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Two-Way Mirror: An Interview with Barbara Earl Thomas

Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence, which will be on view for a year at SAM, centers Black youth in a series of all-new artworks at once delicate and resilient. This Seattle-based artist uses cut-paper and glass portraits and transforms an entire gallery into a luminaria. A place for reflection, the works cut to the core of the fundamental values we assign to light and dark. The disarming expressions of children in Thomas’ portraits ask us to consider how we see each other and how we internalize and project innocence and guilt. Drawn from a community of family and friends, The Geography of Innocence celebrates young lives and their futures in full consciousness of the pervasive violence against Black children. SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Catharina Manchanda interview this important artist in anticipation of the upcoming exhibition. Tickets to visit the galleries will be available starting November 1!

Catharina Manchanda: Biblical narratives form the backdrop of many of your works, and you bring the symbolism of light and shadow to bear on the political situation in this country. What narratives do you explore in The Geography of Innocence?

Barbara Earl Thomas: It’s the two-way mirror through which I see the world. It’s narrated to me in my grandmother Phoebe’s voice with whom I often spent the weekends and summers; where at each exit to the bathroom, kitchen, or bedroom, she’d say, “I’ll be right back, God willing.” This set a tone for the temporality of each moment of this life as she moved through her day. Her God ruled every moment and was the reason for everything good. The devil, his dark wily opposite, was the root of all evil. She loved and admonished us in those terms. Everything was literal. When I misbehaved, the devil had gotten into me. This meant I was not quite responsible for my misdeeds, but in some moment of inattention, I’d let down my guard, and admitted the demon who caused me to climb that tree and fall out, or say some bad words to my cousins who were also full of devils. She reminded me that hell was paved with hot stones, filled with fire, and it came out of your eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. I saw this, clear as day. My grandfather admonished her because he knew by nightfall, I’d be so crazed with this idea of the devil, that instead of sleeping on the couch, I might have to sleep with them. These were some of my first stories heard, sung, and repeated. They formed the backdrop of beauty and mystery of my world.  

As a young person I was drawn to the oratorical language of the sermon and its talk of miracles and prophecy—none of which I’d seen. It was the music I listened to, the silences from the adults as I entered the room, and the ladies who prayed over me when I was sick. The ritual and the shape of sanctuary no matter the denomination—Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, Lutheran and Evangelical—was all the same to me. I’d wander into Holy Names Cathedral just off Union Street, or accompany a friend to one of the many Pentecostal churches often set up in temporary store fronts, fleeting in their residence. During these services accompanied by full bands, there were people who sang as each member became possessed by a holy spirit. There were the Jewish people walking to synagogue on Saturday. All these places in my small world were little fires of community where deep emotion and imagination converged. There were stories, food, songs, candles, holy water, and scenes of strange happenings from some mythical past about some next world. 

I was intrigued by the language and cultural references around how we describe victims when we think and speak about the violence so prevalent in our country. There is something of heaven and hell to this: violence spirals down from police shootings of young Black men, to nightclub massacres, to random sniper killings of the oldest and then to the youngest among us, our children. I thought, this is where it will stop, with the children. Certainly every adult will draw the line when it comes to the wholesale slaughter of children. Sadly, that was not the case, but what emerged for me from the myriad mass shootings—with Sandy Hook most notably—was the language around sympathy, guilt, and innocence. In thinking about why we as adults couldn’t put children first, I was drawn to studies that demonstrated how we, as a culture, see our children. Here young Black children are seen as less innocent and, therefore, less worthy of public grief than white children.

My ideas for this exhibit surfaced after several readings of Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows and a subsequent re-reading of a mid-1980’s James Hillman essay, Notes on White Supremacy. Prescient in its content, Hillman explores the deep-seated world of mythology around the concepts of light and dark, black and white. As I’d read the essay so long ago, I’d forgotten Hillman’s reference to Tanizaki’s book. It was a happy connection. Both the book and essay deal with how deeply imprinted our associations with language and its usage of the words and concepts are associated with darkness and light. From guilt to innocence they hold a deep well of our associated fears of the unclean and besmirched. Conversely, we associate light and white with all that is pure, clear, clean, and, therefore, innocent and unblemished.

Light and dark. Light and shadow. What is seen and unseen. What is clear and what is mystery—these kinds of experiences are part of my story in addition to my formal education. This is the base that provided the vocabulary and shaped my narrative of the world. As a Black person, I can’t help but see myself in the landscape and imagine how others might experience me based on how I appear to them. I search myself to see how I react to and employ my thoughts and opinions, because aside from being Black I’m also human and subject to the world’s influences.

