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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. 

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