This show-stopping bingata robe comes from Okinawa, the southernmost islands of Japan. With brilliant colors and a rhythmic pattern of cherry blossoms, swallows, irises, and flowing water, it is descended from an important textile tradition. See if you can spot it during your next visit to the Asian Art Museum, which reopens to the public at the end of May.
Bingata textiles are created with a paste-resist technique using either stencils or freehand motifs. The name refers to this process, not to the fiber or weave of the textile itself. This bingata robe is made of silk, but cotton and ramie were also used as a base. In paste-resist dyeing, a thick, water-soluble paste is applied to a textile in order to keep pigment or dye from coloring selected areas. For bingata, this paste is traditionally made from a cooked rice flour mixture. When the paste is dry, multiple layers of pigment are then brushed onto the open areas with thick, short brushes. Once the pigment has dried, the resist paste is washed away but the color remains. The process can be repeated many times to create detailed designs of many colors.
Okinawa was an independent kingdom known as Ryukyu until it was formally annexed by Japan in 1872. In 1879, Japan’s central government abolished the Ryukyu monarchy and renamed the region Okinawa. Under the Ryukyu monarchy, the production and consumption of bingata was tightly connected to the royal court. Expensive and labor-intensive, bingata was reserved for members of the monarchy. Family workshops, patronized primarily by the royal family, produced bingata from start to finish. The large-scale pattern and yellow ground of this striking robe are characteristic of the garments worn by the highest-ranking members of the Ryukyu royal family.
When the Ryukyu monarchy was abolished, bingata was in danger of disappearing. Without the patronage of the royal family, bingata production collapsed. In the following decades, increasing popularity of western-style dress and the violent conflicts of World War II (some of which occurred on Okinawa) further diminished interest in traditional textiles like bingata. After World War II, descendants of bingata family workshops worked to revive the craft. The patterns of bingata were applied to objects other than garments, including folding screens, greeting cards, calendars, and placemats. Today, Okinawan makers apply the colors and patterns of bingata to a range of garments and accessories in an expression of regional identity.
– Rachel Harris, SAM Asian Art Conservation Associate
 Rathburn, William Jay. “Okinawan Weaving and Dyeing,” in Beyond the Tanabata Bridge: Traditional Japanese Textiles (Thames and Hudson/Seattle Art Museum, 1993), 196.
Images: Lined robe, early 20th century, Japanese, plain weave silk crepe with paste-resist stencil decoration (Oki., bingata) lined with modern replacement silk broadcloth, 47 3/4 in. long (from collar) x 43 in. wide, Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, 89.155. Paper stencil (katagami), late 19th century, Japanese, mulberry bark paper treated with persimmon juice and silk thread, 19 x 14 1/2 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.1782
When I first saw this Javanese sarong on display, its indigo dye was its commonality with other works on view in the 2016 Seattle Asian Art Museum exhibition, Mood Indigo: Textiles from Around the World. The label for this particular textile was striking: “step into a sarong and you enter via a network of symbols that support your place in a cosmic sacred landscape.”
Every label for Mood Indigo, written by Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art,was beautifully informative and poetic, but this sarong was more than a costume or uniform: It promised to be fully transportive—beyond Earth—while recalling living things on our planet, with its plants and depiction of night and day. It is replete with delicate flowers on the trim, intricately veined flora against a dotted night sky, and a lighter sky contoured with broad diagonal lines, with butterflies and birds with trailing tails.
Batik—the Indonesian textile-based process in which designs are applied with wax to cloth that is then dyed—is a celebrated Javanese cultural tradition practiced on a national scale. In its early history, however, batik designs were tightly regulated as a court art, with certain designs reserved for reigning Javanese families to wear, signifying and legitimizing their power within a kingdom. To describe batik as only an aesthetic demonstration of the wearer’s authority, however, falls short of its greater ambitions as a means of contributing to the balance of the cosmos.
Very generally speaking, in the context of the universe within ancient Javanese culture, bringing society to align with the harmony and balance of the cosmos also meant centering the aristocratic family, from which order and prosperity would follow. The practice of wearing certain batik designs differed between courts and regions, but certain symbols would be consistent, such as winged, long-tailed birds, indicative of royalty in reference to the prominent Hindu deity Vishnu, or his son, Skandi-Karkitteya. Patterns of plant life with animals, which were also part of the categories reserved for royalty, referred to fertility and the growth promised by Javanese sovereignty. The design might be dictated depending on the type of clothing (sarong were usually worn around the waist, and in full ensembles, with an accessory such as a type of knife known as a kris), and would complete a ritual ensemble aimed to place the wearer in greater cosmic alignment.
These traditions far preceded this 19th-century sarong. The early symbolism of batik design, and its regulation, was highly influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism, and was worn for a wide variety of ceremonies and more mundane purposes as well. By the time of the production of this particular sarong, Java would have already been colonized by Dutch and British rule, interrupting certain categories of batik design, though the original meaning of specific symbols would persist.
Given the centuries-long endurance of batik to its present-day status as emblematic of Indonesian culture (in Java in particular), its practice and lexicon of patterns are protected, and its practice widely encouraged. In 2009, batik was recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity from Indonesia.
Though it was not part of the original intention for this garment to be worn by just anyone, the transcendental state of being that was extended to the wearer asserts their place on a micro- and macro-cosmic scale: as participating in Javanese culture and sustaining Javanese traditions, as well as as their particular station in the broader context of the universe, as a point from which harmony and growth for a whole kingdom can emanate, wherever they go.
