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.

Muse/News: Ceramics Competition, Black History, and Ai’s Memory

SAM News

“Celebrates everything that goes into the work of the performance artist”: For Observer, Dan Duray features Anida Yoeu Ali: Hybrid Skin, Mythical Presence, now on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

On Seattle Met’s list of “Things to Do in Seattle”: Last week’s Saturday University on February 10, which features a lecture and performance exploring the transmission of spiritual knowledge, or ilmu, in East Javanese performing arts.  

Local News

Seattle Refined interviews Aaron Murray for their “artist of the week” series. You can see some of his clay creations at SAM Shop. 

“Otherworldly landscapes and an upside-down volcano”: Another excellent round-up of arts happenings from Crosscut’s Brangien Davis. 

Thanks to Jas Keimig for this “Event Guide to Black History Month 2024” from South Seattle Emerald. Mark your calendars!

“It’s February, which means it’s time to highlight and uplift the rich history, culture, and traditions of Black people in the United States. We even have one extra day this year (Feb. 29, it’s a Leap Year!), which means you have ample time to make your plans…”

Inter/National News

Karen Ho for ARTnews reports on the arrival of “The Great Canadian Pottery Throw Down,” a new reality competition television show for ceramics on CBC guest-judged by actor Seth Rogen. The article mentions another judge, ceramicist Brendan Tang, whose work is in SAM’s collection and on view now in Chronicles of a Global East.

Via Min Chen for Artnet: “Airplane Mode: 7 Artists Who Were Nerds for Aviation.” Yep, Alexander Calder is on the list for his moving sculpture at JFK Airport and his designs for jets.

Jonathan Landreth for the New York Times interviews Ai Weiwei about Zodiac, the artist’s new “graphic memoir.” 

“The idea was to gather things from my memory, like a timeline, and offer mystical stories from China’s past. I explained it as a mix of memory and mythology.”

And Finally

Let’s “watch this” again.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Photo: Jo Cosme.

Muse/News: In-Between, Music Hook, and New Supper

SAM News

Anida Yoeu Ali: Hybrid Skin, Mythical Presence is wowing visitors to the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Crosscut’s Brangien Davis features the exhibition in her ArtSEA post. And don’t miss Annie Atherton’s interview with Ali for Seattle Magazine, in which they discuss nuances of identity and the role of humor of absurdity in her work. 

“We’re told that fragmentation is having to split our Asian-ness or our American-ness, our bicultural identities—that we have to become more whole. What I’m teasing out is what I call the diasporic dilemma. What I’ve figured out for myself, is that the in-between space, working in fragmentation is how I’m whole.”

The Seattle Times’ Margo Vansynghel reports on new NAGPRA regulations that require institutions to conduct more consultations with Native tribes before exhibiting or researching Native cultural objects. At SAM, five objects in the Native American galleries have been taken off view and information has been posted in the galleries to encourage dialogue on this important process.

“For now, SAM says it is committed to working with tribes in reviewing its collection. This process is to ensure the institution is in compliance with the new law, a spokesperson said, as well as the museum’s own policies around ethical collecting and display and its goal of strengthening its relationships with Indigenous communities and other ‘communities of origin.’”

Local News

Crosscut’s Brangien Davis also gathered up recommendations for Black History Month.

“How Did January Become Summer Camp Season?” asks Seattle Met’s Allecia Vermillion. Hot tip! SAM Camp registration opens on February 16 at 5 pm. 

Rachel Gallaher for Seattle Magazine on how Totem Star, a non-profit music organization for youth, is filling up its new location in STATION SPACE at King Street Station.

“‘Music is the hook,’ [Totem co-founder Daniel] Pak says. ‘It’s what you see. It’s what we do. But Totem Star is also a place for our artists to find who they are. We’re creating a safe space for people to be loved, build community, and find each other. We want to help these young people grow into the best versions of themselves.’”

Inter/National News

Via Maximilíano Durón for ARTnews: “Ruth Asawa’s Life as an Aspiring Artist Gets the Graphic Novel Treatment.”

Walker Mimms for Hyperallergic on a “fluent and accessible new book” that explores the pivotal court case when artist James Whistler sued critic John Ruskin

BRB, buying a ticket to London. Jo Lawson-Tancred for Artnet on “How Tavares Strachan Reimagined Leonardo’s Last Supper.”

“Inspired by one of art history’s best known paintings, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (ca. 1495–98), the mammoth bronze sculpture imagines a convivial gathering between notable historical figures from Africa and its Diaspora who, in reality, never met because they were separated by time and place.”

And Finally

“Chihuahua named WA’s top dog breed.”

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Photo: Alborz Kamalizad.

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

Muse/News: Black Art, Cinerama’s Fate, and Corecore Explained

SAM News

“Explore Black art and history through these 7 Seattle arts outings”: Jerald Pierce of the Seattle Times on the many exhibitions to see during Black History Month (and beyond!). He recommends Howard L. GATO Mitchell: Forgive Us Our Debts, a narrative short film on gentrification and police violence by the Portland-based artist, opening at SAM this week.

“Through the use of atmospheric effects, GATO brings viewers inside the family’s home, reminding viewers of the deeply personal fallout that comes with the displacement of families.”

It feels like February, but trust us, summer is right around the corner! Tinybeans rounded up all the best Seattle summer camps for kids to plan for now, including SAM Camp at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Registration opens February 15!

Seattle makes the cut for MSN Travel’s feature on the “10 Best Budget-Friendly Destinations in the United States for 2023.” They include a hot tip about SAM’s free admission on First Thursdays; get familiar with all the free and discounted admission deals at SAM.

