Object of the Week: Sky Landscape I

Louise Nevelson was a pioneering American artist, perhaps best known for her large-scale monochromatic wooden wall sculptures. Born Leah Berliawsky in Kiev, Russia (now Ukraine), Nevelson emigrated with her family to the United States in the early 20th century. After moving to New York from rural Maine in the 1920s, Nevelson enrolled at the Art Students League, where she pursued painting. In the years that followed, she studied with some of the most preeminent artists of her day, such as Hans Hofmann and Diego Rivera.

Cubist principles influenced her earliest abstract sculptures, which were comprised of wood and other found objects. Collage and assemblage techniques continued to inform her compositions, which began taking more ambitious shape in the late 1950s. Found wooden fragments were stacked and nested to create monumental walls, architectural in scale and unified by a monochromatic finish. The sculptures, most often painted black, were done so due to the color’s harmony and, for Nevelson, the belief that black isn’t a “negation of color. . . black encompasses all colors. Black is the most aristocratic color of all. . . . . it contains the whole thing.”[1]

This dynamic relationship between color, light, sculpture, and space motivated Nevelson throughout her career, especially as she explored the possibilities of sculpture as it translated outdoors. Her first outdoor steel sculpture, Atmosphere and Environment X, in the collection of the Princeton University Art Museum, was made in 1969. Sky Landscape I is a part of this later body of work, where Nevelson continued her sculptural explorations in the round.[2]

Sky Landscape I and its dynamic forms, stretching upward and curling inward, is no stranger to the Olympic Sculpture Park, where it has been on view as a loan since 2007. As of last month, however, the piece officially entered the museum’s permanent collection as a gift of Jon A. Shirley. The work is the first sculpture by Nevelson in the collection.

With longer days and spring enlivening the Olympic Sculpture Park, it is the perfect time to visit and take in Sky Landscape I anew––its abstract forms inviting interpretation as a landscape nested within a landscape.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


[1] Diana MacKown, Dawns & Dusks (1976): p. 126.
[2] This work, like other aluminum outdoor works by Nevelson from this period, were made with the potential for even larger realization. In 1988, the American Medical Association in Washington, D.C. commissioned a more monumental version; standing 30 feet tall, it is located at the intersection of Vermont Ave and L Street NW.
Images: Sky Landscape I, 1976-1983, Louise Nevelson (born Louise Berliawsky), welded aluminum painted black, 10 ft.  x 10 ft.  x 6 ft. 2 in., Gift of Jon A. Shirley, 2021.4 copy Estate of Louise Nevelson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Louise Nevelson, Cascade VII, 1979, wood painted black. 8 ft. 6 in. x 10 ft. 7 in. x 1 ft. 4 in., 9 elements plus base, 10 parts total, photo: Pace Gallery

Object of the Week: Bundle

Don’t imitate me;

it’s as boring

as the two halves of a melon.

– Basho, translated by Robert Hass

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Indeed, Tanaka Yu’s ceramic sculptures convincingly appear as vessels wrapped in knotted furoshiki (wrapping cloth). And still, even after we are made aware of the work’s materiality, it is difficult to see the object as anything other than a textile whose woven structure conceals an object underneath. Here, imitation serves another purpose.

For Yu, who studied oil painting before working in ceramics, this effect of concealment allows her to invoke that which is hidden, prompting her viewers to consider the sculpture’s purpose, and ideas of functionality versus non-functionality. Within the context of Japan’s centuries-long history and tradition of ceramics, too – firmly rooted in the functionality of the object –Yu’s conceptual sculptures turn utility on its head. 

However, for all its conceptual rigor, Yu’s Bundle series evidences a mastery of clay as well. Though the pieces appear to be slab-built, they are in fact coil-built. The artist, using Shigaraki-blended clay, deftly transforms the earthen material, exploiting its inherent and renowned plasticity, into a lightweight cloth. The distinctive yellow color, whose pigment is applied in thin layers by brush, further accents the newfound drapes and folds of the sculpture. The choice of color also refers to the type of yellow cloth often used to wrap a ceramic vessel within its storage box.

Yu’s Bundle, recently acquired by SAM, is a seductive work, and one that benefits from close looking, consideration, and reflection. The artist shows us that imitation, in this case, is far from boring, and can raise important questions about the use-value of objects and the functions they serve. 

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

1Shigaraki is considered one of the “Six Ancient Kilns” in Japan. The clay found in the Shigaraki area is rich in iron and feldspar, among other compounds, that informs its unique texture and color once fired.

Images: Bundle, 2019, Tanaka Yu, Matte-glazed stoneware, 24 3/8 x 16 1/2 x 16 1/2 in., Gift of Gordon Brodfuehrer in honor of the Monsen family, 2020.21.3 ©️ Artist or Artist’s Estate Image courtesy of Joan B Mirviss LTD, photo: Kani Hazuki.

Object of the Week: Untitled #2

I hope I have made it clear that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect- completely removed in fact- even as we ourselves are.1

– Agnes Martin

In 1985, Agnes Martin painted Untitled #2. In her distinctive six-feet by six-feet scale, the painting’s composition balances washes of soft color with hand-drawn horizontal graphite lines. Lean in to look closely and you can see the imperfections of a human hand drawing with pencil. Lean back and the painting surrounds you with atmospheric bands of color and space.

This poem, like the paintings, is not really about nature. It is not about what is seen. It is what is known forever in the mind.2

– Agnes Martin

Martin believed that who we are shapes what we see. She thought that paintings could provide transformative and non-prescriptive experiences for the viewer. In her writings, she described that “the life of the work depends upon the observer, according to his own awareness of perfection and inspiration.”3 Rather than asking the artist, “What does this painting mean?” Martin asks the viewer to consider, “What does this painting mean to you?”

When we live our lives it’s something like a race – our minds become concerned and covered over and we get depressed and have to get away for a holiday. And then sometimes there are moments of perfection and in these moments we wonder why we ever thought life was difficult.4

– Agnes Martin

When I first saw Untitled #2 hanging in SAM’s galleries, I felt peace and wonder. The simplicity of the repeating forms encouraged me to stay still. Martin once wrote she liked a painting “because you can go in there and rest.”[5] Untitled #2 offered me that restful space––an opportunity to quiet the mind. I wonder as I write this, what this painting means to you. Is it one you walk by in the galleries or does it also draw you in? I like to imagine Martin would not care either way. She would just hope you found something that gives you a definite response, a moment of perfection, a chance to feel something new. 

Regan Pro, SAM Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Engagement


1 Agnes Martin, Writings, Pace Gallery, 1992, p. 15.
2 Agnes Martin, Writings, Pace Gallery, 1992, p. 15.
3 Ibid, p. 32.
4 Ibid, p. 31.
5 Ibid, p. 36.
Images: Untitled #2, 1985, Agnes Martin, paintings, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 72 in., Gift of The American Art Foundation, 95.39 © Agnes Martin. Waters, 1962, Agnes Martin, India ink on paper, 8 1/8 x 7 5/8 in., Gift of Margaret Smith, 84.186 © Agnes Martin. Untitled, 1963, Agnes Martin, gouache, ink, and graphite on paper, 8 7/16 x 8 1/2 in., Gift of Margaret Smith, 84.189 © Agnes Martin

Object of the Week: Reduction

The most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan devastated the Tohoku (Northeast) region on March 11, 2011. The 9.0-magnitude temblor triggered a tsunami over 100-feet high, which in turn caused a meltdown at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Within just a few hours, several towns in the region were wiped off the map. It was horrifying.

The magnitude of the triple disaster was beyond measure, not only in terms of its physical devastation, but its psychological impact on Japanese people. Fears about radiation contamination are still present, even today. Many Japanese artists responded to the catastrophe in their own creative ways, but Kondo Takahiro (born 1958), a ceramic artist, was so shocked that he was unable to work for a while. He was compelled to think deeply about human survival and our relationship with nature.

Months later, Takahiro started making his Reduction series. Modelled on his own body, the sculptural figure sits in a meditative posture, as if in contemplation. According to the artist’s own commentary, the figure is pondering what the essence of the world is. He titled the series Reduction with a suggestion that devastating events like the 3.11 disaster could diminish the Japanese people. The glittery silver drops created by his patented “silver-mist” glaze can also be understood as a reference to the radioactivity in Fukushima. Between 2012 and 2017, Takahiro created 21 life-size ceramic sculptures for the Reduction series. Even though all 21 pieces were molded in the same shape, each figure has varied glazes, affording each its own unique look. The work in SAM’s collection is covered with a gray-green glaze, with a dripping bluish glaze throughout the surface—together, the combination recalls an ancient bronze vessel aged with patina.

Reduction is a timely work in response to disconcerting contemporary events, but the piece is also timeless, speaking eloquently to human conditions and our relationship with nature. It is currently displayed atop the restored 1933 fountain located in the heart of SAM’s Asian Art Museum: the Garden Court. Takahiro’s signature “silver-mist” glaze drips down the body like falling water, echoing the trickling water in the fountain. Natural light filters through the Garden Court ceiling, altering the sculpture’s color and appearance every instant. The setting resonates well with Reduction’s intention of examining our relationship with nature, as well as with the artist’s concept of ceramic art being a unity of water, fire, and earth.

As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 3.11 triple disaster, our battle against an unprecedented pandemic—one year after its outbreak—is not over. In such times of crisis, Reduction is a poignant reminder how fragile our world is, and how human beings have made it so.

Xiaojin Wu, Atsuhiko & Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Foundation Curator of Japanese and Korean Art

Images: Reduction, 2015, Takahiro Kondo, porcelain with blue underglaze and “silver mist” overglaze, 33 7/16 × 25 9/16 × 17 11/16 in., Robert M. Shields Fund for Asian Ceramics, 2019.5 © Takahiro Kondo. Installation view Asian Art Museum, 2020, photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Rebekah at the Well

Rebekah is one of the most prominent women in the Hebrew Bible—a woman, whose act of kindness, decidedly shapes her future:

Rebekah went one evening to fill her water-jar at the well. As she was returning, a stranger in charge of a string of laden camels stopped the comely young girl and asked for a drink. She gave it to him and offered to draw water for his camels as well. He bestowed upon her a gold earring and two gold bracelets. The man was [Eliezer,] Abraham’s trusted servant, sent to find a wife for his master’s son Isaac from among his kinfolk. Having earlier enlisted the help of an angel, he knew that this was the girl he sought.[1]

In this image, photographer Eveleen Tennant Myers (British, 1856-1937) pays homage to an important female figure, but also establishes herself as an artist of merit—one that employs skillful darkroom techniques, staging, and an austere composition to create a truly modern photograph.

Myers was born in 1856 to English society matron Gertrude Collier Tennant (1819-1918). Her mother’s connections and patronage of artists, and her own social position, allowed her to pursue her interests as a freelance artist, rather than a commercial one who depended on a steady income to make a living. Through her mother, Myers was acquainted with the cultural elite of her time: the writers Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo and painters Edward Burne-Jones, Frederic Leighton, and Edward John Poynter. As a girl, she was a sitter for Julia Margaret Cameron and this encounter had a profound impact on her pursuit of photography.[2] As a young woman, she sat for some of England’s most prominent painters, including John Everett Millais and George Frederick Watts, and became familiar with the act of being a model.

Myers married poet and psychical researcher Frederic William Henry Myers (1843-1901) in 1879. He had seen her portrait by Millais, and exclaimed to his friend, the writer George Eliot, “I have fallen in love with the girl in that picture.”[3] Around 1888, in the early years of motherhood, Myers began her work as a photographer using her own children as models.

Working under the well-known Cambridge photographer, Albert George Dew-Smith (1848-1903), Myers developed a firm grasp of the technical and expressive subtleties of the medium. Her experience as a model allowed her to develop an easy rapport with her subjects—the politicians, scientists, scholars, writers, and artists of her day—and assisted her in becoming a successful portraitist. Wanting to develop her artistic practice she worked to perfect her “pictorialist” compositions and darkroom techniques—she experimented with poses, settings, and costuming, and, like Cameron, often emulated poses and compositions of great master paintings.[4]

Rebekah at the Well, created in 1891, is one of her best known “aesthetic” photographs. It establishes Myers as an important women photographer in late Victorian England. In depicting the Biblical matriarch, Myers implores the staging and costumes she might have seen in amateur theater productions, but it’s the austerity of the figure that makes the photograph modern.[5] A critic of the day noted that Myers masterly handles the drapery of Rebekah’s robe, “reminding one of the folds of a Greek chitôn in some marble of the Attic age.” Her expertise in the darkroom is demonstrated in the tonal values achieved in the model’s dark hair and folds of her gown. “The structure of the living person is felt beneath the dress, which clothes but does not conceal the limbs.” [6]

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, I chose this work as its creation involved a number of women: the women who played a role in creating an artist, Myers’s mother and Cameron; Rebekah, the woman who inspired the image; the model; and Myers, the photographer who constructed Rebekah at the Well.

– Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian


[1] This succinct telling comes from Joan Comay, Who’s Who in the Old Testament, together with the Apocrypha (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971): p. 320; see also Chiara de Capoa, Old Testament Figures in Art (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003): p. 102-107.
[2] Judy Oberhausen and Nic Peeters, “Eveleen Myers (1856-1937): Portraying Beauty: The rediscovery of a late-Victorian aesthetic photographer,” The British Art Journal v. 17, no. 1 (Spring 2016), pp. 94-102.
[3] Judy Oberhausen and Nic Peeters, “Excavating the Work of Eveleen Myers: The Rediscovery of a Late Victorian Photographer,” Understanding British Portraits, https://www.britishportraits.org.uk/blog/excavating-the-work-of-eveleen-myers-the-rediscovery-of-a-late-victorian-photographer/ (accessed 2/25/2021) and Oberhausen, “Eveleen Myers,” p. 94.
[4] Oberhausen, “Eveleen Myers,” p. 94-96.
[5] Ibid., p. 99.
[6] John Addington Symonds, “Mrs. F.W.H. Myers,” Sun Artists, no. 7 (April 1891): pp. 53-54.
Image: Rebekah at the Well, 1891, Eveleen Myers, photogravure, 7 x 4 7/16 in., Mary Arrington Small Estate Acquisition Fund, 85.241.7.2

Yes/And: A Q&A with New SAM Curator Natalia Di Pietrantonio

Following the debut of the reinstalled and reimagined Asian Art Museum, SAM deepened its commitment to South Asian art by appointing Natalia Di Pietrantonio as the museum’s first-ever Assistant Curator of South Asian Art. In this new role, she’ll foster the next direction of the South Asian collection at SAM and collaborate with curatorial colleagues, especially Xiaojin Wu, Curator of Japanese and Korean Art, and FOONG Ping, Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art. Rachel Eggers, Associate Director of Public Relations, interviewed her to learn when she fell in love with South Asian art, her first exhibition for the museum, and the natural beauty of Seattle.

Tell us about your background and how you came to specialize in South Asian art.

I’ve loved art since I was very young and decided to study art history at UC Davis. During a required Asian art survey course, I found myself falling in love with South Asian art. It was completely unexpected! I had not been exposed to South Asian art before then, but starting with that one class it became my career.

I further developed this interest in the classroom of Heghnar Watenpaugh, a notable Islamicist who brought a gender studies approach to the study of art history. Based on a research paper that I wrote during one of Professor Watenpaugh’s courses, I decided to continue my studies and pursue graduate work at Columbia University. After completing a masters at Columbia, I completed a PhD at Cornell University. Both Columbia and Cornell have wonderful South Asian centers with excellent language programs, which were pivotal resources that enabled my research. After I completed my studies, I held two postdoctoral positions: one as the Consortium for Faculty Diversity Visiting Professor in South Asian Art History at Scripps College, and the other as a postdoctoral fellow at the Bard Graduate Center’s Islamic Art and Material Culture. Being hired in both South Asian and Islamic art history fields highlights my interdisciplinary training and diverse professional experience.

My personal and familial background is very different from my chosen career. Both of my parents were immigrants to this country: my father from Italy and my mother from Mexico. My mom in particular was very unsure of my chosen path in the arts but she remained supportive. As a museum curator, however, she recalls her own experiences in museums and sees a lot of value in my work bridging scholarship with community engagement and education through the arts.

Your inaugural exhibition for SAM at the Asian Art Museum, Skin as Allegory (working title), is tentatively scheduled for late 2021. How did you choose the focus for the show?

Due to Covid-19, we’ve had to be nimble. Initially, my first show would have concentrated solely on our historical permanent collection. However, as I became more aware of the important holdings within the private collections of the Seattle community, I expanded the theme of the exhibition to weave in these special works. Skin as Allegory will be the first special exhibition at the Asian Art Museum that blends contemporary and historical objects from South Asia. It will explore visual practices that contain representations and refigurations of the human body, featuring objects from the 3rd millennium BC to present day in a range of diverse material such as terracotta, bronze, metal, painting, and textiles.

You’ll see the poignant works of Chila Kumari Burman (b. 1957) and F.N. Souza (1924-2002) who were active members of British Black Arts Movement after they immigrated to London. In their work, they connect the representation of the body to the broader development of feminist, gender, and racial justice as they struggled against anti-Black racism as South Asians in England. Through their art, they fought for social and racial justice on behalf of communities who were part of the British crown’s former colonies, including those from Africa and Asia. Alongside these exciting loans will be works from our permanent collection, such as photographs by Pushpamala, whose work restages herself and her body to question gender norms in religious and national mythologies within the Indian public sphere.

As you see it, what is the future of this newly formed curatorial department at the Seattle Art Museum?

The future of the South Asian collection is in the hands of all of you! I see my role as an educator, facilitator, and more importantly someone who cares for the collection. I have many ideas of how we can grow the collection while at the same time balancing the need to do justice to our current permanent collection. I have devoted the majority of my career to the study of South Asian objects and have the privilege of working on behalf of this collection everyday. However, I also work on behalf of the public; curators do not act alone. Internally, we work in teams with wonderful colleagues. Externally, we speak and network with many students, collectors, donors, and art lovers.

SAM is the largest museum in the Pacific Northwest, and I have a duty to preserve and honor the current South Asian collection. At the same time, I need to explore how the collection can better reflect the Pacific Northwest community in all of its diversity. For instance, we can become a center for South Asian folk art, showcase more contemporary South Asian female artists, or highlight more artworks in new media to reflect this tech city. It’s a yes/and, not an either/or. I look forward to holding conversations with all of you about how you would like me to honor and grow the South Asian collection.

This exciting new position at SAM came at a very challenging moment in the world. How has it been for you, joining the museum in the midst of a global pandemic?

The SAM staff has been very welcoming. But it has been somewhat difficult to connect with the rest of the Seattle community. The general public is integral to curatorial practice. As a nonprofit, SAM holds its art collection in a public trust. For my work to be meaningful, it has to reflect public needs and desires. For the safety and health of everyone during the pandemic, we must all physically distance ourselves based on the information and advice coming from public health experts. Right now, a large part of my job as a curator and cultural facilitator cannot be undertaken in the usual manner of one-to-one meetings or large group gatherings.

So I, along with the rest of the SAM team, have moved to digital platforms to continually serve the public and bring art into your homes. I have also embraced more of the research aspect of my job, such as writing and researching on SAM’s permanent collection, since it can be undertaken in a more isolated fashion. In this regard, I recently published a research article in one of the most influential journals in my field, Modern Asian Studies. I look forward to the day when we can all safely be in front of the art again and develop more lively connections.

Tell us what you’ve been enjoying about Seattle so far. Any favorite places or experiences?

I have been enjoying the natural beauty of Seattle, waking up everyday to the sight of snowcapped mountains and the Puget Sound. As a former Californian, I forgot how much I missed seeing the mountains everyday! To live with such beauty is truly a gift. To soak up the sunshine as much as possible, I’ve been taking long walks to the Arboretum. My favorite place in Seattle so far is Golden Gardens Park. Any place where I can see and hear the ocean will forever be my favorite place to be.


This newly-created position would not be possible without the vision and generosity of the following individuals

Mimi Gardner Gates 
Anu and Naveen Jain
Rajesh Jha and Sudha Mishra
Shirish and Mona Nadkarni
Sanjay Parthasarathy and Malini Balakrishnan
Suri and Mala Raman
Darshana Shanbhag and Dilip Wagle
Gursharan and Elvira Sidhu
Rubie and Pradeep Singh
Narender and Rekha Sood
Vijay and Sita Vashee

Skin as Allegory Supporting Sponsor
Blakemore Foundation
Images: As One III, 2017, Brendan Fernandes, 1979, digital print, 34 x 48 in., Gift of Christopher and Alida Latham, 2019.27.1 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Motherland—The Festive Tableau, from the Mother India project, 2009 (print date 2012), Pushpamala N. Archival Inkjet print, 45 x 30 in., Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund, 2015.25.1 © Pushpamala N.

Object of the Week: The Lost Boys

Artist Andy Warhol said, “Everybody has their own America, and then they have the pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there, but they can’t see…” Before getting started, it’s important to acknowledge the America that I live in: I am a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied woman who was born in the northeast United States during the 1980s. I am looking at a work of art created by Kerry James Marshall: a Black, cis-gendered, able-bodied man who was born in the segregated South during the 1950s. Both Marshall and I are artists and educators, but sadly I don’t have a MacArthur Genius Award or paintings in any major museums. I’ll be approaching this work of art using my own lens and the same facilitation strategy I use for my (now virtual) tours of SAM’s collection: Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS).[1] VTS is used to spark dialogue and empower people to approach a work of art using their own observations and experiences, asking three simple questions. I encourage you to follow along and ask yourself these questions, noticing where our backgrounds may overlap or differ.

The first question of VTS is, “What’s going on in this picture?” This is a portrait of a young boy––his skin is a rich, dark black matte, and his features are defined by white outlines. He has heavy-lidded, almost tired eyes and his mouth is neutral, conveying an expression that is difficult to read. Radiating outward from his head are straight thin lines, evocative of a halo. The background is divided horizontally: the bottom third is a golden color, almost a desert landscape; the top is a deep blue overlaid with white shapes, bringing to mind a sky with clouds, though closer inspection reveals that the organic shapes are actually white roses. The paint looks to be hastily applied, as evidenced by the drip down the forehead of the young man. The drip, although white, mimics blood, similar to depictions of Christ or another martyr and links this to religious iconography.

The next question, “What do you see that makes you say that?” challenges our assumptions and biases. As we conclude Black History Month after a year of increased visibility in mainstream media of the racial inequities for Black Americans, I’ve seen myself get caught up in the imagery of Black trauma, recounting video and photos of the brutal murders of Brianna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Aubrey. I start to wonder if calling this Black figure a martyr is Marshall’s intention, or my own prejudice? Marshall’s own words confirm that I need to dig deeper: “I paint things I care about. It would have been easy to represent these places (and situations) as zones of hopelessness and despair, but I know they’re more complex than that.” 

As I read the label, the curatorial voice chimes in and indicates that Marshall is memorializing Black boys who have lost their lives, stating that the leading cause of death for young, Black men is homicide. In fact, when comparing statistics among racial groups, Black youth (0-18 years old) are seven times more likely to die by homicide than white youth.[2] As an educator, I also can’t help but think about the school-to-prison pipeline and the fact that Black students are three and half times more likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled, and that Black youth disproportionately make up those youth incarcerated in juvenile detention centers.[3]

The final question is, “What more can we find?” The language here is intentional—creating meaning is a generative process. This is where, if I were actually speaking to people, I would hear different perspectives and my understanding of a work would evolve. However, when at home, I take this question as an invitation to start researching. After procrastinating on this blog post, watching hours of interviews with Marshall, I was especially struck by one quote by the artist: “If you’re constantly being reminded of the ways in which your history and your narrative as a people were rooted in loss and decay, then you’re in deep trouble. Once you make a certain kind of peace with the past, then you should be completely oriented towards speculation about the future.”[4]

I challenge my initial response to this work. I start to see glimmers of hope in the white roses— symbols of youth, innocence, and new beginnings. I begin to unpack the ways that this painting may embody Afrofuturism, the cultural movement that explores the intersection of the African diaspora with technology, science, and liberation. A few Google searches quickly link the Eurocentric religious iconography that I saw in my art history classes to contemporary icons such as Solange Knowles’s appearance on SNL

In asking, “What more can we find?” we open ourselves up to dialogue and start to imagine a different world, a different America––maybe one that’s fantasy, or maybe one that could be our reality? Marshall’s work gives me hope and I’m reminded of the contemporary author and educator bell hooks’s words, The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is––it’s to imagine what is possible.”

– Kelsey Donahue, SAM Assistant Manager for Gallery Learning

[1] “Visual Thinking Strategies,” www.vtshome.org
[2] “Health Equity: Leading Causes of Death – Males – United States, 2017,” Center for Disease Control, www.cdc.gov/healthequity/lcod/men/2017/index.html
[3] “Our Demands,” Black Lives Matter, Seattle, blacklivesseattle.org/our-demands.
[4] “Kerry James Marshall,” Art21, art21.org/artist/kerry-james-marshall.
Image: The Lost Boys (A.K.A. Untitled), 1993, Kerry James Marshall, collage of acrylic on paper, 28 x 30 in., Gift of the Collectors’ Forum, 97.32 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

With Love From Dick and Jane

The Friday Foundation has gifted 19 significant Abstract Expressionist artworks from the Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection to SAM. In recognition of this occasion, SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Catharina Manchanda, sat down with Lyn Grinstein, President of the Friday Foundation, to discuss the gift’s impact, her late mother and stepfather Jane Lang Davis and Richard Lang, and their love for Seattle and the Seattle Art Museum.

Catharina Manchanda: Tell us a little bit about the history of Jane and Richard Lang’s collection.

Lyn Grinstein: My mother had always been a visual arts person, but we had lived overseas most of our lives and moved a lot, so she didn’t have the chance to collect art. Dick cared deeply about Seattle and about the Seattle Art Museum, a critical pillar in the cultural community. When they married in 1966, my mother could finally settle down and Dick was about to discover contemporary art.

In 1968 they bought a house in Medina and spent the next two years completely remodeling it. By 1970 they were in a new house, with a new living room, and a new couch with a big empty wall above it. And Mom said to Dick, “I think we should get just one really good painting to put above the sofa.”

Dick had graduated from Stanford University and had made great connections there, so they went to his friend, Dr. Al Elsen, an eminent art historian in the Stanford Art Department. With his guidance, they ended up with their first acquisition, the 1951 Franz Kline masterpiece, Painting No. 11. The exhilaration of learning, selecting, negotiating, and acquiring that first painting was addicting, and they were hooked, eventually filling their house with art.

