As we prepare to reopen the Asian Art Museum to the public on May 28, we’re sharing some of the work that has happened inside the museum while it has been closed. The Asian Paintings Conservation Center will not be open when we reopen, but there will be a monitor outside of it where you can learn more about what SAM staff is doing to ensure that Asian artworks are cared for and can be enjoyed by generations to come.
Though limited due to the pandemic, conservation activities have continued at the Asian Paintings Conservation Center. With generous, multi-year funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the staff has used this time to ensure the new center operates and is fully stocked with the specialized tools and materials required for the conservation of Asian paintings. Grant funding allowed the team to acquire pigments, tools, adhesives, technical furniture, and many different types of paper in anticipation of reopening.
While waiting, the studio has been used extensively by SAM’s conservation team. Chief conservator Nick Dorman used our new Leica stereo-binocular microscope to examine and document a late 14th-century Tibetan thangka painting scheduled for display. Consisting of pigments painted on a cotton support, the thangka depicts four mandalas, universes of Buddhist deities. To ensure the painting can withstand exhibition, Dorman examined it for evidence of flaking and lifting pigments, as well as delicate areas. He also examined and documented the condition of the cotton fabric support. Given the painting no longer has its original textile mounting fabrics, this work, as in many Western museums, is in a frame with a blue silk-covered mat. The current treatment constitutes the minimum necessary set of measures to ensure the painting is safe for display. The staff looks forward to doing more comprehensive research once the studio is fully operational. In the meantime, we can all look forward to exploring the dense imagery and exquisite detail of this thangka when the Asian Art Museum reopens.
Image: Four Mandalas, Late 14th Century, Tibetan, Watercolor on cloth, 27 x 23 1/4 in. (68.58 x 59.06 cm) Overall h.: 34 5/16 in. Overall w.: 29 5/8 in., Gift of Mrs. John C. Atwood, Jr., 66.120.
I hope I have made it clear that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect- completely removed in fact- even as we ourselves are.1
– Agnes Martin
In 1985, Agnes Martin painted Untitled #2. In her distinctive six-feet by six-feet scale, the painting’s composition balances washes of soft color with hand-drawn horizontal graphite lines. Lean in to look closely and you can see the imperfections of a human hand drawing with pencil. Lean back and the painting surrounds you with atmospheric bands of color and space.
This poem, like the paintings, is not really about nature. It is not about what is seen. It is what is known forever in the mind.2
– Agnes Martin
Martin believed that who we are shapes what we see. She thought that paintings could provide transformative and non-prescriptive experiences for the viewer. In her writings, she described that “the life of the work depends upon the observer, according to his own awareness of perfection and inspiration.”3 Rather than asking the artist, “What does this painting mean?” Martin asks the viewer to consider, “What does this painting mean to you?”
When we live our lives it’s something like a race – our minds become concerned and covered over and we get depressed and have to get away for a holiday. And then sometimes there are moments of perfection and in these moments we wonder why we ever thought life was difficult.4
– Agnes Martin
When I first saw Untitled #2 hanging in SAM’s galleries, I felt peace and wonder. The simplicity of the repeating forms encouraged me to stay still. Martin once wrote she liked a painting “because you can go in there and rest.”Untitled #2 offered me that restful space––an opportunity to quiet the mind. I wonder as I write this, what this painting means to you. Is it one you walk by in the galleries or does it also draw you in? I like to imagine Martin would not care either way. She would just hope you found something that gives you a definite response, a moment of perfection, a chance to feel something new.
– Regan Pro, SAM Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Engagement
1 Agnes Martin, Writings, Pace Gallery, 1992, p. 15. 2 Agnes Martin, Writings, Pace Gallery, 1992, p. 15. 3 Ibid, p. 32. 4 Ibid, p. 31. 5 Ibid, p. 36.
SAM stands united with Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) and Asian immigrant families, friends, colleagues and communities locally and across the country, in the wake of rising violence against these communities over the last year and in the aftermath of the recent horrific shootings in Georgia that left eight people dead, six of whom were women of Asian descent. We join the larger Atlanta community and the country in mourning Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng.
In recognition of these lives taken so violently, we invite you to take a moment of silence on the steps of the Asian Art Museum. A community memorial will be available for the public to contribute to and visit from Noon on Saturday, March 27, through 5 pm Sunday, March 28.
