Hear Derrick Adams discuss his artworks included in SAM’s exhibition Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle. The exhibition reunites Lawrence’s revolutionary 30-panel series Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56) for the first time since 1958 and features contemporary art, all of which work together to question the stories we’ve been told by amplifying narratives that have been systematically overlooked from America’s history.
Derrick Adams’s (b. 1970) multidisciplinary practice probes the influence of popular culture on self-image, and the relationship between man and monument. Adams is deeply immersed in questions of how African American experiences intersect with art history, American iconography, and consumerism. He describes his two works in The American Struggle—Saints March and Jacob’s Ladder—as a way to “contribute to conversations that expand on histories that are both Black American and American overall.” Saints March is a video considering the original American dance form of tap and contemporary street tap performance, while Jacob’s Ladder brings Lawrence’s personal archives into the gallery through a sculptural installation that lends optimism to the concept of struggle.
Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series interprets the democratic debates that defined early America and echoed into the civil rights movements during which he was painting the series. Works by contemporary artists Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, and Hank Willis Thomas engage themes of democracy, justice, truth, and the politics of inclusion to show that the struggle for expansive representation in America continues.
Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence, which will be on view for a year at SAM, centers Black youth in a series of all-new artworks at once delicate and resilient. This Seattle-based artist uses cut-paper and glass portraits and transforms an entire gallery into a luminaria. A place for reflection, the works cut to the core of the fundamental values we assign to light and dark. The disarming expressions of children in Thomas’ portraits ask us to consider how we see each other and how we internalize and project innocence and guilt. Drawn from a community of family and friends, The Geography of Innocence celebrates young lives and their futures in full consciousness of the pervasive violence against Black children. SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Catharina Manchanda interview this important artist in anticipation of the upcoming exhibition. Tickets to visit the galleries will be available starting November 1!
Catharina Manchanda: Biblical narratives form the backdrop of many of your works, and you bring the symbolism of light and shadow to bear on the political situation in this country. What narratives do you explore in The Geography of Innocence?
Barbara Earl Thomas: It’s the two-way mirror through which I see the world. It’s narrated to me in my grandmother Phoebe’s voice with whom I often spent the weekends and summers; where at each exit to the bathroom, kitchen, or bedroom, she’d say, “I’ll be right back, God willing.” This set a tone for the temporality of each moment of this life as she moved through her day. Her God ruled every moment and was the reason for everything good. The devil, his dark wily opposite, was the root of all evil. She loved and admonished us in those terms. Everything was literal. When I misbehaved, the devil had gotten into me. This meant I was not quite responsible for my misdeeds, but in some moment of inattention, I’d let down my guard, and admitted the demon who caused me to climb that tree and fall out, or say some bad words to my cousins who were also full of devils. She reminded me that hell was paved with hot stones, filled with fire, and it came out of your eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. I saw this, clear as day. My grandfather admonished her because he knew by nightfall, I’d be so crazed with this idea of the devil, that instead of sleeping on the couch, I might have to sleep with them. These were some of my first stories heard, sung, and repeated. They formed the backdrop of beauty and mystery of my world.
As a young person I was drawn to the oratorical language of the sermon and its talk of miracles and prophecy—none of which I’d seen. It was the music I listened to, the silences from the adults as I entered the room, and the ladies who prayed over me when I was sick. The ritual and the shape of sanctuary no matter the denomination—Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, Lutheran and Evangelical—was all the same to me. I’d wander into Holy Names Cathedral just off Union Street, or accompany a friend to one of the many Pentecostal churches often set up in temporary store fronts, fleeting in their residence. During these services accompanied by full bands, there were people who sang as each member became possessed by a holy spirit. There were the Jewish people walking to synagogue on Saturday. All these places in my small world were little fires of community where deep emotion and imagination converged. There were stories, food, songs, candles, holy water, and scenes of strange happenings from some mythical past about some next world.
I was intrigued by the language and cultural references around how we describe victims when we think and speak about the violence so prevalent in our country. There is something of heaven and hell to this: violence spirals down from police shootings of young Black men, to nightclub massacres, to random sniper killings of the oldest and then to the youngest among us, our children. I thought, this is where it will stop, with the children. Certainly every adult will draw the line when it comes to the wholesale slaughter of children. Sadly, that was not the case, but what emerged for me from the myriad mass shootings—with Sandy Hook most notably—was the language around sympathy, guilt, and innocence. In thinking about why we as adults couldn’t put children first, I was drawn to studies that demonstrated how we, as a culture, see our children. Here young Black children are seen as less innocent and, therefore, less worthy of public grief than white children.