Manchanda: Tell us a little bit about watching the house gradually fill up with art. What was it like from your perspective?

Grinstein: Mom and Dick had a wonderful time with it. We would all gather when a new crate arrived, and I remember particularly when the Adolph Gottlieb was delivered. It came shortly before Christmas, and when I saw it, I said, “It looks like a great big Christmas decoration with that beautiful red burst.” Mom gave me this, “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that” look.

Her office—where that ferocious 1960 Lee Krasner, Night Watch, and the brutally self-confrontational 1976 Philip Guston, The Painter, were facing each other—had been converted from a two-car garage, so the ceilings were low, and the room felt compressed. She enjoyed the tension between these two floor-to-ceiling tough paintings.

She created a mood of peace for the bedroom. Joan Mitchell’s The Sink was installed over the bed and dominated the room, flanked by Helen Frankenthaler’s contemplative Dawn Shapes. My mother and I sat on that bed, in front of that Mitchell and discussed every important decision in my life from the time I was 33 years old.

Manchanda: The Alberto Giacometti always looked so gorgeous in the living room near the windows.

Grinstein: Giacometti’s slender Femme de Venise II looked exactly like my mother. When they acquired it, she had that same hairstyle, and she had those long hands and legs and elongated body. I have a photo of her with her hair just like the Femme, standing in that living room in that same spot when the house was first completed.

Manchanda: What attracted Dick and Jane to these artists?

Grinstein: Abstract Expressionist art is so profoundly raw. When you think about the artists who were producing it, they were part of a community comprising intellectuals, many of whom had fled the most awful horrors in Europe. In America they had found a place where they could continue their rigorous inquiries without fear. That whole community—writers, architects, musicians, visual artists—met and exchanged ideas, each intensifying and clarifying the concepts of the other.

I think that was what attracted Mom and Dick to it. Neither one of them was a sentimental person. They were both smart, thoughtful, gutsy, and had lived through the Great Depression and World War II. They were strong people and the art they loved was created by equally strong people.

Manchanda: Dick and Jane were longtime SAM Trustees and it’s extraordinary that this collection is coming to SAM at this time. What do you think their hopes were for SAM and the city of Seattle?

Grinstein: When they were collecting in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Northwest was considered a young, quickly-evolving region. Some people really cared about experiencing and sharing art, like Jinny Wright and Mom. And some, like Dick, cared especially about the civic progress and had high aspirations for the city. He knew that a world-class museum would be essential to Seattle’s evolution.

As trustees of the Friday Foundation, our assignment is to consider all the expressed intentions and indications of the benefactors throughout their lives, and work to realize them today. Those intentions had to then be transformed through significant gifts to fulfill their vision. And the big vision was that Seattle would be a globally important player, and the visual and performing arts would be critical contributors, attracting international recognition.

The Langs hoped that the most significant artworks in their collection would join others already at SAM, and those yet to be given from the region’s premiere collections. They knew that the extraordinary quality of these works together would enable SAM to mount internationally significant exhibitions, for SAM as well as in partnership with their peer institutions around the world. If we do a good job, these works will provide an emotional and intellectual escape from the noise of everyday life.

Let’s bring everyone in and invite them to get inside themselves. That’s what these paintings can do for us if we give them time and quiet attention. They will talk back to you. Find the fire of the Clyfford Still, the calm of the Mitchell, the twilight of the Mark Rothko. These are powerful human emotions, and they are just under the surface of these objects. But it takes time, and it takes the commitment of the viewer to linger and absorb the emotions within these works. We hope everyone who passes through the galleries at SAM will give themselves the precious gift of lingering with these distinguished and profound objects.

A dedicated exhibition, Frisson: The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection, will present all 19 works at Seattle Art Museum in fall 2021.

Images: Installation view of the Lang Residence, 2020, courtesy of Friday Foundation, photo: Spike Mafford. Nightwatch, 1960, Lee Krasner, oil on canvas, 70 x 99 in., Gift of the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, 2020.14.4, © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Crimson Spinning No. II, 1959, Adolph Gottlieb, oil on canvas, 90 x 72 in., Gift of the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, 2020.14.9, © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Installation view of the Lang Residence, 2020, courtesy of Friday Foundation, photo: Spike Mafford. Femme de Venise II, 1956, Alberto Giacometti, Bronze, Height: 48 in., Gift of the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, 2020.14.8, © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Installation view of the Lang Residence, 2020, courtesy of Friday Foundation, photo: Spike Mafford. The Painter, 1976, Philip Guston, oil on canvas, 74 × 116 in. (188 × 294.6 cm), Gift of the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, 2020.14.11, © Artist or Artist’s Estate. 

Object of the Week: James Baldwin

Last month, inaugural poet Amanda Gorman captured the country’s attention with the performance of her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the Presidential inauguration, speaking of our country’s fractured history and hopes for its future:

“…being American is more than / a pride we inherit, / it’s the past we step into / and how we repair it.”

                  – Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb, 2021

In her words I’m reminded of those of another great American writer, which echo just as loudly now as they did over 60 years ago:

“People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.”

                  – James Baldwin, Stranger in the Village, 1955

If history is intractably part of the present, then how do we move forward? In Joseph Norman’s 1993 portrait of poet, essayist, novelist, and activist James Baldwin, history gazes directly out at the viewer. Made just five years after the influential writer’s death, Norman portrays him not as the larger-than-life figure he had become, but in an intimate and personal portrait. Baldwin faces straight ahead, his eyes aligned with our own, in direct confrontation—or perhaps conversation—with us as viewers. This perspective is one that Norman also employed in his Notorious series (examples of which are also in SAM’s collection), in which he asks viewers to read the humanity in the eyes of young Chicago gang leaders. “You do in a sense have pity on those boys,” the artist noted, “because you are looking directly into their eyes, and you see emptiness at times. You see that these are children.”

Norman imbues Baldwin’s iconic visage with this same sense of humanity and personal connection with the viewer. Stylistically, Norman eschews the sharpness of a photographic image and renders Baldwin in a darkly shaded and richly textured manner. With the seemingly unfinished upper left quadrant and thick diagonal line crossing Baldwin’s nose and eye, it reads more like a sketch than a finished portrait. Of his own work, Norman said: “The work has to have veracity, otherwise it is fantasy. So the type of work that I make is poetic realism.”[1]

Poetic realism, indeed. What could be more real than the weighty gaze of history confronting us in the present, or more poetic than the suggestion of work still left to be done?

Norman titled the series that includes James Baldwin and other portraits of Black cultural icons, “The Last Poets.” But Baldwin himself had something to say about the idea of being the last of anything, as he wrote to his nephew, James, offering advice for the future:

“Great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy peasant stock… You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.[2]

And, in the words of the latest in that long line of great poets:

“For while we have our eyes on the future, / history has its eyes on us.”

                  – Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb, 2021

With the eyes of history gazing out at us, may we all have the courage and wisdom of poets past and present to move towards that unknown future.

– Carrie Dedon, SAM Assistant Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7el32Hd74w
[2] James Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One-Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” in The Fire Next Time (New York: Dial Press, 1963).
Image: James Baldwin, 1993, Joseph Norman, lithograph, 10 x 8 in., Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Joseph A. Chazan, 2000.26 © Joseph Norman.

Object of the Week: Center patch from Mardi Gras Indian suit

February 16, 2021 is Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans, Louisiana. This year there can be no public celebration. We offer these images and statement with thanks to the Mardi Gras Indians for the renewal they have given us in the past and soon to come again.

This finely beaded patch is a picture reflecting the quiet side of its maker, Larry Bannock, and the clear mind required to be a leader of the New Orleans “Mardi Gras Indians.” Larry was Big Chief of the Golden Star Hunters. The stillness of the scene in this patch is not what Larry and others show to spectators. Their experience is only the huge, colorful “suits” with patches, plumes, satins, rhinestones and the drums, song, and dance. Many in the Northwest looked with awe and admiration at one of Larry Bannock’s suits, which was shown in the 1992 SAM exhibition, Caribbean Festival Arts.  

Larry Bannock at the Jazz and Heritage Festival, 1989. Photo: Karen Morell.

Golden Star Hunters, Black Eagles, and Wild Magnolias on the street Mardi Gras Day, 1986. Video: Karen Morell. Courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division.

We can take a patch and put it on the wall but need to go further to know why it was created. Mardi Gras Indians perform in their suits. This is theater in the street. Each man, woman, and child in a suit has a role. Many have massed (masqueraded) as Indian most of their lives. They have learned the signals and music. The songs are known to every group, or “gang.” Some are popularized through recordings by New Orleans singers like the Neville Brothers, whose uncle was a Big Chief. Each member of the gang perfects the performance routines during the Sunday practices.

Before all the celebration and drama, there must be the Big Chief, and all those in the gang who will make a suit that year, who sit quietly for hours, day after day sewing their patches and making other parts of their suit.  Friends and family can help with building it or ruffling or might pay part of the bill. Larry’s suit each year cost thousands of dollars and weighed over 125 pounds. 

Larry Bannock working in his studio. Photo: Karen Morell.

When first arriving in Larry’s sewing space to interview him, I looked at his massive hands and fingers and wondered how he could hold the tiny needle with long silk thread and guide it through tiny beads. I saw his fingers messed up from months of being punctured by needles. He was a large, powerful looking man, but there he was, sitting alone, sewing a patch for Mardi Gras. To Larry and other Black Indians, Mardi Gras is not another party. He said, “It’s like your heart and soul.” Larry spoke of a spirit from the Native American past that took over. 

Larry repeated all his life that they are honoring Native People. Many today claim both African and Native American ancestry. The first slave ship in New Orleans arrived in 1719. After that some Africans and Native People escaped Europeans and sought refuge with the other group. Lithographs from the 1700s on depict Africans and Native People together.

Larry was clear that what they are doing is not an imitation of Native People or their traditions. Nor are they copying African beading or performance traditions or those of the Caribbean. They may be inspired or revealing an unconscious connection to them, but in honoring their ancestors the Mardi Gras Indians are creating something new. 

Larry Bannock on Mardi Gras Day, 1986. Photo: Karen Morell.

Over time, as the gangs evolved, competition between the groups came to be aesthetic and the suits increasingly elaborate. Each one wants to “be prettier” than everyone else. Larry laughed at what this competition had become: “If the real Indians had to wear all this to go into battle, boy, Custer woulda won. It’s true! I mean, you’re weighed down. If the real Indians were like the Indians we masin now, if they had to stay up there all night sewin’ and doin’ all this, Custer woulda won the Battle of Little Big Horn.”

The tradition continues to evolve today. Those sewing now cannot resist the impulse to create something extraordinary, beautiful, strong, and joyful—something of pride for themselves and their neighborhood. It remains a powerful need that calls someone like a Larry Bannock to the sewing table, no matter the physical, mental, or financial cost.  

Dedicated to Larry E. Bannock, 1948–2014.

– Dr. Karen Morell, University of Washington

Image: Center patch from Mardi Gras Indian suit, 1989-90, Big Chief Larry Bannock of the Golden Star Hunters, muslin, satin, seed beads, rhinestones, velvet, 18 1/4 × 14 1/2 × 5 in., Gift of Dr. Karen Morell, 2016.22 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

Object of the Week: The Bunn Family Home on Ninth Street

On July 21, 1930, W.E.B. Du Bois delivered a speech on the contamination and neglect of the Housatonic River. For Du Bois, born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, “by a golden river and in the shadow of two great hills,” the Housatonic held personal as well as regional significance.[1]

That summer, in his speech to the alumni of Searles High School (his alma mater), Du Bois reflected on how “this valley must have been a magnificent sight. The beautiful mountains on either side, thickly covered with massive trees, and in the midst of it all, the Housatonic River rolling in great flood, winding here and there, stretching now and then into lakes which are our present meadows and so hurrying always on toward the sea.” For Du Bois, the health of the river was commensurate with the health of the larger valley of Great Barrington, both natural and man-made. He went on to ask, “What has happened? The thing that has happened in this valley has happened in hundreds of others. The town, the whole valley, has turned its back upon the river. They have sought to get away from it. They have neglected it. They have used it as a sewer, a drain, a place for throwing their waste and their offal. Mills, homes, and farms have poured their dirt and refuse into it; outhouses and dung heaps have lined its banks.”[2]

Over half a century later, artist LaToya Ruby Frazier grew up by a river that shares a similar history: the Monongahela. Located just east of Pittsburgh, Braddock—once a booming industrial town—was a hub of trade and commerce buoyed by Andrew Carnegie’s steel mill. As the steel industry declined in the 1960s and 70s, however, Braddock declined, too—their fates intertwined. Frazier, whose family dates back four generations in Braddock, recounts that while white residents could leave the area during this period, residents of color had a much harder time: “What’s interesting is that through discrimination and racial and systemic oppression, you see how Black people were entrapped in that area—through redlining, and not being able to get loans from banks to move to the suburbs, how they were left behind.”[3]

Frazier’s photograph, The Bunn Family Home on Ninth Street, is part of her acclaimed 2013 series, A Despoliation of Water: From the Housatonic to Monongahela River (1930–2013). The photographic series, whose title recalls the words of Du Bois and his relationship to the Housatonic, looks at the post-industrial landscape of Braddock, bringing our attention to the continued fight for environmental and racial justice, and the ways in which the two causes are inextricably linked.

