“So often Black women are made small and the idea of expanding into an exhibition that is so large and so inviting and welcoming is incredible and awe inspiring to see a reflection of myself so large in the world.” – Imani Sims, poet and Central District Forum for Art and Ideas curator
Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas is a chance to reflect on your personal history as well as art history and American history. Take a tip from our Personal Histories video series and spend some time at SAM thinking about how you connect to the work on view because of the history that impacts you. Figuring History brings together three generations of contemporary American artists, whose work challenges a Western painting tradition that underrepresents people of color. The vibrant and monumental paintings by these artists offer bold perspectives on Black culture and representation. Presented together for the first time, the figurative paintings of Colescott, Marshall, and Thomas are shaped by distinctive historic events, unique in style, and united in questioning the narratives of history through Black experience. The exhibition closes May 13, so don’t delay!
Looking for more videos related Figuring History? Check out Youtube to hear from the artists!
“Storytelling is very important in hip-hop and I feel like with [Kerry James Marshall’s] pieces that he has in this room, he’s taking the stories and interpreting it in his way and then also giving the next generation something to look at.” – Stasia Irons, rapper and KEXP DJ
“I immediately recognized what I was seeing as happening in my own neighborhood back home in Mississippi.” – Marcellus Turner, City Librarian of Seattle Public Library
Brangien Davis of Crosscut talks with Victoria Haven about Banner Year, an installation in the windows of her South Lake Union studio that beams out messages to passing motorists like “MONEY BALL” and “CULT CLASSIC.”
“’We can say, let’s look at this artwork and appreciate the work that the artist has done to create this, but let’s use a contemporary lens to unpack where these artists were coming from and why they painted the work in this manner,’ said curator Faith Brower. ‘Thankfully our views have now changed over time so we can see this work and critique it in a way that they weren’t capable of critiquing it in the time it was made.’”
“Such was the reality of German and Austrian art, and German and Austrian society, in the initial years of Nazi rule: the awkward coexistence of fascists, democrats and Communists, who heard the rhetoric, who witnessed the hatred, but who still could not see how much horror lay ahead.”
In February, as I prepared to enter the Seattle Art Museum for the Community Celebration for Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, what seemed like endless thoughts swirled around in my mind. It was Black History month and opening weekend for the movie Black Panther— the joy and exuberance of Black culture was palpable in the air.
This was in stark contrast to just over a year earlier, when the collective anguish and discontent of Black society was reeling in the wake of the latest barrage of Black bodies murdered in the streets and broadcast in ‘real time’ for all to view. I still recall the gut-wrenching emotion of watching a Black father, murdered in his vehicle, minutes away from where my own father lived. I remember this pain so vividly because it was not the first time I’d felt it. It was not the first time the Black community watched their brothers, fathers, and sons murdered at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve. It was not the first time we were dehumanized in the public theater. It was not the first time we were criminalized for being. It was history repeating itself.
The weight and memory of historical trauma accompanied me into the museum, tugging at my coat with each breath of Black excellence I inhaled. As I stood in gratitude for Mickalene Thomas, Kerry James Marshall, and Robert Colescott, I also stood in sorrow of the circumstances that produced such beautiful stories and art. In each historical work I found traces of my own story. In Colescott’s Matthew Henson and the Quest for the North Pole, (pictured at the top of this post) the images of Black bodies being simultaneously brutalized and fetishized depict the story of my great-great-grandmother who was raped by her oppressor, giving birth to my great-grandfather who would later be praised for his “passable” complexion, wavy hair, and light eyes. Marshall’s Souvenir II portrays a cloud of witnesses, prominently featuring Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, hallmarks in the home of my own, and many other Black grandmothers across the country, and emblematic of the complicated socio-political relationship we share with this nation.
In Thomas’ Resist, the Civil Rights era struggle of my parents was laid in front of me through a collage of violent vignettes. As I watched this piece I saw my uncle’s resistance, which left him brutally beaten and jailed for having the audacity to seek a human existence. I also saw my father and his siblings, the first to integrate the school systems in North Carolina. I felt the collective fear and courage he carried with him as the only Black student in his school. And as my chest tightened, breath shortened and fists clinched I remembered where I stood—rooted in the past, squarely in the present, carrying my portion of the mantle of Black excellence. As I gathered myself, I walked out of the museum breathing in the joy and exuberance of Black culture. Each breath gradually healing the wounds of my genetic trauma.
– Benji Anderson, Artist (@benjipnewton)
Benji Anderson is an artist, theologian and philosopher. Three identities that suffered separate existences for much of Benji’s life. Born in the South and raised in the Mid West, his early cultural learnings taught Benji that it was not only prudent, but necessary to compartmentalize his identities. Surprisingly it was through his academic journey that Benji began to fully exist as a being capable of complex, and seemingly contradictory identity. As a Master of Divinity student, Benji embarked on a process of deep self-excavation, which, upon completion of his degree, provided Benji with the license to live authentically.
