“I got into filmmaking not only to tell stories and to entertain, but to express myself and bring meaning to moving pictures.”
– Howard L. GATO Mitchell
In his 2018 short film Forgive Us Our Debts, Portland-based artist, director, and writer Howard L. GATO Mitchell depicts moments in life we don’t always see, interweaving the tangible and intangible to reveal “the fire beneath the ice of humanity.” The film tells the fictional story of 13-year-old Trey, who lives with his family in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
While in Seattle in April, we sat down with GATO to talk about artistic filmmaking, the relationship shared between a director and viewer in cinema, and how Trey’s fictional story is a reflection of larger economic and political pressures affecting people across the United States, especially communities of color. Watch our interview with GATO above and experience the artist’s 15-minute film at SAM’s downtown location through August 6.
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.
“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!
“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.”
“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.’”
The new year brings new art… and lots of it! We’re so looking forward to an entire calendar’s worth of must-see exhibitions across all three of our dynamic locations and can’t keep it to ourselves any longer. Read below for a sneak preview of what’s to come at SAM over the next twelve months!
“There will be something for everyone at SAM in 2023,” says José Carlos Diaz, SAM Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art. “The exhibition schedule includes rich displays from the museum’s collection as well as a global array of dynamic art and programming from places such as Indonesia, Ghana, Japan, and right here in the Pacific Northwest region. 2023 welcomes not only a new year but also the 90th anniversary of SAM, which first opened to the public in June 1933.”
Kicking off the year, SAM’s modern and contemporary galleries now play host to Reverberations: Contemporary Art and Modern Classics. This array of art spotlights recent acquisitions and includes many works going on view for the first time. With works by artists such as Andy Warhol, Joan Mitchell, Mark Rothko, and Ruth Asawa, contemporary artists Senga Nengudi, Laura Aguilar, and Mickalene Thomas, and emerging artists Dana Claxton, Woody de Othello, Naama Tsabar, and Rashid Johnson, this collection installation explores the idea of ongoing artistic exchange. Many of the works on view are by artists of color and many are by women artists, reflecting the museum’s ongoing commitment to diversifying the collection and the perspectives we present.
On March 9, SAM will open Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth, presenting an immersive exploration of the complex textile created in regions around the globe. The exhibition will feature over 100 textiles made from the 12th century to the present including kimonos, furnishings, robes, and other cloths from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. A large-scale installation by contemporary artists Roland and Chinami Ricketts that offers the experience of walking into an ikat will also be on view.
Summer brings Soul of Black Folks, an exciting touring exhibition and the Seattle debut of Ghanian artist Amoako Boafo (b. 1984). One of the most influential artistic voices of his generation, Boafo is known for vibrant portraits that center on Black subjectivity, Black joy, the Black gaze, and radical care. Co-organized by the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) and Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Soul of Black Folks will present over 30 works created between 2016 and 2022.
Later in July, the Seattle Asian Art Museum will debut Renegade Edo and Paris: Japanese Prints and Toulouse-Lautrec, exploring the cities’ early 20th century artistic and social transformations. Through nearly 90 prints drawn from SAM’s Japanese prints collection as well as private holdings of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s artwork, this exhibition offers a critical look at the renegade spirit in the graphic arts in both Edo and Paris, highlighting the social impulses—pleasure seeking and theatergoing—behind the burgeoning art production.
Finally, the fall will see SAM celebrate the works of Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) with Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence, from the Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, opening October 19 at SAM’s downtown location. Thanks to the popularity of the instantly recognizable Great Wave—cited everywhere from book covers and Lego sets to anime and emoji—Hokusai has become one of the most famous and influential artists in the world. This touring exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), takes a new approach to the work of the versatile master, pairing more than 100 of his woodblock prints, paintings, and illustrated books from the MFA’s collection with more than 200 works by his teachers, students, rivals, and admirers.
Other 2023 highlights at SAM include the solo exhibition of 2022 Betty Bowen Award winner Elizabeth Malaska; the SAM debut of artist, director, and writer Howard L. Mitchell—also known as GATO—whose 2019 film, Forgive Us Our Debts, tells the fictional story of Trey, a terrified 13-year-old Black boy who lives with his family in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood; large-scale sculptural works at the Olympic Sculpture Park 365 days a year; and so much more.
With so much in store for 2023, we can’t wait to welcome you back to SAM soon!
– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations & Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator