Dr. Luisa Cortesi: The Art of Living with Floods

2022 has been a record-breaking year for floods across the planet, enveloping both urban and rural areas in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the US. This frightening fact leads us to wonder: How do we adapt to accelerating changes of climate and crisis?

In the nineteenth-century, Japanese polymath Minakata Kumagusu combined research in anthropology and local forms of knowledge to learn about the natural world. He campaigned to preserve local forms of knowledge while the Meji government favored European forms of academicism. And he did so as a scientist and a participant in local forms of knowledge.

Today, we find like-minded contemporary researchers and activists pioneering in the same spirit, gallantly moving through our challenged landscapes, cities, and neighborhoods while centering the work of local communities and their embodied knowledge of floods. Dr. Luisa Cortesi, Assistant Professor of the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, Netherlands, experienced one of history’s most disastrous floods while conducting research in North Bihar, India between 2007-2008. During her multi-year stint in the region, she reexamined the ecological systems of the river and the riverine land to better understand floods and the complex interconnections humans share with nature. Her academic contributions to natural disasters, floods, and resource access have won her many awards, including the 2017 Eric Wolf Prize in the field of Political Ecology, the PRAXIS award for outstanding achievement in translating anthropological knowledge into action, and the 2017-2018 Josephine deKarman fellowship.

On Saturday, November 12, Dr. Luisa Cortesi invites visitors to learn about her travels in the North Bihar region while expanding our knowledge of flood frequency, considering the connections between water and its surroundings. In advance of this third lecture in our 2022–2023 Saturday University Lecture Series, Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, spoke with Dr. Cortesi about her background, her thoughts on the equity of knowledge, and what you can expect at her upcoming talk.


HALEY HA: Tell us about your background. What led you to your current field of study?

DR. LUISA CORTESI: I grew up in small-town Northern Italy. To be precise, I grew up in the enclave of the racist party Lega Nord during the years of brutal rhetoric against Southerners, and partially in the South, from where my mother had migrated. In the North, I was considered a Southerner and was discriminated against beginning in kindergarten. In the South, I remained an outsider associated with Northern racists. This was probably why I started questioning the meaning of ‘community’ very early on. Not only did I realize I did not belong anywhere, but, more expansively, the categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’ never made any sense to me.

I remember my parents as unconventional, critical, outspoken, and possessing a passion for social justice. Despite living in a hostile setting, they refused to consider themselves victims or superior to anyone but treated their situation as analytically as possible. Now that I think about it, their discussions, stemming from very different cultural contexts, were fertile terrain for an anthropological initiation.

HH: How has your background influenced your research interests? 

LC: A factor that certainly influenced my current research was my lifelong reverence toward water. In the south of Italy, where we would visit my mother’s family for a few months each year, running water was available only in the very early hours of the morning, which influenced our day-to-day life greatly. Whenever we would travel north to south or vice versa, we would always stop at the main river in Italy, the Po, just to admire its magnitude and revel in its grandiosity. I also lived through different floods and other water troubles that inspired my future research. For example, I remember walking through a mud flood accompanied by a major blackout during my college years—although these were nowhere near as catastrophic as the major floods I lived through while in India.

Luisa Cortesi with the Megh Pyne Abhiyan teams who worked on the Dug-Well project.

HH: What was it like working with diverse communities in the North Bihar region of India?

LC: I have traveled in and out of India in different capacities since I was 21. I feel I came of age in India. While with local NGOs and local communities in the region—not through international organizations or funding agencies—I experienced several major floods, mostly by myself while possessing coarse language skills and important academic responsibilities. Living through those floods, instead of accepting the first opportunity to leave the region, as well as the development of ethnographic skills of connection and understanding, enabled my acceptance in those communities. I feel deeply indebted to the people of North Bihar for what they have taught me. North Biharis, regardless of their formal education level, are not only experts on matters of disastrous water as my talk will explain, but are barefoot philosophers in their own right. This is particularly the case for Dalit and Tribal communities, whose experiences of discrimination are atrocious, and yet whose wisdom in all matters of life and environmental management is unmatched.

HH: What actions or approaches have you found to be successful in helping to break through the silos of social and natural science, as well as western and traditional knowledge? 

LC: Every scientist has a specialized interest. It’s not easy to keep up with one field of research, let alone multiple. But in order to succeed, scientists need to develop deep relationships with others and a thorough understanding of those individuals collaboration would be useful. My training was unique in that it combined cultural and environmental anthropology with environmental studies and water sciences. I personally do not believe in a hierarchy of knowledge, nor in the opposition that exists between western versus traditional knowledge. Have you ever tried learning a language later in life? If so, you realize that this new knowledge is neither ‘western’ nor ‘traditional.’ Rather, it is both embodied and theoretical, and explicit and tacit at the same time. As humans, we must all deal with the challenges of the environments in which we live. Dividing knowledge of these environments will not elicit change.

HH: Can you elaborate on your thought on the issue around equity of knowledge?

LC: Poverty is not only about purchasing power and/or access to services. It is about the right to knowledge, and the protection of this knowledge not only from those who want to appropriate it, but also from those who want to cancel it. Without knowing how to go about in this world, we are reduced to pieces in a machine, dependent on the words of those in control, and unable to stand on our own, both as individuals and as place-based communities. 

HH: How do you spend your free time?

LC: I  have a lot of passions! I love learning new things, even if I’m not always successful. I recently began playing rugby, which I intend to continue as soon as my team members’ patience sticks extend long enough for me to internalize the sport. I also like to experiment in the kitchen, creating new unexpected combinations for seriously eccentric tastebuds. I am smitten by combined colors, but find myself most drawn to knitted textile designers. I spend at least one day per week outdoors, generally hiking, listening, or ocean gazing—it functions as a reset. 

But I am also passionate about a side of my work I don’t get to do as often as I’d like: applied anthropology. This looks like joining a community (broadly intended, including an organization) and figuring out how to help it with its challenges. I work pro-bono involved with organizations focused on water and environmental disasters because that is what I am most competent in. More broadly, I enjoy the challenge of combining analytical and organizational skills to support a set of people in reimagining their habitat or work.

HH: At the Water Justice & Adaptation Lab, you use the term “water justice.” Could you define it and explain how it fits into the realm of environmental justice?

LC: In my experience, environmental justice, while useful at a policy level, is too vague in its applicability to water problems. To live with water requires a specific set of expertise: the knowledge of where excess water is stored, where to find more of it, and how to distinguish different waters for different usages. Being formally trained in the water sciences through my Ph.D. helped me to understand the water knowledge of those with whom I lived through water disasters and who deal with water problems on a regular basis. So, the term ‘water justice’ intends to combine and cross-fertilize the knowledge of local communities, scientists, and policymakers on an even epistemological scale.

– Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Seattle Asian Art Museum

Photos: Luisa Cortesi, Water Justice & Adaptation Lab.

A Curator Reflects: An Exploration That Never Ends

As I write this, the first wave of visitors have finally experienced American Art: The Stories We Carry. This major reinstallation of our American art galleries has been two years (at least!) in the making and is the product of the work of a mighty team of collaborators, funded by generous grants from the Mellon Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art. 

The multiple crises of recent years, together with the museum’s commitment to equity, inclusion, and diversity have made it essential that we question and dismantle the biases and myths that have historically driven—whether intentionally or not—our understanding and presentation of American art at the museum. As a curator of American art with a degree in European art history and a career in museums from Houston to Honolulu, I know well that the art of the United States does not begin and end with the oceans that define its coastal borders. Indeed, American art is as multilayered as America itself. More a collective of regions than a homogenous whole, the geopolitical expanse now known as North America is home to numerous clearly identifiable, yet often intersecting, communities, each of which is mirrored in equally layered artistic traditions and cultural practices. 

To reflect and respond to the many-sidedness of American art, when embarking on this project we knew we needed to set aside art historical chronology and instead consider constellations of artworks from many different time periods and traditions. We immersed ourselves in the museum’s storage vaults, unearthing works that had not been exhibited in years—or, in some cases, ever—and contemplating the counterpoints they offered to the better known, classically canonical examples ordinarily on view in the museum’s American art galleries. These works speak volumes about the history of art at SAM and in this region, and they shed light on the communities that have been historically excluded in traditional narratives of American art.

Theresa Papanikolas & Barbara Brotherton at the opening of The Stories We Carry on October 20, 2022.

My use of the word “we” is intentional: Barbara Brotherton, SAM’s Curator of Native American Art, has been with me on this project every step of the way as a powerful ally in determining what American art can and should be at SAM. Over her 20 years at the museum, she has always been aware that Native American art is American art. Together, Barbara and I sought points of intersection between these two branches of the museum’s collection and for the first time envisioned a space in which they would intersect. Our work has been bolstered by a host of individuals—three artists, four interns, 11 advisors, and just about every museum department—all of whom brought knowledge that not only greatly enriched the project, but also established a collaborative model that will continue to shape exhibition planning at SAM.  

All of us are delighted to share The Stories We Carry with you! In our new galleries, you will see old favorites alongside new and unexpected surprises that show how ideas persist across time and space and how history resonates in the present. And you will find curatorial interpretation (labels and wall texts) together with video clips from artists and experts—“living labels”—whose wisdom and perspective adds nuance to the objects on view. I’m also thrilled by the in-depth exhibition website, which brings you into the process with a project timeline, quotes, photos, and inspiring videos featuring our collaborators sharing their perspectives.

The Stories We Carry has definitely been a rich and rewarding journey. We invite you to now make it your story.

– Theresa Papanikolas, SAM Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art

Images: Alborz Kamalizad.

Introducing American Art: The Stories We Carry at SAM

This week, SAM will enthusiastically reopen its American art galleries, revealing new perspectives on our collection, commissioned work from celebrated Northwest artists, and paintings restored by our conservation team. But the purpose of this update is much more significant than simply presenting a new array of must-see art.

This project, funded primarily by the Mellon Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art, has been an energizing, collaborative, and thoughtful exploration of what American art is today. To execute this examination, we assembled a paid advisory circle of 11 community leaders and artists to provide valuable feedback as we reinterpret our collection to meet the present moment and acknowledge the evolving definition of American art.

“With inclusivity as one of our values, we felt the urgency to take the collection and hold it accountable to that mission,” says Theresa Papanikolas, SAM’s Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art.

The new galleries, titled American Art: The Stories We Carry, will present the collection thematically and across time periods and feature works by nationally renowned local and national artists long overdue for closer examination within the American context. This includes moving objects from SAM’s Native American art collection into the American art galleries—previously dominated by the work of white artists—for the first time.

“We acknowledge that we must change all aspects of our practice as an institution of privilege and one that cares for the belongings of others,” says Barbara Brotherton, SAM’s Curator of Native American Art.

Also on view will be newly commissioned works by Native artists Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke) and Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Unangax̂), a themed gallery curated by Seattle artist Inye Wokoma, and a dedicated gallery for rotating series of temporary installations exploring fresh perspectives on American art. The first of these installations will feature 15 prints from Jacob Lawrence’s series The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Visit American Art: The Stories We Carry at SAM’s downtown location beginning October 20 and experience a more thorough representation of the past, present, and future of American art.

– Kat Bryant Flaherty, SAM Director of Marketing & Communications

This article first appeared in the July through September 2022 article of SAM Magazine and has been edited for our online readers. Become a SAM member today to receive our quarterly magazine delivered directly to your mailbox and other exclusive member perks.

Image: L. Fried.

Become a SAM Volunteer!

SAM is now in search of passionate and outgoing volunteers to help in all aspects of the museum’s operations. SAM volunteers support the museum and its programming through their love of sharing art experiences with visitors, staff, and each other. Volunteer responsibilities include welcoming visitors at SAM’s downtown location, leading tours at the Olympic Sculpture Park, making art with families at the Seattle Asian art Museum, researching our collections, and more!

Apply today to become a SAM volunteer and join a team of dedicated volunteers who support SAM in its mission to connect art to life.

But, don’t just take it from us, hear it directly from a SAM volunteer! Kimber Bang, a longtime volunteer with over 1,300 hours of service donated since 2013, about her experiences as a SAMbassador, libraries volunteer, and member of SAM’s Volunteer Association Executive Committee spoke with SAM about why everyone should become a SAM volunteer.

Being a SAM volunteer for the past several years has led me to develop a new appreciation for museums and how they operate. Having no previous or formal arts education, it is a rare and enriching educational experience to receive training by SAM curators and staff on ongoing exhibitions and installations. The staff are always very friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful, and I always look forward to coming in and seeing their familiar faces. It’s been a treat to engage with visitors and staff while roaming the galleries and being one of the first to see all of the fabulous art on view.

As a volunteer, I also hear about upcoming programming before anyone else and get to attend for free. It is easy to plan ahead and join in in all of the great activities the museum has to offer. I have attended several events including SAM Remix, Party in the Park, curator lectures, and opening night celebrations. I encourage everyone to consider becoming a SAM volunteer and immerse themselves in Seattle’s arts community.

– Kimber Bang, 2013–2022 SAM Volunteer

– Danie Allinice, SAM Manager of Volunteer Programs

Celebrating Native Women and Youth

One sunny Saturday in June, the Seattle Art Museum’s Chase Open Studio, which has been mostly closed for the past two years due to COVID-19 safety precautions, sprung to life. Convivial sounds echoed in the hall, people greeted each other exuberantly, the marble staircase produced perfect clacking noises as tiny, shiny shoes jumped down them, and photographer Holli Margell made gentle coos to get the attention of little models and their family members.

The scene was a photoshoot celebrating Seattle-area tribal communities and urban Indian communities. More than 70 mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, grandmas, and children came from near and far to sit for a portrait. The models dressed in a variety of clothing from traditional regalia to a t-shirt and jeans. Some posed alone while others gathered in multi-generational groups of as many as 10.