Local News

The Stranger’s Jas Keimig visits Interstitial Volume, Henry Jackson-Spieker’s in-progress show at MadArt that “explores the knotty tension of being a body.”

“Walk a Mile (or Twelve) In the Shoes of Ciscoe Morris and Tariqa Waters”: For Seattle Magazine, Annie Midori Atherton shares tips from the gardener and the gallerist on navigating the Seattle gray. 

“3 years after Cinerama closed, we’re still waiting to hear its fate”: The Seattle Times’ Moira Macdonald with a no-new-news update on the beloved theater. 

“But right now, a building where magic once took place is gathering dust. Maybe something’s in the works; maybe we’ll hear something soon; maybe that diamond-bright screen will light up again. In the meantime, we and Cinerama wait, and remember.”

Inter/National News

Blake Gopnik for the New York Times on Hopper’s hat, Kusama’s dots, and other ways we don the personas of our favorite artists.

ARTnews’ Francesca Aton reports on the devastation left behind by the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, with over 1,200 deaths reported and numerous heritage sites destroyed.

Min Chen for Artnet on “corecore,” the “Dada-esque ‘Artistic Movement’ Now Trending on TikTok.”

“Its content is chaotic and absurd, but in the view of creators like Aamir, it’s this Dada-esque nature—making sense out of the nonsense of being online—that levels up the genre. ‘What does art do,’ he said, ‘if not attach meaning to the meaningless and arbitrary experiences we have as humans.’”

And Finally

Taco Time NW fans, stand up.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

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

Object of the Week: Hair Portrait #20

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 first of four reflections from four different SAM voices on one artwork and what it means to them.

In January of 2016, I began working at the Seattle Art Museum. It was like going to a new school—I felt ready with an open heart, looking to shake up my norm, help me step out of my comfort zone, and provide me with something that I didn’t know how to express with words quite yet. After 16 years of working at the University of Washington, I left the stability of what had become a predictable world and delved right in. Part of this terrifying new world that I was immediately immersed in included giving a public tour for Free First Thursday, talking about artworks in our collection that I loved and connecting them to my life. My background was in communications and American Ethnic Studies, and so art was something I knew and loved, but not from an academic perspective. It seemed like everyone at SAM knew so much more than me, but I have always tried to lead with authenticity and leaned on that to guide me.  

Priya Frank leading a My Favorite Things tour during Free First Thursday at SAM in 2016.

The artwork I knew I wanted to end the tour with that night was my favorite in our collection: Hair Portrait #20 by Mickalene Thomas. The beautiful Swarovski crystals, the powerful face depicted over and over again, the magnitude of its size… all of those things drew me. I wore a sequined top so I could match. The piece stood out. It was so much different from everything else I saw at SAM and so different from all the neighboring art in that gallery. It felt… like me at that time. I felt so out of place, with such a different perspective and aesthetic from everyone else. But I kept remembering that that was why I was hired: to beat to my own drum and do things the way I do them. Hair Portrait #20 brought me comfort, and it reminded me that it was okay to do things differently, to stand out unapologetically and shine brightly, as a beacon of hope, light, and realness.

Thomas’s work continued to come back to me over the years, reminding me of the valuable lesson that MORE is MORE and not to be less in order to make others more comfortable. In 2018, the museum presented Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, exploring the work of these three pivotal Black artists. By then I was feeling more comfortable at SAM, and it helped that I had my colleague David Rue, who had become my SAM soulmate. He and I started working at SAM the very same day, and we had a similar love for all things bright, extravagant, beautiful, and authentic. David helped me feel so much more comfortable in my skin, and when Figuring History opened, it meant so much to both of us. We brought everyone we knew and created programming and partnerships that are still talked about in our community today. We reveled in the glory of Thomas’s muse, Racquel Chevremont, and dreamed of what it might be like to be someone’s muse (David has since pretty much become EVERYONE’s muse so there’s that!).

Priya Frank and David Rue pose in Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas at SAM (2018). Photo: Natali Wiseman.

After years of working from home, I recently made the commitment to spend more time in SAM’s galleries in order to inspire my own creative practice, which is a big focus for me this year. And lo and behold, I ran into an old friend: Hair Portrait #20, back on view again as part of a reinstallation in the modern and contemporary galleries called Reverberations. Immediately, I broke out into the biggest smile, thinking of all of the times that that piece made David and I feel like we were home. There she was: a continued beacon of hope. These last seven years have been the best of my life, and I continue to live unapologetically, unwilling to take shit, and more willing to shine bright like the Swarovski crystals that Thomas interweaves into this room-filling artwork. Getting to see a whole new generation of folx also experience the piece for the first time is the greatest joy. A few weeks ago, the UW Sisterhood Initiative came for a visit, and there was a gorgeous impromptu photoshoot in front of that pivotal piece. The mission of SAM is to connect art to life, and this piece provides exactly that: an opportunity to feel seen, and not just tolerated but acknowledged, celebrated, and seen. Unapologetically.

Same top, different era: Priya in 2023 with the same sequined tank from the 2016 My Favorite Things tour, displaying her own body art creation.

– Priya Frank, SAM Director of Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion

Photo: Jen Au.

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

Art Now on View

Events and Resources

#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.

Object of the Week: Me and Pops

 An artist whose work defies easy definition, Aaron Fowler’s “memoiristic, maximalist bricolage” sculptures are comprised of carefully sourced found materials and second-hand objects that have the “feel of human in them.”1 Taking compositional cues from American history painting, religious iconography, and family lore, Fowler’s work includes both imagined narratives and real stories from his own experiences as well as those of his friends and family.