In this new body of work, I use multiple images of Black children: bold, frontal, and almost life size, so that their faces engage the viewer. In my cuts, I explore youth and its innocence imprinted in and on the subjects’ expressions. I purposefully insist on this particular view and stance because it’s not the one most given to us often in the media or popular culture. The backgrounds may hold contrasting stories that compete with the figures and their stance—the push and pull of the opposites; the yin and yang.

CM: Elsewhere you noted: “I create stories from the apocalypse we live in now and narrate how life goes on in the midst of chaos.” This statement is acutely felt right now—can you talk about it in relationship to the work that will be on view at SAM?

BET: As a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, now as then, there was much ado and action around issues of inequity. The utopian movements that sprang up were numerous. Like formal religion, these communities and/or cults were created as foils to the many disasters life holds. We are afraid and terrified; there is nothing new in that. We construct magic circles and ritual movements to distract and protect ourselves from floods, storms, fires, famines, diseases and yes, now plagues. It is my observations and my experiences that interest me, so like a good witness I note, record, and echo back to my viewer my literal experience of the world through visual stories.

CM: You call yourself “artist, writer, thinker.” We also know that you are an engaged reader. How does your reading and writing practice inform your visual work?

BET: Reading is life. As an active reader I’ve always used literature and all of my reading to inform my world.  I read and write to get at truth and to clarify my own thought process. It’s easy for me to talk about my thoughts and correct or rephrase as I go. There is something about being in a room and engaging in a conversation that can make even confused thought processes sound plausible. But when I write I am forced to create clear sentences and connect thoughts and see if they hold water. When I read, I’m looking for the rigor and willingness in the author to think things all the way through. Writers like James Baldwin, August Wilson, and John Edgar Widman are American writers who do that for me. Poets like Pablo Neruda and Rilke capture truth in a nonlinear image condensed. Most recently, I’ve been reading Colin Thurbron’s travel writing, Pico Iyer, and rereading Robert D. Kaplan. I love good travel writing as it is a way to see the world through others’ eyes and be in other parts of this world without traveling. What all these authors share is clear thinking and hard truth telling, which is something I demand of myself in my own work.

CM: You are making a lot of new work for the exhibition, which include different kinds of processes. Would you tell us about the use of the negative space in your paper cuts (you say you draw with the knife!) compared to the wall hangings?

BET: The negative space allows the light to shine in contrast. It heightens the experience. When paired with the positive it creates shadows and mystery. The concept demonstrates that both are needed to create the particular magic that is this story. Both positive and negative space are needed to create a world that exists as sculpture in the round—one that is not flat or one-dimensional. Both are needed to create the emotional response that I seek. When people are surrounded, they are forced to surrender their senses for a moment. 

CM: You are pairing your cut paper works with illuminated glass panels for the installation at SAM, what prompted you to pair these in the two adjacent galleries?

BET: I think of this exhibition as one installation made up of several parts. Each separate element has its role in the installation of the paper-cut portraits. Most of the figures are inspired by children of friends and neighbors, some are random portraits I’ve found. All are chosen because there is a way for me to show the part that I think is missing in many of our depictions of the innocence that lives in and marks the dark face of a child. I’m creating a space that holds the viewer in light and shadow to demonstrate something about illusion and how our imagination creates the monsters in the shadows even when there is nothing there. In this case I’m cutting the beautiful from the darkness and placing viewers in the shadows to make them a part of the world they observe. The portraits are cast as precious objects, surrounded by what feels like sacred objects—my candelabras.  The hand-cut wallpaper is designed to create fountains of movement as the viewer is invited to the suspended centerpiece, Bodies in the Matrix.

Images: Siblings, 2020, Barbara Earl Thomas, American, cut paper and hand-printed color backing, 40 x 26 in., Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, photo: Spike Mafford. Color Wheel, 2020, Barbara Earl Thomas, American, cut paper and hand-printed color backing, 40 x 26 in., Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, photo: Spike Mafford.

Object of the Week: K’ómoks Imperial Stormtrooper

I would like to acknowledge that the museum sits on the Indigenous land of the Coast Salish People in and around the city of dᶻidᶻəlalič (renamed Seattle for Chief siʔaɫ).

My work is a response to the ways in which photography has been used as a mechanism of colonization. Decolonizing photography for the use of American Indians has to occur through the articulation of a Native representational subjectivity. In the place of colonizing representation, I want to produce images and sensory experiences that convey representation of, by, and for American Indians.