These stunning portraits of Native women and youth will be integrated by Apsáalooke artist Wendy Red Star into a commissioned artwork for American Art: The Stories We Carry, SAM’s updated American art collection opening on October 20. The reinstallation expands the vision of how art depicts the American experience, with Wendy Red Star’s artwork serving as a welcome to visitors at the entrance of the American art galleries.

“At the core of Wendy Red Star’s artistic process is engagement and community,” says Barbara Brotherton, SAM’s Curator of Native American Art. “She foregrounds the voices of others as a means of revealing the complexity of Native identity.”

This shoot, and the examination of the definition of American art, are examples of SAM’s equity goals in action. SAM relies on its collection, exhibitions, and artists to reflect its institutional values of fostering equity and inclusion throughout the museum and its local community.

“At Wendy’s photoshoot, the Seattle Art Museum came alive with people sharing their stories—where they come from, who their ancestors were, special things about what their families are involved with,” says Brotherton. “It felt like a moment of connecting and healing after the long, challenging time of the pandemic.”

– Kat Bryant Flaherty, SAM Director of Marketing & Communications

This article first appeared in the October 2022 through January 2023 article of SAM Magazine. Become a SAM member today to receive our quarterly magazine delivered directly to your mailbox and other exclusive member perks.

Images: L. Fried.

What Is Possible: Emerging Arts Leader Intern Lena Ishel Rodriguez Reflects

The first time I came to the Seattle Art Museum was in 2020. I was just starting my Master’s program at the University of Washington and I was missing home more than ever before. The first time I walked through Cosmic Beings in Mesoamerican and Andean Art, I was looking for home. That searching is what guided me to apply for the Emerging Arts Leader Internship—I wanted to help to create a bit of home for myself and other Latin Americans when they visit the Seattle Art Museum. 

From the very start of my internship, I knew I wanted to bring contemporary art and music into the space to reinvigorate the gallery. Ancient art often feels far away from contemporary life, particularly for those from a diverse community that has lived through several colonizations, displacements, and major transformations.

One of the biggest questions I had in starting this internship was scale—how much could I reasonably do over two months? Having worked in museums and non-profits now for over 7 years I know how important this question is. I had and continue to have a lot of ideas for the space, but I am very conscious of being one person that can only do so much. The initial part of my internship was spent getting to know the Seattle Art Museum and dreaming up what can be done, what has been done, and what is possible.

Eventually, and with a lot of help from my supervisors Pam McClusky, Barbara Brotherton, and Ramzy Lakos, we scaled my project to focus on one artwork in Cosmic Beings in Mesoamerican and Andean Art. I chose a Mayan work, Relief Panels (Door Reveals) (ca. AD 550-950), because it is positioned at the center of the exhibition. Originally being a lintel (a horizontal support in a doorway), it would have been one of the first artworks someone would have seen when entering a palace or temple. Around this one work, I developed a smartphone tour, a verbal description, an in-gallery presentation, a new wall label, and educational resources for the piece. It was important to me to create and explore a variety of different ways for visitors and staff and to connect with the work and show how ancient artworks can be activated.

An important part of developing this interpretive content for Relief Panels (Door Reveals) was consulting with other experts. Mary Miller, Meghan Rubenstein, and Virginia Miller were invaluable in the help and enthusiasm they provided. For the smartphone tour’s music, I brought in Juan Francisco Cristobal, my friend, former colleague, and Q’anjob’al Maya UCLA Ethnomusicology doctoral candidate. I also selected two paintings from the Arte Maya Tz’utuhil collection, available online as part of the Latin American Cultural Center’s Maya Spirituality: Indigenous Paintings 1957–2020 exhibition.

Another key part of my research was conducting an expansive review of work in the Northern Maya area during the Late Classic Period in topics varying from architecture to ethnobotany. There were a lot of moving parts in this project and learning how to balance everything was an interesting challenge that I would not have been able to do without the support of SAM staff. 

The opportunity to engage with an artwork that is a part of my heritage has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my internship. Hope, pride, identity, memory, and healing are just a few words that come up for me; they are integral ideas that underlie everything I created. I hope that I made my community and family proud, and that the content I developed for Relief Panels (Door Reveals) can serve as a bridge to inspire all of SAM’s visitors. I hope everyone visits Cosmic Beings and spends time with its art, engages with the smartphone tour, and considers how the art connects to the thriving Latin American community today.

– Lena Ishel Rodriguez, SAM Emerging Arts Leader Intern

Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Remembering Thomas Barwick

In July, the Seattle arts community lost an influential leader, dedicated arts advocate, and SAM Honorary Trustee, Thomas Walker Barwick (1929–2022). For almost 50 years, Tom was a generous supporter within the SAM family, joining as a member in the 1970s and serving as a Trustee since 1992. From his leadership in founding SAM’s American art program to his continuous wise counsel, Tom’s unshakable commitment transformed SAM into the institution it is today. 

As a prominent collector in American art, Tom approached his collection with a scholarly passion and an instinct for the extraordinary. Alongside his late wife Ann, he spent half a century acquiring seminal works from 19th and early 20th century American artists. Together, the Barwicks were a pioneering force, always eager and determined to connect Seattle and SAM with great art. 

Tom was instrumental in the acquisition of some of SAM’s most iconic American works, including Raphaelle Peale’s Still Life with Strawberries and Ostrich Egg Cup and Albert Bierstadt’s stunning landscape Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast. In 2007, Tom solidified American art’s legacy at SAM for years to come by endowing the program’s curatorship as the Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art.

“Tom’s passion for and dedication to American art was a driving force behind the formation of SAM’s American art program,” said Theresa Papanikolas, SAM Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art. “He had a remarkable ability to connect people with the artists he loved. His eye for quality and significance was keen, and his personal art collection is exquisite. Tom was a great friend to the museum, and his legacy lives on in our continued commitment to American art.”

With endless enthusiasm and remarkable generosity, Tom uplifted our community with the art that inspired him. We are forever grateful.

Elevating the Spirit: Dr. Renée Cheng on Architecture’s Role in Our Lives

SAM’s Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas presents the 2022–23 season of the Saturday University Lecture Series, with nine talks by leading scholars exploring the social power of architecture. Renée Cheng, Dean of the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington and a catalyst for advocating diversity and inclusion in the field, kicks off the series on Saturday, September 10 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum with a discussion of cultural identities and their expression in the built environment. Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Asian Art Museum, spoke with Cheng about her background, why equity matters in architecture, and how architecture can respond to ecological concerns.

“Space and culture are interconnected—they shape and reflect one another. When we understand the cultural messages conveyed via sacred architecture, we become aware of how those messages are heard differently depending on cultural identity.”

– Dr. Renée Cheng

Haley Ha: Tell us about your background. How did you first become interested in architecture?

Dr. Renée Cheng: I grew up in the Midwest—the daughter of a painter and an engineer—and in so many ways architecture is something of a combination of the two. I always enjoyed making things when I was a child. I did a lot of painting and sculpture, but it was messy stuff. It wasn’t like a kit of Lincoln Logs or Legos; it was clay and paint and messy things that were much more open-ended in what they would lead to. So I wouldn’t say that it was a straight line to architecture by any means. I actually considered medicine at one point, but I grew into really understanding my passion for making things and making beautiful things.

Later, I started realizing that it had to do with spaces, not objects, and my focus shifted over time to be increasingly oriented towards people and the collaborative ways that you have to work to build buildings. I became more interested in the interaction between people aligning around shared goals for occupied spaces and the use of space and places. 

Courtesy of UW College of Built Environments.

Ha: How would you describe your work and research to someone who has never heard of the ideas you explore?

Dr. Cheng: I am an architect and I maintain my license, but I don’t build buildings. I don’t design buildings. I teach those that will be building buildings. I also study the field itself and look at ways that it could be more innovative and beneficial to more people. There’s a lot of the stereotype of an architect like Frank Lloyd Wright in a cape, working for wealthy clients, or even, you know, primarily working for a limited number of people. I am really trying to promote an idea of architecture that positively affects more people, the idea that a well-placed window to a view or a sequence of spaces that allow you to be part of a group ceremony can elevate the spirit. It’s something that an individual might be able to do, but working together with others, really understanding the different points of view that go into making a space that works for more than one person, creating a space that’s large, larger than what one person can build is really what I what I look at in in my work.

It was not a practice in the same way that an architect would practice in an office, where there are buildings that you can show and point to and say we did that; but it’s more of a development of programs and looking at ways that the entire discipline and profession can change. My work has been primarily US-based, but I look at a lot of international examples, often in terms of the way they incorporate new technologies or legal structures of financing that allow for different ways of working. So it encompasses more than just the practice of architecture itself.

Ha: You’re an advocate for diversity and equitable practices in the field of architecture and built environments. Can you briefly describe built environments in both research and practice? And what role does diversity, equity, and inclusion play in it?

Dr. Cheng: Built environments really include all of the areas that are not natural, that are actively built by shaping of land and the infrastructure. It includes smaller-scale spaces, rooms like where you woke up this morning, with a particular light condition and orientation, or the transit you use for shopping or working. The room that you were in, the living structure, the transit, the infrastructure were all planned. It’s part of a city that was planned.

Volunteer Park was planned and laid out in certain ways to emphasize or enhance certain aspects through the choice of what to plant. Some of it might have been growing here and preserved, and others might have been added. So there’s all those aspects of what makes up our built environment. They were all planned, designed, and executed. Someone had to figure out how to pay for it, had to logistically make it happen, and get all of the permissions to make sure that it would work and function in the way that it was intended.

Courtesy of UW College of Built Environments.

So, what role does diversity, equity, and inclusion play, when you think of that broad definition of built environments? Historically those designers were hired by a small group of people, often very wealthy, and the input was usually fairly limited. And so in the end you ended up with some really beautiful spaces and places for sure, but also certain decisions that really negatively impact communities—often communities of color—whether it was in the placement of highways or the general economic investment in affordable housing. You had a lot of communities that were left out and negatively impacted by architecture. And so what I have worked for is to find ways to include more voices, to include more factors. When we consider what is good design and to find ways that we can accomplish them effectively, not only economically but with sustainable and good practices.

Ha: In the past, architecture has been viewed as a male-dominated field. As an Asian American architect and a woman of color, what challenges have you faced in the field?

Dr. Cheng: There is a definite stereotype of architecture as a male-dominated field and definitely the dominant culture is white males; if you look across the leaders and award winners, they tend to be white men, especially in America. In my experience as a Asian American architect, I’m the first woman dean of the college. I’m the first person of color. But I’ve also been the first or often the only designer or practicing architect in a group of academics, academic architects, or woman in a very dominant technology-related field. So, quite often these are even more white male dominated than the general population of architects. I’ve definitely experienced being the only woman in the room. This can have some positives in that you get noticed, and some negatives in that you get scrutinized, or you sometimes feel like you’re speaking for an entire group and can be tokenized.

I’ve been committed to increasing the number of women in architecture in particular since I was in school. I had an experience when I was in graduate school, where our class was composed of about 30% women who went on to do amazing things like become firm leaders, these women were just really incredible. And there was a time in our graduate studies where there were no women faculty on a fairly large faculty group. And we talked to the dean about this, and his response was: there were no qualified women to hire for teaching, and that statement was so shocking to me, and made me renew a commitment that I think I hadn’t articulated before then to change that by setting up systems and programs that mentor and initiate faster pathways through the education and the professions for women and other identities that were underrepresented in the field.

A lot of the work that I do is centered on the experience I had in graduate school, of feeling like there’s got to be another way. It’s not that there were no qualified women. It’s that they were not easy to find, or that they weren’t retained, promoted, and made visible. Because I knew that my female classmates had a lot to offer. We were probably losing a lot of amazing input as well by not having the role models to help us succeed in our field.

Courtesy of UW College of Built Environments.

Ha: What are some of the biggest challenges for ecological issues of our time, and how can architecture play a role in solutions?  

Dr. Cheng: Worldwide, buildings are forty percent of the energy consumption and they can make up eighty percent of what goes to our landfills through construction and demolition processes. You can say that you know buildings and cities bear a disproportionate share of energy consumption, and also they have a disproportionate responsibility of being a solution to the problem.

Let’s use embodied carbon, for example: the carbon that is used while you produce a building, maintain a building, and disassemble a building. It’s actually a more sophisticated way of thinking, not just of the cost of your electric bill for your air conditioning. Or consider a materials decision, and how much transportation it takes to transport this piece of wood from a place that maybe doesn’t have natural forests. Would concrete be a more economic, ecologically, and carbon-reducing choice? So, it gets pretty complicated, pretty fast, but the overall impact of the development on sustainability and climate is really pretty clear. Architects, building contractors, real estate developers, and landscape architects, we all bear a disproportionate responsibility for climate solutions, because the product of our work bears a disproportionate share of the energy consumption.

Ha: This Saturday University lecture series is focused on sacred spaces in urban settings; I’m interested in the collaborative work between UW’s College of Built Environments and the Nehemiah Initiative for faith-based congregations and the communities they serve in the Central District. It seems to have been vital for these places to survive the socioeconomic challenges in the historically black neighborhood. Can you tell us more about this collaborative effort and how this initiative played a role?

Dr. Cheng: This project is a multi-year commitment to the Nehemiah Initiative, which is a group of Black churches in the Central District of Seattle who are working together to promote their beloved community. Our college hosts a series of studio classes where students work with church leaders and community members to study the potential for church property to be developed in ways that provide housing and community spaces that can support the Black community.

We have an interdisciplinary team of faculty and I teach about the intercultural aspects of working across differences. The differences that I focus on for the class include disciplinary differences in how an urban planning student and a real estate student might think about the best use of the land. It also includes how our students can work with a Black faith-based community while bringing in their own experiences and expertise in respectful and effective ways.

– Haley Ha,SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Asian Art Museum

Photo: Renée Cheng, dean of the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington. Image courtesy of Sean Airhart, NBBJ.