Me and Pops—included in the artist’s 2020 solo exhibition at SAM, titled Aaron Fowler: Into Existence—depicts the artist in the foreground, ironing used clothing that will later be incorporated into a sculpture. He works alongside his father, a relationship that he hoped to continue building. The background includes references to other works (then in-progress) that were also included in his SAM exhibition—a nod to moments in the past as well as hopes for the future—while the canopy structure overhead refers to a shared dream with his father to build a home on their own land. Fowler describes his mirrored self-portrait as a means by which others can see themselves within the personal dreams he is relaying, lending them a more universal message: “I’m having these experiences to share with others…So whether it’s good, bad or ugly—I feel these experiences I’m having are not just for myself.”

A sense of optimism, ambition, and aspiration underscore Fowler’s practice. Me and Pops, like so many of his works, depicts a poignant subject and action that the artist wished to manifest, borrowing from the words of encouragement spoken by his grandmother: “you need to speak it into existence.”

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


1 Press Release, “Aaron Fowler: Exceedingly and Abundantly Blessed,” François Ghebaly, http://ghebaly.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/2018Fowler_PR.pdf.

Image: Me and Pops, 2019, Aaron Fowler, Mixed media, 97 × 74 × 6 1/2 in., General Acquisition Fund, 2020.25, ©️ Artist or Artist’s Estate.

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

Muse/News: SAM Prepares to Reopen, Local Jazz Struggles, and New Museum’s New Show

SAM News

The downtown Seattle Art Museum reopens to the general public on March 5, just in time for the opening of the special exhibition, Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle. The Seattle Medium shares the news

Crosscut’s Margo Vansynghel previews five shows to see now that museums are reopening, including Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence, the beloved artist’s first solo exhibition at SAM. And in her ArtSea weekly newsletter, Brangien Davis spotlights The American Struggle and Lawrence’s “fiery, vigorous and engrossing paintings.”

More SAM stories: Alison Sutcliffe of Red Tricycle shares “13 Places to Learn About Black History in Seattle,” including SAM; Interior Design Magazine posts about Barbara Earl Thomas’s show at SAM; and Gemma Alexander of the Seattle Times highlights “kid-friendly venues” reopening, including SAM (and the always-open outdoor spaces of the Olympic Sculpture Park). 

Remember the snow days? (All two of ‘em?) The Stranger’s Charles Mudede had the wonderful idea to spend it with John Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History, which is streaming on the Criterson Channel as part of its Afrofuturism collection.

ICYMI: On February 11, SAM hosted a virtual event with artist Saya Woolfalk and SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art Pam McClusky on the SAM installation Lessons from the Institute of Empathy. Victor Simoes of UW’s The Daily shares a recap of the conversation.

Local News

The executive director of the nonprofit writers organization Hugo House has resigned, reports the Seattle Times, amid calls for change and racial equity. 

“Tariqa Waters and Anthony White Win the 2020 Neddy Awards,” reports Jasmyne Keimig of the Stranger. You’ll be able to see their work, along with the runners-up, in a Neddy exhibition opening in March at the University of Washington’s Jacob Lawrence Gallery.

Glenn Nelson with an opinion piece for the South Seattle Emerald on “why local jazz must survive.”

“The pandemic has laid bare and amplified the issues that have eaten away at jazz far before the novel coronavirus’ first sour note. Those challenges include a daunting and shifting economic model, widespread lack of understanding among Americans about one of their few truly indigenous art forms, and underlying causes steeped, unsurprisingly, in race.”

Inter/National News

The New York Times reports that the president of Newfields, home to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, has resigned, after the organization posted a job posting for a new director that would  attract a more diverse audience while maintaining its “traditional, core, white art audience.”

Artsy interviews Bryan Stevenson about the Equal Justice Initiative and its National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery.

Artnet’s Brian Boucher on the New Museum’s new exhibition, Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, one of the final projects of curator Okwui Enwezor. A high-profile group of artists, curators, and scholars came together to achieve his vision.

“‘Okwui’s framing of the project takes the idea of a political crime and transfers it to the register of psychological impact,’ said curator Naomi Beckwith, who worked on the show, in a Zoom conversation with Artnet News. ‘The show’s title alludes not to a historic event, but rather to a state of being.’”

And Finally

“With Tears in my Eyes, I’m Asking You to Act.”

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Image: . . . is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? —Patrick Henry, 1775, Panel 1, 1955, Jacob Lawrence, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56, Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross, ©️ 2019 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Object of the Week: James Baldwin

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

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

                  – Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb, 2021

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

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

                  – James Baldwin, Stranger in the Village, 1955

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                  – Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb, 2021

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

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


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

Muse/News: A Prize for Lauren Halsey, Sites of Power, and Prince in The Rain

SAM News

The downtown Seattle Art Museum will reopen to the public on March 5, just in time for the special exhibition, Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle. And there’s something else to look forward to: Last week, SAM announced that Lauren Halsey is the recipient of the 2021 Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Prize, which is awarded biannually to an early career Black artist. She’ll have a solo exhibition at SAM in winter 2021. ARTNews, Culture Type, Artdaily, Hyperallergic, Seattle Medium, The Stranger, and The Skanner all shared the news.

Local News

In honor of Black History Month, Charles Mudede and Jasmyne Keimig of the Stranger present “five extraordinary films directed by five extraordinary Black directors” they’ve virtually discussed as part of the Stranger’s Film Club over the past three months. Catch up!

