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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.