As a global museum, we always turn to art and artists to contextualize challenging moments and examine our history and society. Experiencing and engaging with art brings new perspectives to light and broadens understanding across cultures. SAM’s collection was founded in Asian art by the museum’s first director, Dr. Richard E. Fuller. After expanding to downtown Seattle, the original home of SAM was rededicated in 1994 as the Seattle Asian Art Museum and a center of Asian art and ideas. SAM’s Asian Art Museum is the only one of its kind in the Pacific Northwest. We understand our role as stewards of not only art, but also as an important place for Asian communities to come together and where people from all backgrounds can experience and appreciate a wide range of rich Asian cultures.
In June 2020, following the killing of George Floyd and a massive social justice movement for Black lives, we were compelled to increase SAM’s commitment to combating institutional racism by establishing an Equity Task Force. This group of SAM board, staff, and community members worked over six months to conduct a self-assessment and provide recommendations for initiatives in specific operational areas. This work is ongoing as we continue to build on SAM’s commitment to fostering equity, diversity, and inclusion throughout the museum.
The recent shootings in Georgia and escalating incidents of anti-Asian violence in Seattle and elsewhere strengthens SAM’s commitment and resolve to becoming an anti-racist institution. This is some of the most pressing and important work we are undertaking. As we take steps towards evaluating where we can improve and how we can better support the communities around us, the large and diverse Asian populations in Seattle and the surrounding areas, in addition to those on staff at the museum, are a crucial part of our conversations. SAM belongs to the communities it serves.
Support Asian cultural organizations in the Seattle area and get involved.
The most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan devastated the Tohoku (Northeast) region on March 11, 2011. The 9.0-magnitude temblor triggered a tsunami over 100-feet high, which in turn caused a meltdown at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Within just a few hours, several towns in the region were wiped off the map. It was horrifying.
The magnitude of the triple disaster was beyond measure, not only in terms of its physical devastation, but its psychological impact on Japanese people. Fears about radiation contamination are still present, even today. Many Japanese artists responded to the catastrophe in their own creative ways, but Kondo Takahiro (born 1958), a ceramic artist, was so shocked that he was unable to work for a while. He was compelled to think deeply about human survival and our relationship with nature.
Months later, Takahiro started making his Reduction series. Modelled on his own body, the sculptural figure sits in a meditative posture, as if in contemplation. According to the artist’s own commentary, the figure is pondering what the essence of the world is. He titled the series Reduction with a suggestion that devastating events like the 3.11 disaster could diminish the Japanese people. The glittery silver drops created by his patented “silver-mist” glaze can also be understood as a reference to the radioactivity in Fukushima. Between 2012 and 2017, Takahiro created 21 life-size ceramic sculptures for the Reduction series. Even though all 21 pieces were molded in the same shape, each figure has varied glazes, affording each its own unique look. The work in SAM’s collection is covered with a gray-green glaze, with a dripping bluish glaze throughout the surface—together, the combination recalls an ancient bronze vessel aged with patina.
Reduction is a timely work in response to disconcerting contemporary events, but the piece is also timeless, speaking eloquently to human conditions and our relationship with nature. It is currently displayed atop the restored 1933 fountain located in the heart of SAM’s Asian Art Museum: the Garden Court. Takahiro’s signature “silver-mist” glaze drips down the body like falling water, echoing the trickling water in the fountain. Natural light filters through the Garden Court ceiling, altering the sculpture’s color and appearance every instant. The setting resonates well with Reduction’s intention of examining our relationship with nature, as well as with the artist’s concept of ceramic art being a unity of water, fire, and earth.
As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 3.11 triple disaster, our battle against an unprecedented pandemic—one year after its outbreak—is not over. In such times of crisis, Reduction is a poignant reminder how fragile our world is, and how human beings have made it so.
– Xiaojin Wu, Atsuhiko & Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Foundation Curator of Japanese and Korean Art
Following the debut of the reinstalled and reimagined Asian Art Museum, SAM deepened its commitment to South Asian art by appointing Natalia Di Pietrantonio as the museum’s first-ever Assistant Curator of South Asian Art. In this new role, she’ll foster the next direction of the South Asian collection at SAM and collaborate with curatorial colleagues, especially Xiaojin Wu, Curator of Japanese and Korean Art, and FOONG Ping, Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art. Rachel Eggers, Associate Director of Public Relations, interviewed her to learn when she fell in love with South Asian art, her first exhibition for the museum, and the natural beauty of Seattle.
