Celebrate Black History Month With Five Artworks by Black Artists on View at SAM

Every February, the United States recognizes Black History Month with a specific theme. In 2024, the theme is African Americans and the Arts.

African American art is intricately woven with influences from Africa, the Caribbean, and the lived experiences of Black Americans. In celebration of the rich history of Black Americans in the arts, we’re reflecting on five artworks by historical and contemporary Black artists in the museum’s collection which visitors can currently see in our galleries. Plus, scroll to the bottom of this post to learn about a few ways you can celebrate Black History Month this February and all year long!


Mitchell’s Point Looking Down the Columbia, 1887
Grafton Tyler Brown

Grafton Tyler Brown (1841–1918) was one of only a few Black Americans who made a living as an artist before the 20th century, first as a topographic artist and a lithographer and later as a landscape painter. Brown’s parents were freedmen living in Pennsylvania, but Brown decided to move West for greater freedom and opportunities in the 1850s, as many African Americans did. In the 1880s and 1890s, Brown traveled around the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, painting and selling images of his surroundings. This serene scene of the Columbia River, titled Mitchell’s Point Looking Down the Columbia and on view in American Art: The Stories We Carry, depicts smooth, reflective water framed by rocky cliffs, rolling hills with patches of trees, and distant mountains. The few Native American figures situated in the foreground serve more as indications of the remote-ness of this place, rather than detailed observations of particular Indigenous peoples.

Gwendolyn Knight, 1934–35
Augusta Savage

Augusta Savage (1892–1962) studied sculpture in New York and Paris before opening her own art school in Harlem, New York in 1931. She was devoted to sharing her skills and resources with her students and mentored many young Black artists including Gwendolyn Knight, depicted here, and Knight’s husband Jacob Lawrence, both of whom would later live in Seattle. This portrait depicts Knight in her early twenties with careful attention paid to her facial features and gracefully pulled up hair. Savage gifted this portrait bust to Knight, which she kept until her death in 2005 and bequeathed to the Seattle Art Museum, allowing this rare and fragile plaster work to survive while many of Savage’s other works did not. You can learn more about this bust and Augusta Savage’s artistic career in this 2016 SAM Object of the Week blog post and take an up-close look at  its intricate sculpted details in American Art: The Stories We Carry.

Wounded Eagle No. 10, 1963
James Washington Jr.

James Washington Jr. (1908–2000) saw his animal sculptures as deeply symbolic and resonant with his spiritual beliefs. Born the son of a Baptist minister in Mississippi, he brought these beliefs with him when he moved to the Seattle area in 1941 for a job at the Bremerton Navy Yard. He felt that God was guiding him in his life and as an artist, calling him to create images that would communicate universality and truth about the world. His animal sculptures, such as Wounded Eagle No. 10 on view in Remember the Rain, showcase his close observations of the natural world, as well as his understanding of line, form, and medium. Washington was active in the arts community in the Northwest, taking classes at the University of Washington, exhibiting his work often, forming relationships with artists including Mark Tobey, Kenjiro Nomura, and George Tsutakawa, among many others, and starting a foundation for art scholarships.

In Case of Fire and In Case of Flood, 2014
Barbara Earl Thomas

In a striking and jarring confusion of black and white lines, Seattle-based artist Barbara Earl Thomas (born 1948) illustrates two related themes in this pair of linocut prints titled In Case of Fire and In Case of Flood on view in Remember the Rain. These scenes of people dealing with apocalyptic disasters—fire and flood—draw from Biblical sources, but also from folklore, literature, and Thomas’s own family history and experiences. Rather than creating scenes of pure fantasy, Thomas describes her work as chronicling real narratives from the past and our present day, compelled by the economic and racial inequity she witnesses. In a 2019 SAM Object of the Week blog post, Thomas was quoted as saying: “It is the chaos of living and the grief of our time that compels me, philosophically, emotionally, and artistically. I am a witness and a chronicler: I create stories from the apocalypse we live in now and narrate how life goes on in the midst of the chaos.” Thomas was a student of Jacob Lawrence at the University of Washington, who himself was taught by Augusta Savage, exemplifying a legacy of socially engaged and community-oriented artists.

Stranger in the Village (Excerpt), #7, 1997
Glenn Ligon

Glenn Ligon’s (born 1960) Stranger in the Village (Excerpt), #7 renders a powerful text by civil rights activist and writer James Baldwin nearly invisible by stenciling the black type on a black background and coating it with coal dust. On view in SAM’s modern and contemporary art galleries, the work’s unclear presentation of Baldwin’s words leaves viewers searching and straining to read the message. Baldwin’s essay published in 1955 recounts his visit to a remote Swiss village where he is the first and only Black person that many of the townspeople had ever met. In Ligon’s painting, the sense of hypervisibility that Baldwin describes becomes camouflaged and concealed. Ligon often uses text in his works to question the power of language, modes of engaging with visual art, and the legacy of slavery and racial stereotypes.

– Nicole Block, SAM Collections Associate

Celebrate Black History Month in Seattle with these suggested events. 

February 1–29
Call to Conscience
Take a trip to the Columbia City Theater every Tuesday through Sunday this month to explore the Call to Conscience Black History Month Museum. Organized by Rainier Avenue Radio, the converted theater celebrates the achievements of the Pacific Northwest’s Black community with exhibitions about the Seattle Black Panther Party, the Black Heritage Society, the Hartsfield Family and Slave Quilt Collection, and more.