My ideas for this exhibit surfaced after several readings of Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows and a subsequent re-reading of a mid-1980’s James Hillman essay, Notes on White Supremacy. Prescient in its content, Hillman explores the deep-seated world of mythology around the concepts of light and dark, black and white. As I’d read the essay so long ago, I’d forgotten Hillman’s reference to Tanizaki’s book. It was a happy connection. Both the book and essay deal with how deeply imprinted our associations with language and its usage of the words and concepts are associated with darkness and light. From guilt to innocence they hold a deep well of our associated fears of the unclean and besmirched. Conversely, we associate light and white with all that is pure, clear, clean, and, therefore, innocent and unblemished.
Light and dark. Light and shadow. What is seen and unseen. What is clear and what is mystery—these kinds of experiences are part of my story in addition to my formal education. This is the base that provided the vocabulary and shaped my narrative of the world. As a Black person, I can’t help but see myself in the landscape and imagine how others might experience me based on how I appear to them. I search myself to see how I react to and employ my thoughts and opinions, because aside from being Black I’m also human and subject to the world’s influences.
In this new body of work, I use multiple images of Black children: bold, frontal, and almost life size, so that their faces engage the viewer. In my cuts, I explore youth and its innocence imprinted in and on the subjects’ expressions. I purposefully insist on this particular view and stance because it’s not the one most given to us often in the media or popular culture. The backgrounds may hold contrasting stories that compete with the figures and their stance—the push and pull of the opposites; the yin and yang.
CM: Elsewhere you noted: “I create stories from the apocalypse we live in now and narrate how life goes on in the midst of chaos.” This statement is acutely felt right now—can you talk about it in relationship to the work that will be on view at SAM?
BET: As a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, now as then, there was much ado and action around issues of inequity. The utopian movements that sprang up were numerous. Like formal religion, these communities and/or cults were created as foils to the many disasters life holds. We are afraid and terrified; there is nothing new in that. We construct magic circles and ritual movements to distract and protect ourselves from floods, storms, fires, famines, diseases and yes, now plagues. It is my observations and my experiences that interest me, so like a good witness I note, record, and echo back to my viewer my literal experience of the world through visual stories.
CM: You call yourself “artist, writer, thinker.” We also know that you are an engaged reader. How does your reading and writing practice inform your visual work?
BET: Reading is life. As an active reader I’ve always used literature and all of my reading to inform my world. I read and write to get at truth and to clarify my own thought process. It’s easy for me to talk about my thoughts and correct or rephrase as I go. There is something about being in a room and engaging in a conversation that can make even confused thought processes sound plausible. But when I write I am forced to create clear sentences and connect thoughts and see if they hold water. When I read, I’m looking for the rigor and willingness in the author to think things all the way through. Writers like James Baldwin, August Wilson, and John Edgar Widman are American writers who do that for me. Poets like Pablo Neruda and Rilke capture truth in a nonlinear image condensed. Most recently, I’ve been reading Colin Thurbron’s travel writing, Pico Iyer, and rereading Robert D. Kaplan. I love good travel writing as it is a way to see the world through others’ eyes and be in other parts of this world without traveling. What all these authors share is clear thinking and hard truth telling, which is something I demand of myself in my own work.
CM: You are making a lot of new work for the exhibition, which include different kinds of processes. Would you tell us about the use of the negative space in your paper cuts (you say you draw with the knife!) compared to the wall hangings?
BET: The negative space allows the light to shine in contrast. It heightens the experience. When paired with the positive it creates shadows and mystery. The concept demonstrates that both are needed to create the particular magic that is this story. Both positive and negative space are needed to create a world that exists as sculpture in the round—one that is not flat or one-dimensional. Both are needed to create the emotional response that I seek. When people are surrounded, they are forced to surrender their senses for a moment.
CM: You are pairing your cut paper works with illuminated glass panels for the installation at SAM, what prompted you to pair these in the two adjacent galleries?
BET: I think of this exhibition as one installation made up of several parts. Each separate element has its role in the installation of the paper-cut portraits. Most of the figures are inspired by children of friends and neighbors, some are random portraits I’ve found. All are chosen because there is a way for me to show the part that I think is missing in many of our depictions of the innocence that lives in and marks the dark face of a child. I’m creating a space that holds the viewer in light and shadow to demonstrate something about illusion and how our imagination creates the monsters in the shadows even when there is nothing there. In this case I’m cutting the beautiful from the darkness and placing viewers in the shadows to make them a part of the world they observe. The portraits are cast as precious objects, surrounded by what feels like sacred objects—my candelabras. The hand-cut wallpaper is designed to create fountains of movement as the viewer is invited to the suspended centerpiece, Bodies in the Matrix.