In her artist statement, Frazier described the natural and built environment of Braddock: “Andrew Carnegie’s 19th-century steel mill, railroads, and bridges dissect and erode the waters. One night the river flooded. Crossing through miles of man-made manufactures, contaminated soils, and debris, it filled the basement and soaked the floors of my childhood home on Washington Avenue, in the area historically known as ‘The Bottom’.”[4]

The Bunn family home, photographed aerially, is also located in ‘The Bottom’. Previously surrounded by a number of thriving Black-owned residences and businesses, the home’s once-vibrant block dwindled, buildings turning into vacant lots. By 2013, the year the photograph was taken, the Bunn residence was nearly all that was left; its neighboring houses, businesses, and restaurants replaced with bags of the city’s discarded tire rubber––encroaching steadily.

The Bunn Family Home, and others images in The Despoliation of Water, underscores that the continued extraction and contamination of water and land is inextricable from racial, economic, and environmental injustice. For Frazier, understanding the symbiosis between physical health and environmental health, “the properties found in waters that surround our artificial environments reflect not only a physical condition but a spiritual condition in which we exist.[5]

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

Image: The Bunn Family Home on Ninth Street, 2013, LaToya Ruby Frazier, archival pigment print printed onto Hahnemuhle, Fine Art Baryta 325 gsm, 42 1/4 x 63 1/8 in., Gift in honor of Sandra Jackson-Dumont, from her friends, 2014.36.4 © LaToya Ruby Frazier and Michel Rein, Paris/Brussels

[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1920), p. 3.
[2] W.E. B. Du Bois, “W.E.B. Du Bois: Reflections upon The Housatonic River,” speech given on July 21, 1930, https://theberkshireedge.com/w-e-b-du-bois-reflections-upon-housatonic-river/.
[3] Corrine Segal, “A bird’s-eye portrait of what was once a thriving steel town,” PBS, Nov. 16, 2015, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/latoya-ruby-frazier-braddock-pennsylvania.
[4] LaToya Ruby Frazier, Artist Statement, UMass Amherst, https://fac.umass.edu/UMCA_DIOT/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=DIOTLaToyaRubyFrazierStatement&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::context_id.
[5] Ibid.

Object of the Week: Still Life with Strawberries and Ostrich Egg Cup

Over the past several months, we have been rethinking how we present our historic collections of American art, and this has led us to consider some of the hidden histories behind some of our most iconic works. Take, for example, Raphaelle Peale’s Still Life with Strawberries and Ostrich Egg Cup, a tiny jewel of a painting with some far-reaching tales to tell. Its subject—an arrangement of exquisite objects and mouthwatering fruit rendered so naturalistically to seem almost palpable—is outwardly straightforward and seemingly innocuous. That is, until you take a closer look.

Raphaelle Peale was one of the many artistic children of Charles Willson Peale, a formidable portrait painter and purveyor of knowledge famous for his many likenesses of George Washington. Peale-the-Elder had a vast collection of art, cultural artifacts, history, natural history, and prehistory (including, impossibly, a fossilized mastodon that he had taken upon himself to excavate from a Connecticut swamp), which he displayed in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall as America’s first museum. He had high aspirations for his talented son, so you can imagine how disappointed he was when the younger Peale opted for the modest and intimate practice of still life over the more prestigious and public pursuit of history painting.

Yet, while unobtrusive in both style and substance, Still Life with Strawberries and Ostrich Egg Cup offers clues that Raphaelle Peale shared his father’s fascination with natural phenomena and the world’s cultures. Its heightened realism reflects the humanism and empiricist pursuit of reason associated with the Enlightenment in America and Europe, while its accumulated objects reaffirm the expanding global awareness of the early 19th century. A porcelain creamer from China shares pictorial space with a Celadon dish from Korea, and together they stage a cluster of strawberries of the type cultivated on the Peale family’s experimental farm. Presiding over the scene is an African ostrich egg in a mount made of Bolivian silver, an object that would have been considered rare and exotic and therefore highly collectible in America. Below is a related example from the museum’s silver collection.

The popularity of ostrich eggs in Peale’s time reflects a centuries-long history of worldwide cultural exchange, for the form itself is echoed in the egg-shaped ivory salt cellars such as this one carved in Sierra Leone for the Portuguese elite during the Renaissance period.

The human cost associated with the trade in exquisite objects and the extraction of the materials from which they were crafted adds an additional layer to our story, and it is one that we are actively exploring as we continue to study our collections of American painting and silver. We invite you to watch this space for more on that front, and join us as we shape a new vision for American art at SAM.   

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

Images: Still Life with Strawberries and Ostrich Egg Cup, 1814, Raphaelle Peale, oil on wood panel, 12 1/8 x 19 3/l6 in., Acquired in memory of Ruth J. Nutt with funds from the General Acquisition Fund; Bill and Melinda Gates Art Acquisition Fund; the Kendrick A. Schlatter Estate; an anonymous donor; Thomas W. Barwick; Susan Winokur and Paul Leach; American Art Acquisition Fund; Patricia Denny Art Acquisition Endowment; 19th  and 20th Century Purchase Fund; the Council of American Art; Geraldine Murphy; and from the following donors to the collection, by exchange: Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection; Estate of Mark Tobey; Estate of Earl Henry Gibson; Paul Denby Mackie in memory of Kathleen Lawler and Nona Lawler Mackie; Estate of Mrs. Reginald Marsh; Estate of Hollister T. Sprague; Mrs. John C. Atwood, Jr.; Norman and Amelia Davis Collection; Mrs. Brewer Boardman in memory of Mrs. Edward Lincoln Smith; Mr. and Mrs. Boyer Gonzales; Mrs. Frederick Hall White; Mr. and Mrs. George Lhamon; Ernest R. Norling; Mrs. Eugene Fuller; Milnor Roberts; Jane and David Soyer; Mrs. Reginald H. Parsons; Elizabeth Merriam Fitch and Lillian Fitch Rehbock; Mr. and Mrs. John H. Bolton; and Jacob Elshin, 2014.23Ostrich Egg Standing Cup, ca. 1790, John McMullin, ostrich egg and silver mount, height: approx. 10 in., Gift of Ruth J. Nutt, 2014.24.31. Salt cellar, ca. 1490-1530, Sierra Leone, ivory, 12 3/16 x 7 7/16 x 4 1/2 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.189.

Object of the Week: Soul Washer’s Disc

The intricate radiating pattern of this golden pendant refers not only to the sun, but evokes its warmth and life-giving properties as well. Such discs are known as akrafokonmu, and are prized emblems of Asante leadership, worn by rulers, queen mothers, and soul washers—or akrafo—who conduct ceremonies that purify leaders’ souls.

A precious metal, gold is considered an earthly counterpart to the sun, the physical manifestation of life force (kra). In addition to gold’s spiritual properties, for centuries it has been an expression of royal status, wealth, and trading power for the Asante people.

Such protective emblems are important for members of the royal family or court. Individuals selected as akrafo are young women and men who are born on the same day of the week as the king, and assist in rites of purification and renewal. Gold discs such as this one are suspended over the akrafos’ chests by necklace cords made of various fibers.

Currently on view in Lessons from the Institute of Empathy, this akrafokonmu finds itself in the company of other Asante gold adornment—rings, bracelets, necklaces, and beads. Grouped together, they highlight the beautiful metalwork and material culture of the Asante, as well as the vital role speech and proverbs play therein.

Though the Inauguration is firmly an American ceremony—replete with its own lexicon and symbols, important sartorial statements and homages—I couldn’t help but think of this soul washer’s disc—itself an emblem of historic Asante ceremonies and traditions—and the immense power that such tokens hold for cultures around the world.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

Image: Soul Washer’s disc (akrafokonmu), 20th century, Ghanaian, gold wash and silver core, diameter: 3 5/16 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.1685

Object of the Week: Martin Luther King Jr., Lowndes County, March 24, 1965

This black and white photograph, taken by photojournalist Dan Budnik in 1965, is one of a series that Budnik had hoped to publish in a Life magazine photo-essay. (Life never ran the essay, citing recent back-to-back cover stories on the subject matter.)[1] Arguably less intimate than some of Budnik’s other photographs, it captures a reflection of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his likeness obscured and rendered distant in standing water. Clear to the viewer, however, is that his body is in stride—moving forward.

Part of a series that documented critical events of the civil rights movement, this photograph, taken on March 24, 1965, is situated during the days-long, 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery—a march that protested discriminatory laws suppressing Black voters’ rights in the South, and would eventually lead to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act.

Budnik’s photograph, in fact, was taken in Lowndes County the day before demonstrators would arrive in Montgomery, and where King would deliver his now-famous “How Long, Not Long” speech, also known as “Our God is Marching On!”

This theme of movement—and movement forward—recurs throughout King’s speech, delivered to tens of thousands of civil rights activists on the steps of Alabama’s State Capitol. And while this photograph was taken the day before King’s historic remarks, Budnik’s image captures a sense of the literal and figurative dedicated movement that propelled King and others forward in their fight for equal rights.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered on March 25:

Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” . . .

How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.” . . .

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

56 years later, there is still more work to be done—we remain on the move.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate


[1] Tim Walker, “On the road to civil rights: Extraordinary images of the Selma march seen for the first time,” The Independent, February 22, 2015, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/road-civil-rights-extraordinary-images-selma-march-seen-first-time-10057218.html.
Image: Martin Luther King Jr., Lowndes County, March 24th, 1965, 1965, Dan Budnik, gelatin silver photograph, 11 x 14 in., Gift of Getty Images, 2000.40 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: The ’20s … The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots

Printed in 1974, decades after his celebrated Migration Series, Jacob Lawrence’s The ‘20s…The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots depicts Black Americans casting their votes in an election.[1] The screenprint was produced on the occasion of the American Bicentennial, part of the Kent Bicentennial Portfolio, for which contributing artists were asked to the respond to the question, What does independence mean to you?

Like much of Lawrence’s work, this print focuses attention on the African American experience. Here, we see Black Americans exercising their right to vote—a right that was systematically suppressed in the Jim Crow South, from which millions migrated to the North and West during the Great Migration.

On Wednesday, January 6, we saw the historic election of Georgia’s first Black senator—and only the second Black senator from a former Confederate state since Reconstruction. This landmark victory, and that of Georgia’s first Jewish senator as well, points to a marked shift in the Georgia electorate and increased voter turnout, especially among Black voters.[2] However, we also witnessed events in the nation’s Capitol whose consequences are still unfolding; events that are rightly eliciting anger, sadness, disappointment, and fear; events that will require much more time to process, unpack, and understand. Turning to Lawrence’s work at this juncture may help reconcile the past with the present moment: Lawrence’s work so often captures the messy complexities and contradictions of America and its history—a history whose ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality are inextricable from realities of subjugation, suppression, and violence.

When describing his Migration Series, Lawrence wrote, “To me, migration means movement. There was conflict and struggle. But out of the struggle came a kind of power and even beauty.” There is no doubt that, as a nation, we remain mired in conflict and struggle, that one century after the scene in The ’20s …The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots, voting—and the right to vote—is as fragile as ever. However, hopefully out of this struggle we can emerge stronger and, as Lawrence believed, find beauty in that strength. First we need to truly reckon with where we are as a country, and take steps to repair what is broken.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

Image: The 1920’s…The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots, 1974, Jacob Lawrence, ink on paper, 32 x 24 5/16 in., Gift of the Lorillard Co., N.Y., 75.70 © Jacob Lawrence

[1] Lawrence’s sixty-panel Migration Series (1940-41) chronicles the Great Migration—the decades-long exodus of six million African Americans from the Jim Crow South to the North and West—that lasted from World War I to the 1970s.
[2] Dylan Scott, “’Phenomenal’ Black turnout won the Senate for Democrats in Georgia, Vox, Jan. 6, 2021, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2021/1/6/22216677/georgia-senate-election-results-black-voters-turnout-warnock-ossoff.

Object of the Week: Dancewand for Sango

2020 has unleashed epic storms—a pandemic hurricane, tornadoes of lost jobs, and whirlwinds of racism. Meanwhile, in the center of Seattle, a new monument has appeared, offering the vision of a goddess named Oya, who offers to make way for changes in 2021. 

Oya comes from a culture—the Yoruba of Nigeria—that has long seen storms as cultural texts. She is related to a kneeling woman at SAM who holds a bowl and supports two thunderbolts on her head. This woman is a devotee of Sango, a deity who resides in the skies as a champion of justice who hates liars, thieves, and wrongdoers; who claps thunder and throws lightning down to strike them.[1] Sango is tempestuous but can also be generous, and he may choose to send his explosive energy to women who care for children and others. In this sculpture at SAM, the devotee kneels to pay tribute to the earth as an omnipotent witness, remaining calm to balance Sango’s bolts, and was once carried by a priest or priestess in a sacred drama filled with a unique soundtrack. Sango employs thunder—the loudest sound that nature makes—and his powerful presence is evoked in a distinctive way. If you’ve never heard bata drumming, below is a clip recorded in Nigeria; the video takes you to a family of drummers who fill the air with the intensity of a storm with frenetic crescendos that boggle the mind and ignite the spirit. [2]   

Oya is Sango’s consort. Her winds clear the path of opposition, helping him remove any obstacles to change. You can feel her presence in playful winds, or in more dangerous tornadoes and hurricanes. This year, she has risen to public glory at 24th and Jackson, in Seattle’s Central District. A creative couple—Marita Dingus and Preston Hampton—gave her new form, inventing a swirling body of metal ribbons that suggest her windy demeanor, while her face of concentrated composure looks for places where she can sweep aside trauma and deceit to make way for healing. 