Sundays in February
Black Ice: An American Sitcom Improvised
Unexpected Productions Improv wants you to be a part of their live studio audience every Sunday this month as they perform an improvised television sitcom inspired by Norman Lear’s iconic 1970s sitcoms. And yes, they’ll be asking for crowd suggestions throughout the show.

February 15
Keynote Program with Dr. Doretha Williams
Our friends at the Northwest African American Museum are celebrating Black History Month with a keynote speech from Dr. Doretha Williams, Director of the Robert F. Smith Center for the Digitization and Curation of African American History. In her speech, she’ll discuss the importance of Black family history in America and genealogy.

February 16–17
BE Great Celebration
Celebrate Black Excellence at this free two-day event in Occidental Square hosted by the Downtown Seattle Association. This soulful celebration will bring together Black culture, arts, music, and food with live performances by local musicians, a pop-up night market featuring Black artists and creatives, and more.

February 24–March 9
X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X
As Black History Month comes to a close, the Seattle Opera is tackling the story of Malcolm X’s life through a series of biographical vignettes. Scored by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Anthony Davis, the three-hour opera fuses elements of modernism, minimalism, and jazz to produce a riveting interpretation of one of history’s most misunderstood civil rights icons.

Photos: Chloe Collyer & Jo Cosme. Mitchell’s Point Looking down the Columbia, 1887, Grafton Tyler Brown, oil on canvas, 18 x 30 in., Bruce Leven Acquisition Fund, 2020.26.

In Boafo’s Words: Happy Siblings

“I wanted to make my paintings the way I want people to see me, you know, I just wanted to show Blackness in a different way. Why can I not be Black and be happy?”

– Amoako Boafo

After witnessing a rare moment of playfulness between his siblings in 2019, Amoako Boafo decided to commemorate the moment in a portrait. Happy Siblings marks the first of Boafo’s paintings to include members of his immediate family.

Despite the portrait’s use of muted colors, Boafo still finds the painting to be joyful. Brightness, he says, does not equate beauty. Tune in to the eighth stop of the SAM-exclusive smartphone tour of Amoako Boafo: Soul of Black Folks on our SoundCloud to learn more about this work and how the artist incorporates his family into his art. Or, if you’re in the galleries, scan the QR code next to this work to access this and nine other recordings related to the exhibition. Soul of Black Folks closes this Sunday, September 10—get your tickets to see it at SAM’s downtown location before it’s too late!

Happy Siblings, 2019

NARRATOR: Boafo painted this portrait of his siblings in 2019.

AMOAKO BOAFO: It’s not often that I see them playful like that. So, when I saw it, I’m like, let me capture this moment and let me just put it down.

NARRATOR: The portrait was a way of including the artist’s family in his practice.

AMOAKO BOAFO: I wanted to find a way to get my family into my painting because they have an idea of what painting is, and they like what I’m doing, but they don’t really know much about it.

I mean, the thing is that they don’t come to the studio, you know, because they have other things to do, and they feel like when they come, they will disturb me, which I don’t think it is true; but instead of waiting for them to come around I want to go to them.

NARRATOR: Interestingly, for this joyful image, Boafo has chosen a muted paint color, buff titanium, for his brother’s shirt.

AMOAKO BOAFO: I don’t think it has to be bright to be beautiful. Because this color palette has a lot of white in the background, which is plain. So it gives it a lot of shine.

NARRATOR: It also makes a strong contrast with his siblings’ skin color.

AMOAKO BOAFO: You know, dark… dark helps with light.

NARRATOR: This image of light and joy is important for Boafo.

AMOAKO BOAFO: I have done a lot of paintings on my struggle. But then I had to change that for myself. I wanted to make my paintings the way I want people to see me, you know, I just wanted to show Blackness in a different way. Why can I not be Black and be happy?

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: Happy Siblings, 2019, Amoako Boafo, oil on canvas, 63 x 63 in., Jesse Williams Collection.

In Boafo’s Words: Steven Onoja

This 2018 portrait is of Steven Onoja, a well-known contemporary photographer and close friend to Amoako Boafo. Although Onoja typically finds himself behind the camera, Boafo asked the Nigerian photographer to take a chance in front of his canvas and allow him to paint his portrait. The result is an intimate painting that highlights Boafo’s early foray into sculpting the skin of his subjects through finger painting.

From his choice in clothing and facial expression, it’s clear Onoja is well-respected in his industry. This was a deliberate choice by Boafo. In discussing this painting on the seventh stop of the SAM-exclusive smartphone tour of Amoako Boafo: Soul of Black Folks, the artist explains how choices such as these inform the spirit and character of his subjects. Although viewers likely do not know Onoja personally, the way Boafo artistically depicts him gives you insight into the man he is.

Learn more about Boafo’s intentional artistic choices by exploring all nine stops of the exhibition’s audio tour on our SoundCloud. If you’re in SAM’s galleries, use your phone to scan the QR code accompanying select works to be routed to the adjoining recording. Soul of Black Folks closes in just a few weeks at SAM—get your tickets to see the exhibition before it closes on Sunday, September 10!

Steven Onoja, 2018

AMOAKO BOAFO: Steven is a photographer that I know. I like the kind of pictures that he takes; the way he poses; and just the way he carries himself; and I wanted to just capture that.

NARRATOR: As so often in Boafo’s work, fashion plays an important role.

