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SAM Book Club: Afrofuturism & Octavia Butler

This is the fourth of five reflections on Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, SAM’s Book Club selection. SAM Staff is reading and thinking about some of the themes in John Akomfrah: Future History, which we hope you will be able to come see on view through September 7 once the museum can reopen. Our final book club reflection will be shared here on the blog June 16. Our colleagues at the Northwest African American Museum are reading Parable of the Sower for their June Book Club and SAM has decided to cancel our Zoom Book Club discussion, previously taking place June 16, to join NAAM’s live discussion on June 26. Join us by registering here! Please read along and share your thoughts with us while you stay home with SAM!

“Back when Ronald Regan had just become president, people were talking about winnable nuclear wars. And I thought, ‘If people were falling for this kind of thing, there must be something basically wrong with the human species.’ So . . . . I had [my alien characters] arrive right after a nuclear war so that I could make my point and I had them tell my [main] character that human beings had two characteristics that didn’t work well together. One, they were intelligent, and that was good, no problem. And two, they were hierarchical. And unfortunately, the hierarchical tendencies were older and so sometimes the intelligence was put at the service of the hierarchical behavior.”

– Octavia Butler interviewed in The Last Angel of History

Octavia Butler is talking about her Xenogenesis series, also known as Lilith’s Brood, in the above quote from John Akomfrah’s 1996 video essay The Last Angel of History on view in John Akomfrah: Future History. Compared to the Xenogenesis trilogy, the Parable series delivers a more subtle version of sci-fi and Afrofuturism, presenting Earth in the not too distant future suffering from more extreme versions of our current issues.

Octavia Butler

In the third quarter of the book, Parable of the Sower finds Lauren Olamina, Harry Balter, and Zahra Moss continuing north, the unlikely companions brought together by the destruction of their neighborhood. As they walk, they slowly begin to absorb new travelers into their party. Lauren has realized that she should not only be watchful for threats on the freeway, but also for potential allies. The situation on the road gets more precarious after an earthquake. Scavengers are quick to descend on vulnerable communities in the aftermath. After the group rescues two girls from a collapsed house, a new member of the party, Bankole, observes, “I was surprised to see that anyone else cared what happened to a couple of strangers.” Though there is risk in inviting new people into Earthseed, the group is now as strong as ever, and there is a larger audience for Lauren’s teachings.

Octavia Butler’s work helped to shape the burgeoning genre of Afrofuturism, where the culture of the African diaspora merges with futuristic technology and settings. John Akomfrah’s video essay The Last Angel of History features conversations that elaborate on this theme.

In Akomfrah’s film, author Greg Tate says that he has “always contended that the Black existence and science fiction are one and the same.” The poet Ishmael Reed credits Tate with first drawing the parallels between the Black experience and science fiction, saying “[…] all those things that you read about alien abduction and genetic transformation, they already happened. How much more alien do you think it gets than slavery, than entire mass populations moved and genetically altered, forcibly dematerialized?”

Themes of outer space and of being alien are hallmarks of Afrofuturism. Butler’s protagonist Lauren tells us that “The destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.” By settling the community on another planet, Earthseed would gain freedom from its current earthly threats, allowing the movement to grow and hopefully thrive.

All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you.”What changes us, we change in return. The dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism threaten to overwhelm us, too big for any individual to confront. Our best hope for salvation is through collective action. With each new person that joins Earthseed, Lauren lets us know that they are now stronger than they were before. More bodies, more voices, more strength. With actions big and small, we can take agency over the communities we live in and help shape what comes next. Afrofuturism is not simply an escape into the fantastical, rather it often recognizes a cruel reality, then offers a symbol of hope, of imagining and shaping a better future.

– Ilona Davis, SAM Individual Giving Manager

Photo: Jonathan Vanderweit. Photo: Patti Perret.