In the Studio with SAM Gallery Artist James Ellingboe

In the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle, artist James Ellingboe has built a beautiful artist studio in his garage. The studio is filled with a wide array of machines and tools, custom-built to create sculptures inspired by math, science, and the natural world from a variety of materials. 

Ellingboe has always built things, initially starting with found materials. He learned to weld during high school and created his first metal sculpture in 2004. He now commonly works with mild steel, stainless steel, bronze, and wood, and just recently began creating artworks with clay. He is constantly seeking new ways to manipulate materials in order to give form to his ideas. 

Ellingboe’s sculptures explore botanical and scientific themes, often relating to cellular structures and cellular organisms. Examples of this can be seen in the sculptures in his Diatom series. The rounded sculptures in this series are a geometric manipulation of an abstracted form inspired by single-celled organisms called diatoms. The large-scale sculptures from this series are unique, while the smaller-scale sculptures are created in a limited edition of five works and sold at SAM Gallery. 

Another series of artworks, titled Fractals, is created from the repetition and manipulation of a simple shape to describe the space inspired by molecular geometries. An artwork from this series, Emergence, is inspired by perennial plants breaking dormancy. The green leaves of the plant are formed by repeated triangles, reaching upwards. He creates artworks like Emergence as a unique monumental sculpture at seventeen feet tall, as well as a limited edition of five smaller sculptures standing at eight and a half inches tall. Another artwork from this series, Nebula, is inspired by nebulous cloud formations in space. Blue triangles are repeated to echo the giant clouds of dust and gas. The large-scale sculpture is fifty-two inches tall, while the limited edition smaller-scale works stand small at thirteen inches tall.

Added in January 2022, James Ellingboe is one of the most recent additions to SAM Gallery’s artist roster. His large-scale and small-scale sculptures will be featured at SAM Gallery this October alongside artworks by Harold Hollingsworth. See his artwork on view at SAM Gallery in the coming months or browse his SAM artist page to get a sneak peek at what’s to come.

– Pamela Jaynes, SAM Gallery Exhibition Manager

Photo: Alborz Kamalizad.

Object of the Week: Kali

This week’s SAM Object of the Week was written by University of Washington student Ji In following a presentation given by SAM Assistant Curator of South Asian Art Natalia Di Pietrantonio to the class “Gender and the Hindu Goddess” in the spring of 2022. This essay has been edited from its original form by SAM staff for brevity but the overall content remains the same.

Painted in 1986 by Baua Devi, Kali, as the title explains, is a portrait of the Hindu goddess Kālī. Most recently on view in Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, this artifact is a medium sized painting made on paper with ink and color. This essay will explore the format and iconography of the painting that illustrates the goddess’s benevolent yet captivating assertion of power by focusing on the gaze depicted in the portrait. Stylistically, the painting belongs to Maithili art. Historical background on the art style, including a brief biography of Baua Devi, will help explain the significance of Maithili art which has given female artists renewed identities and empowerment adding special elements of power to this painting.

Format

The format of the painting—ink and color on paper—and its technical features, bring out the intensity of Kālī’s gaze focused straight at the viewer, lending an aspect of assertiveness. The painting depicts the face of the goddess colored in vibrant and saturated colors. The range of colors Devi uses is limited to a palette of white, black, and dark blue, filling most of the painting to depict the goddess’s skin. Meanwhile, the colors pink, red, and yellow are used as accent colors to bring out certain features like the outline of the goddess’s eyes and lips.Kālī’s features are made up of mostly thick and bold lines, except for the bindi/tikkā on her forehead, suggesting her third eye, elaborated with fine lines of black ink. The overall simplicity of this painting with bold strokes and a limited range of color, allows the viewer to easily focus on the essential aspect of strength in Kālī’s glare that Baua Devi portrays.

Iconography

The iconography depicts the goddess lacking the typical visual features of Kālī and mainly focuses on the eyes and her benevolent assertion of power. Some elements of Kālī’s typical characteristics are portrayed in this painting, such as her deep black and blue skin, as well as her three eyes. However, the painting lacks a lot of other features associated with the goddess. Kālī is recognizable as a fearsome and destructive female deity, often visualized holding a sword and a severed head, wearing a garland of skulls and a skirt of arms, and with her tongue protruding and dripping blood.1 Baua Devi’s painting lacks these features and focuses only on the goddess’s face with no hint of ferocity. Her typical menacing appearance is replaced with a smile aimed toward the viewer. Normally, a scary portrayal of Kālī’s distinguishable characteristics is important as Kālī’s is known to lead people to liberation, moksa, allowing people to face their fear and the uncertainties of life, while enabling them to be conscious overcome realities.1 At the same time, Kālī still had benevolent elements with iconography of her right hand in a mudra hand gesture that grants boons and assures her people to not fear.1 Such shows how it is only the physical appearance of Kālī that might be unsettling, because Kālī is compassionate to those who worship her and grants them something beyond what this physical world can offer. And possibly, Baua Devi wanted to focus more on such a benign, yet still powerful aspect of the goddess.

Stylistic Composition of Mithila Art

As mentioned previously, the main stylistic composition of this painting is that this artwork is done in Maithili/Madhubani style. Not only the fact that this painting is done by Baua Devi, who is a renowned Maithili artist, there are detectable elements of the Maithili style painting such as bordering of the painting, and usage of bright natural pigmented colors. The artwork has a painted frame that borders around Kālī’s depicted face in a pink and yellow zigzag pattern. Such framing pattern is typical in a lot of Baua Devi’s work and that of many other Maithili artist. The bright colors of the painting can also be a clue to distinguish the work to be Maithili art, which appears to be done intentionally to maintain the original style of this art. In an interview with The Better India, a digital media platform covering popular news, Baua Devi emphasizes the importance of maintaining authenticity by keeping the traditional style of using twigs, fingers, and natural pigments of colors like black from charcoal, yellow from turmeric, white from rice, blue from indigo, and saffron from marigold.

History of Mithila Art

The history of Mithila art and its various associated artists—like Baua Devi—comes from an ancient cultural region of India, located in the Northeastern part of Bihar, made up of small rural villages.2 This art form originated from their wall art depicting images of various Indian epics of many deities in people’s personal homes. Such paintings were done by a particular practice known as Bhitti chitra where Maithili women painted on the walls and floors of their mud homes.3 It also served a common social purpose which is to summon gods to bless newly married couples with love and fertility.4 In the same interview with The Better India, Baua Devi also said, “According to the custom, all the women in the village gather during a wedding or a special occasion to draw complex geometric and linear patterns on the walls of the house. The art would usually be scenes from mythology and nature as symbols of love and prosperity.”2 This art was originally very personal, kept only as a regional cultural practice, and wasn’t known to a much greater public. Carolyn Brown Heinz, a professor of Anthropology at California State University Chico, noted on such seclusion of the art until a fateful event of earthquake in 1934 that hit the area and exposed many of the wall paintings to be seen by several people, including William Archer who was a young British official visiting the area to assess the damage.4 Archer was amazed at images of the vibrant colors of goddesses with various features of the deities like water lilies, snakes, and the sun in natural pigments painted in the interior of the houses. Sometime after, a drought in 1966 prompted an urgent need to improve the economy in the area. Chair of All-India Handicraft Board, Pupul Jayakar who was aware of beautiful images of Mithila’s wall art, sent an artist, Bhaskar Kulkarni to Madhubani (city in the Mithila region) to look for female artists of the Mithila to produce paintings on a paper, that could easily be sold. Baua Devi was one of many female artists who were recruited. Heinz highlights how such movement of the art from wall to paper as medium brought many changes to the region and its people. First, it fulfilled its main goal by bringing significant economic relief, especially in the impoverished area of Bihar. Mithila art also became known to a much wider public like tourists and foreigners, bringing a cultural awareness of Madhubani, a region previously rarely visited, which brought a significant change to the artists. Most of the well-known Maithili artists were women. These female artists, who used to make no profits from their art works, now became the main source of income to support their families. Being in a fairly patriarchal society, such an art movement empowered these women by allowing them to gain greater respect and support, and to contribute greatly to not just their families, but to the greater region of the location with its economic and cultural growth.

History of Baua Devi

Baua Devi was also one of the female artists who became successful after contributing to the transfer of Maithili art on paper. She was born in Jitwapur village in Bihar and was taught Maithili art as the usual tradition by her mother when she was 13.2 Her talent was discovered by Kulkarni, the artist sent to recruit Maithili artists, when she was 19 after her infant’s death and was suffering from a physically abusive husband. Kulkarni influenced her art to change from typical Maithili art form to a place where she can be expressive of her thoughts. He advised her to freely paint out of her imagination.3 Such teaching might explain the unconventional portrayal of this painting of Kali. However, his advice to the Mathila artists might have also influenced the deterrence of traditional aspects of Maithili art. Heinz also noted how one negative impact from the movement to paper was that the art might have lost its religious meanings in order to better cater towards foreigners who have no interest in knowing its significance.4 This raises concern about the authenticity of Maithili style art and that it only focuses on the elaborated and visually appealing aspect of the artwork to attract the public’s interest. However, Baua Devi’s artworks testify to how the artist still appreciates and maintains the traditional aspects of the art by continuing to portray Hindu deities and conserving traditional art technique methods like using natural dyes in her art work, while not being limited to add her personal identity through abstract elements as well. She is now an incredibly successful Maithili artist who is recognized all across the world. Devi has won many awards such as the National Award in 1984 and Padma Shri in 2017, and her work is sold in various countries across the globe like the United States, Spain, France, and Japan.5 With such success, this new form of Maithili art has given Devi a new identity and freedom in various aspects. She found the freedom to express her thoughts through her paintings, and to no longer be subjected to patriarchal bondage. Devi often discusses how she can’t choose her favorite painting because she views Madhubani painting as her identity and says, “All my paintings are amalgamations of customs, history, and love.”2 Her statement shows how she believes the Maithili paintings have given her a new identity that has connected her with history.

Conclusion

The artwork Kali made in ink and color on paper depicting the frontal profile of goddess Kālī lacks typical iconographic features to instead focus on the goddess’s intense gaze and benevolent yet dominant assertion of power. The Maithili style of painting, and Baua Devi’s own personal story together embodies the theme of female assertion of power. Kālī being the goddess with power of time, lives as the goddess to many from the ancient times of Vedic era to contemporary period among Maithili artists including Baua Devi.

– Ji In, University of Washington Student


1 Foulston, Lynn, and Stuart Abbott. Hindu goddesses: beliefs and practices. Sussex Academic, 2009. “Behind Painted Walls: The Story of Baua Devi & Mithila Painting.” Sarmaya, March 26, 2019.

2 “Painting Is My Everything: Art from India’s Mithila Region – Exhibitions – Asian Art Museum.” Asian Art Museum, May 4, 2020. https://exhibitions.asianart.org/exhibitions/painting-is-my-everything-art-from-indias-mit hila-region/.

3 Rinder, Lawrence. Baua Devi and the Art of Mithila. University of California Berkeley Art Museum, 1997. https://bampfa.org/program/baua-devi-and-art-mithila-matrix-175.

4 Heinz, Carolyn Brown. 2006. “Documenting the Image in Mithila Art.” Visual Anthropology Review 22 (2). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd: 5–33. doi:10.1525/var.2006.22.2.5.

5 “Behind Painted Walls: The Story of Baua Devi & Mithila Painting.” Sarmaya, March 26, 2019. https://sarmaya.in/spotlight/behind-painted-walls-the-story-of-baua-devi-mithila-painting/.

Image: Kali, Baua Devi, 1986, Indian, born 1942, Ink and color on paper, Private collection, T2021.23.10.

Object of the Week: The Creation of Eve

At the dawn of world history God gives life to the first humans under a luminous pastel sky. This small panel, painted around 1510 by Renaissance artist Bartolomeo di Paolo, known as Fra Bartolomeo, is titled The Creation of Eve and is currently on view in SAM’s European art galleries. While the religious content of this picture, based on the book of Genesis, would have been immediately recognizable to its prevalently Christian audience in 16th century Italy, the way Fra Bartolomeo chose to visualize this biblical story sheds light on Renaissance ideas around the role of women and the arts in early-modern western society that can still inspire us today. 

At the center, Eve rises from the side of a sleeping Adam, reaching for support as she prepares to take her first step into the world. Her right hand is met by the Creator’s, who lifts and blesses her—his fluttering cloak and the motion of his feet indicating forward movement. His commanding presence contrast with her crouched pose and unstable balance, highlighting her suspended state of becoming. Scholars have termed this way of depicting Eve’s creation “emergence iconography” to stress the image’s departure from the Genesis text, where the first woman is said to have been modeled by God from a rib taken from Adam. The challenges to a naturalistic and efficient representation posed by that plot led artists to evolve this solution, which was interpreted most famously by Michelangelo in the Sistine ceiling just a few years before Fra Bartolomeo painted this picture.

In addition to emphasizing the corporeality of Eve’s body, softly modeled to accentuate the underlying structure of bones and muscles and imbued with the illusion of gravity, Fra Bartolomeo’s composition offers a visual translation of the first woman’s role as a companion and an equal to Adam that early Christian theologians had formulated in their interpretation of scriptures. They reflected on the fact that in Hebrew (the original language of Genesis) the term tsela used in the creation passage meant both “rib” and “side,” focusing on the latter translation to argue for the equality of man and woman, whose union they intended as the basic unit of human society. 

This idea materializes in Fra Bartolomeo’s Creation of Eve, unique among Renaissance depictions of this popular subject matter for combining the creation episode with a group portrait of the first family (Adam, Eve, and their children Cain and Abel are featured in the middle ground) and a cityscape in the distance to signify the modern accomplishments of their descendants. Sixteenth-century Florence—where this picture was likely painted—was a city-state whose strong tradition of independent self-governance and artistic excellence were a point of civic pride for artists and patrons alike. 

