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Object of the Week: The Lost Boys

Artist Andy Warhol said, “Everybody has their own America, and then they have the pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there, but they can’t see…” Before getting started, it’s important to acknowledge the America that I live in: I am a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied woman who was born in the northeast United States during the 1980s. I am looking at a work of art created by Kerry James Marshall: a Black, cis-gendered, able-bodied man who was born in the segregated South during the 1950s. Both Marshall and I are artists and educators, but sadly I don’t have a MacArthur Genius Award or paintings in any major museums. I’ll be approaching this work of art using my own lens and the same facilitation strategy I use for my (now virtual) tours of SAM’s collection: Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS).[1] VTS is used to spark dialogue and empower people to approach a work of art using their own observations and experiences, asking three simple questions. I encourage you to follow along and ask yourself these questions, noticing where our backgrounds may overlap or differ.

The first question of VTS is, “What’s going on in this picture?” This is a portrait of a young boy––his skin is a rich, dark black matte, and his features are defined by white outlines. He has heavy-lidded, almost tired eyes and his mouth is neutral, conveying an expression that is difficult to read. Radiating outward from his head are straight thin lines, evocative of a halo. The background is divided horizontally: the bottom third is a golden color, almost a desert landscape; the top is a deep blue overlaid with white shapes, bringing to mind a sky with clouds, though closer inspection reveals that the organic shapes are actually white roses. The paint looks to be hastily applied, as evidenced by the drip down the forehead of the young man. The drip, although white, mimics blood, similar to depictions of Christ or another martyr and links this to religious iconography.

The next question, “What do you see that makes you say that?” challenges our assumptions and biases. As we conclude Black History Month after a year of increased visibility in mainstream media of the racial inequities for Black Americans, I’ve seen myself get caught up in the imagery of Black trauma, recounting video and photos of the brutal murders of Brianna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Aubrey. I start to wonder if calling this Black figure a martyr is Marshall’s intention, or my own prejudice? Marshall’s own words confirm that I need to dig deeper: “I paint things I care about. It would have been easy to represent these places (and situations) as zones of hopelessness and despair, but I know they’re more complex than that.” 

As I read the label, the curatorial voice chimes in and indicates that Marshall is memorializing Black boys who have lost their lives, stating that the leading cause of death for young, Black men is homicide. In fact, when comparing statistics among racial groups, Black youth (0-18 years old) are seven times more likely to die by homicide than white youth.[2] As an educator, I also can’t help but think about the school-to-prison pipeline and the fact that Black students are three and half times more likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled, and that Black youth disproportionately make up those youth incarcerated in juvenile detention centers.[3]

The final question is, “What more can we find?” The language here is intentional—creating meaning is a generative process. This is where, if I were actually speaking to people, I would hear different perspectives and my understanding of a work would evolve. However, when at home, I take this question as an invitation to start researching. After procrastinating on this blog post, watching hours of interviews with Marshall, I was especially struck by one quote by the artist: “If you’re constantly being reminded of the ways in which your history and your narrative as a people were rooted in loss and decay, then you’re in deep trouble. Once you make a certain kind of peace with the past, then you should be completely oriented towards speculation about the future.”[4]

I challenge my initial response to this work. I start to see glimmers of hope in the white roses— symbols of youth, innocence, and new beginnings. I begin to unpack the ways that this painting may embody Afrofuturism, the cultural movement that explores the intersection of the African diaspora with technology, science, and liberation. A few Google searches quickly link the Eurocentric religious iconography that I saw in my art history classes to contemporary icons such as Solange Knowles’s appearance on SNL

In asking, “What more can we find?” we open ourselves up to dialogue and start to imagine a different world, a different America––maybe one that’s fantasy, or maybe one that could be our reality? Marshall’s work gives me hope and I’m reminded of the contemporary author and educator bell hooks’s words, The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is––it’s to imagine what is possible.”

– Kelsey Donahue, SAM Assistant Manager for Gallery Learning

[1] “Visual Thinking Strategies,” www.vtshome.org
[2] “Health Equity: Leading Causes of Death – Males – United States, 2017,” Center for Disease Control, www.cdc.gov/healthequity/lcod/men/2017/index.html
[3] “Our Demands,” Black Lives Matter, Seattle, blacklivesseattle.org/our-demands.
[4] “Kerry James Marshall,” Art21, art21.org/artist/kerry-james-marshall.
Image: The Lost Boys (A.K.A. Untitled), 1993, Kerry James Marshall, collage of acrylic on paper, 28 x 30 in., Gift of the Collectors’ Forum, 97.32 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Muse/News: SAM Prepares to Reopen, Local Jazz Struggles, and New Museum’s New Show

SAM News

The downtown Seattle Art Museum reopens to the general public on March 5, just in time for the opening of the special exhibition, Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle. The Seattle Medium shares the news

Crosscut’s Margo Vansynghel previews five shows to see now that museums are reopening, including Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence, the beloved artist’s first solo exhibition at SAM. And in her ArtSea weekly newsletter, Brangien Davis spotlights The American Struggle and Lawrence’s “fiery, vigorous and engrossing paintings.”