SAM Book Club: Octavia Butler’s Brand of Sci-Fi

SAM’s staff is reading and responding to Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler as a way to continue considering some of the themes in our currently closed exhibition, John Akomfrah: Future History, on view through September 7. Upcoming book club reflections will be shared here on the blog June 3 and June 16. Our colleagues at the Northwest African American Museum are reading Parable of the Sower for their June Book Club and SAM has decided to cancel our Zoom Book Club discussion, previously taking place June 16, to join NAAM’s live discussion on June 26. Register here and join us! Please read along and share your thoughts with us while you stay home with SAM!

SAM Book Club is now halfway through reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. As a first time reader of Butler and as a writer, I am in awe of her elegant craft with narrative structure. About three years have gone by since the beginning of the novel and protagonist Lauren Olmina has left the false security of her walled-in neighborhood to journey north.

Lauren has grown up over the chapters and decided she must leave her neighborhood in order to help Earthseed flourish. However, the circumstances that lead to her departure are brutal rather than voluntary. In fact, much of the novel is brutal, though never gratuitous. I would describe Butler’s approach to a violent reality as unflinching. This is because the narrator of Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina, is herself unflinching.

What I find so skillful in Butler’s writing is how this book is at once a novel and a holy text. Right around the middle of the book we begin to see how Lauren’s writing, the book we are reading becomes the word of Earthseed. Consider how many religious texts are the parables of that religion’s prophet—how the prophet’s life contains the revelations and tenants of the religion. As we read, we begin to realize that Butler did not write a novel, she wrote Earthseed. And as I read, I find myself being converted.

I recently stumbled upon this video from our neighbors at Museum of Pop Culture where Butler discusses her approach to science fiction narrative. Hear from the author herself!

So what is Earthseed? Earthseed is a belief in change as god, or the most powerful constant in the universe. Now that we have reached the middle of the book, Lauren Olamina has just shared the first page of the first book of Earthseed: The Books of the Living with another person for the first time:

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

Parable of the Sower touches on so many issues—climate change, corrupt politicians, corporate greed, class warfare, sexism, economic collapse, and racism are just a few. In the second quarter of the novel a slavery narrative is introduced in the form of an international company that takes over a coastal city promising jobs to families who relocate only to have those families forever in debt. Lauren’s closest friend moves there and this begins a thread within the book that seems to be one of the driving themes: freedom. Almost all of the issues listed above are forms of oppression or they can be leveraged to oppress people. A professor friend of mine pointed me towards a current webinar series that unpacks this, and many other topics in the book, by two female scholars who can speak more eloquently about Butler’s work than I ever could. Watch the first discussion in the series with Afrofuturist writer Tananarive Due and womanist process theologian Monica A. Coleman.

I suspect that Earthseed will take on new complexity now that Lauren has begun to share what she believes in with others. Perhaps this will lead to interpretations by others as the book continues. Tell us what you think about Earthseed, Butler’s unique brand of sci-fi, and what sticks out to you about Parable of the Sower as you read along—comment below!

– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, SAM Content Strategist & Social Media Manager

SAM Book Club: Reading Octavia Butler in 2020

Join SAM Book Club! SAM’s staff is reading and responding to Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler on the blog as a way to continue considering some of the themes in our currently closed exhibition, John Akomfrah: Future History. We can’t wait to spend time with John Akomfrah’s video essays once we are able to reopen—they will be on view through September 7. Read along with us in preparation for visiting this exhibition of three immersive video installations and share your comments and questions with us! Our next book club reflections will be posted May 20, June 3, and June 16. Our colleagues at the Northwest African American Museum are also reading Parable of the Sower for their June Book Club and SAM is canceling our Zoom Book Club discussion, previously taking place June 16, to join NAAM’s live discussion on June 26. Join us by registering here! Please read along and share your thoughts with us while you stay home with SAM!

Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) is the fictional autobiography of Lauren Oya Olamina. Her story begins in 2024, on her fifteenth birthday. Lauren dreams that she’s learning to fly. (Has anyone else been dreaming wildly, as I have, since the stay-at-home order?) The dream shifts to a remembrance of her seven-year-old self and stepmother, taking laundry down from a line beneath an inky, star-bright sky. Her stepmother recalls the formerly light-washed skies of her youth. “City lights”, she says. “Light, progress, growth, all those things we’re too hot and too poor to bother with anymore.”