Here is the couple’s explanation of how Oya came into focus:

So, how can Oya help us at the end of 2020?  In Yorubaland, she is known to be fond of black-eyed peas. When Yoruba were forced to move to America, Cuba, and Brazil as slaves, they brought black-eyed peas, called ewa, with them. In a turn of language, ewa puns with wa, the essence of existence. Eating them in America was coded secret devotion. Today, it is understood that eating black-eyed peas at new years can bring good luck.[3]

You may join in Oya’s quest to stir up radical shifts of being in 2021. Cook some black-eyes peas and talk about what changes you’d like to see, then visit Oya, or stand in her winds, and send her your words of hope for new paths to be found. Goodbye, 2020—let Oya’s breeze of blessing and winds of transformation unfurl in the New Year. 

Pam McClusky, SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art


[1] Babatunde Lawal is a Yoruba scholar whose work on Sango sculpture and explanations of the larger context for understanding Sango is highly recommended. Here is one talk by Professsor Lawal: Stellar Connections: Explorations in Cultural Astronomy – Pt. 4, Babatunde Lawal – YouTube
[2] Performance by Ayan Agalu, “May the spirit of drumming carry one aloft,” March 2017, Erin Osun, recorded by Andrew Frankel. 
[3] Franck Kuwonu, “Black-eyed peas: A taste of Africa in the AmericasUN | Africa Renewal, December 24, 2019.
Image: Dancewand for Sango, Nigerian, wood, 19 7/8 x 7 9/16 x 4 5/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 67.91. Winds of Change: We Are Still Here, 2020, Marita Dingus and Preston Hampton, Jackson Apartments, Seattle, Washington.

Object of the Week: Wintry Sky

Snow in Seattle on the winter solstice provides a fitting backdrop for this work by Japanese artist Higashibara Hosen. Titled Wintry Sky, it encapsulates the subtle contradictions of the season and serves as a timely reminder that winter is officially here.

In the seemingly desolate scene, an angular, near leafless tree trunk and its rhizomatic branches energetically frame an overcast sky (one all too familiar for us in the Pacific Northwest). Bathed in a diffuse gray-yellow light, the moment has all the qualities of early morning. And while much is indeed dormant at this time of year, the tree is enlivened by seven chickadees—so enlivened you can almost hear their song. In this way, the painting brings to mind a wonderful line from Rumi: “And don’t think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter. It’s quiet but the roots are down there riotous.”

Wintry Sky (detail)

Painted in the 1930s, Hosen used a “boneless” wash technique (mokkotsu), meaning that it was painted without the use of ink outlines. A detail offers a better look at his masterful use of ink, capturing both the delicate softness of feathers and gnarled age of bark. This painting technique was characteristic of his mentor, nihonga master Takeuchi Seiho, whose paintings of the natural world informed Hosen’s own approach to painting nature.

Though it may appear somber and subdued, Hosen’s painting also embodies much of what is important about the winter season. Though a fallow period, winter is a time for hibernation and repair, rest and rejuvenation. It is a time for turning inward and looking to the natural world for hope and techniques for survival.

As in the words of William Carlos Williams:

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

Image: Wintry Sky, 1930s, Higashibara Hosen, ink and light colors on silk, 70 7/8 x 40 5/16 in., Gift of Griffith and Patricia Way, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2010.41.72 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Flower Ball

Almost one year ago, the Seattle Asian Art Museum reopened its landmark building after a three-year restoration and redesign. On the north side of the museum, curators and education staff collaboratively designed the Community Learning Gallery, which includes works from SAM’s collection, interactive stations, and art-making activities focused on storytelling. One corner of the room asks the question: “What are masks for?” Anchoring this space is the exuberant and expansive circular painting Flower Ball by Takashi Murakami, hung adjacent to masks from Nepal, Korea, Indonesia, and Japan, and a creative-making activity by Romson Regarde Bustillo.  

AAM Reopening Educator Preview

The Asian Art Museum opening weekend on February 8, 2020, welcomed more than 12,000 visitors in the first two weeks. One month later, we closed the museum in alignment with COVID-19 public safety recommendations. And, suddenly, the question on the Community Learning Gallery wall label: “What masks do you wear to disguise or protect yourself?” gained new and critical associations. 

Seen in person, Flower Ball is magical and disorienting. Murakami uses spatial recession to create the illusion of a three-dimensional sphere coming towards you in space. The 98 ½-inch diameter circle is covered in flower faces, each wearing the mask of an emotional expression like a smiley face emoji. Flowers are Murakami’s self-described icon and appear as a recurring image in his colorful pop art. Trained at the Toyko National Museum of Fine Arts and Music, Murakami developed a trademark aesthetic—dubbed “Superflat” by the artist—that brings together the contemporary cultural penchant for cuteness (kawaii), the two-dimensional composition of traditional Japanese paintings such as Nihonga, and the illustrative styles of anime (animation) and manga (comic books). 

AAm Reopening Celebration

When I imagine this painting hanging in the dark gallery of the closed museum, I picture each of the flower faces peacefully sleeping, eyes closed, a few mouths snoring, and the painting waiting patiently for us all to return. We hope to reopen the Asian Art Museum this spring, and as people come back to the gallery, I envision Murakami’s flower faces waking up in joy and smiling down at all the visitors who look back at them with their own masks on, everyone happily and safely reunited.

Bonus! You can find an art making activity in Chinese, Spanish, and English inspired by Flower Ball here.

– Regan Pro, SAM Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Engagement

Images: Installation view Asian Art Museum, 2019, photo: Jueqian Fang. Photo: Robert Wade. Flower Ball, 2002, Takashi Murakami, acrylic on canvas, diameter: 98 1/2 in., Gift of Richard and Elizabeth Hedreen, 2016.24.1 2002 © Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Photo: Jueqian Fang.

Object of the Week: Leaves

Gloria Petyarre’s thirteen-foot-long canvas, Leaves, is a work that stops you in your tracks. It invokes the senses: hearing, seeing, and even feeling. The intricate, seemingly endless, white strokes evoke the movement and gentle patterns of leaves on, or fallen from, trees, the delicate movement of waist-high grass in a wind-swept field, or the long, waving fur of an animal on the move.

This feathery, leafy style that has become a common theme in Petyarre’s work was developed over decades. In the late 1970s, Petyarre came to prominence as a batik painter, before taking up painting on canvas in the late 1980s. Her use of sophisticated batik-making techniques, combined with the referencing of body markings associated with women’s ceremonies, shaped the unique forms of painting done in the Utopia area of Australia’s Northern Territory in the 1980s.[1]

In the 1990s, her work progressively increased in size and painterly precision. She began supplanting her dots and lines with elongated drop-forms in feathery layers “that move over the surfaces of her work with the velocity of wind in foliage or the fluidity of water currents.”[2]

This more painterly leaf design seems a natural progression.

“Petyarre grew up learning traditional techniques of reading the landscape to identify foods, medicinal plants, and everything else that was needed to thrive. Sitting under mulga bushes, helping the elder women prepare their seeds for small cakes, she would see the leaves swirl overhead. At the same time, she could listen to elders discussing the days when grasses and wildlife were more abundant.”[3]

Gloria Petyarre is part of an extraordinary family of women artists. Her six sisters—Kathleen, Nancy, Ada, Myrtle, Violet, and Jean—are all internationally acclaimed artists. Gloria’s niece Elizabeth Kunoth Kngwarray, and great-niece Genevieve Kemarr Loy, are well-known artists, as is her niece, Abie Loy Kamerre, whose work, Awelye “Women’s Ceremony,” is also in SAM’s collection. Petyarre’s and her artistic family’s work draws on the surroundings and rituals of their community in Utopia, in Australia’s Central Desert, Northern Territory. Gloria and her sisters had a classical education in an aboriginal world view that has survived tens of thousands of years in an arid spinifex country. Growing up, they walked across their vast estate, moved according to the principles of rotational land navigation, and honored the other species they learned from.

These Utopian women began painting to enlighten outsiders and rebel against the white cattle ranchers who took over their land. As these outsiders began moving in, they polluted water holes and demonstrated a disinterest in the features of the landscape. An inspiration to create came from recognizing that outsiders were ignorant of the depth of knowledge they had about their environment. These artists turned to painting to demonstrate how they had managed to maintain and honor their country, with all its species, foodstuffs, and medicines. They relied on a seed economy, and noticed that leaves had strong medicines to offer, with particular potency when they were falling off the trees. Petyarre’s work offers an urgent reminder of Indigenous knowledge of the landscape—what may seem like scruffy sandhills can be a utopian ideal, filled with vibrant resources that we need to learn to recognize better.[4] She created this work as a study of leaves swirling through space. With her knowledge of the medicinal properties of certain plants, “she takes it upon herself to focus attention on the moment that the leaves fly.”[5]

The next time you visit SAM, make sure to spend a few minutes with this work, you’ll see it right when you enter the museum. What senses does Leaves invoke in you?

– Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian

[1] Art Gallery of New South Wales, Gloria Tamerre Petyarre Artist Profile, https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/artists/petyarre-gloria-tamerre/, accessed December 2, 2020.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Pamela McClusky, Wally Caruana, Lisa G. Corrin, and Stephen Gilchrist, Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art: Kaplan & Levi Collection ([Seattle]: Seattle Art Museum, 2012): 114.
[4] Interview with Pamela McClusky, December 7, 2020.
[5] Pamela McClusky, “Completing the Map,” in Chiyo Ishikawa et al., A Community of Collectors: 75th Anniversary Gifts to the Seattle Art Museum (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2008): 76, 81.
Image: Leaves, 2002, Gloria Tamerr Petyarre, synthetic polymer paint on canvas
70 7/8 x 157 1/2 in., Gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan, in honor of Virginia and Bagley Wright, and in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2012.21 ©Gloria Petyarre

Object of the Week: Mask for Tengu

These days, people are wearing masks everywhere you look. Bandanas, medical paper masks, fashionable masks with elaborate designs, face shields—there are many ways to wear our masks while expressing ourselves. Me, I love my mask with sharp teeth on the front, for an extra bit of Halloween in December. SAM, too, has its fair share of masks, and one of my favorites in the collection is the Mask for tengu, a Japanese festival mask depicting the maliciously grinning face of a tengu.

Tengu are one of the more famous youkai, or mythical creatures, in Japanese lore. Depicted as bird-men either with beaks or long noses, they are figures of dangerous cleverness that will either teach you magical secrets or abduct and torment you. They have an array of abilities including fire and wind manipulation, flight, and otherworldly swordsmanship. They are said to live deep within the mountains and forests of Japan, and many shrines that worship tengu are similarly placed. Interestingly, these are one of the few youkai to have come about with Buddhism, as they often tempted Buddhist priests and posed as mountain ascetics in old tales.

The tengu mask in SAM’s collection is one that would have been worn during festival processions. Festivals in Japan are often lively and bright affairs with elaborate costumes and parades, with dancers balanced on floats. It’s likely that someone in the past wore this mask as they pretended to be a fearsome tengu, playfully frightening the children watching. It’s equally likely that in Japan today, someone is wearing another tengu mask and doing the same. There are tengu festivals held all over Japan, from Tengu Matsuri on Mt. Tengu in Hokkaido, to the Shimokitazawa Tengu Festival in Tokyo. While the tengu Matsuri is a more traditional affair, the Shimokitazawa festival is a modern take on setsubun, where beans are thrown to ward away evil. People dressed as tengu take to the streets, visiting shops and homes to throw their beans of evil’s bane to bring good luck and fortune.

Although SAM and the Asian Art Museum are temporarily closed, when they reopen, head on over to see the Mask for tengu on view. It, and many other masks and youkai-depicting items will be on display! In the meantime, everybody continue to mask up, and stay safe.

– Kennedy Simpson, Former SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art

Image: Mask for tengu, 18th-19th century, Japanese, wood and brass, 10 1/8 x 7 1/2 x 13 1/2 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 45.104

Object of The Week: Coiled Basket

“The earth is our first teacher.”

–Vi Hilbert (1918-2008), Upper Skagit elder, storyteller, and language expert

‘Tis the season of thanks-giving and, as we acknowledge the suffering and bewilderment of our time, we also recognize the importance of gratitude for our families and friends, and for Mother Earth. According to Indigenous philosophies, Earth is the First Teacher. From her body come the gifts of food and medicine that nourish our bodies and souls. Many Native practices, old and ongoing, like the First Foods ceremony and the Salmon ceremony, celebrate these gifts and teachings of gratitude and giving. For generations, Coast Salish Peoples have respectfully shaped wild spaces and harvested the natural materials and foods of the Pacific landscape and waters, practices that renew their living link with the land.

Puget Sound Native Peoples make many kinds of baskets—the materials, shape, and technique used are determined by their purposes—which were critical to the gathering, storage, and preparation of roots, bulbs, berries, shellfish, and other traditional foods. Moving across the foodscape during the seasons, elders impart knowledge to younger generations, thus perpetuating Indigenous memory.