“Funny, anxious, angry, discursive”: Stefan Milne of Seattle Met gets a sneak peek at (Don’t Be Absurd) Alice in Parts, poet Anastacia-Reneé’s new exhibition opening at the Frye Art Museum on February 11.

Margo Vansynghel of Crosscut interviews Natasha Marin about her new virtual exhibition, Sites of Power; part of her ongoing Black Imagination series, it features audio and video testimonies from Black creatives.

“For Black people, these are really unique and special moments because so many of our intersectional identities are sort of subsumed by our phenotypic Blackness,” Marin says. “People don’t want to see us as being possibly more than one thing at once — of both and and— happening all at the same time.”

Inter/National News

Artnet asks a slew of experts to name 12 artists “poised to take off” in 2021. On the list? Lauren Halsey, the LA-based artist just named the winner of SAM’s Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Prize.

ARTnews on Sam Pollard’s new documentary Black Art: In the Absence of Light, which devotes running time to exploring the legacy of artist David Driskell, who curated the landmark 1976 LACMA exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art.

Julia Jacobs of the New York Times takes a look at the different approaches museums across the country have taken to the pandemic.

“Navigating the pandemic and shifting government responses has not been easy for museums. Some spent tens of thousands of dollars to try to make sure they could reopen safely in the fall for an art-starved public — only to be ordered to close again several weeks later as the outbreak worsened.”

And Finally

“He wants to know if you can make it rain harder”: The oral history of the best Super Bowl halftime show ever.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Image: land of the sunshine wherever we go, 2020, Lauren Halsey, mixed media on foil-insulated foam and wood, 97 x 52 x 49 inches. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo: Allen Chen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

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

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

Object of the Week: Uncle Thomas

Despite becoming interested in art relatively late in life, Titus Kaphar quickly built an impressive career by blurring the line between art and activism. Through his use of paint, tar, sculpting, and a wide range of other techniques, Kaphar uses his work to recontextualize and reimagine the way we look at history. This includes literal instances of altering history by crumpling, shredding, and reforming well-known images.

With his 2008 painting Uncle Thomas, Kaphar uses his gift for portraiture to shift an age-old archetype. The term “Uncle Tom,” named after the lead character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, has long been used to promote a picture of blackness that centers on obedience and servitude. In this work from SAM’s collection, Kaphar takes inspiration from his real-life uncle Thomas to display his updated perception of the name. By placing his uncle—a well-respected, land-owning black man—at the center of Uncle Thomas, Kaphar exchanges an image of servitude and oppression for one of strength, dignity, and authority. During Black History Month especially, Kaphar’s art represents an important example of empowerment and support within one’s own community.

This work is less experimental than other pieces Kaphar has created in more recent years, but its bold confrontation of history is representative of the artist’s larger body of work. Kaphar’s willingness to challenge complicated historical narratives directly through images has driven him to work with Time magazine and receive several accolades, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 2018. Through his unique approach, Kaphar is altering the way many view our nation’s past while shining a light on the unheard voices and forgotten faces of history.

Michael Miller, SAM Communications Intern

Image: Uncle Thomas, 2008, Titus Kaphar, tar on paper, 48 x 36 in., Contemporary Art Support Fund, 2009.31 © Titus Kaphar

Object of the Week: I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle

In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated Black artists in SAM’s collection throughout the month of February.

Kara Walker’s particular mode of engaging with our attention spans—her visual and conceptual provocations—have often caused furor, first from the generation above her, now not infrequently from the generation below. For when it comes to the ruins of history, Walker neither simply represents nor reclaims. Instead she eroticizes, aestheticizes, fetishizes, and dramatizes.

Zadie Smith, What Do We Want History to Do to Us?, The New York Review of Books, February 2020

With a prolific and controversial career spanning decades, Kara Walker is perhaps best known for her use of cut-paper installations that give visual form to the histories of racism, violence, and subjugation in the antebellum South. Walker’s unsettling images mine eighteenth- and nineteenth-century stereotypes and ideologies and consider the legacies of slavery today.

This lithographic print in SAM’s collection, I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle, is a relatively modest work compared to larger installations and sculptures since realized by Walker. However, the print is an early work, dating to 1995-96—one year after receiving her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and two years before receiving the MacArthur “Genius” award at just 27 years old. Walker has since gone on to produce major sculptural works, such as Fons Americanus (2019-20) in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, and A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014) sited in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory. 

In this graphic work, a woman holds a dripping rope or do-rag[1] before a monkey—a recurring figure in Walker’s work and, together with the title, often read as an allusion to the scientific racism used to justify the enslavement of African women, men, and children. Regarding her use of the silhouette figure, Walker explains:

The silhouette technique announced itself to me as I was researching the cultural identity of early America. In many ways as a form it succeeded in being both a minimal reduction and a means to cover a lot of territory. With the technique one is talking both about the shadow as a form by making a paper cut, but also shadow as the subconscious in psychology. I surprised myself, actually, when I began working [by] how well it…seemed to exemplify the experience of women and blacks as second class citizens. This was a craft form that was (and is) everywhere, but rarely attains a high status. Silhouette cutting, for me, was my rebellion against high art and painting, and to me a way of undermining the patriarchal tendency in Western art.[2]

Producing work that has received praise and criticism in equal parts, Walker is a provocative and challenging contemporary figure who offers a challenging portrait of American history. Probing the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and power, Walker intends to make work where, as she describes, “viewer[s]…get pulled into history, into fiction, into something totally demeaning and possibly very beautiful.”[3]

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate


[1] Julia Szabo, “Kara Walker’s Shock Art,” The New York Times, March 23, 1997, https://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/23/magazine/kara-walker-s-shock-art.html
[2] Kara Walker, “Art Talk with Kara Walker,” interview by Paulette Beete, National Endowment for the Arts, February 1, 2012, https://www.arts.gov/art-works/2012/art-talk-kara-walker
[3] “Kara Walker,” ArtNet, accessed February 12, 2020, http://www.artnet.com/artists/kara-walker/
I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle, 1995-96, Kara Walker, lithograph, 39 1/2 x 35 in., Print Acquisition Fund and gift of P. Raaze Garrison, 99.61 1995-96 © Kara Walker

Object of the Week: Wounded Eagle No. 10

In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated Black artists in SAM’s permanent collection throughout the month of February.