The Olamina family lives in a tight-knit community—a tightly-secured, walled-in cul-de-sac in the Los Angeles suburbs. Water is expensive and rain is rare. Each house keeps a vegetable garden and hunts. The neighborhood shares one family’s television, the Window, for entertainment. The work at hand is survival.

Parable of the Sower lives on the science fiction and fantasy shelves of your local bookseller or library. Yet, Lauren’s economic and climate-collapsed world reflects irreconcilable elements of our own daily lives in the coronavirus pandemic. The constant plane dinning (I live under the flight path) has given way to bird calls, while our aviation-employed neighbors are furloughed. Amidst compounded food and housing insecurities, some report seeing stars for the very first time.

For Lauren, stars and acorn bread and vigilance are normal. What’s more, Lauren has hyperempathy syndrome: she explains, “I feel what I see others feeling or what I believe they feel.” Lauren hides the condition from everyone except her family because it is “better to have them think anything than let them know just how easy it is to hurt me.” We learn this as she riskily travels beyond the neighborhood walls to get baptized. However, Lauren doesn’t believe in her Reverend father’s god.

Change is her god. Each chapter begins with a verse from Lauren’s own belief system called Earthseed. Butler explains in an interview: “Lauren Olamina says that since change is the one inespcapable truth, change is the basic clay of our lives. In order to live constructive lives, we must learn to shape change when we can and yield to it when we must. Either way, we must learn to teach, adapt, and grow.” The beginning of Lauren’s story, like ours, is one of adaptation.

– Geneva Griswold, SAM Associate Conservator & Equity Team Member

Photo: Chelsea Werner-Jatzke

Muse/News: A journey to Amerocco, book nerds, and environmental art

SAM News

The Seattle Times’ Brendan Kiley reported on the huge financial impacts of the coronavirus on local arts organizations. He spoke with SAM director Amada Cruz.

“Despite this, Cruz said SAM has been able to preserve all of its 217 staff jobs through June, with a combination of executive pay cuts and a $2.8 million loan from the CARES Act.”

Nancy Kenney of the Art Newspaper also reported on the payroll loan program and the financial status of US museums, mentioning SAM.

This week, Stay Home with SAM offered Earth Day tips and an art project inspired by El Anatsui, introduced the SAM Book Club’s latest pick (Octavia Butler!), and explored the in-between identities of Aaron Fowler’s Amerocco.

The Seattle Times’ Brendan Kiley included details on Stay Home with SAM in his round-up of “the most intriguing streaming and online arts events” for the week.

And Geekwire’s Lisa Stiffler on the “digital lifeline” provided by local arts organizations, including Stay Home with SAM.

Local News

Special to the Seattle Times, writer Sarah Neilson connects with six creatives on what inspires them about Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

Stefan Milne of Seattle Met looks at two “ambitious” streaming events on the horizon, and whether they can fill the void for what would have been a busy summer of festivals and fundraising.

Crosscut Brangien Davis has her weekly editor’s letter, with lots of arts recommendations and on Seattle’s popular Silent Reading Party, which has gone remote.

“At chapter breaks, I’d glance up to check in on my fellow book nerds, who were reading while sipping a drink, rocking a baby or petting an insistent cat. It felt so nice to go to a party — even one that’s silent and virtual — where people allow a camera into their private rooms, just to read and be together.”

Inter/National News

Muse/News recommends: a streamable documentary on Hilma af Klimt, The Rubin Museum of Art’s Daily Offerings, and, well, all the things the Artnet editors recommend.

For Earth Day, Artsy explores “10 Artists. . .Making Urgent Work about the Environment,” including John Akomfrah.

Phillips’ blog talks with art world leaders for their series, How We’re Adapting. Bobbye Tigerman, a curator at LACMA, shares her new Zoom background and thoughts for the future.

“This experience has stimulated my thinking about the role that museums can play for those who are not physically able to visit them, whether for health, economic, or other reasons. I wholeheartedly believe in the transformative experiences by a physical encounter with a work of art, but when that is not feasible, how else can we offer authentic engagement to our visitors near and far?”

