Come Back to SAM! Get tickets now »

The lens behind the New Republic Community Portrait Project

Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic is on view at long last. As a part of the exhibition, SAM has launched New Republic Events, where SAM and Seattle-area community partners are highlighting events and performances focusing on themes found in Kehinde Wiley’s work, and also, New Republic Community Portrait Project. The Community Portrait Project invites volunteers to have their portraits taken by local photographers, and answer three questions: how do others see you, how do you see yourself and how do you want to be seen? The finished portraits and answers will be featured on the project’s website, as well as in SAM’s Community Corridor.

Local artists/photographers Carina A. del Rosario and Zorn B. Taylor are heading up the project, and we spoke with Carina about her background and the experience of working on the project.

SAM: Hi Carina! Thanks for speaking with us.

del Rosario: No problem!

SAM: Since you asked Community Portrait Project participants three questions, we’ll ask you three too. First up: Tell us a bit about your background and how long you’ve been a photographer.

del Rosario: I was born in the Philippines and immigrated with my family to Los Angeles when I was six. I love the energy and vibrant colors of urban life I grew up around, which in part led to my interest in street photography. When I moved here as a kid, I was curious about all the life going on around me but I was super shy. It may have been because I wasn’t confident with my English at the time. Over time, I really developed my English language skills in writing and speaking – though at the expense of my first language – but that helped bolster my confidence. I eventually got interested in journalism since it gave me an excuse to talk to strangers, to ask questions and tell stories. But I always loved how images and stories went together, whether in newspapers or in films. At Santa Clara University, where I graduated with a BA in Communication, I worked on the student newspaper and my friends there taught me photography and printing in the darkroom.

After a number of years writing, I decided to take up photography again and other visual arts classes because I wanted to make my writing more visual, more sensory. Eventually, I became more and more interested in the ability of photography and other visual art forms to tell a story that can be much more open to interpretation—that can hold more complexity and ambiguity. I’ve been working as a photographer and visual artist for about 12 years.

Community Portraits

SAM: Very cool. We’re glad you’re bringing your unique experience to the Community Portrait Project. Okay, next question: What’s your favorite thing about being a photographer?

del Rosario: Similar to being a journalist, being a photographer gives you an excuse or a tool for following your curiosity. It can certainly open doors to connecting with strangers. It can also shut doors if one doesn’t approach others with respect and openness. One of my early photography instructors (Raul Touzon on National Geographic) told me, “Give as much as you get. Be in the moment with people and the images will come.” I definitely get a charge when I can connect with people on a human level and that emerges in the photos.

SAM: What excellent advice. Okay, last question: How did you get involved with the Community Portrait Project, and what has the experience been like so far?

del Rosario:
Regan Pro (SAM’s Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Programs) contacted me about the Community Portrait Project and I jumped on it. I’m a teaching artist for SAM, so Regan and I have worked together for a few years. She also knows my work as an artist, particularly my Passport Series, which is a photo-based, interactive project that addresses identity, documentation, and discrimination. Through this project, I’ve worked with people from all walks of life to bust out of the boxes we all get squeezed into and present ourselves more holistically. Regan knew this would be akin to Kehinde Wiley’s approach for empowering “sitters” to determine how they want to be seen.

The experience working on the Community Portrait Project has been really uplifting and grounding at the same time. First, I love any excuse to work with Zorn. We have taught together and supported each other’s work for a few years, and I really appreciate the love and openness he brings into the work.

We photographed people from various ages and life experiences—a total of 40 people over three sessions. It’s hard to narrow down which ones were the most memorable stories because so many of them opened up in really interesting ways. One woman talked about how normally she’s really shy and closed in and that this was her challenge to herself. By participating in this project, she’s opening up to the world. I could totally relate to this since I remember making a similar decision when I was younger. There was another woman who seemed so deeply sad. She’s in a struggle to reclaim her sense of self, her own power, her happiness. I asked her to try to go back to a time when she felt whole and happy. To witness those emotions move through her, from sorrow to joy in a seconds, was an incredible honor.

Community Portraits

SAM: Wow. It sounds like you had many incredibly experiences working on the Community Portrait Project, and essentially got to peek into the inner lives and thoughts of strangers. Thanks for sharing with us, for being a part of the Project!

del Rosario: Thank you!

You can participate in the Community Portrait Project, too. Upcoming drop-in photo sessions will be held at SAM on Wednesday, March 3 and on Thursday, April 7. In the meantime, be sure to check out Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, on view now.

The Art of Storytelling

Storytelling is an essential tool for expressing our beliefs, culture, and creativity. We spend our lives collecting and sharing stories. Whether we’re recounting a childhood memory or teaching others about a historical event, stories help us make sense of, and connect to, the world around us.