– Will Wilson

Since 2012, Will Wilson has put cultural sovereignty at the root of image-making events he calls the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange (CIPX). The thousands of images created over the course of this project now comprise the largest Indigenous created archive of images of Native peoples. These photo sessions—in which Wilson uses an old wet-plate technology to produce tintypes—are held in tribal communities and at urban institutions such as museums. Wilson’s CIPX event at the Seattle Art Museum, which took place in November 2017, centered on capturing the rich complexity of Native peoples living in the environs of Seattle, members of local reservation-based tribes, and “urban Indians” who came to Seattle from other places. Wilson invites anyone who wants to be photographed to present themselves however they want—wearing what they choose, holding objects that are important to them, and posing to their liking. As part of the exchange, he gives the tintype to the sitter while asking for permission to digitize the image for use in large-scale prints, like the work in SAM’s collection, K’ómoks Imperial Stormtrooper (Andy Everson). It is an amazing process to witness and reminds us that, for those who take authority over the processes of representation, methodologies and interpersonal exchanges matter.1

The sitter in this portrait is K’ómoks First Nation’s artist Andy Everson. His recent work draws from his two passions: Indigenous art and Star Wars. He transformed the stormtrooper into a positive figure by doing away with the uniform’s whiteness and covering it with formline designs. Everson wanted to change the stormtrooper from someone who blindly follows instructions from his higher-ups to someone who is able to take action for himself and for his own people. And so began this idea of the West Coast warrior, a defender of the land.2

Chilkat weavers were the inspiration for Everson when he created the Northern Warrior (2015), with its distinctive yellow, blue, white, and black colors. He also replaced the stormtrooper’s helmet with a traditional conical hat, made out of maple wood that his ancestors in Alaska would have worn.3 Many of his ancestors were warriors, and when their territory was threatened they did not hesitate to defend themselves. When they entered battle, they wore slatted armor suits and hard wooden helmets carved with their crest, proudly representing their ancestral lineage. The hat on this helmet displays the Kwakwaka’wakw crest of the sisiyutł—the double-headed serpent. This symbol of the warrior reminds us of the dichotomies in life—good and evil, right and wrong—and puts a human face in the middle to teach us that we must choose where we stand.4

Everson’s stormtroopers tell a story to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples about the importance of a warrior spirit. The works speak to the histories of Indigenous resistance and defiance in opposition to colonizing forces, and the importance of remaining steadfast in the face of adaptation and change.5 Like Wilson’s CIPX series, Everson’s stormtroopers draw people in with its familiar figure and invite people to engage with an art form, perhaps unfamiliar to some, that ultimately fosters a new kind of cultural exchange.

Speaking of stormtroopers, don’t miss the premiere of The Mandalorian season two on October 30. Will we find out Baby Yoda’s origin? Are there more of them? I hope so, and I hope you all have a safe and happy Halloween!

“I would like to see the baby.” – The Client, The Mandalorian

– Tina Lee, SAM Exhibitions and Publications Manager

Images: K’ómoks Imperial Stormtrooper (Andy Everson), Citizen of the K’ómoks First Nation, from the series Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange: dᶻidᶻəlalič, 2017, printed 2019, Will Wilson, archival pigment print
56 1/4 × 44 1/4 in., Ancient and Native American Art Acquisition Fund, 2019.26.2 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Northern Warrior, 2015, Andy Everson, edition 99, giclée, image source: andyeverson.com. Image courtesy of Pixabay.
[1] Brotherton, Barbara. “New Archives of Indigenous Self-Representation.” In Double Exposure: Edward S. Curtis, Marianne Nicolson, Tracy Rector, Will Wilson, 22–26. Seattle Art Museum, 2018.
[2] The Huffington Post B.C. “Andy Everson’s Stormtrooper Acts as Modern First Nations Warrior.” Accessed October 27, 2020, https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/07/24/andy-everson-stormtrooper-first-nations_n_5618449.html
[3] Baluja, Tamara. “Star Wars characters get Indigenized by Comox First Nation artist.” Accessed October 27, 2020.https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/star-wars-indigenized-andy-everson-1.4463320
[4] Everson, Andy. “Northern Warrior.” Artwork by Andy Everson. Accessed October 27, 2020. http://www.andyeverson.com/2014/northern_warrior.html
[5] Avdeeff, Melissa. “Andy Everson: Resistance and Defiance in Indigenous Digital Art.” Accessed October 27, 2020. http://mediacommons.org/imr/content/andy-everson-resistance-and-defiance-indigenous-digital-art

Sculpture Park Summers Are For Conservation

Perched on a hillside overlooking the watery expanse of Elliott Bay, the Olympic Sculpture Park is a welcoming, art-filled green space. Free and open to the public year-round, the park plays host to visitors in every season. Because of its exposed, marine location, the sculptures that live at the park are subject to deterioration from both environmental and human causes. We take good care of the sculptures, cleaning and tending them year-round, but with Seattle’s rainy winters, summer is the window in which conservation maintenance and treatments can be carried out. Despite the pandemic, this summer was no exception as without maintenance, deterioration both structural and aesthetic quickly compromises the sculptures and installations. 