And Finally

Test Kitchen Hive, assemble.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Photo: Natali Wiseman

SAM Book Club: Parable of the Sower

50 years ago, who would’ve imagined that Earth Day’s 50th anniversary might occur on a day like today? As we all stay home and our days are full of uncertainties, there are also comforts; news articles about Venice’s canals flowing clear, video call birthday celebrations, and much more—amidst it all, we desire to honor Earth Day more than ever.

One way SAM is celebrating this Earth Day is to launch a new edition of our book club, and we encourage you to participate! Calling all bibliophiles, humans, pets, plants, and everyone—join us as we read Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. Set in an apocalyptic dystopia of 2026, Lauren Olamina and her family reside in one of the last, safe enclaves of society in Los Angeles. As Lauren’s father struggles to salvage the remains of a society crumbling under global warming, wealth disparity, and crime, Lauren seeks to establish a new community founded on a revolutionary religion that may bring reparation. 

We selected this book because it connects powerfully with John Akomfrah: Future History at SAM, which features video essays on migrant diasporas across the globe, Afrofuturism, and visions of the natural world. Good news, the exhibition will be extended until September 7 so you can come consider it in person after reading the book!

While we read, SAM staff will be reflecting and posing questions for you to join along in your own reading. Check back here every two weeks on May 6, May 20, June 3, and June 16 to hear from us and share your thoughts in the comments. We’ll conclude this virtual book club, with a Zoom meet up for all of our book club participants and beyond! 

If you are looking for a copy of the book, here’s a list of independent bookstores with direct links to the book.

  1. Ada’s Technical Books & Cafe (Usually ships in 1-5 days)
  2. Queen Anne Book Company 
  3. Phinney Books 
  4. Secret Garden Books (Usually ships in 1-5 days)
  5. Elliot Bay Book Company (Usually ships in 1-5 days)
  6. Edmonds Bookshop (Usually ships in 1-5 days)
  7. Powell’s Books (Ships in 1-3 days)

Please join us back here in two weeks on May 6 for our first discussion of the book. We are so excited for you to join us with your comments and questions while you stay home with SAM!

Have a Happy Earth Day!

– Lauren Farris, SAM Campaign Assistant & Equity Team Member

We are humbled by the generosity of our donors during this unique time. Your financial support powers SAM Blog and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again. Thanks to a generous group of SAM trustees, all membership and gifts to SAM Fund will be matched up to $500,000 through June 30!

Photo: Elisabeth Smith

Muse/News: Remote art, O’Keeffe’s recipes, and staying safe

SAM News

Following a series of progressive steps taken in recent weeks, SAM announced last Thursday that it has temporarily closed through the end of March, to help limit the spread of COVID-19 and protect the community.

While the museum is closed, we hope you’ll enjoy Gayle Clemans’ lovely review of John Akomfrah: Future History, which notes that even with the closure, “the artist and his work, nonetheless, is well worth knowing about.”

“For Akomfrah, that cinematic approach is like philosophy, a way of comprehending the world. ‘As opposites have conversations, or as they are persuaded to at least potentially sit at the table in preparation for conversation, something miraculous happens,’ he says. ‘Life itself happens.’”

Also for the Seattle Times, Gayle Clemans rounded up visual arts recommendations in honor of Women’s History Month, including SAM’s “one-room powerhouse of a show,” Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstract Variations.

Local News

The Seattle Times has extensive coronavirus coverage, including local museum news, thoughts on the immediate impact to arts organizations, and daily live updates.

Crosscut shares ways to support the creative economy, Culturyst has a special “Seattle arts at home” edition, and Red Tricycle also has ideas for remote experiences, including browsing SAM’s collection online.

The Stranger’s Rich Smith suggests that you join Everyone in the World who will be tuning in to rebroadcasts and livestreams of Seattle Symphony performances.

“The push to do these performances is all stemming from the musicians,” Shafii said. “They’re motivated to do whatever they can to provide music for the community.”