Visual art and storytelling are closely associated. When we view a work of art with narrative potential, we are naturally inclined to interpret it. To understand an object, we think about what we see as well as what the object and its artist are communicating. Questions like “Who are the figures?” or “What is happening in this scene?” prompt us to construct stories to explain the object. With their stories, we might see artists sustaining, subverting, or expanding on traditions they’ve inherited.

Black-Figured Amphora with Herakles and Athena

The proliferation of narrative content in Greek art, particularly vase-painting, began at the turn of the sixth century B.C.[i] Without any text to explain what’s happening in these vases, our familiarity with the actions or attributes of the figures depicted is crucial in identifying the characters, and through them, the story in which they are involved. The 6th-century B.C. black-figured storage jar, or amphora, depicts a mythological battle scene. The lion skin worn by one of the figures tells us that the figure is Herakles and refers to the circumstances of its acquisition, the Twelve Labors. With his foot mid-air, Herakles steps forward to charge at his opponents. Athena, armed with her helmet and spear, stands either in front of Herakles on one side of the vase and behind him on the reverse side of the vase. Two of the three hoplites hasten away but look back, indicating their retreat mode and an impending victory for Herakles and Athena. The alliance between Herakles and Athena alludes to Athena’s role as a divine comrade to great heroes in mythology and art. The nature of narrative art like this amphora requires the viewer to access prior knowledge of visual cues and iconography to read the content. As the viewer begins to study the meaningful features, the story unfolds.

Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper

Whereas the Greek vase was a propagation of an established narrative, Some Living American Women Artists/ Last Supper is a challenge to powerful narratives in the history of art and religion that have excluded women. The artist, Mary Beth Edelson, takes a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and replaces the heads of Jesus and his disciples with photographs of women artists. “The most negative aspect of organized religion, for me,” says Edelson, “was the positioning of power and authority in the hands of a male hierarchy that intentionally excluded women from access to these positions…[The work] gave me a double pleasure of presenting the names and faces of the many women artists who were seldom seen in the art world of 1972 as ‘the grand subject’—while spoofing male exclusivity in the patriarchy.”[ii] The resulting work showcases women in a male context and connects art with religion. The poster not only commemorates women artists but also highlights the struggles women have confronted in their professions. The act of women taking the place of men in an important historical painting overturns gender constructs. By appropriating the message of the male-dominated Last Supper painting, Edelson effectively asserts the voices of women and their place at the table.

Nnada Okumkpa (Senior Leader’s Mask)

The narrative content of objects is not necessarily fixed. Objects can convey different and new stories depending on their environment, use, and audience. Masks, for example, are not simply static images; they are imbued with social relationships and act as vehicles for powerful storytelling. Wooden masks were one of the many elements used in okumkpa, a masquerade tradition of the Afikpo of southeastern Nigeria.[iii] The play essentially functions as a community theater, touching on issues exclusively known to the people of the village. Although the play primarily ridicules and satirizes community members and relevant events, it offers moral commentary on how residents have behaved, establishing a standard for how they should behave. The masked players embody mma, a type of spirit intended to protect the players and provide them the freedom to perform without restraint. The senior leader of the performance would wear the Nnada Okumkpa, direct the skit, and narrate the action. When the masks became animated, they interacted with the viewer and situated him as a participant in a performance. While admiring the staging of the masquerade performance on the fourth floor gallery, I overheard a visitor commenting to her friend, “I’m waiting for one of them to start moving.” Though still and silent, the mask in the museum is a suggestive remnant of the movement, sound, and drama of performance.

Visual storytelling involves an intimate interaction between an object and its audience. When we choose to become immersed in the objects, they bring out very personal responses. We may laugh, cry, or even critique the story we believe we see in the objects. Our engagement with art ultimately keeps the stories alive. I hope you will find a good story during your next visit to SAM!

—Fiona Dang, SAM Curatorial Intern

[i] Mertens, Joan R. How to Read Greek Vases. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010.
[ii] “Mary Beth Edelson.” Avalanche. 1973.
[iii] Ottenberg, Simon. Masked Rituals of Afikpo: The Context of an African Art. Seattle: The University of Washington Press, 1975.
Images: Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Work with schools : a librarian’s assistant telling a story to a group of Russian children in their native language, ca. 1910s.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed January 8, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-e5f7-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99. Black-Figured Amphora with Herakles and Athena, Greek, 6th C., B.C. Gift of Norma and Amelia Davis, 82.83, Photo:Natali Wiseman. Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper, Mary Beth Edelson, 1971. Purchased from artist by Seattle Art Museum, 98.14, Photo: Mark Woods. Nnada Okumkpa (Senior Leader’s Mask), Chukwu Okoro, Gift of Simon Ottenberg, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2005.42, Photo: Natali Wiseman.