Here, the omission of the episode of The Fall that traditionally followed the creation of Eve in most Genesis cycles also suggests our artist’s intent to celebrate humanity’s achievements rather than emphasize the consequences of the first sin. In this respect, God’s physical hold on Eve’s hand may evoke the Renaissance trope of the artist as a divinely inspired creator, further exalting the intellectual potential of the visual arts.

While this picture offers a limited representation of humanity that reflects the ableist, heteronormative canons of its time, it also speaks to present-day concerns around bodily autonomy by reminding us of a time when Renaissance humanism affirmed confidence in the human potential to achieve greatness through free will, and in the dignity and beauty of the human body.

– Gloria de Liberali, SAM Guest Contributor & Art History Ph.D

Photo: Alborz Kamalizad.

Object of the Week: Two Plane Vertical Horizontal Variation III

As the wind picks up at the Olympic Sculpture Park, American artist George Rickey’s Two Plane Vertical Horizontal Variation III (1973) uses the natural elements to transform from a still sculpture to a mesmerizing experiment in movement, allowing us to consider how that movement can in turn create its own forms. 

Rickey’s kinetic sculptures come from an amalgamation of life experiences and technical skills. He was born on June 6, 1907 in South Bend, Indiana; his father was an engineer, setting the stage for the technical foundation that would become a pertinent aspect of his future work. Rickey went on to temporarily reject engineering to study history and eventually art, becoming a history teacher and painter. During and after World War II, he was majorly influenced by the work of Alexander Calder, Naum Gabo, and David Smith among others. 

During the 1970s, Rickey began using flat planes in his kinetic sculptures, burnishing the stainless steel planes in order to create luminosity. He rejected motorized mechanics; instead the planes are able to create motion through the combination of weight, design, and ball bearings inside of the bearing housing. The laws of physics and the unpredictability of the natural world are his tools of choice.

Two Plane Vertical Horizontal Variation III is inspected and treated annually by SAM’s conservation department to ensure that Rickey’s vision remains in motion at the sculpture park. In 2022, the sculpture was cleaned, examined for stability, spot treated to maintain an even and uncorroded exterior, and the access panels were opened up to inspect the stability of the rods and bearings. The sculptures at the Olympic Sculpture Park, including Rickey’s, require constant care to withstand weather, constant movement, and exposure to the Puget Sound’s salty water. 

As a part of my Emerging Arts Leader Internship in conservation, I am working alongside SAM conservators to examine, record, and treat a number of SAM collection works, focusing specifically on the outdoor sculptures in the Olympic Sculpture Park. It is very special to have the opportunity to work directly with sculptures that I have spent years studying or admiring. I’m glad to have contributed directly to the preservation and future enjoyment of modern and contemporary public art.

– Rosa Sittig-Bell, SAM Emerging Arts Leader Intern


1 George Rickey Foundation, “Glossary of Technical Terms,” https://www.georgerickey.org/art/glossary-of-terms

2 Hayden Herrera, “George Rickey,” in George Rickey in South Bend (South Bend: The Snite Museum of Art University of Notre Dame, 1985) 11–17.

3 Vero Beach Museum of Art, George Rickey Kinetic Sculpture: A Retrospective (Vero Beach: The University of Washington Press, 2007).

Image: Two Plane Vertical Horizontal Variation III, 1973, George Rickey, stainless steel, 97 x 68 x 68 in. Gift of Martin Z. Margulies, 2007.263 © Estate of George Rickey/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Object of the Week: SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN

When a male colleague coined “so good it could have been made by a man” as a shiny new art-descriptor, artists Dawn Cerny and Victoria Haven weren’t so keen on its uptake.

Cerny and Haven met in Seattle in 2012, when Haven was working on a show at SAM on view concurrent with ELLES: Women from the Centre Pompidou, Paris. Cerny had expertise in printmaking, and Haven had a story to share: at the show’s opening event, a male painter they both knew told her not only that her work was “so good it could have been made by a man,” but “that he was mystified (with a tinge of pity) that it had been relegated to a show of work by women.”

The comment prompted the pair to collaborate, under the witty moniker DAFT KUNTZ, to reframe his words (both literally and figuratively). Without adding their own commentary, the artists ask us to consider: Should we interpret it as an underhanded compliment or a reminder that artistic and intellectual achievement is still measured by male accomplishments?

Perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive. SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN shares a certain arresting visual quality with the iconic Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum? 1989 poster by the Guerilla Girls (the data for which has since been updated and is, spoiler alert, just as abysmal). The works are conceptually similar in their use of jarring statements that force the viewer to reflect on social structures, presented with bold text and graphic imagery. A component of Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met? that is often overlooked, however, is one essential word: modern. It was not the case that 5% of all of the art in the Met Museum in 1989 was created by women, rather, only 5% of the art in the galleries of modern art was created by women. A common refrain in response to criticisms of male hegemony is the classic “it was a different time,” and “that was then, this is now.” It may be true that the times they are a-changing, but Cerny and Haven remind us that we still have a ways to go.

A 2016 SAM Blog post featuring SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN touches on a similar point.

We all know the [women] artists that most people are able to list off automatically, right? The list usually goes a little something like…Georgia O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Lange, etc. And they are all fantastic women artists worthy of such recognition! But there’s so many more out there. Our goal at SAM is to share a wider range of women that may not be as well known, including women of color and more contemporary artists, all from our collection.

Relegating the exclusion of women to the past both excuses the history of male superiority in art and minimizes the exclusionary tactics that contemporary women artists face. SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN admonishes the very present imbalance and asserts a new way forward. The top text, “so good it could have been,” is hopeful and earnest. “Made by a man” is tacked on below like an official stamp; it’s a dark cloud, a swift gut punch expelling the air from once hopeful lungs. But it’s a necessary evil, because only by understanding the imbalance can we move toward a future where women artists are celebrated without being measured by male accomplishments. And perhaps, if we’re lucky, even be let into the Met fully clothed.

SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN is notable in another way: it is a collaboration between two past winners of the SAM’s annual Betty Bowen Award, an unrestricted cash prize for a Northwest artist to further their career. Dawn Cerny and Victoria Haven are both previous Grand Prize recipients of the Betty Bowen Award: Haven was awarded the prize in 2004, the two artists came together to create SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN in 2015, and Cerny went on to win the Grand Prize in 2020.

So who will be next? The 2022 Betty Bowen Award is currently open for applications through Monday, August 1 at 11 pm PST. The winner receives an unrestricted cash prize of $15,000 and a solo exhibition at SAM. For more information and to see a list of past winners, please visit visitsam.org/bettybowen or email bettybowen@seattleartmuseum.org.

– Johnna Munsen, Betty Bowen Award Administration Intern

Image: SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN, 2012, DAFT KUNTZ, Collaboration between Victoria Haven and Dawn Cerny, silkscreen on paper, 33 1/2 × 26 in. Gift of Matthew Offenbacher and Jennifer Nemhauser with funds from the 2013 Neddy Award in Painting, 2015.2.1.

Emerging from the Matrix: Kari Karsten on Curating for SAM

Indigenous Matrix: Northwest Women Printmakers, now on view through December 11 in SAM’s third floor galleries, was a year-long journey, the culmination of my thesis project for the University of Washington Museology masters program. Overseen by Barbara Brotherton, Curator of Native American Art at SAM, and Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse, Curator of Northwest Native Art at the Burke Museum, the curation process involved many hours of reflecting on and researching how Indigenous women artists are represented within museums. Western museological practices have on the whole lacked recognition of the importance of women within Indigenous communities, but women have always been a driving force of their creative practices and creations.

I came to this topic because I am Seneca, an Indigenous Nation located in Western New York. Growing up, I was immersed in the creative expressions of my people and was taught the importance of artistic freedoms and legacies. It was not until I graduated high school that I started putting together the pieces of how our artworks carry our stories and culture, aiding in the revitalization and celebration of who we are. Coming into the museological field, my goal is to highlight and promote Indigenous culture through the arts. With great thanks, that is what I was able to accomplish working with SAM over the past year to curate this exhibition. 

For the exhibition, I selected works by Pitseolak Ashoona, Francis Dick, Myra Kukiiyuat, Jesse Oonark, Susan Point, and Angotigolu Teevee. Our women have continued to drive many aspects of life for Indigenous communities across the world, yet only in recent years have we seen museums and galleries approach working with a feminized view of Native arts. The purpose of this exhibition is to create a learning environment conducive to promoting woman-centered Indigenous narratives and to educate the public on histories and cultures that they may have yet to encounter. Bringing contemporary Indigenous art into an institutional setting helps reframe harmful historical narratives and highlights Native women’s current lived experiences through research that is informed by traditional knowledge and community revitalization efforts.

With this exhibition, I hope to impact the future of Indigenous peoples who work and exhibit within museums and more specifically, art institutions. This work breaks down some of the barriers that many Native peoples face when working with art institutions. As the first exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum to be curated by an Indigenous female-identifying student, Indigenous Matrix is a small—but significant—step in creating more institutional accessibility for emerging museum professionals and Indigenous curators.

– Kari Karsten, SAM Emerging Museum Professional Curatorial Intern

Photos: Alborz Kamalizad.

Juneteenth: A History Prevailed

Historically, Americans have celebrated July 4—the day in 1776 when the 13 colonies liberated themselves from the rule of Great Britain—as its national independence day. Many people living inside the borders of this country during that time, however, were not free. 

Juneteenth—celebrated every year on June 19—is a national holiday celebrating the day Black Americans were granted their  freedom and status as human citizens in the United States. A common misconception exists that slaves were freed with the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 or at the end of the Civil War on April 9, 1865, but the reality is southern states rejected Union laws and kept their slaves in the dark about their freedom in the hopes that they could still win the war. Some states, such as Delaware and Kentucky, remained in a state of rebellion and continued to allow slavery. As one of the most remote southern states with a low Union presence, Texas served as a refuge for slave owners—a place to hide enslaved Africans from in hopes of keeping what they considered to be their “property.” Texas saw an influx of over three times as many slaves after the proclamation was issued. It wasn’t until Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived on the island of Galveston, Texas on the morning of June 19, 1865 and read the following words that many enslaved Africans found out about their freedom: 

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

From these words, Juneteenth was born.

Still, this day in history did not end the practice of slavery entirely. Thousands of accounts from Black Americans document their continued enslavement beyond Juneteenth—some not freed until as late as the 1960s, forced into labor and isolated from the advocacy being done through the Civil Rights Movement. Despite how complex this history may be, the freemen of Texas migrated throughout the United States, going North in an effort to unite their families ripped apart by the slave trade, carrying with them the importance of June 19, 1865.

From Local Celebration to National Holiday

Juneteenth is the longest running African American holiday. While celebrated by the Black community since the first holiday on June 19, 1866 and through the Reconstruction Era, Jim Crow, and beyond, this holiday was not adopted by White Americans who have historically refused to acknowledge or fund this celebration. Many history textbooks did not educate students on Juneteenth and many Black Americans living in northern states did not grow up celebrating it. Juneteenth’s history prevailed through sheer will and a fight for representation. Black activists have been fighting for Juneteenth to become a paid federal holiday for decades. It was only on July 17, 2021 that US President Joe Biden finally signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, declaring Juneteenth an official federal holiday. 

Black Americans have historically used Juneteenth as a day to reflect and mourn for what their ancestors lost as well as to celebrate how far they’ve come and how much they’ve prospered despite the persistence of racism. There is no right way to celebrate Juneteenth, but many black families get together, throw a barbeque, and eat red foods like a red velvet cake and strawberries alongside soul food staples. The red foods are eaten as a representation of the blood and sacrifices inflicted as a result of slavery.

While the declaration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday is a step forward in recognizing the resilience of Black Americans, there is more work to be done. The systemic challenges brought on by slavery continue to persist, including the racial wealth gap, disproportionate rates of incarceration, persistent health disparities, and police brutality. The United States still has a very long way to go in  providing true equity to everyone living within its borders. 

Commemorating Juneteenth as an Ally

How do you respectfully commemorate Juneteenth? As a white American or non-Black ally, Juneteenth is a day to confront this country’s horrific past and critically analyze the space you occupy. Repercussions of the slave trade still exist to this day, but there steps everyone can take to promote a more equitable society. 

Read below for a list of ways to get started:

Reflect on Institutional Racism: How are white people contributing to systemic racism and how do they want this country to evolve? This holiday is a great opportunity to think about racism and privilege. Allies can research the history of slavery and learn more about the origins and persistence of institutional racism. 

Learn About Black Culture and History: Study works by Black leaders, artists, poets, and activists. Juneteenth can be used as a time to challenge internalized white supremacy and have uncomfortable conversations with oneself and others. 

Support Your Neighbors: Show appreciation for the achievements of your fellow black citizens and support black businesses and organizations working to uplift black communities in America. 

Read a Book:

  • The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
  • The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written By Himself by Olaudah Equiano
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X
  • Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 by W.E.B. Du Bois
  • Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South by Deborah Gray White
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? By Beverly Daniel Tatum
  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo 
  • The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  • Check out this list from the New York Public Library with books for kids to learn about and celebrate Juneteenth

Watch a Video:

Browse the Web:

Listen to a Podcast:

Visit a Relevant Museum Exhibition in Seattle:

Attend a Juneteenth Event:

Juneteenth at SAM

Juneteenth is a time for remembrance and healing. Americans can pay respects to the past and the enslaved Africans that built this country. Visit the Seattle Art Museum’s downtown location to see exhibitions and installations which reference this history. 

Photo: L. Fried.

Lauren Halsey (through July 17)

In her installation at SAM, 2021–2022 Betty Bowen Award winner Lauren Halsey shows artworks in which proud declarations of Black-owned businesses intermingle with images of Egyptian pyramids, the Sphinx, and pharaohs and queens, all drawn from a personal archive Halsey has developed through research and community interactions.