AMOAKO BOAFO: Now you don’t know Steven, but in just the way he’s dressed, you can already sense who he is; and for me, fashion… it gives you a bit of the person and their character and their image and their spirit without you… or without them saying anything.

NARRATOR: The painting dates from 2018 and it gives an insight into Boafo’s evolving practice.

AMOAKO BOAFO: You can see clearly like this is an old painting, or early stages of me developing my language with my finger painting and my color palette, and you can tell this is all flat tones with just the face as the busy space.

NARRATOR: The flatness of the painted surface, together with the simplified forms, allow Boafo to incorporate abstraction into his art.

AMOAKO BOAFO: Figuration can also be abstraction in a way. You can see this is clearly a figure. But then you cannot really tell how the jacket is worn. You cannot tell from where the trousers and the arm of the jacket meets. I mean, I like the idea of painting figures and portrait because it tells a certain story that I like and I want to explore in that area, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have or add a bit of abstraction to my work as well.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: Steven Onoja, 2018, Amoako Boafo, oil on canvas, 63 x 55 in., Courtesy of Derek Forjour Collection, New York City.

In Boafo’s Words: Red Collar

When first looking at Amoako Boafo’s 2021 portrait, Red Collar, viewers can’t help be drawn to the striking multicolored dress that dominates the center of the painting. It comes as a surprise to many when they eventually realize that the artwork draws its title not from the striped dress, but rather from the dog’s small red collar.

On this sixth stop of the SAM-exclusive audio tour of Amoako Boafo: Soul of Black Folks, the artist explains how the painting’s striped dress came to be. Although he originally planned to adorn the subject’s dress in an intricate pattern using his paper transfer technique, his decision to use of gesso—a thin, white paint often applied to surfaces such as wood panels or canvas to allow for a smoother surface—to prep the canvas, made a paper transfer impossible. Finger painting a design on the dress was also not an option, the artist explains in the recording, because he reserves this technique for the exposed body. In the end, he decided to use a paintbrush to create the dress’s stripes.

Hear more from Boafo by exploring all nine stops of the free smartphone tour of Soul of Black Folks at SAM on our SoundCloud. Or, if you’re in the galleries, scan the QR code accompanying each work to be routed to the adjoining recording.

Red Collar, 2021

NARRATOR: The two women, with their dog, are friends of the artist in Ghana. But he painted the portrait in California. A striking feature of the painting is the boldly striped dress. In fact, this design was not Boafo’s original intention. In Los Angeles, he was working with a different canvas surface, which he had prepared using gesso.

AMOAKO BOAFO: So gesso is another layer that’s used to prepare canvas, and I like to do that because when I gesso the canvas and it dry, I sandpaper it, and it gives me a smooth surface for me to be able to move my fingers when I’m painting because when it’s rough, my fingertips hurts a little bit.

NARRATOR: Initially, Boafo had planned to create a pattern using the paper transfer technique he describes in Stop 3, The Menu.

AMOAKO BOAFO: I wanted to do a transfer print, but then with the gesso on that canvas, the print could not hold, and so I had to find different ways to resolve, and that’s how I got to the pattern that she was wearing.

NARRATOR: Boafo created the stripes using a brush. As usual, finger painting is reserved for the skin and body of his characters.

AMOAKO BOAFO: The exposed body—like face, arm, and hair—those are the only spaces that I use my finger. Anything outside that, the painting of the dog, the clothes, the background, everything else is done with a brush.

NARRATOR: For Boafo, this distinction creates a particular intimacy with the characters.

AMOAKO BOAFO: Not that when I paint with a brush it’s not good or I don’t like it, but there’s a different kind of joy and happiness in being able to, like, touch a mood and move things around to form something. There’s a different feeling with that.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: Red Collar, 2021, Amoako Boafo, oil on canvas, 84 x 108 in., The Hornik Collection.

In Boafo’s Words: Self Portrait – Masked

“I always want people to know that I’m looking. Even when I’m not there, I’m still looking. If you’re looking at my painting, my painting is looking at you, and I’m looking at you.”

– Amoako Boafo

The image of a face mask is now synonymous with the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It comes as no surprise then to learn that Amoako Boako painted Self Portrait – Masked in 2020.

In the fifth stop of the free smartphone tour of Amoako Boafo: Soul of Black Folks at SAM, the artist discusses the evolution of his artistic process while in lockdown in Ghana. Although the mask covers the majority of his face, the artist still finds beauty in his intricately patterned mask and direct gaze. Taken as a whole, this image demonstrates how communication continues despite lacking most facial features.

Explore all nine stops in the exhibition’s audio tour now on our SoundCloud or scan the QR code accompanying any work to tune in while exploring SAM’s galleries. The exhibition closes in less than one month—reserve your tickets to see it before it closes on Sunday, September 10!

Self Portrait – Masked, 2020

NARRATOR: Self-Portrait – Masked, dates from 2020. Boafo was in Ghana when COVID struck. This shaped his experience of the lockdown: for most people he knew, staying home was just not an option.

AMOAKO BOAFO: I mean, it was a different case there because almost everybody, I mean the larger population, the work they do is hand to mouth, which means if you don’t go to work in the next day or two days, you might not have anything to eat.

So, I did not have the sense of just staying home and just staying in and not doing anything. You know, I was out there trying to support as much as I could.

NARRATOR: Wearing a mask is linked in our minds with the horrors of COVID. But Boafo’s mask is not just about protection from disease: it is covered with his distinctive patterning.