“I wait until intuition moves me, and then I begin.”

– James Washington, Jr.

Though born and raised in Mississippi, James Washington, Jr. is proudly remembered as a seminal Northwest artist and member of the Northwest School. Close to other notable artists from the region, like George Tsutakawa, Mark Tobey, and Morris Graves, Washington shared an affinity for the natural world. Surely informed by his upbringing—his father was a Baptist minister—Washington’s work also possessed spiritual elements, further connecting him to his cohort of Northwest artists. In Washington’s words, “art is a holy land where initiates seek to reveal the spirituality of matter.”

Before moving to Seattle in 1944, Washington taught as a WPA artist in Mississippi. Upon his arrival in the Pacific Northwest, he worked in the Bremerton Naval Yard as an electrician. Then a painter, he was soon introduced to Mark Tobey, who would become a lifelong friend and mentor. As Washington continued to navigate Seattle’s arts community, he also traveled and, in 1951, visited the famed social realist painters Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros in Mexico. Although this meeting was the impetus for the trip, it was another experience altogether that altered Washington’s artistic trajectory: when visiting the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacán, he was drawn to a piece of volcanic rock which he couldn’t leave behind—this stone would be the first of many sculptures Washington would carve, and the reason for his move away from painting.

Wounded Eagle No. 10 (1963) is just one of seven stone sculptures by Washington in SAM’s collection. It is a tender and sorrowful image, rendered delicately by the artist despite its granite medium. And while Washington would carve a variety of animals and humans, birds were a recurring subject—the eagle, in particular, for its symbolism of salvation and ascension. Guided by a self-described ‘spiritual force’ intrinsic to his geologic materials, Washington would alter his stones only slightly, preferring instead to let their natural form, shape, and coloration determine the subject matter. Moved by intuition, he considered himself a conduit through which art would reveal itself.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Wounded Eagle No. 10, 1963, James Washington, Jr., granite, 8 x 10 5/8 x 13 1/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 68.159 © James W. Washington

Object of the Week: Dug Up from Kitchen Weeds

Ebony G. Patterson wanted to be an artist from a young age. Born in Jamaica to parents raised in rural poverty, Patterson credits her parents for encouraging her to follow her dreams. “Allow her to express herself,” her father said when young Patterson argued with her mother. “Don’t tell her to shut up.” Today the artist is widely recognized for her accomplished work, and last January she was named a recipient of the United States Fellowship Award in the visual arts.

The mixed-media artist explores issues of race, class, and gender. First motivated by the treatment of Tivoli Garden’s working-class community during the 2010 incursion in West Kingston, Jamaica, Patterson is especially concerned with the visibility of social injustices and the value of black and brown bodies.

In Dug Up from Kitchen Weeds,* colorful, patterned paper, and fabric come together with rhinestones and glitter to create a monumental collage garden, measuring seven-by-five feet. Its effect is mesmerizing. In the center of the overgrown flower bed, a figure lies hidden and obscured. Patterson doesn’t offer a face, just a striped t-shirt, animal-print pants, yellow Chuck Taylors, and a red bandana. Remnants of a life. The body itself is present, and yet . . . invisible.

With her highly ornamented works, the artist’s love for fashion and bling is clear. She wants to lure viewers into this beautiful world, then challenge them to look closer. Who is—or was—this person? It is a memorialization to those living on the margins, the viewer’s opportunity to bear witness to this death. When asked about the seemingly dark theme, Patterson responds, “Is it simply dark because we choose not to acknowledge it? . . . Well I’m choosing to turn the light on. . . . Violence happens everywhere. . . .  That’s the truth, and it’s all our problem.”

This is reality, seen through Patterson’s eyes, and she argues for attention and empathy.

– Jenae Williams, Curatorial Associate

*Read the poem that inspired this work: “Brief Lives” by Jamaican poet and short story writer Olive Senior.

Image: Dug Up from Kitchen Weeds, 2014, Ebony G. Patterson, mixed media photo collage on paper, 62 1/2 x 91 1/2 x 2 1/2 in., Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund, 2016.6 © Ebony G. Patterson

Object of the Week: Jacob

Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence were married for 59 years, in a harmonious partnership of two prolific and engaged creators that was both romantic and artistic. Though it was Jacob whose star would rise over the years, becoming celebrated around the world for his dynamic pictorial style of historical narratives, Gwendolyn continued her studies—in painting, drawing, design, and dance—and served vital roles in the cultural community of their adopted city of Seattle.

With this intimate portrait of her husband (Jacob, 1986), Gwendolyn explores her own artistic project, distinct from her husband’s grand themes of history and social justice. Instead, she pursues an expressive and personal idiom, reflecting the emotional truths of the immediate world around her.