Photo: Nathaniel Willson.

Emblems of Encounter: Europe and Africa over 500 Years

Looking back 500 years, one can see the late 15th century as a major turning point in history. When Portuguese navigators first arrived on the shores of West Africa, the two continents of Europe and Africa began interacting in new ways. After a very brief period of mutual respect and commercial exchange, European traders quickly moved to exploit the region’s natural resources—including human labor—which became the basis for the massive slave trade that eventually affected twenty million Africans. The ten works of European and African art in this gallery, dating from the end of the 15th century to the end of the 20th, have been selected from SAM’s collection as examples of these interactions over time. 

Image: Nathaniel Willson.

Lessons from the Institute of Empathy

Three Empathics have moved into Seattle Art Museum and are a central feature to the latest installation imagined in our African art galleries. Now a part of SAM’s permanent collection, the Empathics have surrounded themselves with works from our African art collection as a way to help visitors awaken their own empathy.

A Path Forward

Hopefully, these resources can provide some guidance and insight as you celebrate Juneteenthand learn about the significance of this holiday to Black Americans. Black people have been fighting for centuries against white supremacy and oppression. However, true equity can only come when white people renounce their privilege against Black people and other people of color. All Americans must lend a hand to take action and spread knowledge to end the oppression that continues today. 

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

– Nelson Mandela

– Karly Norment Meneses, SAM Marketing Coordinator

Illustration: Karly Norment Meneses.

Object of the Week: Indian Warrior

Alexander Phimister Proctor was an American artist renowned for his bronze sculptures depicting the western frontier. Toward the end of 1896, he received the prestigious Rinehart Scholarship to practice in Paris on a three year contract. The scholarship committee commissioned Indian Warrior for the Rinehart Prix de Paris Collection. 

In the fall of 1895, Proctor traveled to Glacier National Park in Northwestern Montana and stayed at a Blackfeet reservation where he studied two Blackfeet men. He started the cast for Indian Warrior there, and later finished it in New York and Paris. The model for the figure was a man named Weasel Head, while the horse was owned by a mutual colleague named Dixon. A New York lawyer, Dixon allowed Proctor to borrow the horse for the piece.

Proctor brought the lessons he learned in Paris to his practice of American naturalism. In Paris, he absorbed the Beaux-Arts style which upheld classicism in sculpture. As for the naturalistic element, he was interested in depicting realistic scenes from the American West. In this piece, the figure sits calmly above a trotting horse in action. Where they are going is beyond what the viewer knows. Yet, the figure’s spear draws itself parallel to the nape of the horse in a way that honors the spiritual connection of the two main subjects. Personal interdependence lies in the body language of them both: proud and secure.

Proctor’s appreciation of Native American culture is a layer of protection provided to historically white Western artists. Proctor’s privilege lies in his freedom to determine Native Americans worthy enough to sculpt. The concept of the Noble Savage stems from this privilege and calls this artwork into question. Indian Warrior does not find a hold in contemporary Native American representation-nor does it attempt to. It functions as Proctor’s own interpretation of Natives existing within their culture and doesn’t leave room for further understanding.

Folding back these layers does not detract from Proctor’s artistic excellence. He was a master of his craft. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a fellow acclaimed American sculptor and friend to Proctor, knew this. Theodore Roosevelt, a continued supporter and avid commissioner of Proctor’s work, expected it. Yet, this piece is only poignant because of its subject matter. The way in which the horse and Weasel Head are both stopped in a moment in time. Admiration can fill the subsequent space. But admiration is nothing without reflection. And reflection is nothing without the impulse for more. To follow this piece to where they are going.

The responsibility of responding to Native American monuments lies with every person that views Indian Warrior. These snapshots of moments in time are a careful reminder of what it means to be valiant beyond the circumstance. Proctor’s technical excellence in Indian Warrior is made possible by who he is representing. This work is emotive and communicative because of the history it depicts. It is not Proctor’s touch that carries this work, but the themes that it reflects on Native Americans being represented by white mainstream artists. If there are accolades to be given to this work, its honor should be in the identity of Weasel Head, and the legacy of Native American heritage. Where is the horse taking Weasel Head? Or where is Weasel Head taking the horse? Beyond the space of the Seattle Art Museum, to the future in sight, for all to see.

– Moe’Neyah Holland, SAM Emerging Arts Leader Intern

Images: Chloe Collyer.

Now on View: Naramore Art Show 2022

Since 1985, Seattle Public Schools has held the Naramore Art Show to share the works of its arts students and to celebrate their achievements with their community. Floyd A. Naramore, whose name is honored by this exhibition, was a visionary architect who invested deeply in his community and in the education of students. He designed over 22 schools, including Roosevelt, Garfield and Cleveland high schools, and several middle school buildings.

The Naramore Art show is an annual tradition celebrating the excellence of the middle and high school artists of Seattle Public Schools (SPS). From Ingraham to Chief Sealth International High School, SPS is represented by some of the most imaginative and thought-provoking artists in this city. Throughout the works of art that make up this show, you can see COVID-19’s impact on schools, the arts community, and youth. But there is also so much hope for the future and human connection as well. As a proud partner in Naramore, Seattle Art Museum values the voices of young people, and we hope to empower youth to continue their growth as artists and people through community building and creative learning. 

This year Naramore will once again be a virtual gallery on the SPS Visual & Performing Arts website and includes over 200 works of art by students from across the district. The exhibition will be on view through June 30 and can be accessed online here! Additionally, students are invited to continue sharing artwork they’ve created at home during quarantine on Instagram with #artistsofsps. Although this year’s exhibition is virtual, we look forward to hosting the exhibition at the museum next year.

You are also invited to join us for a virtual celebration of these student artists on Friday, May 6 at 6 pm. No registration is required to tune in on YouTube, stream on the Seattle School District webpage, or view on SPS TV Channel 26. 

We are so grateful to these young artists and ask that our community take a moment to experience their visionary work.

– Yaoyao Liu, SAM Manager of School & Educator Programs

Image: Hannah Sheffer, West Seattle High School, Naramore 2021.

Object of the Week: Coulee Dam Construction

With its natural beauty and landscape, a huge influx of people began moving to the West during the 19th and 20th centuries. The construction of dams throughout America’s landscape was considered an outstanding achievement for the nation’s economy and became a defining moment in America’s history. In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented the New Deal’s Public Works Administration (PWA), a government-sponsored relief program meant to subside the economic impacts of the Great Depression. The creation of this program resulted in the creation of many iconic structures throughout the country, such as what we now know as the Grand Coulee Dam. Artist Z. Vanessa Helder spent two years documenting and painting the formation of the Coulee Dam, creating a series of works that tell the dynamic story of its completion. 

In Coulee Dam Construction: Skip Way and Grout Shed, Helder captures the dam’s evolution in its final years of construction in her bold precisionist style. The perfectly straight diagonal lines formed from the building equipment draw our eyes to the man-made gash in the mountains, formed by several years of hard labor done by local industrial workers. The red construction buildings and materials provide a bold contrast between themselves and the gray and beige background of the dirt and debris of fallen rock. Further contrasting the soil and shale foreground, the mountain top and sky boast brilliant shades of green, orange, and blue. These stark contrasts between the focal points of Helder’s painting showcase the commanding presence of the industrial boom in the Northwest and the strength and perseverance of the environment around it. 

Today, the Grand Coulee Dam still stands, and the impacts that it has had on the environment continue to develop since its construction that Helder captured in the 1930s. Dam construction left a colonial imprint on the landscape, contributing to the loss of local biodiversity, flooding, pollution, and poorer water quality. While there was a high amount of public support of projects such as the dam due to the increase in local jobs and increased infrastructure, it has become time to re-evaluate our means of energy production. Human intervention in nature is a prevalent theme that emerges from the art of Helder. Looking at Coulee Dam Construction: Skip Way and Grout Shed, we can re-examine the reasoning for why these dams were built and how the environment and people are affected nearly a century after its completion.

– Kari Karsten, SAM Emerging Museum Professional Curatorial Intern

Image: Coulee Dam Construction: Skip Way and Grout Shed, 1939, Z. Vanessa Helder, American, 1904–1968, Transparent watercolor, 18 1/4 x 14 7/8 in., Framed: 30 1/4″ x 27 3/4″ in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 39.54.

Object of the Week: Circle Blue

By the time De Wain Valentine moved to Los Angeles in 1965, the artist was already working with plastics. He had been introduced to them by his junior high shop teacher after the then-recent military declassification of the material following World War II and had been working with them on a small-scale ever since. Now in California, Valentine began sharing his experiences while working as a part-time faculty member at UCLA.

Having spent most of his life until that point in Colorado, Valentine has explained how the move influenced his art: “In Colorado, you don’t notice the sky so much because it’s crystal clear: always blue and always so beautiful.” In fact, the Latin name for the Colorado state flower is coerulea, which translates to “sky blue.” But as Valentine continued in a 2011 interview with the Getty Conservation Institute, “you can’t see [the sky in Colorado], so you always forget about it. But the sky in LA is very different: You can really see that—the smog and the fog.”1

For folks from the California coast, the “fog” is really the marine layer, a coastal air mass, usually occurring in the morning, which creates overcast skies that “burn off” around noon. The smog, however, especially in 1960s Los Angeles, was not only something you really could see, but threatened its own weather in the region. A front-page news report in the Los Angeles Times from October 1964 notes that “[s]weltering temperatures helped produce another blanket of smog over the Los Angeles basin Tuesday and touched off lightning storms which started at least three fires in the mountains.” In the next column over, a weather brief states “Light to moderate smog today.”2

Valentine is quoted saying that his extensive series of large-scale polyester resin sculptures are “all about the sea and the sky” and that being in Los Angeles allowed him to see “a new avenue to make sculpture that was completely atmospheric or like a chunk of the ocean cut out.”3 The translucent circles, columns, curved slabs, and sometimes UFO-shaped disks, come in a wide array of colors, from warm rose and orange to more New Age-y lavenders and turquoise, and many are several feet tall or wide. For example, his massive Gray Column (1975–76), made with black pigment that grows transparent and smoky as it tapers at the top, is an impressive 12 feet, like a slab carved from a smog-filled sky. 

Circle Blue, with its cerulean gradient, however, is the work that most clearly evokes the ocean and sky, and, with its round shape, the planet. Like the other tall translucent sculptures, Circle Blue is made from a proprietary blend of polyester resin. Working with the manufacturer Hastings Plastics in Santa Monica, California, Valentine produced Valentine MasKast Resin in 1966 that, unlike previous polyester resins, could be used to create large, thick objects cast in a single-pour rather than in thin layers, without cracking or overheating. 

After polyester resin’s initial use in the military and aerospace arenas, the cheap, sturdy, and durable material was quickly adopted by the automotive and maritime industries, but also used for small common objects like buttons and bowling ball cores. Polyester resin has a highly complex chemical structure that requires “curing” to transform the liquid resin to a solid. This part of the production process is probably the most toxic, as the most common agent used for curing is styrene, which the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services has listed as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”4 Polyester resin is also a plastic, and therefore made from fossil fuels. 

Despite the material’s industrial applications, Valentine never really outsourced the production of his sculptures to a fabricator, a common practice for artists using industrial materials, including his peers in the Light and Space movement and in other Minimal Art groups. Pictures of him and his studio assistants clad in PPE (personal protective equipment) show the very hands-on process taken: weeks of sanding and buffing with hand-held machines usually found in an auto-body shop. Citing health concerns, Valentine later turned to using glass for some of his sculptures, but mainly so he could install his works outside: UV light and the potential for surface scratches could destroy the polyester resin sculptures.5 What the material afforded him, however, was a way to examine not just the surface of sculpture, but the (light and) space in between. “[T]he interior of the sculpture is so essential.”6

Reflecting on Circle Blue’s origins in 1960s and 70s Southern California’s smog, sea spray, and glittering oceans against today’s heightened climate crisis, the piece becomes not just an imaginative chunk of the sky, but also a transparent, precious, and conflicting sample of our world. It is both beautiful and a little toxic, strong but also fragile. At almost six feet in diameter, we can see ourselves in its surface, but we also see in and beyond it. Now on view in Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water at SAM, Circle Blue—in addition to many other works on display—prompts questions about our relationship to the planet: How might we preserve a chunk of the sea or sky today? How might we look beyond today and imagine our blue planet in the future? 

– Mia C. Ferm, Project Manager, SAM Historic Media Collection

1 Tom Learner, Rachel Rivenc and Emma Richardson, “From Start to Finish: De Wain Valentine’s Gray Column” (Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute, 2011), 7.

2 “Heat, Smog, Lighting and Fires Pile Up Southland Weather Woes,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA), Oct 7, 1964.

3 Tom Learner, Rachel Rivenc and Emma Richardson, “From Start to Finish: De Wain Valentine’s Gray Column” (Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute, 2011), 7.

4 National Toxicology Program, “Report on Carcinogens, Fifteenth Edition” (report, Research Triangle Park, NC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 2021).

5 Dorothy Newmark and Dewain Valentine, “An Interview with Dewain Valentine, Sculptor of Plastic,” Leonardo 4, no. 4 (1971). 

6 Tom Learner, Rachel Rivenc and Emma Richardson, “From Start to Finish: De Wain Valentine’s Gray Column” (Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute, 2011), 12.

Image: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Sea Bear

At first glance, this might look like a typical trophy head found in a mountain lodge, but Sherry Markovitz has turned the conventional idea of a hunting trophy on its head in the creation of Sea Bear.

“I am after beauty, with an edge of uncertainty, vulnerability, and power,” she says of her artistic process. “I use animal metaphors to explore issues of intimacy, closeness, and separation.”1 Sea Bear’s tranquil and inquisitive stare is a powerful celebration of peace and gentleness, highlighting a species historically honored as a dynamic part of a balanced ecosystem.