AMOAKO BOAFO: We all know—when COVID happened—we all know what it did and the impact it had. There wasn’t anything beautiful about it. But I needed to make the painting in a way that it still would be beautiful for you to look at.

NARRATOR: Above the mask, Boafo’s eyes meet ours directly.

AMOAKO BOAFO: Well, I always want people to know that I’m looking. Even when I’m not there, I’m still looking. If you’re looking at my painting, my painting is looking at you, and I’m looking at you.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Photo: Installation view of Amoako Boafo: Soul of Black Folks at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2022, photo: Sean Fleming.

In Boafo’s Words: Jean Jacques Ndjoli

Before entering the galleries of Amoako Boafo: Soul of Black Folks at SAM, visitors are greeted by a 2020 portrait of contemporary fashion designer and stylist Jean Jacques Ndjoli. Hanging amidst a wall covered in Boafo’s well-known Monstera plant print, the portrait offers an introduction to the artist’s signature style with its vibrant yellow hues and the apparent use of his distinct finger painting technique.

Learn more about this artwork and eight more of Boafo’s portraits by tuning in to our free smartphone tour of the exhibition on our SoundCloud. Or, if you’re in the galleries, scan the QR code accompanying each work to be directed to the relevant stop on the tour. The exhibition closes Sunday, September 10—get your tickets to see it before it’s gone!

Jean Jacques Ndjoli, 2020

AMOAKO BOAFO: This is a painting I did in LA [where] it’s sunny all the time. You know, you are guaranteed to get your fresh pressed orange juice.

NARRATOR: To capture that mood, the artist focuses on one color.

AMOAKO BOAFO: You have three shades of yellow. So, the overall pullover is the cadmium yellow hue, and then the background, I tinted it with white, and then I added a bit of brown to the yellow hue to have that inner pullover.

NARRATOR: Boafo is a figurative painter. In other words, he paints recognizable figures and objects. But this image goes beyond straightforward representation. The flat, simplified forms of the hooded pullover become abstract areas of color.

They also create a strong visual tension with the thickly finger-painted skin of the face.

AMOAKO BOAFO: I think of colors that, you know, just highlight the face and the figure.

NARRATOR: The important thing for Boafo is to elevate and celebrate his characters.

AMOAKO BOAFO: I consciously think about how to elevate the characters and place element or colors that only elevates them or complement them and not compete and take away from them.

I think the thing with celebration is that we don’t do it that often, and I think it would be good that we celebrate others more often: for people to know that we see what they are doing, and they are appreciated and noticed for what they are doing.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: Jean Jacques Ndjoli, 2020, Amoako Boafo, oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in., Collection of Josef Vascovitz and Lisa Goodman, courtesy of Roberts Projects, Los Angeles.

In Boafo’s Words: Introducing Soul of Black Folks

“I like people to be with me through the journey of making [a] painting, even though they’re not in the studio space. I want people to come to the show and feel like they made the paintings with me…”

– Amoako Boafo

Amoako Boafo: Soul of Black Folks is now on view at SAM! As part of the contemporary Ghanaian artist’s Pacific Northwest solo debut, we developed an audio tour of additional artistic insight. Featuring interviews with Boafo and exhibition curator Larry Ossei-Mensah, the tour highlights eight of the artist’s portraits created between 2016 and 2022 and is exclusive to Seattle audiences.

The tour kicks off with a brief introduction to the exhibition and Boafo’s artistic process. This stop includes a discussion of the exhibition’s title—drawing its inspiration from W.E.B. Du Bois’s seminal 1903 ethnographic study The Souls of Black Folk—and the artist’s distinct finger painting technique used to sculpt the skin of his subjects. The recording concludes with Boafo explaining what he hopes Seattle visitors will take away from experiencing his artwork.

Explore all nine stops of our smartphone tour in SAM’s galleries by scanning the QR code accompanying each of the featured works on view or listen to it on your own time on our SoundCloud. Get your tickets to see the exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum through Sunday, September 10!

Soul of Black Folks: Introduction

NARRATOR: Welcome to the Seattle Art Museum and to Amoako Boafo: Soul of Black Folks. This is the first solo museum exhibition in the United States for Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo. The show brings together over 30 works created between 2016 and 2022. It has been guest curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah.

The title of the exhibition is inspired by the seminal ethnographic study, The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. Du Bois, dating from 1903. The book was an assessment of Black life at the turn of the 20th century. Boafo’s work offers a visual equivalent for our times: it can be seen as an exploration of Black life in all its breadth of experience and emotion. The exhibition is a celebration of the humanity of Black people in 2023.

Boafo’s paintings combine skillful brushwork with finger-painting: specifically, he uses his fingers to mold and sculpt the bodies of his subjects—subjects that he refers to as ‘characters.’ We’re delighted that Boafo will be joining us throughout the tour, offering insights into his artistic process and inspiration. 

AMOAKO BOAFO: I like people to be with me through the journey of making the painting, even though they’re not in the studio space. I want people to come to the show and feel like they made the paintings with me because there is all the choices of colors and movement that you see, and you feel like you are part of the painting, or you are there when the painting was made.  I want people to have that feeling when they come.  

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Photo: Alborz Kamalizad.

Celebrate Pride with a Mickalene Thomas-Inspired Art Activity

On Saturday, June 3, SAM staff will participate in Seattle Pride in the Park to celebrate the city’s LGBTQIA+ community. This all-ages, family-friendly event features Drag Queen Storytime, youth spaces, lively performances, food trucks, nonprofit booths, queer vendors, and more. We’ll be at Volunteer Park from 12–7 pm to facilitate an art activity and spread the word about our upcoming programs and exhibitions.

