sensitivities of this research are many—there are often limited resources, including limited biographical information, available on a number of artists; many artists’ identities and orientations are intersectional or non-binary, and the application of one singular identity for the sake of data collection reduces the complexity of many artists’ backgrounds and biographies; and most important of all is how the artist personally chooses to identify. With this in mind, Rachel Kim thoughtfully reflected, “No person’s identity can be relegated to simple formulas and spreadsheet labels. With this recognition, I made it a priority to extract source material on an artist from the words of the artists themselves before turning to secondary accounts.” Many museums are beginning to conduct similar data collection and research, and some are even developing surveys to be sent to living artists during the acquisitions process; this way, the artist may self-identify and share details related to their own biography as they would like for it to be recorded.[2] It is crucial to acknowledge another limitation as well: this first phase of data collection, focusing on “individual, identifiable” artists, inherently privileges a Western perspective and valuation of a singular object with a singular, documented maker.[3]

Yet, as nuanced and imperfect as this data may be, it acts as a critical blueprint that reflects what SAM—like too many museums around the country—has known and knows must be corrected. We must confront the inherent biases and narratives that collecting histories, including our own, perpetuates. Serving the museum’s larger institutional goal of addressing racial inequity within its walls and collection, this research further underscores the need for increased investment in 20th- and 21st-century artists of color.

Focusing on the museum’s modern and contemporary collection as one example, roughly 7% of works are by artists of color. However, since 2010, this collection has also seen the number of works by Black artists increase by over one-third. Many of these acquisitions are directly linked to the Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Prize, a $10,000 award offered biannually to an early career Black artist, along with a solo exhibition at SAM. The first prize was awarded in 2009, and SAM has consistently acquired works by the exhibiting artists in the years since.

Looking at another data sample, SAM acquired approximately 1,360 works by 20th- and 21st-century artists since 2010. Of these, roughly 48% are by artists of color. In addition, well over two times the funds were spent on the purchase of 110 works by artists of color compared to 94 works by white artists. These numbers are heartening and signal the progress that an intentional approach can accomplish, though we acknowledge that our work is only beginning.

This research and its analysis is far from definitive or complete, but it is a helpful tool—a compass, perhaps—that can help guide current and future actions to correct the systemic and institutional racism that has invariably shaped the museum field. Supporting, representing, and investing in artists of color through exhibitions and acquisitions is just one part of this anti-racist work for SAM.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

[1] The authors importantly see this study as a companion to the 2014-15 “Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey” conducted by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which found that 72% of staff at its member institutions identify as white. It will take more than simply acquiring more works by artists of color to correct racial inequity within museums––equal attention must be given to staffing, workplace culture, board membership, programs, exhibitions, and collections.
[2] Frances Lloyd-Barnes, Head of Collections Information Management at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), further problematizes and offers thoughts on what it means to document diversity in this way: https://new.artsmia.org/stories/documenting-diversity-how-should-museums-identify-art-and-artists/
[3] SAM is a comprehensive museum, which means that its permanent collection houses artworks by artists and makers across time and place, from antiquity to the present, and we cannot always know the identities of an artwork’s maker or makers. If we expand the scope of our data to include works by artists whose specific identities are unknown to us, or perhaps worked as a community or collectively, the museum’s holdings of works by artists of color hovers around 58%. This high percentage is due in no small part to SAM’s foundational collection of historic Asian art, renowned collection of African art, and strong representation of Indigenous—especially Northwest Coast Native—art.

Object of the Week: 3 Panel Glyph #2

Seattle-based artist Denzil Hurley was born in Barbados, West Indies, and studied at the Portland Museum Art School and, later, the Yale School of Art, where he received his MFA in 1979. He was a professor in painting and drawing at the University of Washington for twenty-three years before retiring in 2017.

Known for his quiet, monochromatic abstractions, Hurley often finds himself in the company of abstract painters who came before him, such as Kazimir Malevich and Ad Reinhardt. However, Hurley—in a move that might appear heretical to these painters of earlier generations—introduces sculptural interventions to his otherwise subdued compositions.

In 3 Panel Glyph #2—part of a series inspired by the artist’s recent visits to Barbados and the island’s built environment—three stretched canvases are mounted to repurposed wooden poles and handles, a move that immediately transforms the monochromatic square paintings into objects resembling placards and signs.

Image of a group of protestors in 2020 with signs that read "Black Lives Matter" and "Get Your Knee off our Necks"

Hurley’s formal motivations are clear, and the works in his Glyph series are made through repeatedly building up layers of paint that are then removed to reveal a textured surface bearing the traces of his process. However, Hurley’s interest in form and structure is not purely abstract, for he is also deeply invested in the connection between the language of painting as it relates to speech. It is no accident that this body of work borrows its title from a term of Greek origin—glyph: a symbol that conveys information through nonverbal means.

In our current moment, it is hard not to see this work as a visual placeholder for the political, asserting its agency through its very presence, as well as what’s made absent. Though any explicit meaning is obfuscated, its form alone is reminiscent of signs carried by activists and protestors the world over. What the 3 Panel Glyph declares, however, is left for the viewer to decipher.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

Image: 3 Panel Glyph #2, 2012-14, Denzil Hurley, oil on canvas on panel and sticks, 60 x 56 in., Modern Art Acquisition Fund, 2017.34, © Denzil Hurley

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: 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.