Worn with a strap around the neck or attached to a belt to keep hands free to collect, this well-used berry basket is of a practical size for children to harvest fruit from the bush. Such coiled baskets are created by coiling a foundation material, like split roots, then piercing the coils with an awl and stitching them together with another material. Nimble fingers wove sturdy cedar roots to create the body of this basket. The decorative elements—a checkerboard pattern arranged in large diamond shapes—are overlapped with beargrass (yellow color) and horsetail root (dark color). Basket makers have an intimate connection to nature, knowing where and when to gather and just how much material to take so that the plant can continue to thrive.

“. . .promoting the visibility of traditions, and culture, and history is the work of decolonizing.”            

   – Valerie Segrest, tribal foods educator and coordinator of the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project[1]

The provenance of this basket sheds light on the colonial history that suppressed Native traditions and culture. Although the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott guaranteed rights to continue customary practices of hunting, fishing, and harvesting, central Puget Sound tribes were denied access to such resources. Through unabated resistance, tribes have regained some of these rights in modern court cases.

This Muckleshoot basket was one of many Native artworks acquired by James Wickersham (in 1899), a member of the Washington State House of Representatives and, later, Territorial Governor of Alaska. Settlers and officials availed themselves—through purchase and confiscation—of “Indian relics” in the belief that such items, and the people themselves, would disappear. However, baskets continued to be made and used traditionally; enterprising Native women created a new genre of basket to sell to outsiders, forging an outlet to experiment with new shapes and sizes, as well as to financially support their families.

The right of a community to define its diet and shape its food system—known as “food sovereignty”—is at the heart of tribal sovereignty, according to Valerie Segrest (who you can watch talk about the topic here). Programs such as the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project revive ancient relationships to the land and to food, promote the healthy cultivation and consuming of Indigenous foods, and advocate for environmental action to nurture and protect food sources.

“When we take better care of our land, we are taking better care of ourselves.”                        

Valerie Segrest

Berries are important Indigenous foods and are high in nutrition and medicine. Many types of berries inhabit our coastal and mountain landscapes, including elderberry, huckleberry, blackcap raspberry, cranberry, salal, salmonberry, service berry, soapberry, thimbleberry, wild blackberry, wild strawberry, and wild cherry. Berries are used in salad, pemmican, fruit leathers, as a sauce for venison, teas, and soup. Huckleberries are much desired by the elders because they are sweet but don’t elevate blood sugar and are rich in antioxidants. For other locally sourced foods, you can visit this website.

Try Valerie Segrest’s mountain huckleberry pie recipe

  • 2 pie shells (basic pie crust recipe or store bought)
  • 5 cups of huckleberries
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • 4 tablespoons tapioca or 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • Juice of half a lemon (optional)

Mix all the ingredients together and pour into the bottom pie shell and top with the second pie shell. Snip any excess off of the edge of the top pie shell and then crimp the entire edge with a fork. Don’t forget to cut a few slits in the top to allow the steam to escape. Put the pie into a 350° oven for 35-40 minutes. When the huckleberry filling is bubbling through slightly and the crust looks golden brown, the pie is ready. Allow the pie to cool completely before serving.

– Barbara Brotherton, SAM Curator of Native American Art

Images: Coiled basket, 19th century, Muckleshoot, coiled cedar root; imbricated with bear grass, horsetail root, and leather, 5 1/2 x 6 3/4 in., Gift of the Native American and Oceanic Arts Council and friends in memory of John Putnam, 2001.1048. Edward S. Curtis, Puget Sound Baskets, 1912, photogravure. Northwestern University Digital Library Collections. http://curtis.library.northwestern.edu/curtis/info.cgi?id=nai.09.port.00000018.p. Muckleshoot tribe’s Valerie Segrest’s fresh huckleberry pie, photo courtesy of Valerie Segrest.
[1] Valerie Segrest is a nutrition educator focusing on indigenous foods. She received a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition from Bastyr University and a Masters in Environment and Community from Antioch University. She is an enrolled member of the Muckleshoot Indian tribe and serves as coordinator of the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project and is also an instructor for the Northwest Indian College’s Traditional Pants Program. With Elise Krohn, Segrest is the co-author of the book Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit: Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food Culture.

Object of the Week: Willy B

Like much of 2020, the past few weeks have generated a head-spinning number of events that we’ll someday—and perhaps already—recognize as historic moments. This ceramic work by Akio Takamori, on view in the exhibition Body Language, is inspired by one such world-historical event.

Titled Willy B, the sculpture memorializes a single action by Chancellor Willy Brandt, who in 1970 became the first German leader to visit Poland since 1939, when the country was invaded by Nazi Germany. Words are often times insufficient, and the Chancellor instead opted to act: he laid a wreath upon the monument to the thousands of Jews killed in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. As captured in the documentation of the event, Brandt knelt and solemnly bowed his head. This gesture—one of humility, deference, and respect—was seen and felt throughout the world, understood as a pivotal step by the German government towards healing the traumas of World War II.

Takamori was a renowned ceramic artist in Seattle, where he lived and worked for decades. His sculptures bring to life a wide array of figures—villagers from his childhood upbringing in Japan, to more modern political and cultural figures. Regardless of his chosen subject, Takamori is always able to convey, with deep sensitivity and empathy, true human expression.

Made in 2016 during our last presidential election, Willy B was a central work in the exhibition Apology/Remorse at James Harris Gallery. The exhibition focused specifically on men apologizing and, inspired by images in the media, the works explored the social, cultural, and political narratives that underpin such actions. Willy B illustrates, like so many of Takamori’s works, the artist’s longstanding interest in “the deeper meaning of iconography and the truth about human nature.” [1]

Indeed, four years later and on the other side of yet another polarizing election, our country remains as divided as ever. Inspired by Takamori and his depiction of Chancellor Brandt, it is worth considering—when words fail—what kinds of actions and gestures can help a country heal.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

Images: Willy B, 2016, Akio Takamori, stoneware with under and overglazes, 35 1/2 × 16 × 23 1/2 in., Howard Kottler Endowment for Ceramic Art, Northwest Purchase Fund, Decorative Arts Acquisition Fund, Mark Tobey Estate Fund, Modern Art Acquisition Fund, 2017.12 © Akio Takamori. Installation view of Willy B, 2016, Akio Takamori (Japanese, active in the United States, 1950–2017), in the exhibition Body Language, Dec. 22, 2018–ongoing, photo: Mark Woods. Photo: German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling in front of the Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes, Poland, December 7, 1970. Photo by Sven Simon.
[1]  James Harris Gallery, Akio Takamori: “Apology/Remorse,” https://jamesharrisgallery.com/exhibitions/akio-takamori-apology-remorse

Object of the Week: Map of the World

Brenna Youngblood’s abstract paintings are invariably more layered—literally and figuratively—than first meets the eye. Originally trained as a photographer, Youngblood works with an extensive personal archive of photographs and objects that she collages onto the surfaces of her densely painted canvases. In a 2013 interview she discussed the importance of this textured surface, and the integration of everyday objects into it:

“Surface is and has always been integral to my practice. The transformation of the surface of my paintings mimics objects, materials, and textures from the real world (i.e. rusted metal, wood). . . . I like introducing familiar objects like the light bulb, the door handle, and wood grain. The paintings are ‘a slice of life’, if you will. They definitely reflect the everyday not just for myself, I think for others as well. They are not only for looking at.”[1]

Youngblood is part of long tradition of artists who incorporate everyday objects into their work—we may immediately think of artists like Jasper Johns, with his thermometers imbedded into the canvas, or Robert Rauschenberg, with his photographs collaged onto their surfaces. In Youngblood’s paintings, the objects that she includes often go beyond the language of abstraction and allude to social or political topics. They are, as she says, “not only for looking at,” but speak to larger real-world issues.

In Map of the World (2015), a map of former colonial territories is embedded in the upper left quadrant of the painting, layered over an otherwise abstract, painterly surface. The political borders indicated on the map are long outdated, but the histories of colonialism that they represent still hold very real ramifications today. The sense of these histories bleeding into the present is suggested by the dripping paint that runs off the map, and the patchwork of rectangular forms just underneath that are themselves reminiscent of political boundaries.

We know that maps are never neutral—the distortions that privilege the northern hemisphere in most map projections are ubiquitous and well-documented, and the political claims they represent are contentious at best. However, they also become such a banal part of our everyday life that we stop looking at them critically, or consider what they really signify. In blending the map of the world (or one version of it) with the formal language of abstraction, Youngblood subtly but pointedly refers to these larger issues, asking us to dive deeper into the surface.

– Carrie Dedon, SAM Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

[1] Brenna Youngblood, interview with Rosanna Albertini, “Not Only for Looking At,” in Flash Art, September 2013, http://honorfraser.com/pdf/press/2013FlashArtBY
Image: Map of the World, 2015, Brenna Youngblood, map, acrylic, and construction paper on canvas, 60 x 60 in., General Acquisition Fund, 2016.7.1 © Brenna Youngblood Courtesy the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery

Two-Way Mirror: An Interview with Barbara Earl Thomas

Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence, which will be on view for a year at SAM, centers Black youth in a series of all-new artworks at once delicate and resilient. This Seattle-based artist uses cut-paper and glass portraits and transforms an entire gallery into a luminaria. A place for reflection, the works cut to the core of the fundamental values we assign to light and dark. The disarming expressions of children in Thomas’ portraits ask us to consider how we see each other and how we internalize and project innocence and guilt. Drawn from a community of family and friends, The Geography of Innocence celebrates young lives and their futures in full consciousness of the pervasive violence against Black children. SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Catharina Manchanda interview this important artist in anticipation of the upcoming exhibition. Tickets to visit the galleries will be available starting November 1!

Catharina Manchanda: Biblical narratives form the backdrop of many of your works, and you bring the symbolism of light and shadow to bear on the political situation in this country. What narratives do you explore in The Geography of Innocence?

Barbara Earl Thomas: It’s the two-way mirror through which I see the world. It’s narrated to me in my grandmother Phoebe’s voice with whom I often spent the weekends and summers; where at each exit to the bathroom, kitchen, or bedroom, she’d say, “I’ll be right back, God willing.” This set a tone for the temporality of each moment of this life as she moved through her day. Her God ruled every moment and was the reason for everything good. The devil, his dark wily opposite, was the root of all evil. She loved and admonished us in those terms. Everything was literal. When I misbehaved, the devil had gotten into me. This meant I was not quite responsible for my misdeeds, but in some moment of inattention, I’d let down my guard, and admitted the demon who caused me to climb that tree and fall out, or say some bad words to my cousins who were also full of devils. She reminded me that hell was paved with hot stones, filled with fire, and it came out of your eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. I saw this, clear as day. My grandfather admonished her because he knew by nightfall, I’d be so crazed with this idea of the devil, that instead of sleeping on the couch, I might have to sleep with them. These were some of my first stories heard, sung, and repeated. They formed the backdrop of beauty and mystery of my world.  

As a young person I was drawn to the oratorical language of the sermon and its talk of miracles and prophecy—none of which I’d seen. It was the music I listened to, the silences from the adults as I entered the room, and the ladies who prayed over me when I was sick. The ritual and the shape of sanctuary no matter the denomination—Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, Lutheran and Evangelical—was all the same to me. I’d wander into Holy Names Cathedral just off Union Street, or accompany a friend to one of the many Pentecostal churches often set up in temporary store fronts, fleeting in their residence. During these services accompanied by full bands, there were people who sang as each member became possessed by a holy spirit. There were the Jewish people walking to synagogue on Saturday. All these places in my small world were little fires of community where deep emotion and imagination converged. There were stories, food, songs, candles, holy water, and scenes of strange happenings from some mythical past about some next world. 

I was intrigued by the language and cultural references around how we describe victims when we think and speak about the violence so prevalent in our country. There is something of heaven and hell to this: violence spirals down from police shootings of young Black men, to nightclub massacres, to random sniper killings of the oldest and then to the youngest among us, our children. I thought, this is where it will stop, with the children. Certainly every adult will draw the line when it comes to the wholesale slaughter of children. Sadly, that was not the case, but what emerged for me from the myriad mass shootings—with Sandy Hook most notably—was the language around sympathy, guilt, and innocence. In thinking about why we as adults couldn’t put children first, I was drawn to studies that demonstrated how we, as a culture, see our children. Here young Black children are seen as less innocent and, therefore, less worthy of public grief than white children.

My ideas for this exhibit surfaced after several readings of Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows and a subsequent re-reading of a mid-1980’s James Hillman essay, Notes on White Supremacy. Prescient in its content, Hillman explores the deep-seated world of mythology around the concepts of light and dark, black and white. As I’d read the essay so long ago, I’d forgotten Hillman’s reference to Tanizaki’s book. It was a happy connection. Both the book and essay deal with how deeply imprinted our associations with language and its usage of the words and concepts are associated with darkness and light. From guilt to innocence they hold a deep well of our associated fears of the unclean and besmirched. Conversely, we associate light and white with all that is pure, clear, clean, and, therefore, innocent and unblemished.