As I brainstormed ideas for a fun, engaging, and educational art activity for Pride, one of my personal favorite artists, Mickalene Thomas, came to mind. Thomas’s work embodies the spirit of inclusivity, and her use of bold colors challenge traditional notions of beauty, gender, race, and identity. She is a Black queer contemporary artist that creates colorful and lustrous paintings, collages, photography, videos, and installations and uses materials like paint, pictures, colorful patterns, and rhinestones in her large-scale paintings. In 2018, SAM mounted Figuring History, an exhibition of her work alongside fellow artists Robert Colescott and Kerry James Marshall. Here’s a Seattle Times video interview about the show.

Inspired by Mickalene Thomas’s style, SAM Education staff has crafted Sparkling Icons, an art activity for participants of all ages. Using images of noteworthy LGBTQIA+ artists and activists, visitors will create collages with patterned papers and rhinestones that venerate the beauty and individuality of some of our most beloved legends. We wanted to highlight individuals that have paved the way for social justice and equality and have helped build a supportive community for future generations. 

Art museums, as cultural institutions, have the responsibility to promote inclusivity and highlight the work of artists in a way that provides art historical context but also shares the truth about their lived experiences. By participating in Pride Month, we want to demonstrate that SAM’s museum spaces are ones that are welcoming to queer self-expression and points of view (and not just during June!). Plus, who doesn’t want to come and play with glitter and rhinestones?! Hope to see you up at Volunteer Park on June 3, looking sparkly and iconic! 

Can’t make it to Pride in the Park? Check out the Sparkling Icons art activity and try it on your own time.

– Nicole Henao, SAM Manager of Youth and Family Programs

Photos: Chloe Collyer & Nicole Henao.

Perspectives on American Art: Inye Wokoma on Beauty, Critique, and Personal Revelations

As part of the collaborative process to reimagine its American art galleries, SAM invited Inye Wokoma—artist, filmmaker, journalist, and co-founder of Wa Na Wari in Seattle—to curate Reimagining Regionalism, a gallery that offers a distinctive new interpretation of works from SAM’s collection. Here, he shares about his experience. 

A good friend recently asked about my relationship to SAM prior to embarking on my curation project for American Art: The Stories We Carry. The question took me back to my childhood; some of my earliest memories are of going to the original Volunteer Park location to see vintage cinema with my mother and sister. For years I was infatuated with one film I saw there, Alexander Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit (1951). The final scene is of “the man” running through the streets at night in his luminous “indestructible” suit, pursued by an angry mob of textile workers and factory bosses inflamed by industry captains. His incredible fibers begin to disintegrate in the fracas, and the anger of his pursuers evaporates in the face of his near nakedness. It was an early experience with art that critiqued capitalist oligarchs and complicit proletariats. At seven years old, I was too young to understand its clearly Marxist undertones, but my young imagination was captured by the image of the man, glowing, urgent, and gliding through the dark streets of an English city.

Still from The Man in the White Suit (1951). Courtesy of STUDIOCANAL.

Subconsciously, memories of this film intertwined with my feelings about SAM, regarding it as an institution where provocative art can find a home. And it informed my curatorial approach, which was inspired by its rich interplay of aesthetic beauty, political satire, social commentary, and economic critique.

Inye Wokoma with SAM curators Theresa Papanikolas and Barbara Brotherton in the galleries of American Art: The Stories We Carry at SAM. Photo: Chloe Collyer.

Art helps us acknowledge that no gaze is neutral. My personal and creative lens is shaped by being a Black American man and more specifically a man of dual heritage via my father’s Nigerian origins. Approaching this project, my perception was shaped by the previous galleries’ predominant themes: classical landscapes, portraits of the powerful, fetishized representations of Indigenous people, and objects of conquest. I was called to confront the roles my ancestors played in the histories these works depict without a sense that the curation was a two-way conversation between these realities. With this gallery, I wanted to upend that dynamic while avoiding a flattened protestation of America’s racial and colonial history. I wanted to be able to relay stories through my curation that included these historical truths, but were also personal and therefore infinitely accessible. Hopefully.

– Inye Wokoma, Guest Curator of American Art: The Stories We Carry

A version of this article first appeared in the February through May 2023 edition of SAM Magazine and has since been edited for our online readers. Become a SAM member today to receive our quarterly magazine delivered directly to your mailbox and other exclusive member perks!

Photo: James Harnois.

Object of the Week: ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space

In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will feature artworks from SAM’s collection that explore Black art and artists. Black lives matter every day of the year, but this month is a particular opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments and legacies of Black leaders in civic and cultural life. Exploring and reflecting on the past and present of Black lives is one important way to continue to imagine better futures. Here’s the final of four reflections from four different SAM voices on one artwork and what it means to them.

Black History Month is the perfect time to envision a new world, one that is governed by empathy, equity, and justice.

Through her multi-year project, ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space (2015–16), New York-based artist Saya Woolfalk invites viewers to imagine a new reality. When you step into her virtual utopia, it invokes the spirit of the Empathics, a fictional race of women who can alter their genetic makeup and fuse with plants. Their world centers around the divine feminine, and their superpower is the ability to unite with the plant and animal kingdoms.