Tell us about your background and how you came to specialize in South Asian art.
I’ve loved art since I was very young and decided to study art history at UC Davis. During a required Asian art survey course, I found myself falling in love with South Asian art. It was completely unexpected! I had not been exposed to South Asian art before then, but starting with that one class it became my career.
I further developed this interest in the classroom of Heghnar Watenpaugh, a notable Islamicist who brought a gender studies approach to the study of art history. Based on a research paper that I wrote during one of Professor Watenpaugh’s courses, I decided to continue my studies and pursue graduate work at Columbia University. After completing a masters at Columbia, I completed a PhD at Cornell University. Both Columbia and Cornell have wonderful South Asian centers with excellent language programs, which were pivotal resources that enabled my research. After I completed my studies, I held two postdoctoral positions: one as the Consortium for Faculty Diversity Visiting Professor in South Asian Art History at Scripps College, and the other as a postdoctoral fellow at the Bard Graduate Center’s Islamic Art and Material Culture. Being hired in both South Asian and Islamic art history fields highlights my interdisciplinary training and diverse professional experience.
My personal and familial background is very different from my chosen career. Both of my parents were immigrants to this country: my father from Italy and my mother from Mexico. My mom in particular was very unsure of my chosen path in the arts but she remained supportive. As a museum curator, however, she recalls her own experiences in museums and sees a lot of value in my work bridging scholarship with community engagement and education through the arts.
Your inaugural exhibition for SAM at the Asian Art Museum, Skin as Allegory (working title), is tentatively scheduled for late 2021. How did you choose the focus for the show?
Due to Covid-19, we’ve had to be nimble. Initially, my first show would have concentrated solely on our historical permanent collection. However, as I became more aware of the important holdings within the private collections of the Seattle community, I expanded the theme of the exhibition to weave in these special works. Skin as Allegory will be the first special exhibition at the Asian Art Museum that blends contemporary and historical objects from South Asia. It will explore visual practices that contain representations and refigurations of the human body, featuring objects from the 3rd millennium BC to present day in a range of diverse material such as terracotta, bronze, metal, painting, and textiles.
You’ll see the poignant works of Chila Kumari Burman (b. 1957) and F.N. Souza (1924-2002) who were active members of British Black Arts Movement after they immigrated to London. In their work, they connect the representation of the body to the broader development of feminist, gender, and racial justice as they struggled against anti-Black racism as South Asians in England. Through their art, they fought for social and racial justice on behalf of communities who were part of the British crown’s former colonies, including those from Africa and Asia. Alongside these exciting loans will be works from our permanent collection, such as photographs by Pushpamala, whose work restages herself and her body to question gender norms in religious and national mythologies within the Indian public sphere.
As you see it, what is the future of this newly formed curatorial department at the Seattle Art Museum?
The future of the South Asian collection is in the hands of all of you! I see my role as an educator, facilitator, and more importantly someone who cares for the collection. I have many ideas of how we can grow the collection while at the same time balancing the need to do justice to our current permanent collection. I have devoted the majority of my career to the study of South Asian objects and have the privilege of working on behalf of this collection everyday. However, I also work on behalf of the public; curators do not act alone. Internally, we work in teams with wonderful colleagues. Externally, we speak and network with many students, collectors, donors, and art lovers.
SAM is the largest museum in the Pacific Northwest, and I have a duty to preserve and honor the current South Asian collection. At the same time, I need to explore how the collection can better reflect the Pacific Northwest community in all of its diversity. For instance, we can become a center for South Asian folk art, showcase more contemporary South Asian female artists, or highlight more artworks in new media to reflect this tech city. It’s a yes/and, not an either/or. I look forward to holding conversations with all of you about how you would like me to honor and grow the South Asian collection.
This exciting new position at SAM came at a very challenging moment in the world. How has it been for you, joining the museum in the midst of a global pandemic?