As theologian and philosopher, Benji is concerned with the quality and depth of life. As artist, Benji concerns himself with the creative expression of his theosophical existence. Using a variety of mediums Benji endeavors to create multi-sensory pieces that thrust the viewer into the experience of the artist – not simply as a voyeur, but as a participant.
“If your heart is in the right place, if you put in the work, and have the diligence to be the best at your craft, and people can see that, they’ll want to help you. When I do my job better, people get to interact with the arts better, so that demands that I rise to the occasion because there’s a lot of other people’s work on my shoulders that I don’t want to disappoint.”
“We have a very particular way of relating to objects,” she notes. “They can generate emotion. They can literally transport you to the moment in which you received the object. Or they can tell you the story of your whole family or of your whole culture.”
This week, on April 4, marks 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis. The New York Times asks what the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel can tell us about this moment.
“What they’ll find in its permanent collection is a monument to a movement and, secondarily, to a man, in a display that focuses on difficult, sometimes ambiguous historical data more than on pure celebration. And they’ll find, if they are patient, useful information for the 2018 present, and for the future.”
“Did somebody mention ART?” Art history + celebrity culture = genius.
– Rachel Eggers, SAM Manager of Public Relations
Image: Installation view Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas at Seattle Art Museum, 2018. Photo: Natali Wiseman
“One thing I always try to do in my choreography is to make the dancers as human as possible. I want the audience to be able to relate to them as people, as opposed to classical 18th-century ballet figures.”
“It hurts because those Birmingham girls, often commemorated in what look like class portraits, could have been goofy, self-conscious, bookish, or disobedient. Maybe they didn’t even want to go to church that day; maybe one had a sore throat. They were kids.”
Margo Vansynghel of City Arts lauds the exhibition’s “dazzling brilliance” in her review, which includes interviews with both Kerry James Marshall and Mickalene Thomas, conducted while the artists were in Seattle for the opening.
“…filled to the brink with visual sumptuousness. Chambers to remember. Spaces filled with Black joy and Black books. Behind every corner, there’s texture and depth, and dazzling brilliance.”
In what’s definitely the most fascinating interview I read this week, Artnet spoke with Arthur Jafa about intersectionality, blackness, and “not going for ‘good.’”
Hyperallergic reviews the Monarchs exhibition, now on view at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, which features work by “people native to the Americas,” including Jeffrey Gibson, Nicholas Galanin, and Wendy Red Star.
What DOES one get Rihanna on the occasion of her 30th birthday?? One artist decided on this.
– Rachel Eggers, SAM Manager of Public Relations
Photo: Installation view of Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas at Seattle Art Museum, 2018, photo: Stephanie Fink.
“Originally, I wanted to create an old history painting with old buildings, tailors, saloons and so on. I decided not to. Instead, I re-staged the scene in a contemporary setting, with the light rail track, skyscrapers, traffic signage nearby. To say, we are repeating history. Literally.”
“Untitled (1982) is built to be what it has become, a high-energy icon that can spread easily as a media image. But at the same time it also whispers that it doesn’t want to be reduced to just that; it doesn’t just want to be looked at, it wants to be seen.”
The Stranger put together a list of all the best Black History Month events: SAM exhibitions Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas and Sondra Perry: Eclogue for [in]HABITABILITY both make the cut.
“It’s often difficult to know which way up a painting should be.” A Morris Lewis painting at the Jewish Museum is on view with a new name—and a new orientation.
Joyce J. Scott’s sculptures, quilts, and necklaces are on view in her most comprehensive exhibition to date at New Jersey’s Grounds for Sculpture; one of the exhibition’s curators is Lowery Stokes Sims, who contributed an essay to the Figuring History catalogue.
“’My work is politically and socially oriented because that’s what keeps me up at night,’ Scott added. ‘It’s important to me to use art in a manner that incites people to look and carry something home — even if it’s subliminal — that might make a change in them.’”
February also brings the return of Seattle Museum Month, during which visitors to participating downtown hotels get half-price admission to area museums (including SAM!). For that, Travel + Leisure and Architectural Digest both included Seattle among their winter travel recommendations.
“There’s nothing that I’ve created in the gallery that’s more horrifying than what’s outside those doors. The lynchings have not stopped, they’ve merely changed forms—from rope to guns. I created a new piece called ‘You Might be Disturbed by Images Beyond This Point.’ I’ll place it at the exit of every gallery I show at, because I can’t make anything more disturbing than reality.”