If you visited the sculpture park this summer, you probably noticed the massive white tent covering Alexander Calder’s The Eagle. The distinctive red paint coating Calder’s soaring, swooping sculpture had deteriorated and needed repainting. Thanks to a generous grant from Bank of America, The Eagle received new primers and a new coat of red paint. It looks amazing! Due to a multi-year collaboration between art conservators, the artist’s estates, coatings scientists, industrial paint manufacturers and industrial painters and advances in polymer technology, the new coating will be more durable than the previous one while still maintaining the color, saturation and low gloss finish of the original paint.

Echo by Jaume Plensa sits near the shoreline and can be seen from some of the ferries that cross Elliott Bay. Made from marble dust and polyester resin over a steel framework, Echo’s off-white exterior becomes discolored throughout the year. Not only distracting from the beauty of the sculpture, this soiling, for which we can partially thank the feathered friend pictured above, speeds the deterioration of the artwork. To protect Echo, SAM conservators cleaned her and applied a sacrificial coating. As the sculpture is over 45 feet tall, this was no small feat!

Offering visitors an opportunity to pause and shelter from the sun or rain, Seattle Cloud Cover by Teresita Fernández is a series of laminated glass panels encasing abstract, color-saturated photographs. Attached to the bridge over the railroad tracks that cross under the park, its glass panels needed cleaning. Using long-handled brushes, dirt, dust and other debris were carefully cleaned from the top and pedestrian-facing panels. Additionally, caulk used in the brackets holding the glass panels was scraped out and replaced. Caulk shrinks and swells with changes in humidity and deteriorates due to age and weather exposure.

Mark Di Suvero’s Schubert Sonata, a ribbon of twisting steel that rotates on a single, carefully balanced point, is sited near the Olympic Sculpture Park shoreline. With its proximity to Puget Sound, chlorides (naturally occurring salts present in the air near bodies of water) are a concern. These chlorides cause aggressive, rapid corrosion of uncoated steel and other metals such as bronze. To address this issue, while maintaining the raw steel aesthetic of the artist, a corrosion inhibiting protectant was applied. Invisible to the eye, this coating will extend the sculpture’s lifespan.

These projects are just a sampling of the conservation treatments completed over the last few months. Other conservation treatments included cleaning and coating bronze sculptures and addressing loses in painted surfaces to prevent corrosion. In addition to these projects, members of the SAM conservation team are regularly onsite at the park to make sure that each sculpture is looking its best. Before the rainy, short days of our northwest winter drive us all indoors, get yourself to the Olympic Sculpture Park to enjoy the stunning artwork and expansive views.

– Rachel Harris, Asian Art Conservation Center Associate

Images: The Eagle, 1971, Alexander Calder, painted steel, 465 x 390 x 390 in., Gift of Jon and Mary Shirley, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2000.69 © Calder Foundation/Artist’s Rights Society, NY. Many thanks to Diamond Painting LLC for their work on the Eagle repainting project. Echo, 2011, Jaume Plensa, Spanish, Born 1955, Polyester resin, marble dust, steel framework, Height: 45 ft. 11 in., footprint at base: 10 ft. 8 in. x 7 ft. 1 in., gross weight: 13,118 lb, Gift of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2013.22 © Jaume Plensa. Seattle Cloud Cover, Design Approved 2004; Fabrication Completed 2006, Teresita Fernández, American, Born 1968, Laminated glass with photographic design interlayer, approx. 9 ft. 6 in. x 200 ft. x 6 ft. 3 in., Olympic Sculpture Park Art Acquisition Fund, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2006.140 © Teresita Fernández. Schubert Sonata, 1992, Mark Di Suvero, American, Born 1933, Painted and unpainted steel, Height: 22 ft., Gift of Jon and Mary Shirley, The Virginia Wright Fund, and Bagley Wright, 95.81. © Mark di Suvero.

Object of the Week: Amulet in Shape of A Human Figure

One way to get closer to a work of art is to begin to imagine the sounds that surrounded the artist as they created it. Two examples illustrating this are both amulets––objects charged with setting up a protective force field. The first is from ancient Egypt, among the oldest objects on the 4th floor galleries, and the other is one of the newest, which has been on view in the Jacob Lawrence Gallery on the 3rd floor since December of last year.

