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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.