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Figuring History: The Joy and Exuberance of Black culture

What thoughts has Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas inspired in you? Hear from Seattle artist Benji Anderson, a featured artist in Off the Walls: After Dark at the Seattle Asian Art Museum this past September. We love sharing thoughtful community members’ writing, so please reach out if you would like to send a piece for consideration to be published on the SAM Blog!

In February, as I prepared to enter the Seattle Art Museum for the Community Celebration for Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, what seemed like endless thoughts swirled around in my mind. It was Black History month and opening weekend for the movie Black Panther— the joy and exuberance of Black culture was palpable in the air.

This was in stark contrast to just over a year earlier, when the collective anguish and discontent of Black society was reeling in the wake of the latest barrage of Black bodies murdered in the streets and broadcast in ‘real time’ for all to view. I still recall the gut-wrenching emotion of watching a Black father, murdered in his vehicle, minutes away from where my own father lived. I remember this pain so vividly because it was not the first time I’d felt it. It was not the first time the Black community watched their brothers, fathers, and sons murdered at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve. It was not the first time we were dehumanized in the public theater. It was not the first time we were criminalized for being. It was history repeating itself.

 

The weight and memory of historical trauma accompanied me into the museum, tugging at my coat with each breath of Black excellence I inhaled. As I stood in gratitude for Mickalene Thomas, Kerry James Marshall, and Robert Colescott, I also stood in sorrow of the circumstances that produced such beautiful stories and art. In each historical work I found traces of my own story. In Colescott’s Matthew Henson and the Quest for the North Pole, (pictured at the top of this post) the images of Black bodies being simultaneously brutalized and fetishized depict the story of my great-great-grandmother who was raped by her oppressor, giving birth to my great-grandfather who would later be praised for his “passable” complexion, wavy hair, and light eyes. Marshall’s Souvenir II portrays a cloud of witnesses, prominently featuring Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, hallmarks in the home of my own, and many other Black grandmothers across the country, and emblematic of the complicated socio-political relationship we share with this nation.

In Thomas’ Resist, the Civil Rights era struggle of my parents was laid in front of me through a collage of violent vignettes. As I watched this piece I saw my uncle’s resistance, which left him brutally beaten and jailed for having the audacity to seek a human existence. I also saw my father and his siblings, the first to integrate the school systems in North Carolina. I felt the collective fear and courage he carried with him as the only Black student in his school. And as my chest tightened, breath shortened and fists clinched I remembered where I stood—rooted in the past, squarely in the present, carrying my portion of the mantle of Black excellence. As I gathered myself, I walked out of the museum breathing in the joy and exuberance of Black culture. Each breath gradually healing the wounds of my genetic trauma.

– Benji Anderson, Artist (@benjipnewton)

Benji Anderson is an artist, theologian and philosopher. Three identities that suffered separate existences for much of Benji’s life. Born in the South and raised in the Mid West, his early cultural learnings taught Benji that it was not only prudent, but necessary to compartmentalize his identities. Surprisingly it was through his academic journey that Benji began to fully exist as a being capable of complex, and seemingly contradictory identity. As a Master of Divinity student, Benji embarked on a process of deep self-excavation, which, upon completion of his degree, provided Benji with the license to live authentically.

As theologian and philosopher, Benji is concerned with the quality and depth of life. As artist, Benji concerns himself with the creative expression of his theosophical existence. Using a variety of mediums Benji endeavors to create multi-sensory pieces that thrust the viewer into the experience of the artist – not simply as a voyeur, but as a participant.

 

Images: Installation view of Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas at Seattle Art Museum, 2018, photos: Stephanie Fink, Natali Wiseman. Resist, 2017, Mickalene Thomas, rhinestones, acrylic, gold leaf, and oil stick on canvas mounted on wood panel, 84 x 108 x 2 in., © Mickalene Thomas, video: Natali Wiseman. Photo courtesy of Benji Anderson.

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.

 

SAM at American Alliance of Museums 2017

The theme of the American Alliance of Museums 2017 Annual Meeting was Gateways for Understanding: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion. I appreciated how the various sessions I attended and the conference overall tackled this themes in all aspects, from identities (race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity) to abilities. It is apparent that these things are at the forefront for professionals in the field from museums of all sizes, of all types, and from all areas of an institution, and that these issues are incredibly integral to shaping the future of the museum.

The #AAM2017SlaveAuction incident in the MuseumExpo during the conference however, indicated that even though these conversations and the work around these things are happening, we still have a long way to go. We need to find ways to hold ourselves accountable, have everyone on board at all steps in the process, and ensure we have the right voices at the table. To me, much of the work to shake up our institutions needs to start from within before our museums and cultural spaces can have external influence. Even though these conversations are happening at large in this moment, it’s also important to acknowledge that the things we seek to undo and change have been embedded in the fabrics of our institutions. In many ways these conversations are not new and have been happening outside of our institutions for years already. The conference left me optimistic and hopeful, so I’m excited to see where things go!

– Marcus Ramirez, Coordinator for Education and Public Programs

For more on SAM’s participation in AAM 2017 and thoughts from our staff on this year’s themes listen to the panels the SAM staff presented on during the conference.

Radical Equity and Inclusion featuring David Rue, SAM’s Public Programs Coordinator

Beyond the Buzzword featuring Sarah Bloom, Senior Manager for Teen, Family & Multigenerational Programs and Learning

Co-curating in a Changing City: Library/Museum Partnerships featuring Regan Pro, Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Programs

It’s Critical: Evaluating Museum Volunteers featuring Jenny Woods, Manager of Volunteer Programs