A carver living in Naqada long ago would reside on the west bank of the mighty Nile river. If he was an early riser, and close enough to the river, he would be likely to hear the most aggressive creature in his midst: the hippopotamus. Hippos let loose with a roar each morning at sunrise, and again at sunset.  When gathered in groups, hippos vocalize all day with loud exchanges that help alert humans to their presence. This behavior is helpful, since to startle or challenge a hippo is a dangerous mistake, as they harbor an unpredictable power to outrun a human in short distances, overturn boats, and open their mouths to reveal their ultimate weapon––enormous teeth. Hippo canines are up to one-and-a-half feet long, and the carver of this amulet took just a tiny sliver from one to create an image of a man less than 2 inches tall. In this amulet, the carver captures a man’s form in a compelling abstraction––he has a long triangular beard and piercing eyes, all the better to watch over the owner, placed in a burial to ensure the deceased had a safe, healthy, and productive afterlife.  

Aaron Fowler lets us know immediately what sounds were behind him when he composed his enormous sculpted amulet suspended with a rope. It has the same shape as the logo of Death Row Records, which Rap stars such as Tupac, Snoop Dogg, and Dr. Dre all wore to show allegiance to the record company. Here, Fowler embeds his friend Debo in their musical pantheon. On one side, Debo is depicted incarcerated and in prison clothes, sitting on a flattened armchair, while on the other side he appears free in a djelaba (hoodie) that Aaron designed for him. Fowler frames his friend with electronic lights and an iconic musical form to make Debo Free into a painful and protective tribute.  

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

Image: Amulet in shape of a human figure, ca. 5000-2920 BCE, Egyptian, bone, 1 3/4 x 3/4 x 1/4 in., Gift of Nasli M. Heeramaneck, 64.33.1. Installation view of Debo Free, 2019, Aaron Fowler, American, born 1988, in the exhibition Aaron Fowler: Into Existence, December 13, 2019- October 25, 2020, photo: Jueqian Fang.

SAM Receives Major Gifts from The Friday Foundation

Today, the Friday Foundation announced a critical infusion of over $9 million in philanthropist gifts to nine organizations in the Seattle arts community. The Seattle Times reported the good news.

The gifts are created to honor the lives and legacies of the late Jane Lang Davis and Richard E. Lang, who were inspired collectors and supporters of the arts. The Seattle Art Museum is among the recipients of the Friday Foundation’s generosity with two incredible gifts, one of which responds to the current moment, and the other which looks to the future of the museum and its collection.

In April, the Friday Foundation gifted SAM $2 million for its Closure Relief Fund, which was initiated in late March after the museum closed its three sites: the Seattle Art Museum, the Seattle Asian Art Museum, and the PACCAR Pavilion at the Olympic Sculpture Park. The downtown museum has since reopened with new safety protocols in place, including limited capacity and hours, but the Asian Art Museum and PACCAR Pavilion both remain closed.

The Closure Relief Fund has supported all museum operations, including its dedicated staff, during the six months of closure, when all earned revenue was lost, fundraising events were canceled, and memberships declined. The Friday Foundation gift was the single largest gift to that fund, and it arrived at a crucial moment as the museum faced the crisis directly. This remarkably generous gift joins the hundreds of others to the Closure Relief Fund from SAM’s board, members, and friends, all of which have ensured the vibrancy and security of the museum both during and after the closure.

The Friday Foundation is also gifting SAM $2 million to fund the Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Acquisition Fund for Global Contemporary Art. This exciting new fund will enable SAM to continue its focus on bringing work by emerging artists from all over the world into its collection, to share with the entire community and create dialogue with the over 25,000 objects in its global collection. You’ll be hearing more about this fund, and the art it will bring to Seattle, in the years to come.

Amada Cruz, SAM’s Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO, expressed her gratitude: “These gifts are a shining example of what community support for art and art institutions looks like, and it reflects and furthers the incredible legacy of the Langs. The acquisitions endowment is particularly meaningful, as it will help shape the future of SAM’s collection. We are extremely grateful for the generosity of the Friday Foundation.”

Object of the Week: Broken Arrangement

“I kind of got a bit of an illicit thrill out of cutting them up.”

– Brian Jungen

Though first launched in 1984, a new pair of Air Jordan 1 sneakers still regularly fetches a price tag of $150-250. This past summer, a rare pair of Air Jordan 1 High sneakers worn by Michael Jordan in 1985 sold at auction for $615,000, no doubt propped up by the popularity of the recent Jordan docuseries, The Last Dance, which premiered during nationwide stay-at-home recommendations. The shoes have held their status and notoriety in basketball and sneakerhead culture for decades, so how does their status change when a contemporary artist cuts them apart?