Woolfalk’s immersive installation was acquired by the museum in 2017 and is now on view as part of Lessons from The Institute of Empathy. There, her dynamic work is in dialogue with works from the museum’s African art collection, along with thought-provoking “empathy lessons” from the Empathics to guide your experience. Her aesthetic produces a resonance that stirs the soul. The choice of African symbols and rich colors, the incorporation of digital media, and the inclusion of sculptures that resemble spiritual totems create a hypnotic experience that transports audiences into an imaginative world. Deific figures speak to you through the movement of the images in the backdrop, evoking a sense of wonder and awe. The result is that through the exhibition, you also fuse with empathy and sense the etheric euphoria that comes from authentic connection.

Today, the immersive world portrayed in ChimaTEK is more relevant than ever. Society, from farmers to financiers, is being forced to examine business as usual. For example, the concept of regeneration, from regenerative agriculture to regenerative capital, exposes the harmful impacts of creating monocultures, being extractive, and being reductionist (on the soil and on the human soul) and offers a powerful alternative. These new approaches are proving that mimicking the ways of nature—embracing diversity, interdependence, and cooperation—are reversing the climate crisis, restoring plant and animal health, and providing the conditions for abundance, thriving, and flourishing in our businesses, institutions, and relationships.

Lessons from Woolfalk’s Institute of Empathy, like regenerative models, remind us that humanity is a part of nature, not apart from nature. That the result of a true union with nature can produce a sea change: a society where everyone resonates with the frequency of empathy. The Institute reminds us that nature’s language is love.

As Black History Month concludes and we transition from winter to spring, let’s reflect on our collective future and imagine a world governed by indigeneity (the fact of originating or occurring naturally in a particular place). Let’s respond to Woolfalk’s call to action to create a future that is inclusive, just, abundant, and flourishing. Let’s fuse with nature and shape our world, empathetically.

– Falona Joy, President of SNP Strategies, Inc. and SAM Trustee

Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Celebrate Black History Month in Seattle with these suggested events and additional resources.

Art Now on View

Resources

Object of the Week: Forgive Us Our Debts

In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will feature artworks from SAM’s collection that explore Black art and artists. Black lives matter every day of the year, but this month is a particular opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments and legacies of Black leaders in civic and cultural life. Exploring and reflecting on the past and present of Black lives is one important way to continue to imagine better futures. Here’s the third of four reflections from four different SAM voices on one artwork and what it means to them.

Twenty eight days a year isn’t long enough to commemorate hundreds of years of Black history that has shaped the world we live in. The contributions to the United States by Black Americans is everlasting; even the White House was built by Black Americans, free and enslaved. Every February, American institutions pay respects to the brave Black Americans for fighting an almost impossible battle against white supremacy to advocate for the value of Black life. Celebrated are the many contributions that have been made by Black culture: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., jazz music, the invention of peanut butter, and more. Many Black Americans find it is hard not to feel like these recycled acts aren’t performative when ushered right back into that impossible battle on March 1. This anxiety and dissociation is captured so authentically in a short film currently on view in SAM’s galleries through August 6, Howard L. “GATO” Mitchell’s Forgive Us Our Debts (2018).

Based in Portland, Oregon, GATO is an award-winning American director. GATO showcases his unique point of view as an Afro-Panamanian along with the tangible and intangible intricacies of his identity in his artwork. His universal theme is to depict what isn’t seen. GATO’s multi-disciplinary talents in painting and filmmaking make his work a full sensory experience. This 15-minute narrative film is about a young Black 13-year-old boy named Trey, who is struggling to make sense of the hate he was born into. Riddled with stress and anxiety, the almost disorienting video truly captures the chaos of being a Black person in America living in poverty. Between tender family dynamics and unsettling visuals, Mitchell gives viewers a sense of the helplessness that is left behind from the impact of racism.

Every day, Black people fight to live peacefully and prosper. As a teenager, Trey is learning how to become a man from his father, who teaches him how to be tough through the power of his fist. With generational trauma instead of generational wealth as a legacy, Trey’s coming of age is complex. A good education, livable income, providing for your family, and pursuing your dreams: none of these are presented options as for Trey. Being a young teen, it’s heartbreaking for Trey to accept these harsh truths, when he would likely prefer to live as the average American teen as portrayed in the media: discovering themselves, having fun, and getting a good education.

Society is telling Trey that he’ll always be seen as a criminal without resources or opportunities for a better life. He is forced to carry burdens passed down hundreds of years that cause him to grow up disadvantaged and affect his mental health negatively. Yet he also has to reconcile his love for his family and the hope they instill in him to live better than them. The familial responsibility along with the current and constant visualization of Black boys and men being murdered by police doesn’t allow Trey to stay in the naiveté of adolescence. There isn’t much difference from Trey and Trayvon Martin, and the film makes that clear in the shot of an officer with a “G. Zimmerman” name tag.

Racial tensions and inflation have increased tremendously over the past few years. With so many outlets and resources of information, America is more divided than ever on how to improve the quality of life for its citizens. Black Americans, and especially Black Americans living in poverty, are still having to overcome institutional racism while overt racism is on the rise. Many white Americans will denounce racism and claim allyship. Having liberal beliefs, online activism, and celebrating Black History Month, while commendable, isn’t enough. Young Black children similar to Trey continuously live in that perplexing reality regardless if people decide to vote blue or red. What can be done to help Black citizens all year?

Forgive Us Our Debts can be seen as a call to action for non-Black Americans to get involved in Black disenfranchised communities and organizations, whether it be volunteering, teaching a free class, or helping a local community center. It’s key to think about what Black history means and what can be done all twelve months of the year. Black Americans have to think about it every day, whether they want to or not.

