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

SAM Book Club: Afrofuturism & Octavia Butler

This is the fourth of five reflections on Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, SAM’s Book Club selection. SAM Staff is reading and thinking about some of the themes in John Akomfrah: Future History, which we hope you will be able to come see on view through September 7 once the museum can reopen. Our final book club reflection will be shared here on the blog June 16. Our colleagues at the Northwest African American Museum are reading Parable of the Sower for their June Book Club and SAM has decided to cancel our Zoom Book Club discussion, previously taking place June 16, to join NAAM’s live discussion on June 26. Join us by registering here! Please read along and share your thoughts with us while you stay home with SAM!

“Back when Ronald Regan had just become president, people were talking about winnable nuclear wars. And I thought, ‘If people were falling for this kind of thing, there must be something basically wrong with the human species.’ So . . . . I had [my alien characters] arrive right after a nuclear war so that I could make my point and I had them tell my [main] character that human beings had two characteristics that didn’t work well together. One, they were intelligent, and that was good, no problem. And two, they were hierarchical. And unfortunately, the hierarchical tendencies were older and so sometimes the intelligence was put at the service of the hierarchical behavior.”

– Octavia Butler interviewed in The Last Angel of History

Octavia Butler is talking about her Xenogenesis series, also known as Lilith’s Brood, in the above quote from John Akomfrah’s 1996 video essay The Last Angel of History on view in John Akomfrah: Future History. Compared to the Xenogenesis trilogy, the Parable series delivers a more subtle version of sci-fi and Afrofuturism, presenting Earth in the not too distant future suffering from more extreme versions of our current issues.

Octavia Butler

In the third quarter of the book, Parable of the Sower finds Lauren Olamina, Harry Balter, and Zahra Moss continuing north, the unlikely companions brought together by the destruction of their neighborhood. As they walk, they slowly begin to absorb new travelers into their party. Lauren has realized that she should not only be watchful for threats on the freeway, but also for potential allies. The situation on the road gets more precarious after an earthquake. Scavengers are quick to descend on vulnerable communities in the aftermath. After the group rescues two girls from a collapsed house, a new member of the party, Bankole, observes, “I was surprised to see that anyone else cared what happened to a couple of strangers.” Though there is risk in inviting new people into Earthseed, the group is now as strong as ever, and there is a larger audience for Lauren’s teachings.

Octavia Butler’s work helped to shape the burgeoning genre of Afrofuturism, where the culture of the African diaspora merges with futuristic technology and settings. John Akomfrah’s video essay The Last Angel of History features conversations that elaborate on this theme.

In Akomfrah’s film, author Greg Tate says that he has “always contended that the Black existence and science fiction are one and the same.” The poet Ishmael Reed credits Tate with first drawing the parallels between the Black experience and science fiction, saying “[…] all those things that you read about alien abduction and genetic transformation, they already happened. How much more alien do you think it gets than slavery, than entire mass populations moved and genetically altered, forcibly dematerialized?”

Themes of outer space and of being alien are hallmarks of Afrofuturism. Butler’s protagonist Lauren tells us that “The destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.” By settling the community on another planet, Earthseed would gain freedom from its current earthly threats, allowing the movement to grow and hopefully thrive.

All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you.”What changes us, we change in return. The dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism threaten to overwhelm us, too big for any individual to confront. Our best hope for salvation is through collective action. With each new person that joins Earthseed, Lauren lets us know that they are now stronger than they were before. More bodies, more voices, more strength. With actions big and small, we can take agency over the communities we live in and help shape what comes next. Afrofuturism is not simply an escape into the fantastical, rather it often recognizes a cruel reality, then offers a symbol of hope, of imagining and shaping a better future.

– Ilona Davis, SAM Individual Giving Manager

Photo: Jonathan Vanderweit. Photo: Patti Perret.

SAM Book Club: Parable of the Sower

50 years ago, who would’ve imagined that Earth Day’s 50th anniversary might occur on a day like today? As we all stay home and our days are full of uncertainties, there are also comforts; news articles about Venice’s canals flowing clear, video call birthday celebrations, and much more—amidst it all, we desire to honor Earth Day more than ever.