Images: Siblings, 2020, Barbara Earl Thomas, American, cut paper and hand-printed color backing, 40 x 26 in., Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, photo: Spike Mafford. Color Wheel, 2020, Barbara Earl Thomas, American, cut paper and hand-printed color backing, 40 x 26 in., Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, photo: Spike Mafford.
In honor of Women’s
History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated women
artists in SAM’s permanent collection throughout the month of March.
“My antennas were also meant to be ‘feelers,’ things you stretch out to feel something, like the sound of the world and its many tones.”
– Isa Genzken
Metal antennae extend full-length from a series of seven objects
resembling vintage shortwave radios. Heads tilt and ears pique while viewing Isa
literally as “world receivers”—expecting the cast concrete to make audible the
signals they’ve received from unknown sources. Although silent, the antennae
appear deliberately and mysteriously tuned at slight angles; they must be
picking up something. Can’t we hear it,
or are we not listening––or looking––hard enough?
Isa Genzken (German, b. 1948) is regarded as one of the most influential contemporary artists of the last 40 years, working in sculpture and a variety of multidisciplinary media. In the late 1970s to early 80s, Genzken gained prominence for her series of floor-based sculptures in the complex and elegant shapes of Ellipsoids and Hyperbolos. Handcrafted in lacquered wood from computer designs created in collaboration with physicist Ralph Krotz, the elongated, colorful sculptures drew from the geometric forms of Minimalism, but offered more nuanced connections to industrial design, digital technology, and commercial production. During this same period in 1982, Genzken exhibited her only stand-alone readymade sculpture, a functional radio receiver entitled Weltempfänger (World Receiver), which solidified her continued interests in consumer culture, value, and material.
By the late 1980s, Genzken departed abruptly from the refined
forms of her ellipsoids to rough-hewn sculptures made of concrete and plaster. She
began an ongoing series, casting concrete weltempfängersof
various sizes and groupings, where the receivers take on symbolic roles of relics
or ruins rather than functional devices, such as the 1982 readymade. The simple
forms are layered with meaning. Together, the radio, a medium of power or
opposition, and concrete, a material of ruin or reconstruction, evoke
connections to a postwar Germany that Genzken experienced firsthand. More
broadly, the receivers ask us to consider how communication is transmitted and
received, and how we decide what is made permanent or temporary.
In this present moment, the receivers
offer a resonance more immediate. Facing a public health crisis that compels us
to connect more and more through technology, and to seek out news and facts in
order to keep our communities safe, these world receivers provide a moment to “stretch
out to feel something,” and to contemplate how we look, listen, and decide what
we value and make permanent for the future.
– Philip Nadasdy, SAM Associate Director of Public Engagement
 Diedrich Diederichsen, “Diedrich Diederichsen in Conversation with Isa Genzken,” in Alex Farquharson et al., Isa Genzken (London: Phaidon, 2006), 25; reprinted in Lisa Lee, ed., Isa Genzken (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 120.
“The real magic of Carpe Fin is in the space between the object and the observer.”
– Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas
Hear from the artist behind the 6 x 19–foot watercolor mural commissioned for SAM. Haida artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas describes Carpe Fin as “Haida manga.” This unique approach developed by Yahgulanaas blends several artistic and cultural traditions, including Haida formline art, Japanese manga, Pop Art, and graphic novels.
Inspired by a traditional Haida oral story, the story is also linked to a 19th-century headdress in SAM’s collection carved by Yahgulanaas’s relative, Albert Edward Edenshaw. Carpe Fin calls attention to issues of environmental degradation and the rupture of the values that honor human-nature interdependence.
We asked SAM staff to reflect on the work and what stood out to them by answering which panel impacted them most. Have you seen the artwork at SAM or read the book? Read some reflections below and share your thoughts with us in the comments!
The very center panel—it’s more free form so it draws the eye. It’s the moment when Carpe realizes he’s been left behind on the island. His phases of expression and gesture really struck me.
The central panels—frames break down, creative topsy-turvy!
The third panel (upper center) for the transition from the human to the underwater world. The contrast of thick, thin, and detailed brushwork make it come alive.
The middle panels stand out because of the dynamic between the sea lions and humans. There’s a chaotic structure that reminds me of the circle of life, but it also shows an imbalance.
The central panel and how it just seems to come alive and break out of the typical comic book boxes/outlines; the overall image captivates your attention and makes you want to keep looking at the intricate, smaller details.