Inter/National News

Globally, Artnet is tracking closures and other art world news. They’re also reporting that institutions in China and South Korea are carefully reopening.

The New York Times’ live (and free) coronavirus updates are essential.

Since we can’t be looking at Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, might we suggest cooking from Georgia O’Keeffe’s recipes? Thanks to The New Yorker’s Rachel Syme for the perfect housebound idea.

“Miss O’Keeffe often wondered aloud, ‘Do you think other people eat as well as we do?’”

And Finally

“Working from home is awesome.”

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Image: Alfred Stieglitz, American, 1864–1946, Georgia O’Keeffe (in a chemise), 1918, gelatin silver print, 9 1/2 x 7 1/2 in., Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Gift of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, 2006.6.1432, photo: Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe / Art Resource, NY

Muse/News: The Asian Art Museum prepares, art preachers & martyrs, & #DollyPartonChallenge

SAM News

Check out this week’s edition of the International Examiner, with a special section on the Asian Art Museum that reopens on February 8. It includes articles on Be/longing, the building itself, the Gardner Center, the Future Ancient, a know-you-before-you-go for the opening weekend events, and a special thank-you from SAM. Articles on Boundless and the conservation center should hit online tomorrow—see everything in print now.

Farewell, Flesh and Blood. T.s. Flock of Vanguard had one last round-up of “grim highlights” from the exhibition that closed on Sunday. Up next downtown: John Akomfrah: Future History.  

Local News

Seattle Times’ Megan Burbank heads to Twisp to explore the artsy, the sustainable, and the inventive of its communities.

“Preacher of the arts”: Crosscut’s Margo Vansynghel interviews Raymond Tymas-Jones, president of Cornish College of the Arts, who has a bold plan for the institution’s future.

Margo also recently visited with the local performers who came together to form the Art Martyrs Relief Society.

“The concept of their endeavor . . . is simple: Put together one show a year with a kickass lineup, pay the performers royally, preach the gospel that working artists deserve a fair wage, have a damn good time and repeat.”

Inter/National News

Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle is now on view at the Peabody Essex Museum. Reviews landed from the Washington Post’s Sebastian Smee and the Boston Globe’s Murray Whyte. The exhibition travels to SAM next year.

Barack and Michelle are going on tour! Hyperallergic’s Hakim Bishara reports on the five-city tour of their official portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, which kicks off in June 2021.

Bethan Ryder for the Guardian on projects around the world integrating museums and interactive learning experiences.

“After a long pause a nine-year-old said: ‘Objects have rights.’ The phrase has stuck. It captures both the need to conserve objects and to consider them as active participants in the museum experience.”

And Finally

Museums take the #DollyPartonChallenge. (SAM’s was the best).

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Photo: Jueqian Fang

Muse/News: Café con leche, Kenny G, and ancient art discovered in Sulawesi

SAM News

Amada Cruz, SAM’s Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO, was interviewed by Puget Sound Business Journal. She shared her vision for museums, her morning routine of café con leche and public radio, and other fun facts.

“We should think of museums as civic spaces where all kinds of people can meet, convene, have a shared experience and celebrate our shared humanities. That’s more important now than ever.”

“She speaks five languages — ‘three of them badly.’”

How’s your holiday shopping going? The Seattle Times recently shared their Holiday Gift Guide; among their recommendations for gifts for men is a SAM Shop-exclusive, a Seattle edition of the chic reusable water bottle, Phil the Bottle.

Local News

Crosscut’s Agueda Pacheco Flores interviewed Kenny G. Enough said.

“The Terminal 86 Grain Facility Is Hideous. It Must Be Painted” declares Gregory Scruggs in the Stranger. He argues that the facility near the Olympic Sculpture Park is the only “loose end” in the plan for the downtown waterfront.

The Seattle Times’ Scott Greenstone on Collaboration on Canvas, a new show at CORE Gallery, an exhibition of collaborative paintings by homeless people, social workers, and volunteers.

“It was community, and a bunch of women sharing space and time, and doing something together,” Giller said. “It was different every time, but it was always a good feeling.”