Gwendolyn—or Gwen, as she was affectionately known—began the portrait in 1960, when the couple was still living in New York City. But she kept returning to it, with final retouches in 1986, when they would firmly be ensconced in their lives in Seattle. She found it a compelling challenge to create a portrait of the person she saw every day, in all of the moods and changes that an individual necessarily undergoes over the years. Instead of a frozen moment in time, we instead see the process of a person becoming.

Jacob’s face fills nearly the entire frame, even going out of the bounds of the canvas in one corner. His skin is rendered in broad and unusual strokes of brown, green, and yellow, reflecting against the hint of a red shirt at the neck and glimpses of orange in the background. He wears a calm smile and a somewhat inquisitive brow, exuding kindness.

In the catalogue for Never Late for Heaven: The Art of Gwen Knight, a 2003 solo show held at the Tacoma Art Museum, curator Sheryl Conkleton noted, “As her work developed, Knight became more committed to the interpretation and communication of visual delight in the world around her. It superseded the need to tell a story or to explore the larger meaning of what it meant to be a modern painter.”

When artist Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence died on February 18, 2005—almost exactly 14 years ago—she’d lived in Seattle for 34 years. The city was lucky to have her.

Rachel Eggers, Manager of Public Relations

Image: Jacob, 1986, Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, oil on canvas, 14 1/4 x 10 1/4 in., Gift of the Marshall and Helen Hatch Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2009.52.59 © Estate of Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Object of the Week: Thicket

In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will—throughout the month of February—highlight works by celebrated Black artists in the SAM Collection.

I never did Minimalist art. I never did, but I got real close. . . . I looked at it, tasted it, and I spat it out.

– Martin Puryear, 1978

Known for his highly crafted, abstract sculptures, Martin Puryear since the 1970s has created three-dimensional works that defy easy interpretation and categorization, at once evoking Modernist sculptures by Noguchi, Arp, and Brancusi, while calling to mind African sculptural traditions and Scandinavian design.

A former painter, Puryear’s hand-crafted sculptures offer a highly original response to the Minimalism of the 1960s. And while he indeed embraces Minimalism’s penchant for reductive sculptural forms, his material and fabrication choices evince a commitment to elevating craft and its complement: the handmade. Using materials such as wood, stone, tar, bronze, and wire, Puryear’s greatest collaborator—the natural world—is made clear.

From a young age Puryear was fascinated by how things are made, and would often construct his own objects from wood—whether it be a guitar or a canoe. Decades later, while volunteering with the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, Puryear observed and absorbed local artistic traditions like woodworking, pottery, and weaving. Together, these experiences—coupled with his time at the Swedish Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm, where he studied furniture design—helped shape Puryear’s practice and interest in mobilizing design, sculpture, and craft in the service of examining identity, culture, and history.

The work pictured here, Thicket, is inspired by the shape and volume of a small rock Puryear found while on a trip to the Alaskan wilderness in 1980. Interwoven basswood and cypress give the piece a complex, tangled appearance. Both orderly and chaotic, the crisscrossed beams, struts, and posts are informed by the low Arctic vegetation that houses and protects the snowshoe hare—a rare breed endemic to the region.

In the words of the artist:

I want to make objects that somehow have their own history and their own reason for being and their own sense of themselves. I’m not concerned just with the object’s formal meaning, although it should be an intelligible artifact, a thing of one’s own culture and time. It’s equally crucial that there exist in the work a recognition of the maker, of who I am.[1]

Puryear’s sculptures manage to transcend time and space—blending together artistic traditions from around the world. Further, he is still one of the most important and influential artists working today, a fact confirmed by the recent announcement that he will represent the United States at the 58th Venice Biennale in the spring.

 – Elisabeth Smith, Collection & Provenance Associate

[1] John Ederfield, Martin Puryear (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007), 173.
Image: Thicket, 1990, Martin Puryear, basswood and cypress, 67 x 62 x 17 in., Gift of Agnes Gund, 90.32 © Martin Puryear (1990)

Object of the Week: X

Malcolm [X] . . . preferred to illuminate the bitter calculus of oppression, one in which a people had been forced to hand over their right to self-defense, a right enshrined in Western law and morality and taken as essential to American citizenship, in return for the civil rights that they had been promised a century earlier.

– Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Legacy of Malcolm X,” 2011

In this work by Brenna Youngblood, a nearly monochromatic black field is punctuated by intersecting white lines, forming an ‘X’ at the center. Engaging in the history of abstraction as well as photo-montage and collage, Youngblood weds vernacular modes of representation with the language of abstract painting.

Upon closer look, this black painting, titled X, is in fact full of definition and color: small specks of red, blue, and yellow appear ready to burst through the topography of the black surface. A trained photographer, Youngblood uses her experiences behind the lens to explore the intersections between image, illusion, and objecthood, often building up the surfaces of her canvases. In this context, the equally precise and messy ‘X’ acts as a spatial element—its white incisions accentuating the black ground. It also functions as an ‘X’—both a letter and symbol of negation—as well as a reference, and perhaps homage, to Civil Rights leader Malcolm X.

Within SAM’s contemporary galleries, this piece is on view just around the corner from Barnett Newman’s The Three. An exemplar painting by Newman, the black and white composition bears certain formal similarities to X, but more interesting is the way in which Newman considered the function of line in his work:

I think of a line as a thing that involves certain possibilities. It acts as a contour and moves in relation to a shape; it also acts as something that divides space. . . . I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality, and at the same time his connection to others, who are also separate.[1]

The New York School artist’s poetic interpretation adds even more meaning when thinking about the lines in Youngblood’s X—that the marks function, formally and emotionally, as both a dividing and uniting element in her work. With the title reference to Malcolm X, as well, the above message of possibility and hope takes on even more meaning in our current political climate—that despite our divisions, connection and unity is possible.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Barnett Newman, Selected Writings and Interviews (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), 257.