I was most impacted by the panel in which Carpe swims back wearing sewed-up seal skin. There is something about embodying the animal that he had been killing. I wonder how much the message of “you’re killing our women” would have sunk in without this physical experience or if he would have heard it in a different way?
I’m most impacted by the panel where the young boys kill a flicker. This senseless, purposeless killing of a living thing in a microcosm of the imbalance and lack of respect for the environment that has created dire circumstances for this community and communities across the globe. The energy that youth are bringing to climate activism lies in contrast to this detail and gives hope for the future. We all need to take responsibility and enact laws and regulations that will ensure the survival of future generations.
In honor of Women’s History Month, Object of the
Week will highlight works by celebrated women artists in SAM’s permanent collection
throughout the month of March.
From across a gallery, Focus
No. 37 looks like the face of someone seen in passing. The person might
appear vaguely familiar, prompting the viewer to stop and focus. But the face
does not become any clearer after directing attention to the image, or moving
closer. Instead, it is the white threads that wind across the surface of the
portrait to form a neat braid that become more visible. The threads further
obscure an already out-of-focus photograph, making the individual’s age and
gender seem ambiguous.
This work is part of the Focus
series by artist Lin Tianmiao, who created multiple portraits of herself,
family members, and friends modified by her thread-winding technique. Her
artistic practice often involves materials associated with domestic labor and
the Chinese household during the 1960s and 70s. Reflecting on her personal
association with white cotton thread, Lin recalls the childhood chore of
unwinding old uniforms and gloves provided by state-owned “work units,” or danwei, and rewinding them into sweaters,
tablecloths, hats, and curtains for family use or to exchange with relatives
Speaking about the connection between her choice of materials and her own memories, Lin remarks, “When I look back at the materials I chose over the years and think about why I chose thread and other soft materials, I think it has to do with my personal experience. When I was a child, my [mom] sometimes asked me to help her with housework. It was actually like a form of corporal punishment in that it stamped a physical memory on me. When I came back [to China] from America and saw those kinds of materials again, I thought to myself: this is it, these are going to be my materials. It happened very naturally. Also, since I did a lot of housework when I was a child, it helped me acquire endurance and tenacity.” 2
While the thread in Focus
No. 37 does produce the effect of obscuring the photograph beneath, the
central braid humanizes an anonymous face by bringing to mind a familiar haptic
act. Just as Lin Tianmiao describes her memories of housework, the viewer might
think about their experiences braiding someone’s hair, having their own hair
braided, or someone they know with braided hair. In this way, the work raises
the question of how identity is formed. Individuals are not only defined by
their outward appearance, but also by their everyday actions and practices.
Meschac Gaba takes much inspiration from the streets of Cotonou, Benin,
the city where he was born. The artist, full of clarity and humor about the
nature of his work, understands the power of art in social environments.
After finding millions (Gaba’s estimate) of cut banknotes on the street,
the artist started incorporating money into his work. This was the early 1990s,
when Benin first devalued currency, and Gaba was fascinated.
In Artist with African Inspiration: Salle de Francophonie (2004),
Gaba prints new images on a West African 1000 CFA franc. On the back of the
original bill, a chalkboard appears on the lower right side with the letters
“abc” in cursive. However, Gaba replaces the letters and uses the chalkboard to
frame his own face—smiling. On the left side of the bill appears an image of
one of the artist’s braided hair sculptures as well. It’s a small revision, and
Gaba employs the same intervention with an American dollar bill in Artist
with American Inspiration: 4 World Financial Center, swapping out our
stately eagle for his face (again, smiling). One of Gaba’s sculptures appears
on the left as well. These could be read as ironic: an act of empowerment or a
moment of tongue-in-cheek capitalist self-promotion.
However you might interpret his actions, Gaba
uses everyday objects to continually play with questions of global trade and
economy, and call attention to the modern conditions that drive us to
constantly earn, measure, and compete against one another. Through his artistic
practice, he questions who can be an artist, and how artists can create space.
– Jenae Williams, Exhibitions and Publications Associate
identical, white clocks sit on a scale. One—reading 12:15—appears the heavier
of the two, sitting ever so slightly below its counterpart at 12:04. Of course,
the minute discrepancy (pun intended) between the weights of the two
clocks—correlating with their respective times—is impossible, but the power of
the photographic image lies in its ability to convince us otherwise.
a master of the conceptual punchline, photographer Kenji Nakahashi plays with our
interpretation of time and its assumed objectivity. His longstanding interest
in the documentary value and, again, assumed objectivity of photography—a
time-based medium—is also at play, and clearly inextricable. In his
characteristically understated way, Nakahashi tackles the subjectivity of both
time and photography in one fell swoop.