Brian Jungen’s (Dane-Zaa, Canadian) sculptures are rendered from dismantled Nike sneakers and echo the ovoid shapes and abstracted figures prominent in the traditional Indigenous cultural designs of Northwest Coast peoples. Jungen gained wide recognition for his series, Prototypes for New Understanding (1998-2005), which presented reassembled sneakers as Northwest Coast-inspired masks. However, Broken Arrangement (2015-16) presents an even more abstracted form, fluid in what might be perceived from each angle: an open mouth, a staring eye, or perhaps a raised tail.

While attempting to decipher the shapes, what becomes unmistakable is the ubiquitous Nike “swoosh” logo that appears throughout the disassembled and rearranged sneakers. Jungen’s appropriation of Nike’s iconic shoe comments simultaneously on the widespread commodification and cultural cooptation in contemporary society. Not lost on the artist is Nike’s stature as a corporate icon headquartered in the Pacific Northwest, as well as its influence on global consumer culture and problematic history of exploitative labor practices. Jungen’s reassembly of Nike products and iconography into works reflecting Northwest Coast design is an act that confronts the value placed on Indigenous cultures and artworks by Western society—indeed a broken arrangement in its own right.

Jungen has expanded his exploration of the connections between sport and global economic systems. In 2004, Jungen created the enormous installation Court, a full-length basketball court comprised satirically, and somewhat precariously, of sewing machine tables that evoke the scope and scale of sweatshop labor. More recently, Jungen has considered connections between the basketball court, community, and ritual. Just last year he installed new work against the backdrop of a basketball court during the exhibition Brian Jungen: Friendship Centre, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, not necessarily as critique, but as a “. . . site of, you know, incredible pain for people who you know weren’t involved or interested in sports. But it’s also a place for a lot of First Nations people that is a site of ceremony, especially for gatherings and dancing . . . So that’s kind of what how that started—and I wanted to create a space in a museum that seemed a bit more kind of welcoming, or a place that possibly a lot of youth could identify with.”[1]

As with all things, professional basketball looked different in 2020. In the past few weeks, fans watched as the Seattle Storm and Los Angeles Lakers won the 2020 WNBA and NBA championship titles, respectively. The teams and players slogged through a condensed summer of play in the “bubble” on three basketball courts at Disney properties in Orlando, Florida. Daily COVID-19 tests, wristband tracking devices, no fans, and limited contact with family members resulted in zero positive cases during the season. Remarkably, it worked. That’s not to say the season, both in basketball and in America, was without struggle and anger directed at racial injustice and police violence across the country.[2] Players boycotted, made actionable demands of league management and government officials, and used their international platforms to call attention to crises happening in communities across the country. The NBA is a multibillion-dollar global industry, yet the players challenged each other to reconfigure the bubble and their sport’s stature within popular culture to deliver a powerful message for people watching amidst a global pandemic and social upheaval.

As Jungen articulates, “sport fulfills the very basic human need for ceremony, and that used to take place in many different cultures on a much smaller scale, very locally. Now I think that takes place with mass media and professional sports for a lot of people.”[3] Broken Arrangement is about much more than basketball and sneakers, of course. Jungen’s sculpture challenges knowledge and perceptions of Indigenous art and artistry through popular culture’s reverence for mass produced objects. Ripped apart and transformed into an entirely new object, the source material is simultaneously familiar and difficult to decipher in its final form. We’re trying to make sense of a lot of broken things right now, and one can only hope that they will become as beautiful and meaningful as Jungen’s arrangement.

– Philip Nadasdy, SAM Associate Director of Public Engagement

[1]  CBC Radio, As It Happens, “How this B.C. artist uses sliced up Air Jordans to connect with his Indigenous roots,” June 19, 2019, www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-wednesday-edition-1.5181432/how-this-b-c-artist-uses-sliced-up-air-jordans-to-connect-with-his-indigenous-roots-1.5181452.
[2] Sean Ingle, “NBA will return but anger still burns after historic stand on racial injustice,” The Guardian, August 27, 2020, www.theguardian.com/sport/2020/aug/27/nba-takes-historic-stand-on-racial-injustice-milwaukee-bucks-jacob-blake-shooting.
[3] Donnovan Bennett, “Q&A: The intersection of sports and art from an Indigenous perspective,” Sportsnet, October 10, 2019, www.sportsnet.ca/basketball/nba/qa-intersection-sports-art-indigenous-perspective.
Images: Broken Arrangement, 2015-16, Brian Jungen, Nike Air Jordans, painted fir plywood, stainless steel, 20 x 14 x 21 1/2 in., Margaret Fuller Purchase Endowment, 2016.4 © Brian Jungen. Court, 2004, Brian Jungen, sewing tables, painted steel, paint, basketball hoops and backboards, National Gallery of Canada. Friendship Centre (detail), Brian Jungen, June 20 – August 25, 2019, Art Gallery of Ontario.