Inter/National News

From Artforum’s December print edition, here are 34 artists reflecting on their favorite exhibitions and events of 2019—including Natalie Ball on Guadalupe Maravilla and Judy Chicago on John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea.

Artnet’s Katie White on Homage to the Great Latin-American Masters at Houston’s Art of the World Gallery; the exhibition explores the complexity of classifying borderless Latin American art.

An archaeological study of dozens of caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi has turned up visionary examples of art—perhaps the oldest known figurative art made by modern humans.

“Scrambling up a fig tree vine, he found his way into a small grotto. Its far wall bore a panel, painted with a red ocher pigment. When Aubert saw it, he was astounded. ‘I thought, wow, it’s like a whole scene,’ he says. ‘You’ve got humans, or maybe half-human half-animals, hunting or capturing these animals … it was just amazing.’”

And Finally

The Cloud Appreciation Society.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Photo: Natali Wiseman

Muse/News: Manyness at SAM, nuclear paintings, and the Whitney list

SAM News

Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer is now on view! The Seattle Times featured photos from opening events in their print edition, and Seattle Met, The Stranger, Crosscut, Seattle Gay Scene, and new-to-Seattle art blog The Eye all wrote up the exhibition. What they’re saying:

“Like a Hammer has a manyness, a simultaneous quality that instead of diffusing into some fractured postmodern identity coheres into something singular.” –Stefan Milne

“His practice is largely informed by the ‘in-betweenness’ of the fixed points of identity. And there it blossoms.” –Jasmyne Keimig

“The artist has created a kind of gumbo of new associations, igniting things as disparate as old song lyrics and ab-ex white-boy modernism and indigenous craft with the most vital and urgent of sensations.” –Casey Arguelles Gregory

Seattle Met has their eye on another SAM show, highlighting the upcoming Gentleman Warrior: Art of the Samurai as one of “14 Seattle Events to Catch This Spring”.

Carrie Dedon, SAM’s Assistant Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, contributed her thoughts on painter Sam Gilliam to this Artsy editorial in honor of Black History Month looking at “The Most Influential Living African-American Artists.”

Local News

Crosscut’s David Kroman and Dorothy Edwards follow Doug Latta during his last delivery of the Seattle Weekly; the paper announced this week that after 40 years, it will cease publication.

Special to the Seattle Times, Becs Richards sits down with Jody Kuehner, AKA Cherdonna Shinatra, to discuss her show DITCH, now on view—with daily performances!—at the Frye Art Museum.

The Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig reviews Nikita Ares’ solo show of “so-bright-they’re-nuclear” paintings in Sugar Babies Only, now on view at Specialist Gallery.

“Bright, vivid, frenetic hues take precedence above all in her paintings, the oiliness of the pastels are rich, creamy, and dirty. They give off their own heat, resembling the energy she puts into it. There’s no tedium to it nor perfection, just like her.”

Inter/National News

Here’s one more celebration for Black History Month: Hyperallergic’s Jasmine Weber asks seven notable arts figures to name Black artists overlooked by the canon who they cherish.

This year’s Venice Biennale will host Ghana’s first national pavilion. It’s designed by celebrated architect David Adjaye and will feature work by John Akomfrah, El Anatsui, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

The 75 participating artists in this year’s Whitney Biennial were announced this week; the list includes Jeffrey Gibson and Disguise artist Brendan Fernandes.

“To its curators, the 2019 biennial feels very much like a product of its time, with artists ‘grappling with questions about race, gender, financial inequality, gentrification, the vulnerability of the body,’ said Ms. Panetta. But she added that the work in the show mostly strikes a tone that’s less ‘agitprop-like or angry’ than one might expect in 2019. ‘It’s really work that feels more productive, forward looking, with a kind of optimistic and hopeful tenor to it.’”

And Finally

Alert: The Prince Estate has released a library of Prince GIFs. You’re welcome.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Manager of Public Relations

Image: Installation view Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer at Seattle Art Museum, 2019, photo: Natali Wiseman.