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SAM Creates: Inventions for Empathy

Look & Make Activities are designed as grade-specific lesson plans for remote learning. Find more information and artworks to inspire creative learning through these activities available for download on our website in English, Spanish, and Chinese.

This artwork is an installation created by the contemporary artist Saya Woolfalk. If you were to visit this work at the Seattle Art Museum, you could walk into this space and move, meditate, or just observe. Rhythmic music plays and a video of rotating leaves, eyes, hands, and patterns projects onto the wall and floor. The colors are mostly blues, greens, and purples. This  artwork is surrounded by a blend of cultures, symbols, ideas, experiences, and life forms and shows us what a better future for all living creatures might look and feel like. Hear from the artist in the video below as she discusses this installation when it was first exhibited as part of Disguise: Masks & Global African Art.

Woolfalk created this work to help fix a real world-wide issue: lack of empathy. Empathy is understanding how someone else is feeling because you have been in a similar situation or felt that way before. If you have ever felt sad because your friend was sad or excited because your friend was excited about something, you have felt empathy! You can show empathy for someone by thinking about their perspective. In this space, the three figures are called Empathics. The Empathics are imaginary alien beings that were transformed by fusing their cells with cells of animals and plants. The Empathics believe that the world would be a better place if more people were able to develop empathy for each other. It is their job to help guide this process.

LOOKING QUESTIONS

  • What’s going on in this artwork? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can you find?
  • If you were to put yourself in this work of art, where would you go? How would you want to move around? 
  • What do you think it would feel like to be there? What do you see that makes you feel that way?

ART ACTIVITY

Design and create a prototype for an invention that will help the Empathics spread empathy in the world. A prototype is a simple model that helps you test out your idea.

What You’ll Need

  • Paper
  • Pencil
  • Eraser
  • Cardboard
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • Optional: markers, aluminum foil, wire, string, other available materials
  • If you prefer to draw in a computer program, you can design your invention on the PBS Kids Design Squad website.
  • Check out this video for tips on different ways to use cardboard.
  1. You have been chosen by the Empathics to create an invention that will help people have more empathy for others. They want this invention to be something that people can carry with them—either in their hand or on their body. Write down your task on a piece of paper!
  1. Imagine: Write about and/or draw at least 3 possible inventions. Circle your favorite one.
  1. Plan: Create a detailed drawing of your favorite invention. Give it a title, label each part of your invention, and write notes about how it will help spread empathy.
  1. Create: Use cardboard, scissors, and tape to create a prototype of your invention. Create this prototype to-scale, or the same size that you want your invention to be.
  1. (Optional) Add decorations or designs to your prototype. You can even add sound if you want! Think about all of the visual and sound elements that Saya Woolfak uses in her artwork to spread the message of empathy.
  1. When you’re done, share your prototype with a friend, family member, or teacher. Describe your task and tell them how your invention works. What do they particularly like about your invention? Do they have any ideas on how to make it even better?
  1. You can refine your idea and create new versions of your invention to share with people you know. What do they think about when they use your invention? Does it change how they think about other people?

KEEP LEARNING WITH A STORY

Read a classic book about empathy in a new form by borrowing the e-book graphic novel adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle (original story) and Hope Larson (graphic novel adaptation) from King County or Seattle Public Library. Or listen to the audio book version of Shuri: A Black Panther Novel #1, by Nic Stone and be inspired by Shuro as she uses her science and technology skills to create a better future for her homeland of Wakanda.

CHIMATEK: VIRTUAL CHIMERIC SPACE (Installation View), 2015–16, Saya Woolfalk, American, born 1979. Multi-media installation, 15 x 25 x 5 ft. Projection: 3:59 minutes, Purchased with funds from Josef Vascovitz and Lisa Goodman, Alida and Christopher Latham, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund, 2017.16 Provenance: The artist; [Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects]; acquired March 15, 2017. Photo: Nathaniel Willson.

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.

Object of the Week: Chukwu Okoro Masks

“This is one of the best places I’ve seen masks installed because normally they would hang it on the wall. But doing it this way, with the costumes and everything, also gives it character because these masks were not really meant to be hanging on the wall like that.” – Emeka Ogboh

Remember when Disguise: Masks and Global African Art was on view in 2015? We’re bringing you a flashback to Nigerian sound artist Emeka Ogboh discussing masks by Chukwu Okoro in SAM’s collection, why he chose them as one of his favorite things in the museum, and their significance in regards to the soundscapes he created for Disguise. Currently, these masks can be viewed in our African art galleries as part of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy where three Empathics have surrounded themselves with works from our African art collection as a way to help visitors awaken their own empathy. The Empathics display their trademarked process for transformation and ask you to consider the other artwork around you. Come see what we mean.

Image: Installation view Chukwu Okoro Masks at Seattle Art Museum, 2016, photo: Natali Wiseman.