The SAM staff has been very welcoming. But it has been somewhat difficult to connect with the rest of the Seattle community. The general public is integral to curatorial practice. As a nonprofit, SAM holds its art collection in a public trust. For my work to be meaningful, it has to reflect public needs and desires. For the safety and health of everyone during the pandemic, we must all physically distance ourselves based on the information and advice coming from public health experts. Right now, a large part of my job as a curator and cultural facilitator cannot be undertaken in the usual manner of one-to-one meetings or large group gatherings.
So I, along with the rest of the SAM team, have moved to digital platforms to continually serve the public and bring art into your homes. I have also embraced more of the research aspect of my job, such as writing and researching on SAM’s permanent collection, since it can be undertaken in a more isolated fashion. In this regard, I recently published a research article in one of the most influential journals in my field, Modern Asian Studies. I look forward to the day when we can all safely be in front of the art again and develop more lively connections.
Tell us what you’ve been enjoying about Seattle so far. Any favorite places or experiences?
I have been enjoying the natural beauty of Seattle, waking up everyday to the sight of snowcapped mountains and the Puget Sound. As a former Californian, I forgot how much I missed seeing the mountains everyday! To live with such beauty is truly a gift. To soak up the sunshine as much as possible, I’ve been taking long walks to the Arboretum. My favorite place in Seattle so far is Golden Gardens Park. Any place where I can see and hear the ocean will forever be my favorite place to be.
This newly-created position would not be possible without the vision and generosity of the following individuals
Mimi Gardner Gates Anu and Naveen Jain Rajesh Jha and Sudha Mishra Shirish and Mona Nadkarni Sanjay Parthasarathy and Malini Balakrishnan Suri and Mala Raman Darshana Shanbhag and Dilip Wagle Gursharan and Elvira Sidhu Rubie and Pradeep Singh Narender and Rekha Sood Vijay and Sita Vashee
Skin as Allegory Supporting Sponsor Blakemore Foundation
Artist Andy Warhol said, “Everybody has their own America, and then they have the pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there, but they can’t see…” Before getting started, it’s important to acknowledge the America that I live in: I am a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied woman who was born in the northeast United States during the 1980s. I am looking at a work of art created by Kerry James Marshall: a Black, cis-gendered, able-bodied man who was born in the segregated South during the 1950s. Both Marshall and I are artists and educators, but sadly I don’t have a MacArthur Genius Award or paintings in any major museums. I’ll be approaching this work of art using my own lens and the same facilitation strategy I use for my (now virtual) tours of SAM’s collection: Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). VTS is used to spark dialogue and empower people to approach a work of art using their own observations and experiences, asking three simple questions. I encourage you to follow along and ask yourself these questions, noticing where our backgrounds may overlap or differ.
The first question of VTS is, “What’s going on in this picture?” This is a portrait of a young boy––his skin is a rich, dark black matte, and his features are defined by white outlines. He has heavy-lidded, almost tired eyes and his mouth is neutral, conveying an expression that is difficult to read. Radiating outward from his head are straight thin lines, evocative of a halo. The background is divided horizontally: the bottom third is a golden color, almost a desert landscape; the top is a deep blue overlaid with white shapes, bringing to mind a sky with clouds, though closer inspection reveals that the organic shapes are actually white roses. The paint looks to be hastily applied, as evidenced by the drip down the forehead of the young man. The drip, although white, mimics blood, similar to depictions of Christ or another martyr and links this to religious iconography.
The next question, “What do you see that makes you say that?” challenges our assumptions and biases. As we conclude Black History Month after a year of increased visibility in mainstream media of the racial inequities for Black Americans, I’ve seen myself get caught up in the imagery of Black trauma, recounting video and photos of the brutal murders of Brianna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Aubrey. I start to wonder if calling this Black figure a martyr is Marshall’s intention, or my own prejudice? Marshall’s own words confirm that I need to dig deeper: “I paint things I care about. It would have been easy to represent these places (and situations) as zones of hopelessness and despair, but I know they’re more complex than that.”
As I read the label, the curatorial voice chimes in and indicates that Marshall is memorializing Black boys who have lost their lives, stating that the leading cause of death for young, Black men is homicide. In fact, when comparing statistics among racial groups, Black youth (0-18 years old) are seven times more likely to die by homicide than white youth. As an educator, I also can’t help but think about the school-to-prison pipeline and the fact that Black students are three and half times more likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled, and that Black youth disproportionately make up those youth incarcerated in juvenile detention centers.