Object of the Week: Mercedes Benz Coffin

In the 1970s, carpenter and carver Kane Quaye’s grandmother passed away. It was her lifelong, unfulfilled dream to travel on an airplane. In tribute, Quaye built her a coffin shaped as plane. She was laid to rest inside its upholstered interior, paraded to her grave and buried in her homeland. Quaye has since gained international acclaim for his coffins which are also popularly known as abebuu adekai or “proverb boxes”. The coffins celebrate the achievements, status and identity of the deceased. His legacy continues today at his workshop in Ghana, currently run by Quaye’s grandson, Eric Adjetey Anang.

As Quaye’s work gained renown throughout the art world, his creations were built for two very different purposes: as coffins for burial or as art objects for display. Gallerist Bill Wright commissioned the Mercedes Benz Coffin in 1991.[1] It is a nine-foot wooden sculpture carved to resemble a white luxury car now displayed under a Plexiglas box in SAM’s galleries. Placing this coffin in a museum raises questions about how art can help people process loss.

When in the galleries, I ask students to look closely as they walk around this intriguing sculpture. What are we looking at? What is happening in this object? Students comment on the scale of the car, the non-functioning wooden wheels, the curtains covering the windows, and the crack in the surface where the lid separates from the base. Eventually someone reads the license plate and realizes this object is a coffin (and eventually one wide-eyed student asks if there is anything inside it). We share the story of the artist’s process and ask students what object they would select to symbolize their own lives. Teaching from Mercedes Benz Coffin, I often find myself talking about concepts that are difficult to navigate, just as the last several months have made many hard truths newly visible.

In my research to write this post, I found a list of custom coffins that were created in Quaye’s workshop. It reads like a poem:
Sardine for a fisherman
Lion for a hunter
Parrot for a university lecturer

Chicken with chicks nestled beneath wings for a business woman, mother and grandmother

In this workshop list, I see an echo to the names the New York Times published to memorialize 100,000 lives lost in the United States to COVID-19:
Liked his bacon and hash browns crispy. Fred Walter Gray, 75, Bentonville AK
Immigrated to the United States three years ago. Jessica Beatriz Cortez, 32, Los Angeles
Could make anything grow. George Freeman Winfield, 72, Shelburne. VT

I am also reminded of the signs seen at protests across the United States calling out the names of the many recent victims of police violence against Black people.

We are living in a season of immense loss. When we look back, what  symbols will be selected to memorialize this time and the lives within it? An N-95 mask, a Black Lives Matter protest sign, a desk used for remote learning, a loaf of homemade bread? Museums and community collectives have already begun to gather and archive such objects. It’s curious to think how this current reality will appear mirrored back to us on display behind glass. How much of this time and ourselves will we see reflected? How can we symbolize the lives lost and the spirit that continues?

Regan Pro, SAM Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Engagement

Images: Mercedes Benz coffin, 1991, Kane Quaye, wood, paint, 25 x 35 x 101 in., Gift of Dr. Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb and Mark Groudine and Cynthia Putnam in honor of Pam McClusky, 93.163 © Kane Quaye. Photo: Nathaniel Wilson. Paa Joe’s Coffin Workshop, Ghana, 2005. Photo: Alida Latham. A sign at a Black Lives Matter protest, Lake Worth, Florida, 2020.
[1] More information on Mercedes Benz Coffin: http://art.seattleartmuseum.org/objects/10007/mercedes-benz-coffin?ctx=d888c9af-d373-4fb3-a318-37fae579d652&idx=26

Keeping the Art Safe at the Asian Art Museum

While SAM’s Asian Art Museum is closed, exhibits are still on display, waiting for the day that visitors can safely return to the building. A handful of staff are onsite, ensuring the safety and well-being of the art entrusted to SAM’s care. Sincere and tremendous thanks to Security, Environmental Services, and Facilities, who are in the building daily keeping a close eye on the art.

Throughout much of the closure, the Conservation team worked primarily from home and visited the Asian Art Museum only as needed. Environmental monitoring continued with the help of onsite Security and Facilities staff, who updated conservators to any changes in temperature or humidity. This information is recorded to create a record of the gallery environment over time. Because dust and debris can damage the surface of paintings and other artworks, the Conservation team also monitored, measured and recorded dust levels. Insects were a concern as they sometimes have a taste for paint, wood, fiber and other materials. Fortunately, both dust and insects have been at a minimum throughout the closure.

