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Object of the Week: Stele of Chaywet

On Labor Day 2020, I cast a vote for one profession to be given special recognition: farmers and food providers. This Egyptian stele in SAM’s collection points out how we eat to thrive, now and into eternity. It also reminds us that perhaps we should give more credit to those who make that possible.    

Chaywet lived over 4000 years ago and wanted people to know he was a man of means. He carries a staff and scepter, wears a large necklace, and inscriptions tell us he had the title of Treasurer of Lower Egypt. His wealth enabled him to commission a stele to provide what he needs for his afterlife. He needs food, and lots of it, as noted in hieroglyphs in the middle of the right side: “A thousand of bread, a thousand of beer, a thousand of oxen, a thousand of birds, and a thousand of every good and pure thing.”

In the relief carving, there are two offering tables loaded with long bread loaves, cow haunches, fruits and vegetables, a dead bird, and jars of beer. Underneath the top table is a stand where Chaywet could wash his hands before and after eating. Learn more about Chaywet’s status and the stele’s inscriptions.

Today, Chaywet’s desire to be well fed is evident. Yet it is his position as a bureaucrat most celebrated in his attire and inscriptions, not who supplied him with his meals. In many parts of the world, the labor of farmers, bakers, brewers, cattle herders, and hunters is rarely celebrated in art. This overlooked credit to food providers is noted in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Before you finish eating breakfast this morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world.  This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality.”

In this year of pandemic change, awareness of food sovereignty has spawned new attention for farmers around Seattle. Nyema Clark, founder of Nuturing Roots on Beacon Hill says, “In times like these, small farmers truly are becoming superheroes.”  Marcus Henderson, leader of Black Star Farmers, has spoken of “a garden as a healing space.” For more about their efforts, and how Black farmers have been finding ways to increase access to healthy foods, here are a few references:

– Pam McClusky, SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Stele of Chaywet, ca. 2250 – 2000 BCE, Egyptian, limestone and pigment, 22 x 27 x 5 3/4 in., Thomas D. Stimson Memorial Collection and partial gift of Hagop Kevorkian, 47.64. Nyema Clark, photo by Sharon H. Chang, South Seattle Emerald.

Object of the Week: Confrontation at the Bridge

This 1975 screenprint by Jacob Lawrence was commissioned on the occasion of the United States’ bicentennial. The prompt: to create a print that reflects an aspect of American history since 1776. Lawrence, one of 33 artists to contribute to the portfolio An American Portrait, 1776-1976, chose to depict the infamous incident in Alabama known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, hundreds of unarmed protesters—led by civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis—organized a 54-mile march from Selma to the state’s capitol, Montgomery, advocating for the voting rights of African Americans. As demonstrators began their route out of Selma, they were met by a barrage of state troopers at Edmund Pettus Bridge. With orders from Alabama Governor George Wallace “to use whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march,” the state troopers attacked the activists—resulting in the death of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson—using clubs and tear gas. Though the march dissipated due to this senseless violence, two days later the protesters safely reached Montgomery (thanks to court-ordered protection) and numbered nearly 25,000.

As horrible as these events were, what took place on March 7—publicized nationally and internationally—helped galvanize public opinion and finally mobilize Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson five months later.

In Lawrence’s screenprint, the troopers’ brutal actions are represented through the presence of a vicious, snarling dog. To its right, we see African American men and women of various ages clustered together, their political solidarity conveyed through their visual unity. A tumultuous sky surrounds them, whose jagged cloud forms find likeness in the choppy waters below.

This horrible event would leave an indelible mark on our nation’s history and is remembered today for the courage shown by the thousands of activists who marched for a more equitable world. When articulating his choice to depict this important moment, Lawrence recalled: “I thought [the Selma-to-Montgomery march] was part of the history of the country, part of the history of our progress; not of just the black progress, but of the progress of the people.”

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Image: Confrontation at the Bridge, 1975, Jacob Lawrence, serigraph; ink on paper, 19 1/2 x 25 15/16 in., Anonymous gift in honor of Jacob Lawrence and Gwen Knight, 92.10 © Jacob Lawrence

#SAMSpeakUp: RACE, SOCIAL JUSTICE & MUSEUMS

When it comes to conversations surrounding race and social justice, museums aren’t readily thought of as spaces that would play much a role. However, I believe that museums can in fact be powerful and unique in facilitating these discussions.

The next time you come to SAM, you may notice that our Think Tank walls have questions that await your response: “How do you define race and social justice?” “How can art mobilize social change?” “How can museums be spaces of social justice?”

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(The Think Tank is located between the Mezzanine Level and the second floor, towards the back of the building! Just walk up the Grand Staircase until you hit the room with the chalkboard walls.)

As our MLK Spotlight Tours last week highlighted, we don’t have to look too far to see that there are works and artists in our collection who are already having these conversations with you—what are ways we can delve deeper?

I see that museums can play a unique role in these conversations for these reasons:

  • Museums serve as portals and connectors—connecting us to cultures and ideas, connecting us to others and our community, and connecting us with ourselves.
  • Museums are engrained within communities—it is the community who interacts with the museum and thus these spaces exist not only to share stories about art but also to serve the community (local and beyond).

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When race and social justice issues arise on a local, national, or even an international level, how can museums leverage their unique positions in order to help? And how can museums strive to become more inclusive spaces and to better reflect the communities they serve?

One recent issue that has been on my mind and on many others’ is the non-indictment rulings in the deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, and countless other similar situations. I feel conversations surrounding race relations—and the injustices and inequities that communities of color face—have reached a new height. These situations have been fostered by historical legacies and systems in the United States. This means historical institutions like museums can be a critical part of this conversation, particularly in bridging gaps in racial and cultural understanding.

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In December, a few museum bloggers and colleagues also saw the need for museums to step in and thus issued a joint statement asking the question, “What should be our roles?” This sparked conversations across the country, and museums shared how they’ve responded—from hosting community conversations to collecting Ferguson-related media artifacts.

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It was partly this traction that inspired our latest iteration of the Think Tank. Rather than specifically tackling #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson, my colleagues and I want the Think Tank to be a space for a larger conversation about race, social justice, and museums. These conversations are best sustained and brought to the forefront when they are incorporated into our regular practice.

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And while I do believe museums can serve as catalysts, I don’t think they have all the answers, which is where our community comes in.

My hope for the Think Tank is that it can function as a free and open community dialogue space for all who interact with SAM. I want it to be a space for you to reflect on current topics and issues in social justice, examine your own experiences, share your stories, express your voice, and connect with others—and my hope is also that you will give us feedback for us to use as an institution to better serve you. I truly believe dialogue can spark change.

It is also my hope that we can continue to have these conversations together as an institution and community, and continue to strive to make the museum a more inclusive and accessible space to honor all stories, perspectives, and voices.

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We invite you to join the conversation.

Marcus Ramirez
Coordinator for Education & Public Programs