More SAM stories: Alison Sutcliffe of Red Tricycle shares “13 Places to Learn About Black History in Seattle,” including SAM; Interior Design Magazine posts about Barbara Earl Thomas’s show at SAM; and Gemma Alexander of the Seattle Times highlights “kid-friendly venues” reopening, including SAM (and the always-open outdoor spaces of the Olympic Sculpture Park). 

Remember the snow days? (All two of ‘em?) The Stranger’s Charles Mudede had the wonderful idea to spend it with John Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History, which is streaming on the Criterson Channel as part of its Afrofuturism collection.

ICYMI: On February 11, SAM hosted a virtual event with artist Saya Woolfalk and SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art Pam McClusky on the SAM installation Lessons from the Institute of Empathy. Victor Simoes of UW’s The Daily shares a recap of the conversation.

Local News

The executive director of the nonprofit writers organization Hugo House has resigned, reports the Seattle Times, amid calls for change and racial equity. 

“Tariqa Waters and Anthony White Win the 2020 Neddy Awards,” reports Jasmyne Keimig of the Stranger. You’ll be able to see their work, along with the runners-up, in a Neddy exhibition opening in March at the University of Washington’s Jacob Lawrence Gallery.

Glenn Nelson with an opinion piece for the South Seattle Emerald on “why local jazz must survive.”

“The pandemic has laid bare and amplified the issues that have eaten away at jazz far before the novel coronavirus’ first sour note. Those challenges include a daunting and shifting economic model, widespread lack of understanding among Americans about one of their few truly indigenous art forms, and underlying causes steeped, unsurprisingly, in race.”

Inter/National News

The New York Times reports that the president of Newfields, home to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, has resigned, after the organization posted a job posting for a new director that would  attract a more diverse audience while maintaining its “traditional, core, white art audience.”

Artsy interviews Bryan Stevenson about the Equal Justice Initiative and its National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery.

Artnet’s Brian Boucher on the New Museum’s new exhibition, Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, one of the final projects of curator Okwui Enwezor. A high-profile group of artists, curators, and scholars came together to achieve his vision.

“‘Okwui’s framing of the project takes the idea of a political crime and transfers it to the register of psychological impact,’ said curator Naomi Beckwith, who worked on the show, in a Zoom conversation with Artnet News. ‘The show’s title alludes not to a historic event, but rather to a state of being.’”

And Finally

“With Tears in my Eyes, I’m Asking You to Act.”

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Image: . . . is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? —Patrick Henry, 1775, Panel 1, 1955, Jacob Lawrence, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56, Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross, ©️ 2019 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Muse/News: A Prize for Lauren Halsey, Sites of Power, and Prince in The Rain

SAM News

The downtown Seattle Art Museum will reopen to the public on March 5, just in time for the special exhibition, Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle. And there’s something else to look forward to: Last week, SAM announced that Lauren Halsey is the recipient of the 2021 Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Prize, which is awarded biannually to an early career Black artist. She’ll have a solo exhibition at SAM in winter 2021. ARTNews, Culture Type, Artdaily, Hyperallergic, Seattle Medium, The Stranger, and The Skanner all shared the news.

Local News

In honor of Black History Month, Charles Mudede and Jasmyne Keimig of the Stranger present “five extraordinary films directed by five extraordinary Black directors” they’ve virtually discussed as part of the Stranger’s Film Club over the past three months. Catch up!

“Funny, anxious, angry, discursive”: Stefan Milne of Seattle Met gets a sneak peek at (Don’t Be Absurd) Alice in Parts, poet Anastacia-Reneé’s new exhibition opening at the Frye Art Museum on February 11.

Margo Vansynghel of Crosscut interviews Natasha Marin about her new virtual exhibition, Sites of Power; part of her ongoing Black Imagination series, it features audio and video testimonies from Black creatives.

“For Black people, these are really unique and special moments because so many of our intersectional identities are sort of subsumed by our phenotypic Blackness,” Marin says. “People don’t want to see us as being possibly more than one thing at once — of both and and— happening all at the same time.”

Inter/National News

Artnet asks a slew of experts to name 12 artists “poised to take off” in 2021. On the list? Lauren Halsey, the LA-based artist just named the winner of SAM’s Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Prize.

ARTnews on Sam Pollard’s new documentary Black Art: In the Absence of Light, which devotes running time to exploring the legacy of artist David Driskell, who curated the landmark 1976 LACMA exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art.

Julia Jacobs of the New York Times takes a look at the different approaches museums across the country have taken to the pandemic.

“Navigating the pandemic and shifting government responses has not been easy for museums. Some spent tens of thousands of dollars to try to make sure they could reopen safely in the fall for an art-starved public — only to be ordered to close again several weeks later as the outbreak worsened.”