Image: X, 2015, Brenna Youngblood, paper and acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 in., General Acquisition Fund, 2016.7.2 © Brenna Youngblood Courtesy the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery

Object of the Week: Study for the Munich Olympic Games Poster

I always loved running—it was something you could do by yourself and under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.

— Jesse Owens

One of 29 artists commissioned to design a poster for the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Jacob Lawrence chose to highlight the achievements of Black athletes.[1] In his Study for the Munich Olympic Games Poster, five runners, depicted in Lawrence’s characteristic graphic flatness, recall the figurative style of Greek vase painting—an apropos homage on the occasion of the Games of the XX Olympiad.

The iconic colors of the five interlocking Olympic rings—blue, yellow, black, green, and red—recur throughout the study, from batons and jerseys to shorts and shoes. Framed by the curvature of the track, the runners’ physicality and strength are difficult to ignore. Together, their musculature, movement, and form encapsulate the excitement and competitive finish of the relay—where gold, silver, and bronze are determined by mere tenths of seconds.

Known for his stylistic experimentation and depictions of African American life, Lawrence’s commission also has special importance within the context of the Civil Rights Movement and history of the modern Olympic Games. Created only four years after the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics, and on the occasion of the first Olympics held in Germany since 1936, his representation of Black athletes is especially meaningful.

In the 1968 Olympic Games, American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos respectively won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter race.[2] Upon climbing the podium, with the Star Spangled Banner playing behind them, both Smith and Carlos, donning black gloves, raised their right and left fists and bowed their heads—a symbol of protest and strength on an international stage.[3] Though interpreted by many as an explicit demonstration of Black Power, for Smith, it was a human rights salute: “It was a cry for freedom and human rights. We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”[4]

Just 32 years earlier, in 1936, the Summer Olympics were held in Berlin. Though Germany had won the bid in 1931, prior to the rise of the Nazi Party, Adolf Hitler’s rhetoric of white supremacy and antisemitism was already well established. For Hitler, the Olympics became a stage upon which Germany could prove his theories of racial superiority. It was within this Olympic setting—in which athletes of color and Jewish heritage were openly discriminated against—that Owens won four gold medals, set two world records, and came away the most successful athlete of that year’s games.

For Smith, Carlos, and Owens, these Olympic victories allowed them to transcend—and publically challenge—the political divisions and discrimination taking place in the United States and abroad. Similarly, Lawrence’s Study for the Munich Games Poster, depicting all Black athletes, is an important work that finds its place within this complicated history of the Olympic Games.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Other artists included Hans Hartung, Oskar Kokoschka, Pierre Soulages, David Hockney, and Josef Albers, to name just a few.
[2] Tommie Smith won the 200 meter race with a world-record time of 19.83 seconds.
[3] It is believed that Smith raised his right fist, and Carlos his left, to represent Black unity, forming “an arch of unity and power.” BBC News, “1968: Black athletes make silent protest,” http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/october/17/newsid_3535000/3535348.stm.
[4] Rick Campbell, “An Olympic moment—from 1968,” Houston Chronicle, August 5, 2008, http://blog.chron.com/40yearsafter/2008/08/an-olympic-moment-from-1968.
Images: Study for the Munich Olympic Games Poster, 1971, Jacob Lawrence, gouache on paper, 35 1/2 x 27 in., PONCHO, 79.31 © Jacob Lawrence. Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) extend gloved hands skyward during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner in Mexico City on October 16, 1968. Jesse Owens running at 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

 

Object of the Week: Untitled (Woman standing)

Weems, desiring freedom while poised in the face of a troubling historical ground, beckons the viewer with the question: can you see me, which is not a matter of faculty but one of recognition.

– Adrienne Edwards, “Scenes of the Flesh: Thinking-Feeling Carrie Mae Weem’s Kitchen Table Series Twenty-Five Years On,” 2016

Untitled (Woman standing) is one of 20 carefully staged photographs in the Kitchen Table Series by Carrie Mae Weems. Focusing on the daily life and domestic space of a subject played by the artist, the photographs are often read as autobiographical. While self-representation is no doubt central to this body of work (loosely based on Weems’s own experiences), Untitled (Woman standing)—and the rest of the Kitchen Table Series—is a meditation on the way Black women are represented in American culture more broadly.

Together, the photographic series stages intimate scenes, all taking place around the kitchen table. Captured from the same vantage point, we see a range of quotidian moments: Weems’s character embracing—and being embraced by—her lover, playing cards with her daughters, seeking consolation from friends, and, every once in a while, by herself in moments of sadness, contemplation, happiness, pleasure, and, in this instance, confidence. The series represents the various roles she inhabits as a mother, friend, daughter, romantic partner, and sexual being.