– Karly Norment Meneses, SAM Marketing Coordinator

Photos: Forgive Us Our Debts, 2018, Howard L. Gato Mitchell, American, digital video, 15 minutes, Courtesy of the artist.

Celebrate Black History Month in Seattle with these suggested events and additional resources.

Art Now on View

Resources

Object of the Week: Untitled Anxious Bruise Drawing

In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will feature artworks from SAM’s collection that explore Black art and artists. Black lives matter every day of the year, but this month is a particular opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments and legacies of Black leaders in civic and cultural life. Exploring and reflecting on the past and present of Black lives is one important way to continue to imagine better futures. Here’s the second of four reflections from four different SAM voices on one artwork and what it means to them.

There are images that have become synonymous with the pandemic years: boarded shop windows, deserted streets, protests, and tear gas, to name a few. Seattle was a center for it all, and there remain some remnants of that turbulent first year of the pandemic around the city. Still, we possess a collective anxiety. We have bruises on our hearts and souls from the images of violence and injustice; The feeling of powerlessness that came from being trapped inside and glued to our screens. It wasn’t safe to go out, but inside was a cycle of mania. 

These feelings are aggressively and powerfully rendered in Untitled Anxious Bruise Drawing (2021) by Chicago-based artist Rashid Johnson (b. 1977). He portrays the anguish, frantic energy, and damage of the upheavals of 2020 with sustained, forceful brush strokes until the paint thins to a faint wisp. A series of boxes with confused, startled eyes. Mouths blurred in motion. Oscillating from dense to light, black and blue. The unraveling chaos is contained by rough edges, where strokes of paint find their way out of bounds. With the same curatorial intent of modern media, we’re viewing a selection of the multitude of blue cells. All wavering, unnerved, and anxious. There’s more beyond what we see; truths we have yet to acknowledge. 

The unjust experiences of Black people in America continues to be a bruise on the national consciousness. It’s often difficult to talk about or relate to, although art can provide a conduit. With Untitled Anxious Bruise Drawing, there’s a possibility of relation, of realization, and even relearning. Johnson boldly carries the torch proclaiming that the arts have a role to play in confronting the past for a better future.

Acquired for the museum’s collection in 2022, Untitled Anxious Bruise Drawing is now on view as part of Reverberations: Contemporary Art and Modern Classics, which explores the idea of artistic exchange across generations.

– Jason Nail, SAM Visitor Experience Lead

Photo: Scott Leen.

Celebrate Black History Month in Seattle with these suggested events and additional resources.

Art Now on View

Events and Resources

SAM’s Teen Arts Group Meets Artist Dawoud Bey

On a fall day last November, 16 members of SAM’s Teen Arts Group (TAG) gathered around the craft tables of the museum’s Nordstrom Art Studio. Today, instead of making art, they’d be talking art with one of the most significant artists working today, Dawoud Bey.

Bey had traveled to Seattle for SAM’s presentation of Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: In Dialogue, an exhibition that brings together the work of the two friends and mutual inspirations for the first time. Bey would be giving a public talk that evening, but during the day, he generously met with these future artists and leaders.

Founded in 2007, TAG is an intensive program for high school-aged youth who are interested in learning about themselves and the world through art. The program cultivates the voice and leadership of diverse young people who share their passion for the power of art to build community. The group comes together in weekly meetings from October to May, learning about the behind-the-scenes work of the museum, making art, and leading tours. Their work culminates in Teen Night Out, a free teens-only event held in May with DJs, live music performances, art tours, workshops, and art-making activities.

Bey talked with the teens about his relationship with art and photography when he was their age and how his passion for music as a young man influenced the way he would make art more than 30 years later. Artists in their own right, TAG members were eager to learn about Bey’s thought process as he positioned a model for his portraits. He revealed that he only ever accentuated a pose or gesture the person was already doing naturally. Bey illustrated the point with program intern Karla Pastrana, encouraging her to bring her relaxed arm more forward for the sake of the shot.

Left to Right: Lila, Sreshta, Cris, Kaz, Faith, Charlotte, Gwyneth, Dawoud Bey, Ronan, Mori, Corrina, Nivedita, Smriti, and Lylah.

Here are some reflections from various TAG members on the experience of meeting Dawoud Bey:

“It was an amazing opportunity to meet an artist like Dawoud Bey in person. It was really cool to get to hear about his story, creative process, and inspirations. I’m personally interested in the arts and museum industry myself so his advice was really insightful and inspiring.”

– Charlotte, 16

“My first impression was that he was a very thoughtful person. He took his time when he sought to communicate something, and did so with purpose. That careful observance was weaved into each of his photographs.”

– Sreshta, 17

“Meeting Dawoud Bey was inspiring for me because we had the opportunity to ask about his life and artistic process. I thought it was interesting to hear about what he was doing when he was a teenager and how he got into the art world by getting his first camera when he was a teen. Getting to talk to an artist like Dawoud Bey, who is so amazing and accomplished, is really incredible because it’s really easy to idolize artists, which they should be, but it’s important to remember that they are people and they started as teens just like us.”

– Lila, 15

Hot tip: Want to join TAG? Applications to join the 2023–24 TAG cohort will be available in spring 2023. Follow @samteens on Instagram for the latest updates!

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Photo Credit: Alborz Kamalizad.