And Finally

“He wants to know if you can make it rain harder”: The oral history of the best Super Bowl halftime show ever.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Image: land of the sunshine wherever we go, 2020, Lauren Halsey, mixed media on foil-insulated foam and wood, 97 x 52 x 49 inches. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo: Allen Chen.

Object of the Week: Uncle Thomas

Despite becoming interested in art relatively late in life, Titus Kaphar quickly built an impressive career by blurring the line between art and activism. Through his use of paint, tar, sculpting, and a wide range of other techniques, Kaphar uses his work to recontextualize and reimagine the way we look at history. This includes literal instances of altering history by crumpling, shredding, and reforming well-known images.

With his 2008 painting Uncle Thomas, Kaphar uses his gift for portraiture to shift an age-old archetype. The term “Uncle Tom,” named after the lead character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, has long been used to promote a picture of blackness that centers on obedience and servitude. In this work from SAM’s collection, Kaphar takes inspiration from his real-life uncle Thomas to display his updated perception of the name. By placing his uncle—a well-respected, land-owning black man—at the center of Uncle Thomas, Kaphar exchanges an image of servitude and oppression for one of strength, dignity, and authority. During Black History Month especially, Kaphar’s art represents an important example of empowerment and support within one’s own community.

This work is less experimental than other pieces Kaphar has created in more recent years, but its bold confrontation of history is representative of the artist’s larger body of work. Kaphar’s willingness to challenge complicated historical narratives directly through images has driven him to work with Time magazine and receive several accolades, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 2018. Through his unique approach, Kaphar is altering the way many view our nation’s past while shining a light on the unheard voices and forgotten faces of history.

Michael Miller, SAM Communications Intern

Image: Uncle Thomas, 2008, Titus Kaphar, tar on paper, 48 x 36 in., Contemporary Art Support Fund, 2009.31 © Titus Kaphar

Object of the Week: I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle

In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated Black artists in SAM’s collection throughout the month of February.

Kara Walker’s particular mode of engaging with our attention spans—her visual and conceptual provocations—have often caused furor, first from the generation above her, now not infrequently from the generation below. For when it comes to the ruins of history, Walker neither simply represents nor reclaims. Instead she eroticizes, aestheticizes, fetishizes, and dramatizes.

Zadie Smith, What Do We Want History to Do to Us?, The New York Review of Books, February 2020

With a prolific and controversial career spanning decades, Kara Walker is perhaps best known for her use of cut-paper installations that give visual form to the histories of racism, violence, and subjugation in the antebellum South. Walker’s unsettling images mine eighteenth- and nineteenth-century stereotypes and ideologies and consider the legacies of slavery today.

This lithographic print in SAM’s collection, I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle, is a relatively modest work compared to larger installations and sculptures since realized by Walker. However, the print is an early work, dating to 1995-96—one year after receiving her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and two years before receiving the MacArthur “Genius” award at just 27 years old. Walker has since gone on to produce major sculptural works, such as Fons Americanus (2019-20) in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, and A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014) sited in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory. 

In this graphic work, a woman holds a dripping rope or do-rag[1] before a monkey—a recurring figure in Walker’s work and, together with the title, often read as an allusion to the scientific racism used to justify the enslavement of African women, men, and children. Regarding her use of the silhouette figure, Walker explains:

The silhouette technique announced itself to me as I was researching the cultural identity of early America. In many ways as a form it succeeded in being both a minimal reduction and a means to cover a lot of territory. With the technique one is talking both about the shadow as a form by making a paper cut, but also shadow as the subconscious in psychology. I surprised myself, actually, when I began working [by] how well it…seemed to exemplify the experience of women and blacks as second class citizens. This was a craft form that was (and is) everywhere, but rarely attains a high status. Silhouette cutting, for me, was my rebellion against high art and painting, and to me a way of undermining the patriarchal tendency in Western art.[2]

Producing work that has received praise and criticism in equal parts, Walker is a provocative and challenging contemporary figure who offers a challenging portrait of American history. Probing the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and power, Walker intends to make work where, as she describes, “viewer[s]…get pulled into history, into fiction, into something totally demeaning and possibly very beautiful.”[3]

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate


[1] Julia Szabo, “Kara Walker’s Shock Art,” The New York Times, March 23, 1997, https://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/23/magazine/kara-walker-s-shock-art.html
[2] Kara Walker, “Art Talk with Kara Walker,” interview by Paulette Beete, National Endowment for the Arts, February 1, 2012, https://www.arts.gov/art-works/2012/art-talk-kara-walker
[3] “Kara Walker,” ArtNet, accessed February 12, 2020, http://www.artnet.com/artists/kara-walker/
I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle, 1995-96, Kara Walker, lithograph, 39 1/2 x 35 in., Print Acquisition Fund and gift of P. Raaze Garrison, 99.61 1995-96 © Kara Walker