Light and dark. Light and shadow. What is seen and unseen. What is clear and what is mystery—these kinds of experiences are part of my story in addition to my formal education. This is the base that provided the vocabulary and shaped my narrative of the world. As a Black person, I can’t help but see myself in the landscape and imagine how others might experience me based on how I appear to them. I search myself to see how I react to and employ my thoughts and opinions, because aside from being Black I’m also human and subject to the world’s influences.

In this new body of work, I use multiple images of Black children: bold, frontal, and almost life size, so that their faces engage the viewer. In my cuts, I explore youth and its innocence imprinted in and on the subjects’ expressions. I purposefully insist on this particular view and stance because it’s not the one most given to us often in the media or popular culture. The backgrounds may hold contrasting stories that compete with the figures and their stance—the push and pull of the opposites; the yin and yang.

CM: Elsewhere you noted: “I create stories from the apocalypse we live in now and narrate how life goes on in the midst of chaos.” This statement is acutely felt right now—can you talk about it in relationship to the work that will be on view at SAM?

BET: As a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, now as then, there was much ado and action around issues of inequity. The utopian movements that sprang up were numerous. Like formal religion, these communities and/or cults were created as foils to the many disasters life holds. We are afraid and terrified; there is nothing new in that. We construct magic circles and ritual movements to distract and protect ourselves from floods, storms, fires, famines, diseases and yes, now plagues. It is my observations and my experiences that interest me, so like a good witness I note, record, and echo back to my viewer my literal experience of the world through visual stories.

CM: You call yourself “artist, writer, thinker.” We also know that you are an engaged reader. How does your reading and writing practice inform your visual work?

BET: Reading is life. As an active reader I’ve always used literature and all of my reading to inform my world.  I read and write to get at truth and to clarify my own thought process. It’s easy for me to talk about my thoughts and correct or rephrase as I go. There is something about being in a room and engaging in a conversation that can make even confused thought processes sound plausible. But when I write I am forced to create clear sentences and connect thoughts and see if they hold water. When I read, I’m looking for the rigor and willingness in the author to think things all the way through. Writers like James Baldwin, August Wilson, and John Edgar Widman are American writers who do that for me. Poets like Pablo Neruda and Rilke capture truth in a nonlinear image condensed. Most recently, I’ve been reading Colin Thurbron’s travel writing, Pico Iyer, and rereading Robert D. Kaplan. I love good travel writing as it is a way to see the world through others’ eyes and be in other parts of this world without traveling. What all these authors share is clear thinking and hard truth telling, which is something I demand of myself in my own work.

CM: You are making a lot of new work for the exhibition, which include different kinds of processes. Would you tell us about the use of the negative space in your paper cuts (you say you draw with the knife!) compared to the wall hangings?

BET: The negative space allows the light to shine in contrast. It heightens the experience. When paired with the positive it creates shadows and mystery. The concept demonstrates that both are needed to create the particular magic that is this story. Both positive and negative space are needed to create a world that exists as sculpture in the round—one that is not flat or one-dimensional. Both are needed to create the emotional response that I seek. When people are surrounded, they are forced to surrender their senses for a moment. 

CM: You are pairing your cut paper works with illuminated glass panels for the installation at SAM, what prompted you to pair these in the two adjacent galleries?

BET: I think of this exhibition as one installation made up of several parts. Each separate element has its role in the installation of the paper-cut portraits. Most of the figures are inspired by children of friends and neighbors, some are random portraits I’ve found. All are chosen because there is a way for me to show the part that I think is missing in many of our depictions of the innocence that lives in and marks the dark face of a child. I’m creating a space that holds the viewer in light and shadow to demonstrate something about illusion and how our imagination creates the monsters in the shadows even when there is nothing there. In this case I’m cutting the beautiful from the darkness and placing viewers in the shadows to make them a part of the world they observe. The portraits are cast as precious objects, surrounded by what feels like sacred objects—my candelabras.  The hand-cut wallpaper is designed to create fountains of movement as the viewer is invited to the suspended centerpiece, Bodies in the Matrix.

Images: Siblings, 2020, Barbara Earl Thomas, American, cut paper and hand-printed color backing, 40 x 26 in., Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, photo: Spike Mafford. Color Wheel, 2020, Barbara Earl Thomas, American, cut paper and hand-printed color backing, 40 x 26 in., Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, photo: Spike Mafford.

Object of the Week: K’ómoks Imperial Stormtrooper

I would like to acknowledge that the museum sits on the Indigenous land of the Coast Salish People in and around the city of dᶻidᶻəlalič (renamed Seattle for Chief siʔaɫ).

My work is a response to the ways in which photography has been used as a mechanism of colonization. Decolonizing photography for the use of American Indians has to occur through the articulation of a Native representational subjectivity. In the place of colonizing representation, I want to produce images and sensory experiences that convey representation of, by, and for American Indians.

– Will Wilson

Since 2012, Will Wilson has put cultural sovereignty at the root of image-making events he calls the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange (CIPX). The thousands of images created over the course of this project now comprise the largest Indigenous created archive of images of Native peoples. These photo sessions—in which Wilson uses an old wet-plate technology to produce tintypes—are held in tribal communities and at urban institutions such as museums. Wilson’s CIPX event at the Seattle Art Museum, which took place in November 2017, centered on capturing the rich complexity of Native peoples living in the environs of Seattle, members of local reservation-based tribes, and “urban Indians” who came to Seattle from other places. Wilson invites anyone who wants to be photographed to present themselves however they want—wearing what they choose, holding objects that are important to them, and posing to their liking. As part of the exchange, he gives the tintype to the sitter while asking for permission to digitize the image for use in large-scale prints, like the work in SAM’s collection, K’ómoks Imperial Stormtrooper (Andy Everson). It is an amazing process to witness and reminds us that, for those who take authority over the processes of representation, methodologies and interpersonal exchanges matter.1

The sitter in this portrait is K’ómoks First Nation’s artist Andy Everson. His recent work draws from his two passions: Indigenous art and Star Wars. He transformed the stormtrooper into a positive figure by doing away with the uniform’s whiteness and covering it with formline designs. Everson wanted to change the stormtrooper from someone who blindly follows instructions from his higher-ups to someone who is able to take action for himself and for his own people. And so began this idea of the West Coast warrior, a defender of the land.2

Chilkat weavers were the inspiration for Everson when he created the Northern Warrior (2015), with its distinctive yellow, blue, white, and black colors. He also replaced the stormtrooper’s helmet with a traditional conical hat, made out of maple wood that his ancestors in Alaska would have worn.3 Many of his ancestors were warriors, and when their territory was threatened they did not hesitate to defend themselves. When they entered battle, they wore slatted armor suits and hard wooden helmets carved with their crest, proudly representing their ancestral lineage. The hat on this helmet displays the Kwakwaka’wakw crest of the sisiyutł—the double-headed serpent. This symbol of the warrior reminds us of the dichotomies in life—good and evil, right and wrong—and puts a human face in the middle to teach us that we must choose where we stand.4

Everson’s stormtroopers tell a story to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples about the importance of a warrior spirit. The works speak to the histories of Indigenous resistance and defiance in opposition to colonizing forces, and the importance of remaining steadfast in the face of adaptation and change.5 Like Wilson’s CIPX series, Everson’s stormtroopers draw people in with its familiar figure and invite people to engage with an art form, perhaps unfamiliar to some, that ultimately fosters a new kind of cultural exchange.

Speaking of stormtroopers, don’t miss the premiere of The Mandalorian season two on October 30. Will we find out Baby Yoda’s origin? Are there more of them? I hope so, and I hope you all have a safe and happy Halloween!

“I would like to see the baby.” – The Client, The Mandalorian

– Tina Lee, SAM Exhibitions and Publications Manager

Images: K’ómoks Imperial Stormtrooper (Andy Everson), Citizen of the K’ómoks First Nation, from the series Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange: dᶻidᶻəlalič, 2017, printed 2019, Will Wilson, archival pigment print
56 1/4 × 44 1/4 in., Ancient and Native American Art Acquisition Fund, 2019.26.2 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Northern Warrior, 2015, Andy Everson, edition 99, giclée, image source: andyeverson.com. Image courtesy of Pixabay.
[1] Brotherton, Barbara. “New Archives of Indigenous Self-Representation.” In Double Exposure: Edward S. Curtis, Marianne Nicolson, Tracy Rector, Will Wilson, 22–26. Seattle Art Museum, 2018.
[2] The Huffington Post B.C. “Andy Everson’s Stormtrooper Acts as Modern First Nations Warrior.” Accessed October 27, 2020, https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/07/24/andy-everson-stormtrooper-first-nations_n_5618449.html
[3] Baluja, Tamara. “Star Wars characters get Indigenized by Comox First Nation artist.” Accessed October 27, 2020.https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/star-wars-indigenized-andy-everson-1.4463320
[4] Everson, Andy. “Northern Warrior.” Artwork by Andy Everson. Accessed October 27, 2020. http://www.andyeverson.com/2014/northern_warrior.html
[5] Avdeeff, Melissa. “Andy Everson: Resistance and Defiance in Indigenous Digital Art.” Accessed October 27, 2020. http://mediacommons.org/imr/content/andy-everson-resistance-and-defiance-indigenous-digital-art

Sculpture Park Summers Are For Conservation

Perched on a hillside overlooking the watery expanse of Elliott Bay, the Olympic Sculpture Park is a welcoming, art-filled green space. Free and open to the public year-round, the park plays host to visitors in every season. Because of its exposed, marine location, the sculptures that live at the park are subject to deterioration from both environmental and human causes. We take good care of the sculptures, cleaning and tending them year-round, but with Seattle’s rainy winters, summer is the window in which conservation maintenance and treatments can be carried out. Despite the pandemic, this summer was no exception as without maintenance, deterioration both structural and aesthetic quickly compromises the sculptures and installations. 

If you visited the sculpture park this summer, you probably noticed the massive white tent covering Alexander Calder’s The Eagle. The distinctive red paint coating Calder’s soaring, swooping sculpture had deteriorated and needed repainting. Thanks to a generous grant from Bank of America, The Eagle received new primers and a new coat of red paint. It looks amazing! Due to a multi-year collaboration between art conservators, the artist’s estates, coatings scientists, industrial paint manufacturers and industrial painters and advances in polymer technology, the new coating will be more durable than the previous one while still maintaining the color, saturation and low gloss finish of the original paint.

Echo by Jaume Plensa sits near the shoreline and can be seen from some of the ferries that cross Elliott Bay. Made from marble dust and polyester resin over a steel framework, Echo’s off-white exterior becomes discolored throughout the year. Not only distracting from the beauty of the sculpture, this soiling, for which we can partially thank the feathered friend pictured above, speeds the deterioration of the artwork. To protect Echo, SAM conservators cleaned her and applied a sacrificial coating. As the sculpture is over 45 feet tall, this was no small feat!

Offering visitors an opportunity to pause and shelter from the sun or rain, Seattle Cloud Cover by Teresita Fernández is a series of laminated glass panels encasing abstract, color-saturated photographs. Attached to the bridge over the railroad tracks that cross under the park, its glass panels needed cleaning. Using long-handled brushes, dirt, dust and other debris were carefully cleaned from the top and pedestrian-facing panels. Additionally, caulk used in the brackets holding the glass panels was scraped out and replaced. Caulk shrinks and swells with changes in humidity and deteriorates due to age and weather exposure.

Mark Di Suvero’s Schubert Sonata, a ribbon of twisting steel that rotates on a single, carefully balanced point, is sited near the Olympic Sculpture Park shoreline. With its proximity to Puget Sound, chlorides (naturally occurring salts present in the air near bodies of water) are a concern. These chlorides cause aggressive, rapid corrosion of uncoated steel and other metals such as bronze. To address this issue, while maintaining the raw steel aesthetic of the artist, a corrosion inhibiting protectant was applied. Invisible to the eye, this coating will extend the sculpture’s lifespan.

These projects are just a sampling of the conservation treatments completed over the last few months. Other conservation treatments included cleaning and coating bronze sculptures and addressing loses in painted surfaces to prevent corrosion. In addition to these projects, members of the SAM conservation team are regularly onsite at the park to make sure that each sculpture is looking its best. Before the rainy, short days of our northwest winter drive us all indoors, get yourself to the Olympic Sculpture Park to enjoy the stunning artwork and expansive views.

– Rachel Harris, Asian Art Conservation Center Associate

Images: The Eagle, 1971, Alexander Calder, painted steel, 465 x 390 x 390 in., Gift of Jon and Mary Shirley, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2000.69 © Calder Foundation/Artist’s Rights Society, NY. Many thanks to Diamond Painting LLC for their work on the Eagle repainting project. Echo, 2011, Jaume Plensa, Spanish, Born 1955, Polyester resin, marble dust, steel framework, Height: 45 ft. 11 in., footprint at base: 10 ft. 8 in. x 7 ft. 1 in., gross weight: 13,118 lb, Gift of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2013.22 © Jaume Plensa. Seattle Cloud Cover, Design Approved 2004; Fabrication Completed 2006, Teresita Fernández, American, Born 1968, Laminated glass with photographic design interlayer, approx. 9 ft. 6 in. x 200 ft. x 6 ft. 3 in., Olympic Sculpture Park Art Acquisition Fund, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2006.140 © Teresita Fernández. Schubert Sonata, 1992, Mark Di Suvero, American, Born 1933, Painted and unpainted steel, Height: 22 ft., Gift of Jon and Mary Shirley, The Virginia Wright Fund, and Bagley Wright, 95.81. © Mark di Suvero.