Dawoud Bey: Photography that Keeps History Alive

The lens can be used all kinds of ways… Not just affirm or confirm the thing in front of the camera, but for my purposes, to actually reshape it in a subjective way.

– Dawoud Bey

How can photography be used to amplify Black voices in America? To commemorate the opening of Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: In Dialogue at SAM, we sat down with renowned American photographer Dawoud Bey to ask this question, talk about his friendship with Carrie Mae Weems, and discuss the significance of showing their photographs in conversation. Watch the video now to hear Bey reflect on what it means to break artistic hierarchies, bring history into our modern era, and tell the complex and powerful stories of Black Americans through a single frame. Don’t miss your chance to experience this limited-run exhibition at SAM before it closes on January 22—get your tickets before it’s too late!

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image Credits: Image Credits: “The Birmingham Project: Imani Richardson and Carolyn Mickel,” 2012, Dawoud Bey, American, b. 1953, archival pigment prints mounted to dibond, 41 x 65 ½ inches (two separate 40 x 32 inch photographs), © Dawoud Bey, Courtesy of Rennie Collection, Vancouver. “The Birmingham Project: Timothy Huffman and Ira Sims,” 2012, Dawoud Bey, American, b. 1953, archival pigment prints mounted to dibond, 41 x 65 1/2 inches (two separate 40 x 32 inch photographs), © Dawoud Bey, Courtesy of Rennie Collection, Vancouver. “Girls, Ornaments, and Vacant Lot, Harlem, NY,” from the series “Harlem Redux,” 2016, Dawoud Bey, American, b. 1953, archival pigment print, 40 x 48 inches, © Dawoud Bey, Courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery. “Two Women at a Parade,” 1978, printed by 1979, Dawoud Bey, American, b. 1953, gelatin silver print, 16 5/8 x 20 5/8 inches, © Dawoud Bey, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Museum Purchase, 2018.21. “Man on the B26 Bus, New York, NY,” 1986, Dawoud Bey, American, b. 1953, gelatin silver print, 20 x 24 inches, © Dawoud Bey, Courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery. “Young Man with his Hairbrush, Rochester, NY,” 1989, Dawoud Bey, American, born 1953, gelatin silver print, 30 5/16 x 25 5/16 inches, © Dawoud Bey, Courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery. “Young Man at a Tent Revival, Brooklyn, NY,” 1989, Dawoud Bey, American, born 1953, gelatin silver print, 30 5/16 x 25 5/16 inches, © Dawoud Bey, Courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery. “Young Girl Striking a Pose, Brooklyn, NY,” 1988, Dawoud Bey, American, b. 1953, gelatin silver print, 24 x 20 inches, © Dawoud Bey, Courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery. “Peg’s Grandson,” Brooklyn, NY, 1988, Dawoud Bey, American, b. 1953, gelatin silver print, 20 x 24 inches, © Dawoud Bey, Courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery.

#SAMSnippets: Lauren Halsey

In celebration of Black History Month this February, we gave our Instagram followers an up-close look at artworks in Lauren Halsey, on view at our downtown location through July 17. Check back next month, as we choose a new SAM gallery to walk through as part of our live #SAMSnippets series and appreciate art from any location!

Highly attuned to growing gentrification in her neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles, 2021 Gwendolyn Knight | Jacob Lawrence Award winner Lauren Halsey, who studied architecture and art, celebrates Black culture by making space for representations of the people and places around her as a method of creative resistance. In her installation at SAM, the artist shows works in which proud declarations of Black-owned businesses intermingle with images of Egyptian pyramids, the Sphinx, pharaohs, and queens, all drawn from a personal archive Halsey has developed through research and community interactions.

Photo: Natali Wiseman.

The tour begins with a look at four carved gypsum relief panels which line the perimeter of the gallery. These four works—all untitled and created between 2019 and 2022—are reminiscent of temple walls. Each of these panels features fictional advertisements for local Black-owned businesses in South Central Los Angeles.

The final work shown in the video acts as the centerpiece to the gallery. This large-scale sculpture of colorful boxes stacked atop one another represent the metaphorical building blocks for future architecture while resonating with imagery from the past.

Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Through her archive and daily life, Halsey strives to record the unique expressions of her neighborhood before the forces of capital erase them. Placing these hyperlocal portraits, signs, and imagery in the context of real and imagined histories, the artist remixes ancient and contemporary cultures into a unifying vision.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Video Artworks: Untitled, 2020, Lauren Halsey, born 1987, hand-carved gypsum on wood, 48 x 48 x 2 7/8 in., © Lauren Halsey, Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Untitled, 2019, Lauren Halsey, born 1987, hand-carved gypsum on wood, 48 x 48 x 2 7/8 in., © Lauren Halsey, Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Untitled, 2020, Lauren Halsey, born 1987, hand-carved gypsum on wood, 95 1/4 x 71 3/4 x 3 in., © Lauren Halsey, Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.
Untitled, 2022, Lauren Halsey, born 1987, hand-carved gypsum on wood, 48 x 48 x 2 7/8 in., © Lauren Halsey, Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. We Are Still Here, 2021, Lauren Halsey, American, born 1987, acrylic, enamel, metallic leaf, and CDs on Gator Board and wood, 108 × 103 × 41 1/4 in., © Lauren Halsey, Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Object of the Week: The Studio

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

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

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

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

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

– Kari Karsten, SAM Emerging Museum Professional Curatorial Intern


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

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

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