Some artworks required special interventions to protect their stability and longevity. Textiles were covered with light-weight tissue paper to protect from dust. In some galleries, movable walls were used to shield objects from light. The image above shows textiles at the Asian Art Museum as Chief Conservator Nick Dorman prepared tissue paper and moveable walls to protect the display. Light sensitive works, such as works on paper and paintings, were completely covered with black cloths to minimize light exposure. This type of preventive care can help minimize the need for more costly and invasive conservation procedures.

With careful planning to ensure the minimum number of necessary staff onsite and new work habits, the Conservation team has resumed paused projects. One major project that has been underway for several years and is now almost complete is the redesign of art storage at the Asian Art Museum. The new configuration provides more room, an improved layout, and better climate control. The racks seen on the left side of the image will be used to hang paintings and the cabinets to the right will be used to store scrolls.

Looking ahead, Conservation has resumed planning for upcoming exhibitions and art rotations. Fragile, light sensitive artworks, such as hanging scrolls, are usually displayed for only three months before being replaced with another, similar artwork. The Conservation team has been checking the condition of scrolls scheduled for upcoming rotations at the Asian Art Museum to ensure that they can be safely displayed. Every inch of the scroll is carefully examined, and any condition issues (flaking paint, discolorations, fading) are recorded. After it is taken down, the scroll is reexamined to make sure its condition is the same as before exhibition.

The Asian Art Museum continues to be closed until further notice and monitoring of the works is ongoing. Meanwhile, the Seattle Art Museum has reopened and the Conservation team is hard at work preparing for City of Tomorrow: Jinny Wright and the Art That Shaped A New Seattle. Evaluating modern and contemporary paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs for safe display, performing minor conservation treatments and reframing art as needed are all important steps in readying the Wright Collection for exhibition. We can’t wait to share this new exhibition with you.

– Rachel Harris, Asian Art Conservation Center Associate

Images: Writings in Seal Script, 2011, Yao Guojin, Chinese, ink on paper, 23 1/2″ x 10,’ Gift of Frank S. Bayley III and Cheney Cowles, 2012.10.3. Photos: Nicholas Dorman. Photo: Marta Pinto-Llorca.

Object of the Week: Between Rabbit and Fox

Acquired last year and newly installed in SAM’s third floor galleries, Jeffrey Gibson’s 2017 painting Between Rabbit and Fox is a commanding and alluring work. Measuring 70 x 50 1/8 inches, the painting’s luminous acrylic and graphite surface, with its alternating and overlapping blocks and triangles of color, captivates from even across the gallery.

A citizen of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and also of Cherokee heritage, Gibson grew up between the United States, Germany, and Korea. Much like his personal background, which evades easy categorization, Gibson’s artistic practice engages a wide range of materials, ideas, and forms. He has characterized his mode of making in the context of anthropophagia, borrowing from Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954), whose concept centers on the idea of metaphorically cannibalizing, or absorbing, other cultures as a way to gain strength and assert creative autonomy.[1]

Abstraction is inextricable from the long and unique histories of Indigenous visual and material culture in America. Gibson, deeply invested in these histories, also forges his own connections to Modernist geometric abstraction. Whether he blends the hard edge abstraction we see in parfleche designs with the abstraction of Modernist painting, or reimagines traditional beadwork for entirely new applications, Gibson is able to succinctly explore complex themes of cultural hybridity and the history of abstraction and craft.

Gibson has, over time, learned to embrace and celebrate a certain state of “in-between-ness”—being between different cultures and different aesthetic histories.[2] And as the title of the painting Between Rabbit and Fox suggests, even the pattern we see is in-between. Like a highly abstracted Rorschach test or Magic Eye stereogram, our eye flits about the surface of the canvas, seeing both a stylized rabbit and fox flash before our eyes. This state of indeterminacy—of being in flux—is important for Gibson, and it’s important for us, as viewers, to experience and embody this hybridity (if even for a moment) as well.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

[1] “Innovation and Tradition: Jeffrey Gibson Interviewed by Emily Zimmerman,” Bomb Magazine, May 6, 2019, https://bombmagazine.org/articles/innovation-and-tradition-jeffrey-gibson-interviewed.
[2] Jasmyne Keimig, “Jeffrey Gibson’s Like a Hammer Strikes Today,” The Stranger, Feb. 28, 2019, https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2019/02/28/39366995/jeffrey-gibsons-like-a-hammer-strikes-today.
Image: Between Rabbit and Fox, 2017, Jeffrey Gibson, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 70 x 50 1/8 in., Purchased with funds from the Contemporary Collectors Forum and General Acquisition Fund, 2019.30 © Artist or Artist’s Estate