The final question is, “What more can we find?” The language here is intentional—creating meaning is a generative process. This is where, if I were actually speaking to people, I would hear different perspectives and my understanding of a work would evolve. However, when at home, I take this question as an invitation to start researching. After procrastinating on this blog post, watching hours of interviews with Marshall, I was especially struck by one quote by the artist: “If you’re constantly being reminded of the ways in which your history and your narrative as a people were rooted in loss and decay, then you’re in deep trouble. Once you make a certain kind of peace with the past, then you should be completely oriented towards speculation about the future.”
I challenge my initial response to this work. I start to see glimmers of hope in the white roses— symbols of youth, innocence, and new beginnings. I begin to unpack the ways that this painting may embody Afrofuturism, the cultural movement that explores the intersection of the African diaspora with technology, science, and liberation. A few Google searches quickly link the Eurocentric religious iconography that I saw in my art history classes to contemporary icons such as Solange Knowles’s appearance on SNL
In asking, “What more can we find?” we open ourselves up to dialogue and start to imagine a different world, a different America––maybe one that’s fantasy, or maybe one that could be our reality? Marshall’s work gives me hope and I’m reminded of the contemporary author and educator bell hooks’s words, “The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is––it’s to imagine what is possible.”
– Kelsey Donahue, SAM Assistant Manager for Gallery Learning
The Friday Foundation has gifted 19 significant Abstract Expressionist artworks from the Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection to SAM. In recognition of this occasion, SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Catharina Manchanda, sat down with Lyn Grinstein, President of the Friday Foundation, to discuss the gift’s impact, her late mother and stepfather Jane Lang Davis and Richard Lang, and their love for Seattle and the Seattle Art Museum.
Catharina Manchanda: Tell us a little bit about the history of Jane and Richard Lang’s collection.
Lyn Grinstein: My mother had always been a visual arts person, but we had lived overseas most of our lives and moved a lot, so she didn’t have the chance to collect art. Dick cared deeply about Seattle and about the Seattle Art Museum, a critical pillar in the cultural community. When they married in 1966, my mother could finally settle down and Dick was about to discover contemporary art.
In 1968 they bought a house in Medina and spent the next two years completely remodeling it. By 1970 they were in a new house, with a new living room, and a new couch with a big empty wall above it. And Mom said to Dick, “I think we should get just one really good painting to put above the sofa.”
Dick had graduated from Stanford University and had made great connections there, so they went to his friend, Dr. Al Elsen, an eminent art historian in the Stanford Art Department. With his guidance, they ended up with their first acquisition, the 1951 Franz Kline masterpiece, Painting No. 11. The exhilaration of learning, selecting, negotiating, and acquiring that first painting was addicting, and they were hooked, eventually filling their house with art.
Manchanda: Tell us a little bit about watching the house gradually fill up with art. What was it like from your perspective?
Grinstein: Mom and Dick had a wonderful time with it. We would all gather when a new crate arrived, and I remember particularly when the Adolph Gottlieb was delivered. It came shortly before Christmas, and when I saw it, I said, “It looks like a great big Christmas decoration with that beautiful red burst.” Mom gave me this, “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that” look.
Her office—where that ferocious 1960 Lee Krasner, Night Watch, and the brutally self-confrontational 1976 Philip Guston, The Painter, were facing each other—had been converted from a two-car garage, so the ceilings were low, and the room felt compressed. She enjoyed the tension between these two floor-to-ceiling tough paintings.
She created a mood of peace for the bedroom. Joan Mitchell’s The Sink was installed over the bed and dominated the room, flanked by Helen Frankenthaler’s contemplative Dawn Shapes. My mother and I sat on that bed, in front of that Mitchell and discussed every important decision in my life from the time I was 33 years old.
Manchanda: The Alberto Giacometti always looked so gorgeous in the living room near the windows.
Grinstein: Giacometti’s slender Femme de Venise II looked exactly like my mother. When they acquired it, she had that same hairstyle, and she had those long hands and legs and elongated body. I have a photo of her with her hair just like the Femme, standing in that living room in that same spot when the house was first completed.
Manchanda: What attracted Dick and Jane to these artists?