Interested in systems of power and oppression, Weems mobilizes photography to challenge the medium’s assumed authenticity and explore its fictional possibilities, ultimately controlling the narrative she presents to viewers. And while Weems’s character is often the focus, she is never the sole subject of the composition—the evolution of her relationships is a central topic. In addition, curator Adrienne Edwards calls attention to the role the table plays in the series, addressing its presence as an important conceit:

Along with Weems, it [the kitchen table] is a recurring figure in the photographs. The table’s symbolic significance is a direct reference to the structures that shape and reinforce the intersection of the concepts of race, gender, and class that are at the center of Weems’s art.[1]

Throughout the series, the table acts as a witness to the cast of characters in the domestic space. Here, it is as if Weems, pressing down on the table surface, is pushing against its stability and order in an attempt to upend it. Similarly, the hanging lamp can be seen as a metaphor for illumination—shedding light on “fundamental issues concerning American society and culture and black women’s role in it”—while also pointing to another use for such a light: interrogation.[2]

In the words of the artist, “My responsibility as an artist is to work, to sing for my supper, to make art, beautiful and powerful, that adds and reveals; to beautify the mess of a messy world, to heal the sick and feed the helpless; to shout bravely from the rooftops and storm barricaded doors and voice the specificity of our historical moment.”[3]

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Adrienne Edwards, “Scenes of the Flesh: Thinking-Feeling Carrie Mae Weems’s Kitchen Table Series Twenty-Five Years On,” in Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series (Bologna, Italy: Damiani, 2016), 10-11.
[2] Edwards, 14.
[3] Lauren Hansen, “Meet MacArthur Award Winner Carrie Mae Weems,” The Week, http://theweek.com/captured/459535/meet-macarthur-award-winner-carrie-mae-weems.
Untitled (Woman standing) from the “Kitchen Table” Series, 1990, Carrie Mae Weems, gelatin silver print, 28 1/4 x 28 1/4 in., Gift of Vascovitz Family, 2012.13.3, © Carrie Mae Weems. Clockwise from left: Untitled (Man and mirror), Untitled (Woman and phone), Untitled (Woman and daughter with children); Untitled (Woman playing solitaire) from the “Kitchen Table Series,” 1990, Carrie Mae Weems.

Object of the Week: Money Tree

In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will—throughout the month of February—highlight works by celebrated black artists in the SAM Collection.

Walk through Harlem any given day and you will see David Hammons’ work. The work he does for people who cannot go to SoHo and gallery-hop. The people that he knows. The people he comes from. Bottles stuck on top of bare branches protruding from the ground. From vacant lots and cracks and crevices in the sidewalk. Hammons transforms them. Creates visual music and something to smile about in an environment that doesn’t offer a lot in the way of jokes.  

— Dawoud Bey, “David Hammons: Purely and Artist,” 1982

David Hammons is often described as an elusive figure, an artist who has openly rebuked and skirted the art world, despite his successes within it.[1] A master of materials and the meanings they carry, Hammons deftly reworks objects—often found or discarded—in novel ways, representing Black experience through symbol and metaphor, “physically composed from the material elements of his experience.”[2] As Hammons once put it: “outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol.”[3] Well, when he messes around with a symbol.

Working outside traditional arts institutions, Hammons imbues his sculptures, installations, photography, and performance with potent signifiers mined from materials grounded in Black urban life. Take, for example, the tree pictured here: pierced with a circular band, the trunk becomes a sculptural object whose form and tongue-in-cheek title, Money Tree, obliquely reference a basketball hoop. Despite the endless wealth to which the title alludes, the rather barren scene warrants a more nuanced interpretation.

For Hammons, basketball—a sport dominated by Black athletes—is not a guarantee of economic success, but rather acts as both a “foil and object of devotion” in Black communities.[4] Though speaking specifically to a 1983 piece titled Higher Goals (pictured below), a sculptural work that also mobilizes basketball as metaphor, Hammons’ own words can provide some insight:

It’s an anti-basketball sculpture. Basketball has become a problem in the black community because kids aren’t getting an education. They’re pawns in someone else’s game…. It means you should have higher goals in life than basketball.[5]

Treated with equal parts empathy and irony, Money Tree acknowledges the reality that, for many Black communities, basketball is regarded as an opportunity to excel within a society whose systems unfairly work against people of color. In a country that deeply reveres professional sports and its athletes, basketball is thus seen as an avenue to success. Yet, Money Tree also undercuts this very notion, simultaneously functioning as a cautionary tale and pointed commentary on race and class in America.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] In the essay “Wreaking Havoc on the Signified: David Hammons,” Coco Fusco articulates: “No account of Hammons’ art is entirely devoid of references to his streetwise, resolutely anti-elitist persona. He has become infamous for his acerbic appraisals of high art, and his willed cultivation of a split between a black interpretative community to which he directs his messages, and a now admiring (once indifferent) white art world he loves to snub, tease and confuse.” Coco Fusco, “Wreaking Havoc on the Signified: David Hammons,” Frieze, May 7, 1995, https://frieze.com/article/wreaking-havoc-signified.
[2] Kellie Jones, “The Structure of Myth and the Potency of Magic,” in David Hammons: Rousing the Rubble (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 16.
[3] Holland Cotter, “David Hammons Is Still Messing With What Art Means,” The New York Times, March 24, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/25/arts/design/david-hammons-is-still-messing-with-what-art-means.html.
[4] Franklin Sirmans, “Searching for Mr. Hammons,” in David Hammons: Selected Works (New York: Zwirner & Wirth, 2006), np.
[5] David Hammons quoted by Douglas C. McGill, “Hammons’ Visual Music,” in The New York Times, July 18, 1986, section 3, p. 15. Image: Higher Goals, 1983, fifty-five foot tall basketball poles, 121st Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard, Harlem.
Image: Money Tree, 1992, David Hammons, gelatin silver photograph, 16 1/2 x 11 in., Gift of Greg Kucera and Larry Yocom, 97.77, © David Hammons. Higher Goals, 1983, David Hammons, 55′ tall basketball poles, 121st Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard, Harlem. Photo: Dawoud Bey. © David Hammons
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