Born in present-day Ibigawa, Japan, Nakahashi moved to New York City in 1973, where he lived until his death in 2017. His time in Japan was formative, but living and working in the United States is where Nakahashi developed a robust studio practice centered on everyday objects and materials. This is when he began turning the mundane—such as two clocks and a scale—into a source of poetic beauty, conceptual rigor, and humor. For Nakahashi, such small observations and actions became an important activity that allowed him to render the world anew.
– Elisabeth Smith, Collection and Provenance Associate
It wouldn’t be too difficult to argue that we live in a
youth-obsessed culture. If we only take a moment to look around, we can see it
everywhere. It pops up in advertisements, in movies, and in TV. It works its
way into our minds with anti-ageing skin creams and anti-graying hair dyes. It
settles into our society and fills us with the irrefutable fear of getting older.
To be young—or so our culture seems to suggest—is to be wild, uninhibited, and
free. And, conversely, to be old is to be slow, sidelined, and ignored.
While this is never fully true in reality, it is difficult
to deny that, in our current society, old age is a thing that many people fear.
Some might argue that this is even more prevalent for women, who are judged
more frequently on their looks than men and who, as such, feel more pressure to
maintain a youthful appearance. How many times have you heard a woman complain
about “getting old”? It is because women have so much more to lose when they
lose their youth.
In her series My Grandmothers, however, photographer
Miwa Yanagi presents a fascinating and poignant counterargument to our societal
fear of aging.
For My Grandmothers, Yanagi interviewed a variety of
women between the ages of fourteen and twenty, asking them to describe what
they thought their lives would look like in fifty years. She then staged photos
to capture these descriptions. The photo above is titled Yuka, named for
a woman who imagined herself living on in the U.S. with her younger, playboy
lover. Yuka, with bright red hair and a cigarette, riding down the Golden Gate
Bridge in the sidecar of a motorcycle, hardly fits our stereotypical idea of an
old woman. She is laughing with abandon, unashamed and unconstrained.
With Yuka, as with the other portraits in the series, Yanagi explores the idea that old age is liberating rather than limiting. Women, no longer defined by their beauty and (as one critic noted) by their reproductive abilities, are free to live for themselves, on their own terms, by their own rules. According to Yanagi, young women today are restricted by society’s expectations and are unable to express their true desires for the lives that they want to live. When they are freed from their youth, they are freed from those confines. Old age, it seems, is not so much our great nightmare as it is our ticket to a more liberating life.
In This Imperfect Present Moment closes Sunday, June 16! Don’t miss this chance to see works across a wide array of media by artists hailing from Cape Town, Johannesburg, Cotonou/Rotterdam, Luanda/Lisbon, Baltimore, to Los Angeles, and New York. These works have been brought to Seattle by local collectors who are intrigued by how these artists convey vibrant narratives that resonate across global boundaries. While you’re here take a close look at Surah al-Fatiha (the Opening), by Capetown artist Igshaan Adams.
Visiting Igshaan Adams in his studio in Capetown is to step into a zone
of transformation. He works with a group of weavers who wander in and out as he
shows you mounds of materials that are being upgraded to carry stories and
interpretations of Sufism, the mystical sect of Islam, which offers alternative
ways of looking at the world. He speaks of his love of the mysticism of Islamic
texts, and how they provide guidance for the realities of daily life. Learning
about his family provides further insight for his development as an artist; he
was raised by Christian grandparents who were supportive of his faith, fasted
with him during Ramadan, and invited imams over to the family home. As you trip
over ropes and nearly stumble into a massive maze of beads that are being
arranged in a spiral with a mystic rationale, you try to keep track of the mesmerizing
pull of the artist’s sincerity. His descriptions of involving the sacred to
encourage humankind’s capacity for good and nobility set a tone of deep introspection.
In the instsallation, you’ll see a tapestry named after the first chapter of the Quran. Adams has added beads to convey the opening line, which is meant to be recited and contemplated every time a believer begins to establish a direct connection with Allah. About this, Adams has said, “As an artist, I think I can give a person one moment of reflection or one moment with a different perspective.” So goes this imperfect present description of his effort, which is worth so many more words that you are encouraged to seek out online.
– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art
Image: Surah al-Fatiha (the Opening), 2016, Igshaan Adams, South African, b. 1982, woven nylon rope, beads, 94 1/2 x 94 1/2 in., Private collection, photo courtesy of Blank Projects, Cape Town.