Grinstein: Abstract Expressionist art is so profoundly raw. When you think about the artists who were producing it, they were part of a community comprising intellectuals, many of whom had fled the most awful horrors in Europe. In America they had found a place where they could continue their rigorous inquiries without fear. That whole community—writers, architects, musicians, visual artists—met and exchanged ideas, each intensifying and clarifying the concepts of the other.
I think that was what attracted Mom and Dick to it. Neither one of them was a sentimental person. They were both smart, thoughtful, gutsy, and had lived through the Great Depression and World War II. They were strong people and the art they loved was created by equally strong people.
Manchanda: Dick and Jane were longtime SAM Trustees and it’s extraordinary that this collection is coming to SAM at this time. What do you think their hopes were for SAM and the city of Seattle?
Grinstein: When they were collecting in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Northwest was considered a young, quickly-evolving region. Some people really cared about experiencing and sharing art, like Jinny Wright and Mom. And some, like Dick, cared especially about the civic progress and had high aspirations for the city. He knew that a world-class museum would be essential to Seattle’s evolution.
As trustees of the Friday Foundation, our assignment is to consider all the expressed intentions and indications of the benefactors throughout their lives, and work to realize them today. Those intentions had to then be transformed through significant gifts to fulfill their vision. And the big vision was that Seattle would be a globally important player, and the visual and performing arts would be critical contributors, attracting international recognition.
The Langs hoped that the most significant artworks in their collection would join others already at SAM, and those yet to be given from the region’s premiere collections. They knew that the extraordinary quality of these works together would enable SAM to mount internationally significant exhibitions, for SAM as well as in partnership with their peer institutions around the world. If we do a good job, these works will provide an emotional and intellectual escape from the noise of everyday life.
Let’s bring everyone in and invite them to get inside themselves. That’s what these paintings can do for us if we give them time and quiet attention. They will talk back to you. Find the fire of the Clyfford Still, the calm of the Mitchell, the twilight of the Mark Rothko. These are powerful human emotions, and they are just under the surface of these objects. But it takes time, and it takes the commitment of the viewer to linger and absorb the emotions within these works. We hope everyone who passes through the galleries at SAM will give themselves the precious gift of lingering with these distinguished and profound objects.
Family festivals at the Seattle Asian Art Museum connect families with performances, art activities, and other programming related to SAM’s Asian art collection. While our Asian Art Museum remains closed, families at home can make art and learn more about Asian art, as well as our wonderful community partners.
Lunar New Year typically falls sometime between January 21 and February 20 each year. The holiday, which marks the first new moon of the lunisolar calendar, is celebrated in many places throughout Asia and in Seattle. In past years, SAM has celebrated Lunar New Year with families at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in February. The event has featured performances from Hengda Dance Academy, Mak Fai Kung Fu & Lion Dance Team, Junhong Kung Fu Club, and more. In addition to these performances, Seattle-based teaching artists have led original art activities for attendees throughout the day.
Although we won’t be celebrating at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in person this year, we’re excited to present a video from Ray Yang, one of our past Lunar New Year Family Festival teaching artists, that leads families through an activity at home. Thanks to a grant from the Freeman Foundation, SAM is able to provide a limited amount of art kits to families completing this activity at home! If you would like to receive a free art kit in the mail, please send your name and mailing address with the subject line “Lunar New Year” to FamilyPrograms@seattleartmuseum.org by February 28, 2021.
ART ACTIVITY: THE GREAT RACE AND COMICS
For ages 6-10+
About the Chinese Zodiac
The Year of the Ox began yesterday, February 12. The ox is one of twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac. Ever wonder how the order of the animals in the Chinese zodiac were determined? One of the most popular legends relates the tale of a great race decreed by the Jade Emperor to decide the order of the animals. Learn a bit more about the race and how to draw three of the animals in the race: the ox, the rat, and the tiger, the first three animals in the cycle. We will then create a story with the three of them as a comic strip! The great race is an important part of Chinese history, and understanding the story and how it shapes the zodiac is important. But it’s also fun to create stories that play with different outcomes or paths that the characters could have taken. That’s what we can do as artists today.
Extension: Construction paper, scissors, glue stick, markers, googly eyes.