As the subject matter of countless forms of creative expression, polar bears may have appeared in art as early as 17,000 years ago in the Paleolithic cave of Ekain in the Basque Country of Northern Spain. Below, two outlines resembling an adult and juvenile can be seen on the ceiling. Their elongated bodies look remarkably like polar bears. Perhaps they drifted south with pack ice off the coast of England during the icier years rounding out the Pleistocene.2 What we can be sure of is that they’ve been depicted in art and lore ever since.

Among the shared spiritual beliefs of the Inuit, polar bears are a living representation of resilience and determination, imbued with souls and regarded as brothers in a time when we did not take pre-eminence over other animals. Nanook, an almost man-like master of bears decided if hunters deserved success in their endeavors or punishment for violating taboos.3

This bear, crafted of wood, beads, shells, fabric, paint, and papier-mâché, is the culmination of intertwined memories and experiences the artist had with nature and her loved ones.

“Emotionally, Sea Bear is circular, all the stuff on it is traceable to significant walks. Walks with my mother in Florida, walks in Port Townsend with Peter (during which time her son Jake was conceived), walks alone to find the ‘root’ pieces at Discovery Park. Walking on the beach is such a drifting and wonderful activity.”4

From a distance, Sea Bear offers up the impression of a familiar creature. Its intricate and subtle beadwork appears at first to be deceptively monochromatic. A step closer, however, reveals an otherworldly figure clad in the ocean’s bounty emerges. The beads are revealed to be six or seven shades of color, like gentle eddies of ermine pebbles undulating over sand. The eye is drawn towards the shadows cast by exhibition lighting on the bear’s outstretched neck and jaw, flowing into the sinuous curves of its pelagic collar.

“I see the ‘collar’ as directional—the wood shape and the bear shape working in tandem was the key (formally) on this one. I think the large pearls pulled the shape back to the bear. It’s funny, as I get further away from a piece, it is, in fact, the abstract concerns that remain the most visible to me.”5

Seattle is treasured for the water which surrounds it. From Lake Washington, fed by so many vital creeks and rivers, to the misty solitude of salt-scoured beaches along the Olympic Peninsula. Water inexorably affects our physical and cultural landscapes, it sustains and determines our way of life, and shapes our histories slowly over time like glaciers carving mountains.  Sea Bear is an opportunity to reconnect to this life-giving force, to step outside of our immediate reality and transport us to the shores of our minds choosing where we can know the peace of our own walk along the water’s edge.

See this work on view now in Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water at our downtown location through May 30.

– Danelle Jay, SAM Curatorial Division Coordinator

1 Sherry Markovitz, quoted in 50 Northwest Artists: A critical  Selection of Painters and Sculptors Working in the Pacific Northwest, ed. Bruce Geunther, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1983, pages 80–81.

2 Digitized interior of Ekain, courtesy of the Society of Sciences Aranzadi.

3 C.R. Harrington, The Evolution of Arctic Marine Mammals, ed. A. Berta, Ecological Applications, Volume 18, Issue sp2, 2008, pages S23–S40.

4 Sherry Markovitz, Channel 7 News, Linda Farris Gallery, Seattle, 1992.

5 Sherry Markovitz, letter to Vicki Halper, August 14, 1991.

Image: Sea Bear, 1990, Sherry Markovitz, wood, beads, shells, fabric, paint, papier mâché, 25 x 17 x 29 in., Gift of Terry Hunziker, 90.3, © Sherry Markovitz.

Objects of the Week: Cage-Corset and New Clothes for the Emperor

No matter where I encounter them, Naiza Khan’s artworks always transport me back to a classroom on the campus of SOAS, University of London. It was in one such space where I had the privilege of hearing the artist speak about her series Henna Hands and The Skin She Wears—both deeply connected to Cage-Corset (2007) and New Clothes for the Emperor (2009), currently on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum as part of the exhibition Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time.

Embodied Change at Seattle Asian Art Museum

These works and series illustrate Khan’s preoccupations with the female body. In thinking through the function of attire as a construct, Cage-Corset and New Clothes for the Emperor present clothing as a strategy to discuss gender. This is all the more relevant placed within the context of the back-and-forth between feminist activism and Islamicization in Pakistan that began in the 1960s and 70s, and gained much greater traction in the 1980s. As scholar Iftikhar Dadi has noted, in Khan’s works “the female body finally becomes visible in modern South Asian “Islamic” art as a subject itself, rather than simply remaining a decorative motif.”[1]

Part of her Heavenly Ornaments series, in which Khan turned to metal to fabricate armor, corsets, chastity belts and lingerie, Cage-Corset and New Clothes for the Emperor highlight the artist’s engagement with the Bihishti Zewar, an Urdu text written by the Islamic scholar and Sufi Ashraf Ali Thanawi. Written in the beginning of the twentieth century, the text prescribes morals and behaviors pertinent to young Muslim women and girls. Noteworthy, the Bihishti Zewar was written with state and social reform in mind. It posited that Muslim women were capable of becoming educated and moral actors just as equally as men. Thus, the Bihishti Zewar paradoxically asked, why should women conform to the authority of men or the state?

Through her artworks, Khan also references the presence/absence of women within the public sphere, particularly in the context of the roll-back of numerous rights for Pakistani women under the Zia regime of the late 1970s and 80s. Despite these retrogressions, huge numbers of women entered both the formal and informal labor sectors, and the applications of female students to higher educational institutes significantly increased. While the Zia regime attempted to control the presence of women in the public sphere, it inadvertently brought attention to the emergence of the publicly visible female body as an issue that could not simply be “rolled back.” In other works, Khan, unlike women artists before her, made use of the calligraphic form that was purported by the state as within the line of its official policy. Thus, Khan’s artworks demonstrate that simply opposing any state sanctioned idioms and logics are not enough to ensure the freedom of women.

Khan’s Cage-Corset and New Clothes for the Emperor demonstrate the entanglement of social, political, religious, and spatial relations that inform questions of subjectivity, freedom, and control imposed upon females. Then, as a starry-eyed master’s student, as now, the quiet subtlety of Khan’s artworks ring true. The artist does not simply claim her works as agents of freedom for those living under repressive regimes, but rather, brings attention to the ways in which such systems and its mechanisms, just like her corsets, are constructed, negotiated and navigated.

– Ananya Sikand, PhD Candidate, University of Washington


[1] Iftikhar Dadi, Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), 2010, 198.

Images: Cage-corset, 2007, Naiza Khan, Metal and fabric, 11 13/16 x 11 13/16 x 11 13/16 in., Purchased with funds from Dipti and Rakesh Mathur, 2022.1.1, Ⓒ Artist or Artist’s Estate. Installation view of Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time at Seattle Asian Art Museum, 2021, photo: Natali Wiseman. New Clothes for the Emperor (II), 2009, Naiza Khan, Black & white digital photograph on archival Canson Infinity paper, 33 x 22 1/2 in., Purchased with funds from Dipti and Rakesh Mathur, 2022.1.2, Ⓒ Artist or Artist’s Estate.

What to Know When You Visit SAM

Updated August 2, 2022

Temporary Gallery Closures
The Seattle Art Museum offers visitors a dynamic and ever-changing roster of exhibitions and installations throughout the year. To do this, the museum occasionally needs to close some galleries for reinstallation which will be happening in the coming months. Closing galleries isn’t something we like to do but we hope you’ll bear with us because the result will be new visual art experiences for you to enjoy.

COVID-19 Update
Masks are no longer required to enter the museum, but visitors are encouraged to wear them for their personal safety and comfort. Additionally, the vaccine verification requirement to enter the museum is no longer in effect per the latest guidance from Public Health—Seattle & King County.

Icon depicting a figure wearing a face mask

Masks Encouraged
Visitors are encouraged to wear them for their personal safety and comfort

Icon depicting a circle with two footsteps inside

Physical Distancing Reminder
Keep at least six feet between your group and other visitors and staff

Prefer to wear a mask? SAM is offering a mask-required hour in the galleries for visitors that prefer to wear masks and be around others wearing masks. This will occur on the third Saturday of the month through October 15 from 9–10 am at Seattle Art Museum and Seattle Asian Art Museum. We will determine whether to extend the mask required hour beyond these initial dates based on the trajectory of COVID-19 and if there is demand for this additional hour. Online advance purchase is recommended.

Safety protocols change and evolve rapidly. Join our email list to stay up-to-date or refer to this blog post for the latest information.  

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

Please contact customerservice@seattleartmuseum.org to exchange your ticket for another day and time if any of the above applies to you.

Plan Your Visit

Hours

Seattle Art Museum
Wednesday–Sunday, 10 am–5 pm
The first Thursday of the month is free.

Seattle Asian Art Museum
Thursday–Sunday, 10 am–5 pm
The last Friday of the month is free.

Olympic Sculpture Park
Open daily
Opens 30 minutes prior to sunrise.
Closes 30 minutes after sunset.
PACCAR Pavilion is open seven days a week from 9 am–4 pm for the spring and summer season.

Online Advance Tickets
Purchase tickets online in advance and save $3! Ticket prices increase if you wait until the day of your visit to purchase so plan ahead and get the best price.

Special Exhibition tickets are timed and limited, and online advance purchase is recommended. Tickets are released online on a monthly rolling basis.

SAM members are always free
Not a member? Join today

If you are a SAM member, be sure to log in to see your member benefit pricing 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@seattleartmuseum before your visit, as we may require advanced notice to provide certain accommodations.

Download a gallery map in advance
To reduce contact, 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 Friday-Sunday, for up to 4 hours. Museum voucher required. Learn more

Volunteer Park and surrounding street parking is free. Learn more

Pay parking is available in the PACCAR Pavilion garage at the Olympic Sculpture Park. 

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.

Check the entry time on your ticket
Please have your ticket ready to be scanned at the entrance to the galleries. Tickets to Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure are timed. If you are more than 15 minutes late to the exhibition, we may not be able to accommodate entry.

Check your bags for free
Backpacks, large bags, or items larger than 11″ x 15″ are not allowed in the galleries and must be checked.

Expect some areas to be closed
Seattle Art Museum: The Ann P. Wyckoff Education Resource Center, Bullitt Library, and children play areas will also be closed.
Seattle Asian Art Museum: The Education Studio, Community Gallery, Chen Community Meeting Room, and Library will be closed.

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.

Visit SAM Shop!
The Seattle Art Museum Shop and Gallery and the Seattle Asian Art Museum Shop are open.

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 are working hard to make visitors and staff comfortable during their visit and hope to see you soon! 

Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: The Studio

One of the most influential Black American artists of the 20th century, Jacob Lawrence spent the latter years of his life living and working in Seattle, serving as a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Art. In 1977, seven years after his move, Lawrence painted The Studio, depicting himself in the attic of his Seattle studio. The Studio narrates Lawrence’s artistic journey of growing up in Harlem, moving westward, and his subsequent artistic development. Outside the window, Harlem tenement buildings scatter the view, connecting his relationships between Seattle and New York. In a 2000 interview, Jacob Lawrence spoke about this painting:

Yes, that’s my studio here, in Seattle. Not in this apartment, but it’s Seattle. And this is what my studio looked like going up the steps. And my neighbor, our neighbor is an architect. And these buildings back here bring somewhat of the tenements of New York. In reality, this is an empty wall. So I decided to put that back, to use that as a sort of symbol of my thinking of the big city, of New York.1

Lawrence grew up in Harlem after his mother relocated the family there in 1930 when he was thirteen years old. Wanting to encourage her son’s creative expression, his mother enrolled him in an after-school arts program shortly after their arrival in New York. Due to financial hardships, Lawrence was unable to finish his high school education. Yet, he continued to take classes at the Harlem Art Workshop, where he was mentored by the painter Charles Alston.

Lawrence’s upbringing in Harlem was one of the most formative periods of his life, and he frequently referred to those memories and experiences in his work, regardless of his geographical location. He specialized in scenes from Black American life and culture, taking inspiration from the stories of elders within his communities and transferring them into his paintings.

While best known for his paintings of workers from various professions, The Studio offers a glimpse into his work as an artist and teacher as he welcomes the viewer into his own studio. Lawrence referred to his style of painting as “dynamic cubism,” inspired by the colors and shapes of Harlem. The Studio showcases his use of vivid colors, bold linear movements, and mastery of geometric form.

– Kari Karsten, SAM Emerging Museum Professional Curatorial Intern


1 Jackson Frost, Interview with Jacob Lawrence at his home in Seattle, April 2000, transcript, The Phillips Collection Archives, lawrencemigration.phillipscollection.org/sites/default/files/Jacob-Lawrence-2000-interview-transcript.pdf © The Phillips Collection.

Image: The Studio, 1977, Jacob Lawrence, Gouache on paper, 30 x 22 in., Overall h.: 37 3/8 in., Overall w.: 29 in., Partial gift of Gull Industries; John H. and Ann Hauberg; Links, Seattle; and gift by exchange from the Estate of Mark Tobey, 90.27 ©️ Jacob Lawrence.

An Inside Look at SAM’s Porcelain Room

The SAM Research Libraries strive to develop digital collections that represent our unique holdings. Here, volunteer Kirsten Painter, discusses her efforts to digitize a unique set of slides that represents the 18th century French porcelain collection of two local collectors, Dr. Ulrich and Stella Fritzsche, and features objects now on view in SAM’s Porcelain Room. Digitization is a key method of preservation for unstable photographic media, and, in this case, preservation was especially necessary as this slide collection is the only visual evidence we have of the collection prior to it being dispersed to museums throughout the world.

A new digital exhibit from the Seattle Art Museum Research Libraries offers an illustrated introduction to the world of eighteenth-century porcelain. The exhibit showcases the Dr. Ulrich and Stella Fritzsche Collection of eighteenth-century works from the Vincennes and Sèvres Porcelain Manufactories, including several objects now in the Seattle Art Museum.