Object of the Week: Amulet in Shape of A Human Figure

One way to get closer to a work of art is to begin to imagine the sounds that surrounded the artist as they created it. Two examples illustrating this are both amulets––objects charged with setting up a protective force field. The first is from ancient Egypt, among the oldest objects on the 4th floor galleries, and the other is one of the newest, which has been on view in the Jacob Lawrence Gallery on the 3rd floor since December of last year.

A carver living in Naqada long ago would reside on the west bank of the mighty Nile river. If he was an early riser, and close enough to the river, he would be likely to hear the most aggressive creature in his midst: the hippopotamus. Hippos let loose with a roar each morning at sunrise, and again at sunset.  When gathered in groups, hippos vocalize all day with loud exchanges that help alert humans to their presence. This behavior is helpful, since to startle or challenge a hippo is a dangerous mistake, as they harbor an unpredictable power to outrun a human in short distances, overturn boats, and open their mouths to reveal their ultimate weapon––enormous teeth. Hippo canines are up to one-and-a-half feet long, and the carver of this amulet took just a tiny sliver from one to create an image of a man less than 2 inches tall. In this amulet, the carver captures a man’s form in a compelling abstraction––he has a long triangular beard and piercing eyes, all the better to watch over the owner, placed in a burial to ensure the deceased had a safe, healthy, and productive afterlife.  

Aaron Fowler lets us know immediately what sounds were behind him when he composed his enormous sculpted amulet suspended with a rope. It has the same shape as the logo of Death Row Records, which Rap stars such as Tupac, Snoop Dogg, and Dr. Dre all wore to show allegiance to the record company. Here, Fowler embeds his friend Debo in their musical pantheon. On one side, Debo is depicted incarcerated and in prison clothes, sitting on a flattened armchair, while on the other side he appears free in a djelaba (hoodie) that Aaron designed for him. Fowler frames his friend with electronic lights and an iconic musical form to make Debo Free into a painful and protective tribute.  

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

Image: Amulet in shape of a human figure, ca. 5000-2920 BCE, Egyptian, bone, 1 3/4 x 3/4 x 1/4 in., Gift of Nasli M. Heeramaneck, 64.33.1. Installation view of Debo Free, 2019, Aaron Fowler, American, born 1988, in the exhibition Aaron Fowler: Into Existence, December 13, 2019- October 25, 2020, photo: Jueqian Fang.

SAM Receives Major Gifts from The Friday Foundation

Today, the Friday Foundation announced a critical infusion of over $9 million in philanthropist gifts to nine organizations in the Seattle arts community. The Seattle Times reported the good news.

The gifts are created to honor the lives and legacies of the late Jane Lang Davis and Richard E. Lang, who were inspired collectors and supporters of the arts. The Seattle Art Museum is among the recipients of the Friday Foundation’s generosity with two incredible gifts, one of which responds to the current moment, and the other which looks to the future of the museum and its collection.

In April, the Friday Foundation gifted SAM $2 million for its Closure Relief Fund, which was initiated in late March after the museum closed its three sites: the Seattle Art Museum, the Seattle Asian Art Museum, and the PACCAR Pavilion at the Olympic Sculpture Park. The downtown museum has since reopened with new safety protocols in place, including limited capacity and hours, but the Asian Art Museum and PACCAR Pavilion both remain closed.

The Closure Relief Fund has supported all museum operations, including its dedicated staff, during the six months of closure, when all earned revenue was lost, fundraising events were canceled, and memberships declined. The Friday Foundation gift was the single largest gift to that fund, and it arrived at a crucial moment as the museum faced the crisis directly. This remarkably generous gift joins the hundreds of others to the Closure Relief Fund from SAM’s board, members, and friends, all of which have ensured the vibrancy and security of the museum both during and after the closure.

The Friday Foundation is also gifting SAM $2 million to fund the Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Acquisition Fund for Global Contemporary Art. This exciting new fund will enable SAM to continue its focus on bringing work by emerging artists from all over the world into its collection, to share with the entire community and create dialogue with the over 25,000 objects in its global collection. You’ll be hearing more about this fund, and the art it will bring to Seattle, in the years to come.

Amada Cruz, SAM’s Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO, expressed her gratitude: “These gifts are a shining example of what community support for art and art institutions looks like, and it reflects and furthers the incredible legacy of the Langs. The acquisitions endowment is particularly meaningful, as it will help shape the future of SAM’s collection. We are extremely grateful for the generosity of the Friday Foundation.”

Object of the Week: Broken Arrangement

“I kind of got a bit of an illicit thrill out of cutting them up.”

– Brian Jungen

Though first launched in 1984, a new pair of Air Jordan 1 sneakers still regularly fetches a price tag of $150-250. This past summer, a rare pair of Air Jordan 1 High sneakers worn by Michael Jordan in 1985 sold at auction for $615,000, no doubt propped up by the popularity of the recent Jordan docuseries, The Last Dance, which premiered during nationwide stay-at-home recommendations. The shoes have held their status and notoriety in basketball and sneakerhead culture for decades, so how does their status change when a contemporary artist cuts them apart?

Brian Jungen’s (Dane-Zaa, Canadian) sculptures are rendered from dismantled Nike sneakers and echo the ovoid shapes and abstracted figures prominent in the traditional Indigenous cultural designs of Northwest Coast peoples. Jungen gained wide recognition for his series, Prototypes for New Understanding (1998-2005), which presented reassembled sneakers as Northwest Coast-inspired masks. However, Broken Arrangement (2015-16) presents an even more abstracted form, fluid in what might be perceived from each angle: an open mouth, a staring eye, or perhaps a raised tail.

While attempting to decipher the shapes, what becomes unmistakable is the ubiquitous Nike “swoosh” logo that appears throughout the disassembled and rearranged sneakers. Jungen’s appropriation of Nike’s iconic shoe comments simultaneously on the widespread commodification and cultural cooptation in contemporary society. Not lost on the artist is Nike’s stature as a corporate icon headquartered in the Pacific Northwest, as well as its influence on global consumer culture and problematic history of exploitative labor practices. Jungen’s reassembly of Nike products and iconography into works reflecting Northwest Coast design is an act that confronts the value placed on Indigenous cultures and artworks by Western society—indeed a broken arrangement in its own right.

Jungen has expanded his exploration of the connections between sport and global economic systems. In 2004, Jungen created the enormous installation Court, a full-length basketball court comprised satirically, and somewhat precariously, of sewing machine tables that evoke the scope and scale of sweatshop labor. More recently, Jungen has considered connections between the basketball court, community, and ritual. Just last year he installed new work against the backdrop of a basketball court during the exhibition Brian Jungen: Friendship Centre, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, not necessarily as critique, but as a “. . . site of, you know, incredible pain for people who you know weren’t involved or interested in sports. But it’s also a place for a lot of First Nations people that is a site of ceremony, especially for gatherings and dancing . . . So that’s kind of what how that started—and I wanted to create a space in a museum that seemed a bit more kind of welcoming, or a place that possibly a lot of youth could identify with.”[1]

As with all things, professional basketball looked different in 2020. In the past few weeks, fans watched as the Seattle Storm and Los Angeles Lakers won the 2020 WNBA and NBA championship titles, respectively. The teams and players slogged through a condensed summer of play in the “bubble” on three basketball courts at Disney properties in Orlando, Florida. Daily COVID-19 tests, wristband tracking devices, no fans, and limited contact with family members resulted in zero positive cases during the season. Remarkably, it worked. That’s not to say the season, both in basketball and in America, was without struggle and anger directed at racial injustice and police violence across the country.[2] Players boycotted, made actionable demands of league management and government officials, and used their international platforms to call attention to crises happening in communities across the country. The NBA is a multibillion-dollar global industry, yet the players challenged each other to reconfigure the bubble and their sport’s stature within popular culture to deliver a powerful message for people watching amidst a global pandemic and social upheaval.

As Jungen articulates, “sport fulfills the very basic human need for ceremony, and that used to take place in many different cultures on a much smaller scale, very locally. Now I think that takes place with mass media and professional sports for a lot of people.”[3] Broken Arrangement is about much more than basketball and sneakers, of course. Jungen’s sculpture challenges knowledge and perceptions of Indigenous art and artistry through popular culture’s reverence for mass produced objects. Ripped apart and transformed into an entirely new object, the source material is simultaneously familiar and difficult to decipher in its final form. We’re trying to make sense of a lot of broken things right now, and one can only hope that they will become as beautiful and meaningful as Jungen’s arrangement.

– Philip Nadasdy, SAM Associate Director of Public Engagement

[1]  CBC Radio, As It Happens, “How this B.C. artist uses sliced up Air Jordans to connect with his Indigenous roots,” June 19, 2019, www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-wednesday-edition-1.5181432/how-this-b-c-artist-uses-sliced-up-air-jordans-to-connect-with-his-indigenous-roots-1.5181452.
[2] Sean Ingle, “NBA will return but anger still burns after historic stand on racial injustice,” The Guardian, August 27, 2020, www.theguardian.com/sport/2020/aug/27/nba-takes-historic-stand-on-racial-injustice-milwaukee-bucks-jacob-blake-shooting.
[3] Donnovan Bennett, “Q&A: The intersection of sports and art from an Indigenous perspective,” Sportsnet, October 10, 2019, www.sportsnet.ca/basketball/nba/qa-intersection-sports-art-indigenous-perspective.
Images: Broken Arrangement, 2015-16, Brian Jungen, Nike Air Jordans, painted fir plywood, stainless steel, 20 x 14 x 21 1/2 in., Margaret Fuller Purchase Endowment, 2016.4 © Brian Jungen. Court, 2004, Brian Jungen, sewing tables, painted steel, paint, basketball hoops and backboards, National Gallery of Canada. Friendship Centre (detail), Brian Jungen, June 20 – August 25, 2019, Art Gallery of Ontario.

Object of the Week: Mercedes Benz Coffin

In the 1970s, carpenter and carver Kane Quaye’s grandmother passed away. It was her lifelong, unfulfilled dream to travel on an airplane. In tribute, Quaye built her a coffin shaped as plane. She was laid to rest inside its upholstered interior, paraded to her grave and buried in her homeland. Quaye has since gained international acclaim for his coffins which are also popularly known as abebuu adekai or “proverb boxes”. The coffins celebrate the achievements, status and identity of the deceased. His legacy continues today at his workshop in Ghana, currently run by Quaye’s grandson, Eric Adjetey Anang.

As Quaye’s work gained renown throughout the art world, his creations were built for two very different purposes: as coffins for burial or as art objects for display. Gallerist Bill Wright commissioned the Mercedes Benz Coffin in 1991.[1] It is a nine-foot wooden sculpture carved to resemble a white luxury car now displayed under a Plexiglas box in SAM’s galleries. Placing this coffin in a museum raises questions about how art can help people process loss.

When in the galleries, I ask students to look closely as they walk around this intriguing sculpture. What are we looking at? What is happening in this object? Students comment on the scale of the car, the non-functioning wooden wheels, the curtains covering the windows, and the crack in the surface where the lid separates from the base. Eventually someone reads the license plate and realizes this object is a coffin (and eventually one wide-eyed student asks if there is anything inside it). We share the story of the artist’s process and ask students what object they would select to symbolize their own lives. Teaching from Mercedes Benz Coffin, I often find myself talking about concepts that are difficult to navigate, just as the last several months have made many hard truths newly visible.

In my research to write this post, I found a list of custom coffins that were created in Quaye’s workshop. It reads like a poem:
Sardine for a fisherman
Lion for a hunter
Parrot for a university lecturer

Chicken with chicks nestled beneath wings for a business woman, mother and grandmother

In this workshop list, I see an echo to the names the New York Times published to memorialize 100,000 lives lost in the United States to COVID-19:
Liked his bacon and hash browns crispy. Fred Walter Gray, 75, Bentonville AK
Immigrated to the United States three years ago. Jessica Beatriz Cortez, 32, Los Angeles
Could make anything grow. George Freeman Winfield, 72, Shelburne. VT

I am also reminded of the signs seen at protests across the United States calling out the names of the many recent victims of police violence against Black people.

We are living in a season of immense loss. When we look back, what  symbols will be selected to memorialize this time and the lives within it? An N-95 mask, a Black Lives Matter protest sign, a desk used for remote learning, a loaf of homemade bread? Museums and community collectives have already begun to gather and archive such objects. It’s curious to think how this current reality will appear mirrored back to us on display behind glass. How much of this time and ourselves will we see reflected? How can we symbolize the lives lost and the spirit that continues?

Regan Pro, SAM Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Engagement

Images: Mercedes Benz coffin, 1991, Kane Quaye, wood, paint, 25 x 35 x 101 in., Gift of Dr. Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb and Mark Groudine and Cynthia Putnam in honor of Pam McClusky, 93.163 © Kane Quaye. Photo: Nathaniel Wilson. Paa Joe’s Coffin Workshop, Ghana, 2005. Photo: Alida Latham. A sign at a Black Lives Matter protest, Lake Worth, Florida, 2020.
[1] More information on Mercedes Benz Coffin: http://art.seattleartmuseum.org/objects/10007/mercedes-benz-coffin?ctx=d888c9af-d373-4fb3-a318-37fae579d652&idx=26
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