To create our comic, we will use a few important comic concepts: Characters, Panels, Setting, Dialogue, and Action!
Characters: Begin by drawing the ox. Next up is the rat. And finally the tiger! Now that you’ve got the three characters down, show them in a series of three panels as part of the race.
Panels and setting: Comic artists use panels with borders to contain the action in their drawings — sometimes the action even breaks out of the panels! What setting do you put the characters in? Are they racing across a river like the great race story? Do they race through the streets of Seattle instead? Or on a race course?
Dialogue: What about dialogue? That’s the words that the characters say to each other. Is there conversation between the animals? Comic artists often contain these words in word balloons! Draw some balloons for your dialogue!
Action: And finally, what is the action that’s taking place? How do they end up as the first three finishers? Or maybe they finish in a different order in your race. You get to decide the story!
Extension: Create a paper ox, rat, and tiger out of paper! The process is similar to the creation of our drawings, except you will be creating these shapes with cut paper. You can then glue the cut shapes onto a background or setting to create a scene, or even move them around as paper doll type figures to act out different race outcomes.
February 16, 2021 is Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans, Louisiana. This year there can be no public celebration. We offer these images and statement with thanks to the Mardi Gras Indians for the renewal they have given us in the past and soon to come again.
This finely beaded patch is a picture reflecting the quiet side of its maker, Larry Bannock, and the clear mind required to be a leader of the New Orleans “Mardi Gras Indians.” Larry was Big Chief of the Golden Star Hunters. The stillness of the scene in this patch is not what Larry and others show to spectators. Their experience is only the huge, colorful “suits” with patches, plumes, satins, rhinestones and the drums, song, and dance. Many in the Northwest looked with awe and admiration at one of Larry Bannock’s suits, which was shown in the 1992 SAM exhibition, Caribbean Festival Arts.
We can take a patch and put it on the wall but need to go further to know why it was created. Mardi Gras Indians perform in their suits. This is theater in the street. Each man, woman, and child in a suit has a role. Many have massed (masqueraded) as Indian most of their lives. They have learned the signals and music. The songs are known to every group, or “gang.” Some are popularized through recordings by New Orleans singers like the Neville Brothers, whose uncle was a Big Chief. Each member of the gang perfects the performance routines during the Sunday practices.
Before all the celebration and drama, there must be the Big Chief, and all those in the gang who will make a suit that year, who sit quietly for hours, day after day sewing their patches and making other parts of their suit. Friends and family can help with building it or ruffling or might pay part of the bill. Larry’s suit each year cost thousands of dollars and weighed over 125 pounds.
When first arriving in Larry’s sewing space to interview him, I looked at his massive hands and fingers and wondered how he could hold the tiny needle with long silk thread and guide it through tiny beads. I saw his fingers messed up from months of being punctured by needles. He was a large, powerful looking man, but there he was, sitting alone, sewing a patch for Mardi Gras. To Larry and other Black Indians, Mardi Gras is not another party. He said, “It’s like your heart and soul.” Larry spoke of a spirit from the Native American past that took over.
Larry repeated all his life that they are honoring Native People. Many today claim both African and Native American ancestry. The first slave ship in New Orleans arrived in 1719. After that some Africans and Native People escaped Europeans and sought refuge with the other group. Lithographs from the 1700s on depict Africans and Native People together.
Larry was clear that what they are doing is not an imitation of Native People or their traditions. Nor are they copying African beading or performance traditions or those of the Caribbean. They may be inspired or revealing an unconscious connection to them, but in honoring their ancestors the Mardi Gras Indians are creating something new.
Over time, as the gangs evolved, competition between the groups came to be aesthetic and the suits increasingly elaborate. Each one wants to “be prettier” than everyone else. Larry laughed at what this competition had become: “If the real Indians had to wear all this to go into battle, boy, Custer woulda won. It’s true! I mean, you’re weighed down. If the real Indians were like the Indians we masin now, if they had to stay up there all night sewin’ and doin’ all this, Custer woulda won the Battle of Little Big Horn.”
The tradition continues to evolve today. Those sewing now cannot resist the impulse to create something extraordinary, beautiful, strong, and joyful—something of pride for themselves and their neighborhood. It remains a powerful need that calls someone like a Larry Bannock to the sewing table, no matter the physical, mental, or financial cost.