One way SAM is celebrating this Earth Day is to launch a new edition of our book club, and we encourage you to participate! Calling all bibliophiles, humans, pets, plants, and everyone—join us as we read Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. Set in an apocalyptic dystopia of 2026, Lauren Olamina and her family reside in one of the last, safe enclaves of society in Los Angeles. As Lauren’s father struggles to salvage the remains of a society crumbling under global warming, wealth disparity, and crime, Lauren seeks to establish a new community founded on a revolutionary religion that may bring reparation. 

We selected this book because it connects powerfully with John Akomfrah: Future History at SAM, which features video essays on migrant diasporas across the globe, Afrofuturism, and visions of the natural world. Good news, the exhibition will be extended until September 7 so you can come consider it in person after reading the book!

While we read, SAM staff will be reflecting and posing questions for you to join along in your own reading. Check back here every two weeks on May 6, May 20, June 3, and June 16 to hear from us and share your thoughts in the comments. We’ll conclude this virtual book club, with a Zoom meet up for all of our book club participants and beyond! 

If you are looking for a copy of the book, here’s a list of independent bookstores with direct links to the book.

  1. Ada’s Technical Books & Cafe (Usually ships in 1-5 days)
  2. Queen Anne Book Company 
  3. Phinney Books 
  4. Secret Garden Books (Usually ships in 1-5 days)
  5. Elliot Bay Book Company (Usually ships in 1-5 days)
  6. Edmonds Bookshop (Usually ships in 1-5 days)
  7. Powell’s Books (Ships in 1-3 days)

Please join us back here in two weeks on May 6 for our first discussion of the book. We are so excited for you to join us with your comments and questions while you stay home with SAM!

Have a Happy Earth Day!

– Lauren Farris, SAM Campaign Assistant & Equity Team Member

We are humbled by the generosity of our donors during this unique time. Your financial support powers SAM Blog and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again. Thanks to a generous group of SAM trustees, all membership and gifts to SAM Fund will be matched up to $500,000 through June 30!

Photo: Elisabeth Smith

Muse/News: A prescription for art, life-changing DJs, and an epic visit to the Louvre

SAM News

The Seattle Times explores “why art is becoming part of doctors’ education at Virginia Mason in Seattle” with a recent front page feature. The Art & Medicine program at SAM uses art education techniques to teach medical residents skills like visual literacy, empathy, and self-care.

The Stranger’s Charles Mudede visits the Lessons from the Institute of Empathy installation, finding connections to the blockbuster film Black Panther and to Afrofuturism.

“These African masks, African jewelry, African clothes—made to be worn by fictional figures who run a fictional institute that deals with things like Empathy Deficit Disorder, and made to exist in real and virtual spaces—now have, for young and old Americans, a mainstream point of reference.”

Priya Frank, SAM’s Associate Director for Community Programs and co-chair of the museum’s Equity Team, shares her reflections for the NAEA’s Museum Education blog on the work of centering racial equity and creating an institutional culture shift. Priya was also a recent guest on the No Blueprint podcast and profiled in profiled in UW’s alumni magazine Columns.

Local News

Don’t miss this incredible story in the Seattle Times—a collaboration among writer Jerry Large, photographer Bettina Hansen, and videographer Corinne Chin—about a Seattle attorney’s collection of “some ugly, some inspiring” historical artifacts.

To know Riz is to love him: The Stranger’s Charles Mudede with a beautiful and convincing piece for their Queer Issue on “how DJ Riz Rollins changed Seattle.”

I can’t believe it’s almost July. Seattle Magazine has great picks for cultural happenings next month, including an upcoming show at the Henry featuring Figuring History artist Mickalene Thomas as photographer, designer, and curator.

Inter/National News

The New York Times’ Roberta Smith reviews the Met’s exhibition History Refused to Die (great name!); it features work from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, whose focus is self-taught Black artists of the American South.

Hyperallergic’s John Yau takes a look at The Morgan Library & Museum’s show of Wayne Thiebaud’s works on paper.

“I may need to lie down.” Yes, the art world and everyone else recently went—well, you know—when Beyoncé and Jay-Z released a new joint album and a video shot at the Louvre. Artnet has a good round-up on the mania.

And Finally

The art historical and cultural resonances of APES**T will live forever—but this is the reaction I laugh about DAILY.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Manager of Public Relations

Image: Installation view Lessons from the Institute of Empathy, Seattle Art Museum, 2018, photo: Natali Wiseman.
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