Snake-Handled Bowl, ca. 1750, Vincennes Porcelain Manufactory, gift of Ulrich and Stella Fritzsche, photo by Ted D’Arms, SAM Online Object Collection no. 95.53.

The exhibit offers a fresh view of collecting itself, including Dr. Fritzsche’s philosophy of art collecting and illustrated anecdotes about several of the pieces in his collection. In Dr. Fritzsche’s view, the collector is merely a “temporary guardian” of the art: “You live with the artwork for a while, you preserve it, then you pass it on. It doesn’t belong to you forever.”1

With high-resolution images of several dozen exquisite porcelain pieces, accompanied by explanations of décor, style, color, marks, and historical context, the Fritzsche Porcelain Exhibit also serves as a useful digital guide to anyone wishing to learn more about porcelain history or terminology.

Two Bouillard Cups (gobelets Bouillard), 1753, Vincennes Porcelain Manufactory, painted by André-Vincent Vielliard aîné (active 1752–90), photo by Ted D’Arms.

With high-resolution images of several dozen exquisite porcelain pieces, accompanied by explanations of décor, style, color, marks, and historical context, the Fritzsche Porcelain Exhibit also serves as a useful digital guide to anyone wishing to learn more about porcelain history or terminology.

Diamond-Shaped Breakfast Service (déjeuner losange), 1763, Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, painted by Charles Louis Méreaud (active 1756–80), photo by Ted D’Arms.

Dr. Fritzsche’s journey as a collector began by chance in 1974, when he happened upon a small tea set in a Seattle antique store run by the artist Jay Steensma; Dr. Fritzsche credits Steensma for inspiring him to become a collector.2

Square Openwork Tea Service (déjeuner carré à jour), 1761, Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, painted by Louis-Jean Thévenet père (active c. 1741–77), photo by Ted D’Arms.

From then on, Dr. Fritzsche aimed not just to assemble a significant collection of porcelain, but also to conduct extensive research about each piece: his philosophy of collecting involved “chasing a piece down and finding out everything about it that I could.”3

Tea Canister (boîte à thé), n.d., Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, photo by Ted D’Arms.

It was on Dr. Fritzsche’s initiative that the French Porcelain Society was founded by Kate Foster (Lady Davson) in 1984.4 Read more about Dr. Fritzsche’s experience as a collector here.

Pomade Pot with Ornaments (pot à pommade à ornements), 1766, Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, painted by Étienne Evans (active 1752–1806), photo by Ted D’Arms.

Among the items highlighted in the Fritzsche Porcelain Exhibit are seven objects in SAM’s collection, on display in the Porcelain Room, such as the magnificent blue Flower Vase (cuvette à fleurs Courteille), which originally belonged to Madame de Pompadour, and is notable for its painting of the maritime Battle of Solebay. Julie Emerson credits Dr. Fritzsche himself for unearthing this object’s relation to Madame de Pompadour’s inventory, while the vase was part of his collection.5

Flower Vase (cuvette à fleurs Courteille), 1755–56, Vincennes Porcelain Manufactory, painted by Louis-Denis Armand aîné (active 1745–88), photo by Ted D’Arms, SAM Online Object Collection no. 99.8.

More easily overlooked, but exquisite in its minuteness, is the Three-Legged Teapot (théière à trois pieds), located in the “Early Porcelain” case on the left (northern) wall of the Porcelain Room.6 Its white body, gilded with a fanciful bird design, stands on paw-like feet with gilded toes. Its surprisingly tiny size could be due to the eighteenth-century custom of brewing a small, concentrated amount of tea, to be later diluted with hot water,7 a custom still prevalent in Russia, among other places. Dr. Fritzsche tells the colorful story of how he acquired this rare teapot in Paris here.

Three-Legged Teapot (théière à trois pieds), ca. 1750–51 (body); 1753–60 (lid), Vincennes & Sèvres Porcelain Manufactories, gift of Ulrich and Stella Fritzsche, photo by Ted D’Arms, SAM Online Object Collection no. 99.71.

Just to the right of the little Teapot in the “Early Porcelain” case is the elegant Sugar Spoon (cuillière à sucre), whose dual gilded handles are intertwined like sinuous vines. Such spoons, designed most likely by Jean-Claude Duplessis, the artistic director at Sèvres, were exceedingly rare due to the fragility of the handle.8 Stella Fritzsche notes that this spoon was one of her favorite pieces in their entire collection. Read more about Stella Fritzsche’s memories of their collecting years here.

Sugar Spoon (cuillière à sucre), 1752–54, Vincennes Porcelain Manufactory, gift of Ulrich and Stella Fritzsche, photo by Ted D’Arms, SAM Online Object Collection, no. 2005.177.

Another inherently fragile structure is the footed eggcup on a narrow stem; like the spoon, it is rare because easily breakable, so this style was later replaced with a more durable footless eggcup model.9 Two such footed Eggcups (coquetiers à pied), on slender stems, each adorned with colorful painted flowers, are in the “Botanicals” display case, on the right (southern) wall of the Porcelain Room.

Two Eggcups (coquetiers à pied), ca. 1755, Vincennes Porcelain Manufactory, gift of Ulrich and Stella Fritzsche, photo by Ted D’Arms, SAM Online Object Collection nos. 95.54.1, 95.54.2.

The Litron Cup (gobelet litron), delicately painted with Chinoiserie décor, is an eye-catching embodiment of the eighteenth-century fad for the Chinese style. It stands prominently at the center of the “West Meets East” display case in the Porcelain Room (left/northern wall). This teacup shape, the Litron Cup (gobelet litron), was the most frequently produced at the Sèvres factory; its straight-sided, cylindrical form was modeled after a traditional wooden measuring cup for salt and grains.10

Litron Cup (Litron Cup; gobelet litron), 1778, Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, gift of Ulrich and Stella Fritzsche, photo by Ted D’Arms, SAM Online Object Collection no. 2005.179.

The Fritzsche Collection contains several examples of the litron teacup style. Read more in the exhibit about other shapes of teapots and teacups (Calabre Teapot, Bouillard Cup), and eighteenth-century tea-drinking habits.

Litron Cup and Saucer (gobelet litron et soucoupe), ca. 1764, Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, painted by Fallot (active 1764–90), photo by Ted D’Arms.

Aside from the objects from the Fritzsche Collection now in SAM’s Porcelain Room (read the complete list here), the Fritzsche Collection contains almost 100 images of porcelain now residing in museums and collections worldwide.

The rich histories of selected distinctive pieces, such as the Catherine the Great Service, are highlighted in the exhibit. Some objects have unexpected backstories. The hunting scene on the pink Wine Bottle Cooler was likely inspired by Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s tapestries, and may represent King Louis XV on a stag hunt.11 Read more in the exhibit regarding the way scenes of hunting parks underscored Louis XV’s domestic agenda and persona as the “hunter-king.”12

Wine Bottle Cooler (seau à bouteille), 1758, Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, photo by Ted D’Arms.

The Fritzsche Collection contains a rich variety of bird imagery, from the scientifically inspired Buffon birds on Dodin’s Partridge-Eye Plate (assiette, œil de perdrix) to the fantastical, extravagantly plumed birds on pieces by Thévenet and Chappuis.

Delving back into the forgotten lives of the porcelain painters and gilders who decorated these objects, the exhibit also attends to life within the factory community itself. Some of the artists arrived at Vincennes or Sèvres as apprentices, as young as age nine, and stayed there for their entire lives; their wives and children often worked at the factory as well.13 The exhibit includes biographies of these little-known figures and an illustrated sampling of the evocative, mysterious painters’ marks that have fascinated porcelain scholars for generations.

Marks for Plate from the Catherine the Great Service, 1782, Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, painter Jean-Baptiste Tandart aîné (active ca. 1754–1803), gilder Michel-Barnabé Chauvaux aîné (active ca. 1753–88), photo by Ted D’Arms.

Focusing also on technique, the exhibit discusses methods for firing and glazing, the usage of different shades of blue, and a variety of decorative methods, such as œil de perdrix, rose marbré, vermiculé, and caillouté.

Duplessis Tray (plateau Duplessis), ca. 1765, Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, photo by Ted D’Arms.

The Fritzsches documented their collection with an array of slides, taken by the photographer Ted D’Arms, which they have donated to SAM’s Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library, along with Dr. Fritzsche’s extensive Collector’s Notes, and the Fritzsche Library on Decorative Arts, comprising his entire collection of scholarly reference works on porcelain.

Litron Cup with Dolphin Handles (gobelet litron), Detail, n.d., Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, photo by Ted D’Arms.

The Fritzsche Porcelain Digital Collection was created between 2017 and 2020. The project included digitization of Dr. Fritzsche’s slides, interviews of the Fritzsches from 2018–19 about their lives as collectors, research into the historical context and style of pieces in the collection, and creation of an exhibition website meant to provide broader context to this magnificent collection, both within the eighteenth century when these objects were made, and within the twentieth century when they were most recently collected.

Half Wine Bottle Cooler (seau à demi-bouteille), n.d., Vincennes Porcelain Manufactory, photo by Ted D’Arms.

– Kirsten Painter, SAM Volunteer, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library


1 Ulrich Fritzsche, interview conducted and transcribed by Kirsten Painter, Seattle Art Museum Bullitt Library, November 12, 2019.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 “Inspired by the collector Ulrich Fritzche of Seattle, who organized a first informal dinner, our founder’s goal was to bring together collectors, museum curators, dealers, auction specialists and enthusiasts so they could enjoy each other’s company, share their passion for French porcelain, and promote its study” (“Our History,” The French Porcelain Society, 2021, https://www.thefrenchporcelainsociety.com/about-us/our-history/).

5 Julie Emerson, “Victory at Sea: A Vincennes Cuvette Painted with a Battle-Scene,” French Porcelain Society Journal 3 (2007): 66n19; Ulrich Fritzsche, “Ulrich and Stella Fritzsche Collection of Vincennes–Sèvres Porcelain,” unpublished manuscript, Seattle Art Museum Library Archives/Special Collections (Seattle, 2018), 7, https://samlibraries.omeka.net/items/show/2991.

6 Titles of the cases in the Porcelain Room are from Seattle Art Museum, Guide to the Porcelain Room, texts by Julie Emerson et al. (Seattle: Marquand Books, 2007), accessed August 2021, https://www.seattleartmuseum.org/Documents/SAMPorcelainGuide_4mg.pdf.

7 Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie (1757–80), cited in Rosalind Savill, The Wallace Collection: Catalogue of Sèvres Porcelain (London: Trustees of the Wallace Collection, 1988), 2:490.

8 Svend Eriksen, Davids Samling: Fransk porcelæn/The David Collection: French Porcelain (Copenhagen: Davids Samling, 1980), 66; Svend Eriksen and Geoffrey de Bellaigue, Sèvres Porcelain: Vincennes and Sèvres 1740-1800, trans. R. J. Charleston (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 275.

9 Eriksen and De Bellaigue, Sèvres Porcelain, 305.

10 Rosalind Savill, The Wallace Collection: Catalogue of Sèvres Porcelain (London: Trustees of the Wallace Collection, 1988), 2:501.

11 Ulrich Fritzsche, “Ulrich and Stella Fritzsche Collection of Vincennes–Sèvres Porcelain,” unpublished manuscript, Seattle Art Museum Library Archives/Special Collections (Seattle, 2018), 14, https://samlibraries.omeka.net/items/show/2991; The Huntington Art Museum Catalog Online, The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens (San Marino, CA), no. 27.52, accessed August 2021, http://emuseum.huntington.org/collections.

12 Julie Anne Plax, “J.-B. Oudry’s Royal Hunts and Louis XV’s Hunting Park at Compiègne: Landscapes of Power, Prosperity and Peace,” Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes 37, no. 2 (2017): 102–19, doi: 10.1080/14601176.2016.1169709; Colin Bailey, “A Long Working Life, Considerable Research and Much Thought: An Introduction to the Art and Career of Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686–1755),” in Oudry’s Painted Menagerie: Portraits of Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Europe, ed. Mary G. Morton (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007), 10.

13 Savill, Wallace Collection, 3:991.

Photo: Installation view Porcelain Room, Seattle Art Museum, 2007, photo: Nathaniel Wilson.

Make Your Move: Responding to Imogen Cunningham’s Retrospective

With photography becoming a more common medium than ever before, what can we learn from 20th century photographers like Imogen Cunningham’s whose careers were built on the use of film cameras? In partnership with South End Stories and Mr Santos Creations, this video follows three students from Baile Dior Studios—Yizjuani Watson, Andre Yancey, and Neveah Thompson—as they explore SAM’s ongoing special exhibition, Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective, draw personal connections, and respond through dance. See Cunningham’s works on view at our downtown location through February 6, 2022!

Director

Terrence Jeffrey Santos
Regional Emmy Awardee for Cinematography (2016), The Otherside Documentary Design Director of Video Production, UW Athletics Marketing Department (2010-2015) @filipinxfoodseattle @musangtinos @anaktoykompany @loveandpicnics

Producers

Donte Felder is the founder and Executive Director at South End Stories where they focus on Trauma-Informed Arts Practice: Healing Through History and Creativity. Donte is a former SPS educator and has been the recipient of WEA’s Humanitarian Award as well as Washington’s Golden Apple Award. Donte comes from a family of seasoned educators and community leaders focused on pursuing social justice by developing anti-racist and anti-oppression practices in schools and communities. More information about Donte and South End Stories can be found at: https://www.southendstories-artsed.com/.

TiQuida “TQ” Spellman has been involved in dance and performing arts for over 20 years. The founder of Baile Dior Studios (Dance Golden Studios), the Pacific Northwest’s first dance studio to specialize in J-sette Majorette dance and focused on connecting youth to the benefits of attending historically Black colleges and universities. A love of performing arts, dance, and a degree in Educational Studies guides TiQuida’s mission to provide youth with self-esteem and courage to showcase their talents, creativity, and imagination. TiQuida works as an Arts Education Consultant and teaches a host of dance classes for youth and adults.