– Hannah Hirano, SAM Coordinator for Museum Services and Conservation
1 Robert Wessing, “Wearing the Cosmos: Symbolism in Batik Design,” Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 2, no. 3 (1986): pp. 40-82, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40860214.
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.
Come back to SAM! Seattle Art Museum is open and the Seattle Asian Art Museum is reopening to members May 7 and the public on May 28.. Both the Seattle Asian Art Museum and Seattle Art Museum are open at limited capacity, Fridays through Sundays, 10 am–5 pm. Outdoor spaces at the Olympic Sculpture Park remain open to the public with the PACCAR Pavilion closed for the time being.
We have carefully planned for our reopening in alignment with Governor Inslee’s guidelines for museums outlined in the Healthy Washington—Roadmap to Recovery plan. We ask our visitors to continue to comply with all COVID-19 directives and guidance issued by the Governor and relevant public health authorities to keep our community safe. Keeping SAM open is dependent on the latest guidance for the Puget Sound area and updates will be reflected here as they change.
Keep our community healthy! Please visit at another time if you:
Are feeling unwell
Have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or have any COVID-19 symptoms
Live with or care for someone who has been ill
Have recently been in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19
Seattle Asian Art Museum May 7–23: Open exclusively to SAM members! May 28–31: The public opening weekend kicks off with a free day on Friday, May 28. We will also extend hours to be open on Monday, May 31, for the holiday weekend.
Online Timed Tickets Required To allow for physical distancing, capacity will be limited and ticketing will be timed. Everyone must get tickets online in advance. Tickets will be released on a rolling basis weekly, every Thursday.
Print out your ticket at home or download to a smartphone. With fewer visitors in the museum, you’ll have an intimate art viewing experience.
SAM members are always free Members must get timed tickets online in advance. Not a member? Join today.
Our new ticketing system will look a little different and will require you to create a new password when using it for the first time. Once logged in your complimentary member tickets will be reflected in your cart. If you have questions about your membership or need assistance with tickets please contact us.
Accessibility Accommodations If you require accommodations, please contact customerservice@seattleartmuseumbefore your visit, as we may require advanced notice to provide certain accommodations.
Leave backpacks and bags larger than 11” x 15” at home Staffed coat check is closed and backpacks, large bags, or items bigger than 11″ x 15″ are not allowed. An unstaffed coat rack is available for patrons to use at their own risk at both the downtown and volunteer park locations.
Download a gallery map in advance To help create a contactless experience, we will not be distributing a printed map and guide. Download a map to your smartphone to use during your visit.
Park for less! The Russell Investment Center garage is $8 on weekends only, for up to 4 hours. Learn more Volunteer Park and surrounding street parking is free. Learn more
Recognize Risk SAM has implemented many safety measures and has a state-of-the-art ventilation system, but cannot guarantee zero risk; a risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public setting.
When You Arrive
Seattle Art Museum: Enter at First and Union. The south entrance (the Hammering Man entrance) and the South Hall will be closed. Seattle Asian Art Museum: Follow marked entrance and exit signs at front doors to maintain one-way visitor traffic and physical distancing.
Wear a mask Face masks will be required for all visitors over the age of two. Use of masks is mandated by the Governor and will be enforced; staff will confirm you have masks for every member of your party before you enter the building.
Check the entry time on your ticket Have your print-at-home or smart phone timed ticket ready to be scanned and be in line prior to your entry time. If you are more than 15 minutes late, we may not be able to accommodate entry.
Follow physical distancing guidelines One-way traffic flows and helpful guidelines throughout the museum will identify safe distances between visitors. Children must stay with adults at all times. Maintain a 6-foot distance from anyone outside your household. Physical distancing will be enforced.
Expect some areas to be closed Seattle Art Museum: The Italian Room will not be open to the public when we reopen. The Ann P. Wyckoff Education Resource Center, Bullitt Library, and children play areas will also be closed. TASTE Café will be closed. Seattle Asian Art Museum: The Education Studio, Community Gallery, Chen Community Meeting Room, and Library will be closed.
Prepare for limited capacity in restrooms Selected restroom stalls will be closed. Capacity limits will be posted on bathroom doors.
Wash your hands and use hand sanitizers We have instituted rigorous cleaning procedures using EPA registered disinfectants throughout the museum, with a special focus on high-touch and high-traffic areas and restrooms. We ask that you do your part by washing your hands frequently and using hand sanitizers located throughout the museum.
Expect a contactless experience Shared materials have been removed from the galleries and interactive touchscreens have been disabled.
Visit SAM Shop! The Seattle Art Museum Shop and Gallery and the Seattle Asian Art Museum Shop will be open with very limited capacity during museum operating hours to visitors with a ticket. Please visit SAM Shop if you need to purchase water during your visit.
Help Contact Tracing In alignment with guidance from the Governor’s Office and King County public health officials, SAM is storing ticket buyer information and requesting contact information for all visitors for contact tracing purposes. Learn more
Also please note that if we are unable to reopen or remain open as planned because of changes to public health guidelines, SAM will contact ticket holders via email to present options for moving tickets to a new day and time.
We have worked hard to make visitors and staff comfortable during their visit and hope to see you soon!
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