Speakers

What’s poppin’ y’all, the name is Andre, but I prefer to go by Drizzy Dre. I’m 21 years old, born and raised in Kent, WA. You’ll either catch me laughing, or attempting to make someone else do so. I love to dance and teach, but my passion is for Majorette.

Hi my name is Yizjuani Watson and I am 14 years old. I attend Renton High School. My favorite color is purple. I enjoy art because it gives you another vision of life. The main part of art I enjoy is physical art because it helps you physically express yourself. The type of physical art I do is dance. Dance is my passion, I have danced for 7 years. The reason I dance is because it is a physical art that lets me know that being unique and out of the ordinary is okay.

Hey y’all! I’m 19 yrs old and I was born and raised in Seattle, WA. My name is Neveah, but everybody calls me Veah. My favorite thing to do is to create choreography in the studio with my peers.

Object of the Week: Kali (I’m a Mess)

Colorful, riotous, and vibrant are but three words that come to mind when thinking about Dr. Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s neon artworks. Burman’s neon lights first appeared on the Tate Britain’s façade in 2020 for her commission Remembering a Brave New World, which disrupted the neoclassical building’s exterior with a roar of color. Her installation was awarded the 2021 Dezeen Award for Design of the Year.1

Photo: © Tate 2020/Joe Humphrys.

The artist traces her love for neon to childhood visits to Blackpool, a seaside resort known for its annual lights festival. While traditional glass neon lights were not conducive to achieving the shapes and structures that Burman wanted, new developments in the medium allowed her to bend and shape silicon neon lights to create complex and multi-colored sculptures. Some of her signature works include pouncing tigers, images of Hindu deities, uplifting quotes, and her father’s ice cream van. Burman’s Tate Britain installation was unveiled in time for Diwali, the South Asian festival of lights, but also in the midst of the global Black Lives Matter movement and raging COVID-19 pandemic.

With all of this in mind, Burman communicated an uplifting message, but, more importantly, highlighted the significant role and contributions of Black and Asian British artists in the United Kingdom. Burman has also noted that the neon works are an extension of her previous practice, stating, “paradoxically, [the installation’s] concerns are the same themes I explored back in the 80s along with my colleagues in the Black British Arts Movement [that] are still so prevalent today…”

“It’s undeniable that the Tate Britain commission I was awarded was finally a step in the right direction, in acknowledging the significance of my work and practice—as well as the significant contributions of my contemporaries—that have, to be frank, been overlooked for so long,” Burman said. “In doing so, Tate have sought to re-address the biases and hypocrisy often prevalent in both our British art establishments and the wider art sector. This shift, inevitably signifies a slow erosion of the inequalities prevalent in the art world.”

“That being said,” she continued, “I saw my selection for this commission not as a final step in this process of erosion but as a beginning. I was adamant, therefore, that my commission serve as an opportunity to critique the role of the Tate—and by extension all of our British establishments—in much the same way as I have done throughout my practice.” 

SAM acquired one of Burman’s neon works, Kali (I’m a Mess) with funds from the Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Acquisition Fund for Global and Contemporary Art, and additional support from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. Previously perched atop the Tate Britain’s pediment, obscuring the statue of Britannia, the piece will be on view in the upcoming exhibition, Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time, opening January 14 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.2

Kali (I’m a Mess) brings both a disruptive and inclusive message of liberation and rebellion. Through this artwork, Burman asks: Can Kali fast forward us into a brave new world where we will no longer be in a mess?

Ananya Sikand, PhD Candidate, University of Washington

The author wishes to thank the artist, Dr. Chila Kumari Singh Burman, as well as the artist’s studio team, especially Kemi Sanbe, for kindly providing answers to interview questions. Thanks also to Dr. Natalia Di Pietrantonio, SAM’s Assistant Curator of South Asian Art, for providing the opportunity to write this blog post.


1 https://www.dezeen.com/awards/2021/winners/remembering-a-brave-new-world/#

2 Britannia is the embodiment of Britain in female form as a symbol of British national pride and unity, but also, more troublingly, a long-lasting symbol of colonialism, extraction, and violence.

Image: Kali (I’m a Mess), 2020, Chila Kumari Burman, 6mm 12v silicone LED neon, galvanized weld mesh, 12v switch mode transformers, IP67 plastic box, 137 13/16 x 70 7/8 × 1 3/16 in., Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Acquisition Fund for Global and Contemporary Art, 2021.25 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

Object of the Week: The Sacrifice of Isaac

When talking about biblical studies, Rabbi Emily Meyer once said, “every translation is a commentary.” This is true, not only for verbal and written languages, but also for the language of visual art, particularly when it comes to biblical interpretation, where artistic design choices can change the context of the narrative. Alessandro Algardi’s Early Modern Italian relief sculpture, The Sacrifice of Isaac, is a prime example of how art can act as its own biblical commentary, both through image alone and in conjunction with verbal interpretation.

The Sacrifice, or Binding of Isaac narrative, is found in Genesis, the first book of Torah, also called the Hebrew Bible, chapter 22. In the chapter, Abraham is told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, but he is stopped at the last moment by an angel, who tells Abraham he has proved his fear of God, and he instead sacrifices a nearby ram (or lamb in some interpretations).

In the original narrative, the angel calls out to Abraham as he is about to strike.1 Abraham simply responds, “Here I am.” Yet, in Algardi’s visual interpretation, the angel grabs onto the knife mid-swing, as if needing to physically halt Abraham’s actions, removing some of the sense of agency Abraham may have had in the original text; it is not Abraham’s choice to pause in his actions, but a result of forceful intervention by the angel. This compositional choice therefore acts as visual biblical commentary, adding to, and expanding upon, interpretations of the original text.

Similarly, Algardi chose to portray Isaac as an older adolescent kneeling on the altar with his head hung low, as if resigned to his fate. Much religious commentary has been written about Isaac’s age, as the story found in Torah does not mention any detail about Isaac, his thoughts, or his actions. Some interpretations portray him as an innocent young boy who is complacent and oblivious to his fate, others as a young man, aware and accepting of his fate. These varying interpretations can change the meaning of the narrative for different religious groups and are reflected in visual depictions across almost 2,000 years. Algardi’s Isaac falls closer to the “aware and accepting” interpretation. This tracks with Christian interpretations of the narrative, in which the character of Isaac is viewed as typological, a precursor or prefiguration to the sacrifice of Jesus. Considering that this object was undoubtedly made in and for a Christian setting, this compositional choice is no surprise.

It is a worthy endeavor to look at different portrayals of the Sacrifice of Isaac from across different religious groups, geographical backgrounds, and time periods to understand how the same original text may change—or maintain—meaning, representation, importance, and impact depending on its context. Each visual translation of the story, from contemporary versions like the painting by Marc Chagall, to late antique portrayals like the mosaics found in the 6th century CE Beit Alpha Synagogue in Israel and Basilical of San Vitale in Italy, truly is its own commentary.

– Abby Massarano, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art


1 10And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. 11The angel of the LORD called to him from heaven: “Abraham, Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” 12And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” 13When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.” Jewish Publication Society, JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh: The Traditional Hebrew Text and the New JPS Translation, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999), 40.

Image: The Sacrifice of Isaac, ca. 1638-39, Alessandro Algardi, Terracotta with white paint, 31 1/2 x 22 1/4 x 4 in., Overall h.: 33 in., Overall w.: 24 in., Overall diam.: 6 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 55.109.

Object of the Week: Liminal Objects #5

Computer-generated liminal spaces and objects are familiar to video gamers—and maybe more so to those who are just not very good at video games, flailing halfway between a corner, or punching through a character that is more background than plot. These virtually possible in-between spaces become perceptible at the moment a player engages with the limits of a game’s designed environment. In Seattle-based artist Gary Hill’s video installation series Liminal Objects, however, it is within the absence of a designed environment where the computer-generated objects themselves interact, and with disregard for each other’s limits.

Each work in the series shows two black-and-white unrelated computer-generated objects on a 14-inch Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitor that has had its housing removed. One object is still, while the other moves back-and-forth and around, indiscriminately slicing the stationary object. In Liminal Objects #5 (1996), it is a stationary tree and a swinging chandelier. Through these shadowless animations, “Hill has avoided the spectacle of computer art and instead embraced the simple fact that the ‘program’ doesn’t care if objects penetrate each other’s solidity.”1 It’s a bit absurd, and in the case of #5, perhaps a touch romantic.

Placing the work among other video art and time-based media of its era, Liminal Objects’ sculptural presence stands out. During the 1990s, contemporary art saw a “cinematic turn,” with a proliferation of large-scale video projection within the gallery space. Video art “forged a link with cinema and its giganticism” as projected images began to engulf entire walls.2 This was a departure from the previous decade, where CRT monitors—the small boxy televisions so different from today’s large flat LCD screens—were the norm (and sometimes only option) for displaying video art. But in the 1990s, many artists sought to loosen video from default connections to sculpture and the domestic in favor of the more immersive experiences that newer technologies could support.

Hill’s Liminal Objects series doubles down on the sculptural qualities of the CRT monitor while also disengaging it from connotations with the domestic: first, by removing the monitor from its casing, thereby “exposing the circuit boards and cathode tubes, and rendering them dangerous and vulnerable sculptural objects;”3 and second, as in Liminal Objects #5, by placing the monitor vertically atop its small steel table. All of these works would originally use laser disc to play the video loops, a common format for video art at the time due to laser disc’s accuracy for synchronization and potential higher quality as compared to tape-based formats.

Engaged in a silent loop, the tree and chandelier of #5 act as ghost-like semaphores: “a compositional practice of electronic linguistics.”4 But in thinking through the considerable questions for how to continue to display such time-based artworks in the future, another riff on ‘liminal’ comes to mind. “[L]iminal or borderline states are anywhere that something is about to undergo a phase transition or turn into something else.”5 As we all know, formats will become obsolete and technology will fail (just look to your smart phone). CRT monitors are not as easily sourced today and the laser disc has long been eclipsed by the digital file.

That time-based artworks can potentially inhabit future hardware, software, and display mechanisms without losing their inherent meaning, highlights a certain liminality too. How will artists like Hill and tomorrow’s conservators imagine the “phase transition” of these works into the future?  

– Mia Ferm, SAM Project Manager, Historic Media Collection


1 Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Gary Hill: Selected Works and Catalogue Raisonné (Cologne: DuMont, 2002): p. 196.

2 Laurenson, Pip, “Developing Strategies for the Conservation of Installations Incorporating Time-Based Media with Reference to Gary Hill’s Between Cinema and a Hard Place,Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 40, No. 3, 2001, pp. 259-266: p. 261.

3 Laurenson, Pip, “Developing Strategies for the Conservation of Installations Incorporating Time-Based Media with Reference to Gary Hill’s Between Cinema and a Hard Place,Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 40, No. 3, 2001, pp. 259-266: p. 261.

4 Quasha, George, An Art of Limina: Gary Hill’s Works and Writings (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2009): p. 90.

5 Quasha, George, An Art of Limina: Gary Hill’s Works and Writings (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2009): p. 219.

Image: Liminal Objects, No. 5, 1996, Gary Hill, Monitor mounted on metal stand, digital disc player, and recorded video laser disc, 48 1/2 x 16 x 16 in., Purchased in honor of Shirley and Donald Young with funds from the Collectors’ Forum and the Mark Tobey Estate Fund, 98.51 © Gary Hill (1996).

Object of the Week: Feast Dish

Crafted out of wood, paint, and opercula shells, Calvin Hunt’s monster Feast Dish, is a testament to the importance of food, community, and potlatch culture to the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of British Columbia. Born in 1956, Calvin Hunt is known for his monumental sculptures and is a well-respected artist from the Kwagu’l band located in Fort Rupert. Hunt’s feast dish provides a remarkable contrast to the typical Kwakwaka’wakw dishes.

As many partake in Thanksgiving celebrations, it is pertinent to recognize the cultural significance of the potlatch for the First Nations, along with the impact of the Canadian potlatch ban that restricted Indigenous peoples from practicing their traditions for over sixty years, only officially ending in 1951. The word potlatch, in Kwak’wala means “to give.” Potlatching for theKwakwaka’wakw continues to this day and has been practiced for as long as spoken and written history can remember.

Feast bowls are carefully carved and ornamented by their creators, specifically designed for their use at potlatches that will hold delicious foods such as eulachon fish oil, seal meat, cranberries, and cinquefoil roots. Hunt’s bowl, however, was crafted specifically for SAM to coincide with the Chiefly Feasts exhibition in 1994. The feast bowl is modeled after Sisiutl, a three-headed sea serpent from Kwakwaka’wakw mythology, who can change between human and animal, along with morphing into a self-propelling canoe whose owner must feed with seals. Operculum shells encircle the mouth of the bowl. In nature, these shells protect marine gastropods (snails) from predators along with preventing the gastropod from drying up if they are exposed to air. With these operculum shells adorning the mouth of Hunt’s bowl where feast food is placed, along with this piece having been created shortly after the potlatch ban was lifted, it can be inferred that these shells are protecting the sacred tradition of potlatching from predatory laws.

Today, and every day, is an occasion to give thanks to Indigenous communities.

Seattle Art Museum acknowledges that we are on the traditional homelands of the Duwamish and the customary territories of the Suquamish and Muckleshoot Peoples. As a cultural and educational institution, we honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future. We also acknowledge the urban Native peoples from many Nations who call Seattle their home.

– Kari Karsten, SAM Emerging Museum Professional Curatorial Intern

Image: Lukwalil (feast dish), 1994, Calvin Hunt (Tlasutiwalis), Wood, paint, opercula shells, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 94.63 © Calvin Hunt.

SAMBlog